Vali Barbulescu: Transcending The Outer Beauty To Reveal The Inner Truth

He transitioned from the world of music to the world of images to create unique visual harmonies.

Vali Barbulescu abhors pretension, and that’s why conventional bios turn him off. However, that didn’t prevent him from doing a masterful job of writing his own. The following autobiographical sketch provides an insightful look into who he is, what he does, and how he got there:

I am a Bucharest, Romania-based photographer, born and raised in the beautiful city of Constanta on the Black Sea. I grew up listening to Michael Jackson’s music, and years later, at the age of 16, I won a contest for a local radio station DJ job. That was the start of my musical career. Over the years I’ve developed myself as a DJ and electronic music producer/re-mixer, and I had the opportunity to travel the whole world for my gigs. Photography was something that came naturally. I love to watch people in real life. When you see a person’s face it’s like being a witness to all his life. When you photograph that person you simply stop the time and make that fraction of a second last forever. That is why I love portraiture most of all. I try with all my photographs to keep as much as possible the “reality” of what I saw, and that could sometimes be different than the “reality” seen by everyone else.  I call it “my own reality”. Some call it “vision”. Music, it’s been a great source of inspiration for me and I found many similarities between music and images. A great photograph can impress as much as a great song –sometimes even more—but I think photography is a more “general language.”

It was really hard for me to gain credibility in the beginning of my photographic career since everyone in my country knew me as a DJ and/or a Radio and TV presenter. After my first published editorials in famous glossy magazines, it become official that in 10 years I would be a young photographer rather that an old DJ. I am still connected to music and still rock some selected venues, but if some guy asks me about my present occupation the answer is: a photographer. I also found it nice and easy to move from photography into videography, and I recently directed, shot, and edited my first musical video. Doing things I enjoy could be the secret for doing things right.

Q: You mentioned that you shoot with the Leica M9. What makes the M9 your camera of choice? Tell us about your experience with the M9.

A: The Leica M9 could be the camera of choice for any photographer. Once you understand and master the basics of photography, you’re trained enough to use the M9. It’s pure photography at its simplest level. For me the Leica M9 is the easiest to use camera I’ve ever shot with. And also it is the most inspiring tool. I always said that a camera is just a tool, but when it comes to Leica, there is something magic going on. I didn’t believe that until I first shot with the M9. Maybe it’s just the placebo effect but it works and I love it! I really enjoy shooting with my M9 and it’s really interesting how it makes me think twice before taking a photograph. I was at first scared by the “manual focus” stories but the funny thing is that my first photograph with the M9 was shot wide-open f/1.4 and it came out in perfect focus with a fantastic creamy bokeh. It was love at first shot!

Q: How would you describe your photography?

A: I describe myself as an “observer” and I want those seeing my photographs to be able to “see” what I saw when took that photograph. My philosophy is as simple as that. Most of time I photograph people and my purpose is somehow to be the middleman between those in the frame and those outside the frame. I do not search for anything special. Life itself is special, in every one of its forms: happiness or sadness, beauty or absence of it, color or monochrome. As a photographer I could easily become a storyteller, a preacher, a judge and most important, a time stopper! I could make a 1/125 fraction of a second to last forever. And this is simply amazing!

Q: When did you first become interested in photography as a mode of expression or an art form?

A: Five years ago when I became serious about photography, I knew that images could be more than snapshots. It was fascinating to see how different people react in a different way to the same photograph. Expression for me is trying to make a majority of people react in a similar way to my photographs. I have a 20-year musical background as a DJ and I know that a great track has the same good feedback on the dance floor for everybody in the club. I wanted the same for my photographs. Making art with photography was never easy. I don’t have a secret for this but sometimes I realize that specific frames have that “art” thing, and then I am glad that this came to this realization from the photograph itself and not from my desire to create art.

Q: When did you first become interested in photography as a profession?

A: I am a really hard worker and money was never something that guided my actions or purposes. Working as a club DJ and radio/TV presenter provided me all the money I needed for a decent living. I think I am blessed that I get my money doing what makes me happy and not the other way around. I become a professional photographer once I started to make money with my camera. This has nothing to do with the quality of my photographs. I know many fantastic photographers who are not making money with their images and also some well paid guys whose work doesn’t impress me. I do photography with love and devotion and, if there are clients that pay for that, it’s a simple mutual thing. I don’t want anybody to pay for my work if they don’t think it’s good. Of course different clients have different needs and expectations. My first paid photography assignment was 3 years ago and since then I’ve continued to work more and more, and the financial part was never something that concerned me. I just want my images to be good for my clients and for them to be happy working with me. I am not currently represented by any agency but I think that this would help me gain worldwide recognition.

