Quinton Gordon: The Fine Art of Documentary Reportage

“With the Leica M, I see images in my mind first … and then effortlessly place the camera in the desired position.”

Quinton Gordon grew up in the Kawartha Lakes district northeast of Toronto, Canada, where, as a kid, he had lots of freedom to explore. His parents were both artists — his mom, a painter and sculptor and his dad a fine woodworker who owned a print shop that ignited his interest in design and printmaking. After graduating from Ryerson’s Image Arts department in 1990 with a degree in Photographic Arts and Technology, Gordon immediately went into business as a freelance commercial photographer, initially doing advertising and corporate work, but, seeking greater personal fulfillment, he redirected his focus toward editorial assignments and location-based projects. He notes, “I had also worked as a sea kayak guide for many years in Greenland and Canada, so the shift to travel photography was a natural fit.”

In the mid 1990s Gordon moved to New Zealand and took a position on the faculty at Massey University’s School of Design, as well as continuing to do freelance assignments for publications. In 2000 he returned to Canada to pursue his career, moving to Victoria where he established the Luz Gallery for the Photographic Arts in 2008. Combining a photographic gallery with workshops, it also allows him to pursue his passion for printing and creating fine art photography books.

Now an inveterate Leica black-and-white shooter who relies on a pair of Leica M6s and a new Leica M9 for almost all his work, Gordon’s personal goal is to one day win the prestigious Oscar Barnack Award. He also credits his daughter Molly for having “a wonderful and profound influence on my approach to photography — I’m fascinated by how she learns to experience the world and this has introduced more playfulness into my work. We are actually collaborating on a book project that will merge her artwork and my photographs.” Her is the story of his ongoing photographic quest and his profound connection to the Leica M.

Q: Since you are now nearly an exclusive Leica M shooter, what exactly is it about the Leica M that you find especially conducive to your work as a documentary and reportage photographer? You mentioned that composing in an optical viewfinder with frame-lines is a different experience from using an SLR, but what are the specific advantages?

A: Aside from the obvious, and commonly stated benefits of compact size, quiet operation and image quality, the M system simply fits so well with my vision of photography. When I’m working I like to find my way into an image and this means being unencumbered by the equipment, but more significantly it is about how I relate to a subject visually. When photographing with an SLR we tend to compose the image in the viewfinder, which is akin to looking through a tunnel and often we can become quite unaware of the space outside the frame. When I’m working with the Leica, I see images in my mind first, and the optical viewfinder for the Leica M allows me to effortlessly place the camera in the desired position while maintaining a strong visual awareness of what lies outside the frame.

Q: Why do you shoot exclusively in black-and-white for your personal projects? Do you prefer shooting film in your M6s or digitally with the M9, or when do you favor one or the other? And by the way, what’s your favorite film?

A: I feel strongly that it is important for photographers to understand their color palette and for me that palette is black-and-white and I have always used Kodak Tri-X. Black-and-white removes much of the literal or descriptive qualities of an image and it becomes more impressionistic. For me this is an important aspect of the choice. At Ryerson I was very well trained in the analogue processes of photography. For me working with film is very natural and desirable so initially I had a very strong bias to continuing to shoot film with my M6s. When I purchased the M9 it was intended for use on commissioned projects that required the production and workflow advantages of digital capture while maintaining my preferred way of working with a Leica M camera. However, the reality is that I have a very full life at the moment. We have a 3-year-old daughter and a relatively new gallery and workshop business along with my ongoing professional practice so time for working on personal projects can be very limited. As a result, I started working more intently with my M9 and I had to learn the post-production techniques of getting the kind of black-and-white image I wanted in a digital environment. Honestly, it is only recently that I have gotten to the point where I can truly make the prints that I want. Having arrived at this point is very exciting though because it is allowing me to really move my projects forward. I just don’t have much time to devote to developing film right now and I’m also quite excited by the combination of the remarkable digital files from the M9 for making digitally enlarged negatives to use for alternative print processes.

Q: You mention that you shoot about 80% of your work with the 35mm f/2 Summicron. What is it about this lens that makes it your favorite and when do you tend to use your 50mm and 75mm Summicrons? Also, do you think that there is some special characteristic of Leica lenses that sets them apart in terms of the quality of the image?

A: Yeah, that might even be closer to 90%. Last fall I worked on a large commissioned book and multimedia project entitled BC People, about cultural diversity in British Columbia and I set myself the goal of photographing the entire project with one lens. I have always loved the 35mm focal length because it seems to fit with the way I see and it balances the figure-ground relationships in away that works very well for visual storytelling. I’m also a firm believer in the benefits of limitations so having given myself the self-imposed limitation of only using a 35mm lens for this project, it forced me to be fully engaged both creatively and intellectually with the image making process and it was a very rewarding way to complete that work. The 35mm Summicron is, in my opinion, the perfect lens. It is small, the focus is smooth and responsive and it has that wonderfully distinctive Leica feel or characteristic that I love so much, a kind of gentle sharpness if you will. I do love my 50mm Summicron quite a bit as well and the 75mm, though it is really reserved only for more formal portraits for clients. It’s a beautiful lens, but I don’t use it much.

Q: Can you tell us something about your commercial work? What are your specialties and which types of assignments give you the most personal satisfaction?

A: Over the course of twenty years I have had the opportunity to explore many areas of photography from aerial survey and mapping work to an assignment for Outside Magazine to photograph the Yellow-Eyed (Hoiho) penguin, which is perhaps the most rare penguin in the world. For the most part my work has been focused on travel editorial, editorial portraiture and what you might call commercial documentary for corporate, government and non-governmental clients. I have even photographed four, yes just four, weddings and one of my all time favorite images is from a wedding I shot for clients in London, England. I’ve never really been heavily motivated by a commercial practice; in fact, my accountant’s version of an annual pep talk is “more revenue, fewer write-offs,” but seriously I have been extremely fortunate to get quite a lot of assignments for international publications or organizations that have allowed me to work on projects for several weeks or even months and I particularly love working intimately with people and really being able to learn about their lives. Right now we have a bid in for a project for the Knowledge Network and I’m excited by the developing potential for broadcast applications of still photography through multimedia. Fingers crossed that we get it.

