Steve Unsworth: The Empathetic Enthusiast

Steve Unsworth has been shooting pictures since his teens, but he didn’t really get serious about photography until he acquired his first Leica in the 1990s. A committed Leica enthusiast with considerable talent, he modestly describes himself as a “competent” photographer. “I take photographs for myself,” he explains, “and when others like what I do that’s a bonus. I do feel I know enough to take reasonable photographs, but that only emphasizes just how difficult it is to take a great one. I’m still waiting to take my first.”

Unsworth’s main camera is a Leica M8 used in conjunction with Leica lenses. “At some point I will probably upgrade to an M9,” he says, “but I’ve used an M8 for almost three and a half years now and enjoyed every moment of our relationship. Most of my work can be described as street photography, or what might be termed urban landscapes. I very much enjoy photographing people in context.”

Steve Unsworth became involved with the Leica User Forum Book Project at the suggestion of Bill Palmer, who conceived of the idea and asked Steve to help. “Bill came up with the concept of publishing a book of images by Leica photographers to raise money for a worthy charity,” he recalls, “and I volunteered to do a lot of the early grunt work – receiving the entries, putting them on a website, collating the judges’ choices and letting the selected photographers know that their photograph had been chosen.”

To give you a clearer picture of who this unselfish, unstinting, unassuming, and charmingly self-effacing person is, we interviewed Steve Unsworth and herewith present his fascinating and insightful comments:

Q: Can you tell us a bit more about your street photography? You describe these images as “urban landscapes” which is fair enough, but exactly what are you trying to depict or document? What motivates you to take street pictures of people? What are you trying to communicate or what is your mission in creating these pictures?

A: I guess what I am trying to do simply to document people and their everyday experiences. People fascinate me, and I’m more than happy to watch them even if I don’t have a camera with me. I suppose it’s a natural curiosity. When I walk about I’m always wondering what’s around the next corner. Often it’s not quite what you’d expect.

As the years go by I’m feeling less confident about doing this, people increasingly seem to be more suspicious of a photographer. Paranoia in the media probably doesn’t help.

Q: You describe your photography as “competent” which is almost damning with faint praise, and go on to state with commendable modesty that you have yet to take a great picture. What, in your opinion, constitutes a really good photograph and how would you know if you had taken one?

A: The glib response is that you know a great photograph as soon as you see it, but I think there’s a large element of truth in it. A great photograph has a huge “wow” factor, even if the viewer struggles to express what exactly that “wow” is. In a way it’s rather like poetry when one person’s personal experience (the photographer or the poet) can resonate with people who have no connection with them.

I should add that most great photographs seem to be black and white <grin>.

Q: You seem to be quite content to be a serious enthusiast because of the freedom it affords to do exactly as you please. Supporting yourself as a professional photographer is indeed quite challenging these days, but would you ever consider taking the plunge, and what would motivate you to do so?

A: I don’t think at this stage in my life I’d be prepared to take the plunge into the world of professional photography. Apart from considerations of whether I’d be good enough or not, there’s a huge amount of personal marketing that needs to be undertaken, and I’m not convinced I’d be very good at that.

Q: Can you expand upon your comment that you’ve “enjoyed every moment of our relationship” with the Leica M8? What do you particularly like about your M8 and what lenses do you use primarily?

A: What I like most about the M8 is that I can use it in exactly the same way as my M6. I used to take hundreds of rolls of film a year with the M6 and I loved using it. The rangefinder experience is a different one from using an SLR, and I happen to prefer it. The body is compact, and the viewfinder is clear and presents the image as the eye would see it with everything in focus. The frame lines allow you to see around them and anticipate what’s going to happen. In comparison I feel like I’m looking down a tunnel when I use an SLR. As I say, it’s a personal thing and I’ve found a system that I’m happy with.

The lenses I’m currently using the most are a 28mm ASPH Elmarit and a 50mm Summicron. I find these are a perfect pair to use when I don’t want to carry a lot of equipment with me. I don’t really use anything longer than 50mm on a regular basis.

Q: You mentioned that you will ”probably upgrade to the M9”. What are the features, capabilities, etc. that are available on the M9 or lacking on the M8 that are likely to motivate you to take this course of action?

A: It’s mainly the full frame sensor. When I was shooting film with my M6 the lens I used most – and loved – was a 35mm f/2 ASPH Summicron. I’d love to use that lens again on a full frame digital body. I also own an Epson 3800 A2 printer and the extra pixels would be useful when printing larger photographs.

The only real reason I haven’t upgraded yet is the cost. If I had the disposable income available today I’d get one without a second thought.

Q: What was your first Leica, and how do you think it has affected your development or identity as a photographer?

A: My first Leica, bought in the 1990s, was an old IIIC with a pre-war Summar lens. It brought me back to photography after a hiatus of decades. Until I bought the Leica I’d mainly been a holiday snapper taking maybe a dozen rolls of film a year. With the Leica that changed.

I bought a film scanner at the same time and that meant that I could develop my own black and white films at home and scan the results. The combination of the Leica and scanner really re-launched my interest in photography.

Q: You note that Bill Palmer suggested the idea of having a charitable book and that led to your doing a lot of the organizational “grunt work” that made The Leica User Forum Book a reality. Was this a fulfilling experience, and can you comment on the book project and how it is raising money for the Association for International Cancer Research (AICR)?

A: It was very fulfilling indeed. As the person to whom all the photographs were sent I got to see them first, and it soon became apparent that there were some very talented photographers on the forum, some of whom had previously posted very little. Apart from that it was of course very important in that it raised a lot of money for a good cause, namely the AICR. As I type we have raised over £8,000 – and that’s increasing all the time, I think that’s more than any of us ever anticipated.

Q: Are any of your photographs included in the Leica User Forum Book, and if so please tell us something about your favorite one, how and why you took it, etc?

A: I’m afraid none of mine were selected, which just goes to show what poor taste the other judges have <grin>. Seriously, that was a little disappointing on a personal level, but all of the photographs that are in the book got there on merit, so I don’t have any complaints.

Q: How do you see your photography evolving in the future?

A: At this point I have no idea. I feel that I need some kind of project to motivate me. I think whatever I do in the future there’ll still be a large element of “people photography” in it.

Q: How do you see the Leica User Forum Book project and the AICR charity connection evolving going forward?

A: I think everyone connected with the project is pleased with the result – both the book and the amount raised. I do have some ideas for the next one, the challenge would be making it as successful as the current book has become. However, we’re facing this challenge with a positive attitude—after all we’re Leica photographers and we can do anything <grin>.

- Leica Internet Team

To see some of Steve Unsworth’s work, please visit his website at http://www.steveunsworth.co.uk.

This post is part of the special ‘Leica for AICR’ series. To purchase the ‘Leica User Forum Book’, please click here. Proceeds benefit the UK-based Association for International Cancer Research (AICR). Please visit our page on Facebook to enter the ‘Leica for AICR’ photo contest; this week’s theme is Architecture. Based on Leica’s Twitter initiative, Leica is donating €3,000 to AICR – thank you for making this possible!