Q: Did you have any formal education in photography, with a mentor, or were you self-taught? Was there a photographer or type of photography that influenced your work or inspired you?

A: I did not have any formal education in photography. I learned everything myself. Some say that this means I am a “self-taught” but I’d rather say that I am a “self-experimented” type of guy. There was nothing there to “learn”. I enjoy photography and all I did was experimenting. If you want to develop yourself as a performer and not an imitator you have to find out yourself how to make the vision came into reality. It was frustrating at first since many of my pictures were unintentionally under- or overexposed, but after one week on YouTube I understand the basics of optical physics. That was all. I am more concerned about developing my vision rather than my technical skills. I want to be a good photographer, not a scientist.

Q: In your description, you state that you’re a portrait and fashion photographer. Is this the correct? Do you shoot in any other genres?

A: I do consider myself a portrait and fashion photographer because this is 90% of what I shoot.  However, I’ve recently discovered the joy of street photography and I will continue to embrace that genre too. The street is the most complex and chameleonic scene you can possibly imagine, and this is something challenging and beautiful. I love to take the portraits of unknown people on the streets, with or without asking their permission.

Q: How did you first become interested in Leica?

A: It sounds weird but I first heard about Leica on the Internet. I was searching for something related to some new model DSLR and someone commented on a forum: “Once you shoot with a Leica, you’ll love it for life” and I said “Oh, really? What are you talking about? Is it a Ferrari or a simple camera?!” And after some research I’ve discovered that the Leica is something even more distinctive than a Ferrari. You need a vehicle to get from A to B, and you can do it with an ordinary car or a Ferrari. The road will be the same but the experience will differ by a universe. It’s the same with cameras: a portrait taken with a “normal” camera will be something common but photographing the same person with a Leica will be a different experience. And this is almost exclusively from the photographer’s point of view rather than subject’s. I’ve had my Leica M9 for 6 months now and I enjoy shooting with it every day.

Q: What approach do you take with your photography or what does photography mean to you?

A: For me photography means A LOT. It is an essential part of my life. It brings me joy and happiness. It also keeps my creativity excited. I see everything in terms of pictures and sometimes when I do something good in life I imagine that “this could make a great photograph”. I just can’t imagine life without this magnificent invention of mankind: photography. I am so happy that I have this gift of “seeing” things and be able to share them with the whole world by pressing a single button. I will never take this for granted!

Q: You mentioned that photographing a person with a Leica M9 is a different experience from using a “normal” camera like a DSLR. Can you say something about how that experience is different and how it becomes visible in the actual photographs that are the end result?

A: Shooting with a Leica M9 is indeed a different experience. It involves you more in the “creation process”. You frame, you manually focus your subject and then you take that shot. It is more “personal” than using an autofocus DSLR. People empathize in a different way when you use a Leica to take their picture—they seem to “open up” with much ease in front of a retro looking camera rather than being observed through a big bulky DSLR. Everything is more intimate and that becomes visible in the end result. With each photograph I took with my Leica M9, I know that it was ME, not the camera that created the image. Maybe that‘s why they called one of the new Leicas the M-E!

Q: In passing, you stated that you shot one particular picture with the lens wide open at f/1.4 and that you loved the “creamy bokeh.” Which Leica M lenses do you like best or use most often? Do you think there is an identifiable difference in the pictures you shoot with Leica lenses, and can you say something about that?

A: There has to be something “magic” with Leica lenses. That is what all Leica users think and the funny thing is that you get a confirmation of that statement with every shot. As a “grown up” photographer I am now searching for the “character” of a lens rather than perfect “technical specs.” I like the Summicron 50mm f/2.0 best for environmental portraitsm and for street work the Summilux 35mm f/1.4 ASPH is simply amazing. I also had the chance to try the  Noctilux 50mm f/0.95, and I was amazed! I would love to own one someday…

Q: You state quite firmly that you want to be “a good photographer and not a scientist.” Yet, you said that you learned photography largely by “experimenting,” which is what scientists do to gain knowledge and proficiency, and learned about “the basics of optical physics” on YouTube to get properly exposed shots. Since photography is essentially a technologically based art form do you really think that there is a dichotomy between developing your vision and your technical skills or are they entwined?