Q: Your statement that photography “is a way to learn, not only about places or people, but about my own relationship to the world” is simple but profound. Can you elaborate on this idea?

A: I think that this idea comes from the artist in me and the fact that I am giving a lot more consideration to my role as the storyteller, as well as to the stories I am telling. The projects that I am focusing on now are motivated by questions around cultural or social identity and locating myself in a larger framework, so it is really a matter of tapping into more personal sources of creative exploration.

Q: What photographic project that you have recently worked on do you judge to be the most successful, both in terms of the results, and as a learning experience?

A: Currently I’m working on a project entitled “Mile Zero: A Place Uncertain.” On one level it is an exploration of my adopted home city, but the real success of the project for me is that I am making the images without consideration for how others will respond to them. This means that I am learning to set-aside the commercial photographer and come to a truer understanding of authorship and my own visual language. Interestingly, the response to the work I have shown so far has been very positive and people seem to connect with the images in away that I had not anticipated.

Q: What is the nature of the creative process by which you transform a series of images into a story? You also mentioned that as you get older, your photography is less externalized and more introspective. Can you expand upon that idea?

A: I’m a very tactile person and I don’t really like to edit my work on a computer screen, especially not my personal projects. I make work prints for editing and sequencing and the ability to quickly move the prints around allows me to see the relationships between images and to understand the narrative. I have always respected the idea that the best photography comes from the subjects that we are closest to, both physically and emotionally, but my career was largely based on photographing the “other”, and on looking outward for stories. This has led me to many wonderful experiences around the world, but I always found it curious that the subjects who offered the most interesting and compelling stories where people who had centered their lives around something that they were deeply connected to and yet it was absent in my life as a photojournalist. The more deeply I go into the exploration of authorship the more it is having a profoundly positive influence on my commercial practice and on how I select and approach assignments.

Q: Can you tell us something about your experience with the Leica Akademie and any experience you’ve had with teaching photography to others? Have such experiences helped you to grow or to expanded your horizons?

A: Well I’ll have to report back to you on this question later in the summer since I have the honor of teaching my first Leica Akademie weekend in Victoria this August, followed by events in Seattle and Vancouver. I’m quite excited to be working with Tom Smith and the Leica Akademie and I have a great passion for teaching; it has been a significant part of my life and career as far back as I can remember. After I graduated from Ryerson I started teaching photography workshops and have done so now for almost 20 years. When I moved to New Zealand in the mid 1990s I landed a position with the faculty of the Photography Department at the School of Design at Victoria University, which then transferred to Massey University. My experience teaching in New Zealand was incredible. The university was hiring a very dynamic faculty including Anne Noble, Bruce Connew and Tony Whincup, the head of the department at the time. Tony was the finest mentor I could have asked for, both in photography and in teaching and my time there really taught me how to develop a meaningful learning experience for a wide variety of students. It also cemented my long-term commitment to teaching.

Q: How do you think your experiences as a gallery entrepreneur have influenced your general views on the art of photography today? What do you think constitutes a successful photo or project worthy of display and what kind of images are the most likely to sell to collectors?

A: Establishing the gallery was largely motivated by the directional shift I felt in my own career and it has opened up a whole new world of opportunities to collaborate with and learn from many of the wonderful photographers working in the world today. We are fortunate indeed to work with photographers like Donald Weber, Michael Levin, Susan Burnstine and many others. The experience has reinforced my belief in the craftsmanship of printmaking and the value this has to collectors of photography. I see a very strong thread throughout good contemporary photography where photographers are much more personally connected to their subject matter and I am encouraged to see the level of commitment that so many bring to their projects. As for what will sell to collectors, I can only really speak to the market that we are developing which seems to favor what I would call conceptual landscape and urban landscape, abstract or impressionistic photography and documentary. In all cases, collectors want small editions and the quality of the object or print is significant. The printing process a photographer uses needs to make sense within the context of their work.

Q: How do you see your photography evolving going forward? We note for example that you have shot some revealing and emotional portraits — have you ever thought of exploring formal portraiture, landscape or nature photography, etc.?

A: Thank you. My practice in photography is certainly shifting and although I’m not a fan of traditional labels in contemporary photography, my evolution is focused on blending my documentary or reportage work with fine art. Specifically, I am very interested in handmade artist books and in photogravure printing, as well as platinum printing. This year a local artist donated a gorgeous Praga etching press to us and in August we will pull our first prints off it using a non-toxic solar-plate, polymer-photogravure process. Portraiture is very interesting to me and I have done a lot for editorial assignments and projects such as the BC People project. One of the side projects I have on the go, is a series of portraits shot with an old 4×5 large format camera. I really enjoy the change in interaction and collaboration that comes with using this format for portraits. I also do some landscape work, but my focus here tends to be on the altered landscape.

Thank you Quinton!

-Leica Internet Team

You can find more of Quinton Gordon’s work on his personal website, http://www.quintongordon.com. You can also see the current exhibitions at the Lúz Gallery on the website, http://www.luzgallery.com, and connect with them on Facebook and Twitter.

Quinton Gordon will also be joining us for three of the Leica Akademie Workshop events: Leica Weekend in Victoria, BC, August 12-14, Leica Street Photography in Seattle, WA, on Saturday, August 20, and Leica M9 Shooting Experience in Vancouver, BC, on Friday, September 9.