A: I think that you NEED to know “the basics of optical physics” in order to “understand” photography as a process. You DON’T need to know this to have “the eye”. I wanted both and that’s why I was studying a little science. It’s like writing a beautiful song on a piano—you create it and you play it but if you want to be able to write it yourself on a score you’ve got to know the notes and some musical theory. I don’t want my vision and creation flow to be influenced by some “science” but I want to be able to use science in my favor when needed. If I shoot candid, fashion or even street photos I need to be able to catch those moments, feelings, and emotions. If I shoot product or macro images then science is more useful.

Q: Your eloquent statement about being grateful for the sheer joy of seeing things and being able to “share them with the whole world by pressing a single button” gets to the heart of the magic of photography. Do you think it’s essential to keep this thought in mind always, and how do you think it affects the way you approach photography or influences the way you see things?

A: As a photographer, specific “frames” just hit my eyes while walking down the street, or entering a room or meeting a person. I only have to decide that those frames are to be shared or not. I have many photographs I never showed to other people for the single reason that I DIDN’T take them, but I SAW them!  The crucial decision is whether to take or not to take a photograph I SEE.

Q: How do you know when one of your images fulfills your beautiful statement, “I could make 1/125 fraction of a second last forever. And this is simply amazing!” Is this the unstated aim that motivates your creative quest?

A: You always know a “good photograph” just before taking it. That 1/125 fraction of a second will last forever anyway if it was RECORDED. My aim is to create as many “good photographs” as possible and not to shoot as much as I can. With a DSLR you definitely shoot more because of the frame rate, speed and storage, but with a Leica M you will look for quality and not quantity. When capturing portraits of people with my Leica feels like they give me that moment of their lives. For me is the ultimate gift to receive.

Q: You note that the Leica M is “an inspiring tool…that makes me think twice before taking a shot,” and describe yourself as “the middle man between those in the frame and those outside the frame.” We think you’re definitely onto something, but can you enlarge upon these incisive statements?

A: Sometimes I consider myself a hunter. My camera is my weapon and knowing that I can rely on it makes me more relaxed in front of my “targets”. The Leica M9 gives me somehow the power and strength of the great photographers who used the Leica M for those iconic images and amazing photographic ventures from the past. I know that holding in my hands a camera that most of Magnum photographers used makes me more responsible in a way. When shooting street photography for example it is really important for me to make those looking at my photographs to understand those scenes using their own imagination. Most of times I do not want to offer them a complete, easy to interpret frame. I want their brains to work on my images because only then can I be considered the “link” for their interpretation.

Q: What fashion/portrait assignments do you have lined up for the immediate future, and how do you see your photography evolving over, say, the next 3-5 years? Do you plan to do anything with your street photography other than create art for art’s sake?

A: I recently did a fashion campaign in Paris and a beauty advert for a well known cosmetics brand in Vienna, Austria. Next is going to be Dubai for a look-book, then back to Bucharest for an important fashion event where I will shoot a backstage documentary. It is really hard for me as I am not yet represented by a professional Photo Agency but I try to work as much as I can. I know that a good agency would help me a lot though. After almost 20 years of DJ-ing I am really confident that if you do what you really love you have all the chances to succeed in that particular field. I do photography with all my passion and I work a lot to improve my skills and to evolve as an artist. I follow my creative instincts and I also try to find a good balance to satisfy my clients. I really can’t figure it out what’s going to happen in 5 years from now on but I know for sure that my passion and dedication to photography will make me a happy man.

Like I said, I love street photography and I will do it whenever possible. I plan to make a vast street documentary of Paris and compare it with Bucharest, which was called once “The Little Paris”. My country, Romania is really beautiful and aside from all those Dracula myths, homeless Gypsies and general poverty, there are a lot of other stories to be told. We have some amazing landscapes and the most beautiful girls in the world. Those would make great photography subjects for anyone out there.

I’m firmly convinced that if you want to make it in fashion photography you have to live in a city that is involved in fashion, so I will move to Paris in the early 2013 and of course I’m always ready to travel the whole world in the pursuit of “the perfect shot.”

Thank you for your time, Vali!

- Leica Internet Team

Check out more of Vali’s work on his website, 500px , and Behance. Connect with him on Facebook, Twitter and @valibarbulescu on Instagram.