Rarely does the digital din of online photography web sites, blogs and forums provide a satisfactory explanation of where a photograph comes from. How a photographer came to make a series of photographs can be as important as his or her technical knowledge.
Rob Lemmon is in many ways a typical Leica M Monochrom everyman. He is not a professional, not trained as a photographer, and does not make a living in a photographic trade. Rob is exceptional in the fact that he has a passion for the art of photography and pursues that passion in a thoughtful and dedicated fashion. In this interview we talk to Rob about his journey to make that “rare, great photograph.”
Q: Let’s get the technical stuff out of the way first. When did you start using a rangefinder camera and how long have you been using the M Monochrom?
RL: I’ve used a rangefinder camera (Leica M9) since July 2011 after taking a street photography workshop entitled “Unposed” with Craig Semetko and Quinton Gordon. At the workshop most participants used rangefinder cameras. I spent some time after the workshop researching cameras and finally decided to invest in the M9.
I was converting most of my M9 images to black and white, that is when I began to think seriously about investing in an M Monochrome. After shooting with an M Monochrom at a Leica M Workshop in July 2013 I decided to make the M Monochrom my primary camera body.
Q: Generally what do you carry with you when you are photographing?
RL: I keep it simple, the M Monochrom with a 50mm Summicron M lens and a back-up battery. Other times I will take my camera bag with my 35mm Summarit M lens and the M9.
Q: We connected through Adam Marelli. Adam is a terrific photographer and a generous teacher, what influence has he had on your photography?
RL: I participated in a workshop that Quinton Gordon does for Leica – “The Truth About Photography.” During the review, Quinton liked one of my images taken with a 50mm and said that Henri Cartier-Bresson always shot with this lens when he shot for himself. After the workshop I researched Cartier-Bresson and found several articles that Adam had written.
As I read his articles, I realized we shared many of the same ideas. Basically that to be a good photographer, let alone a great photographer, you have to understand art and the influence of the Masters. That is; what makes a work great, the use of light, contrast, design, and composition. I don’t have an art background but I understand what Adam means about the importance of art in photography. My images have always had good composition and design, however, as I read more of Adam’s articles, I began to think about exactly what I was trying to capture. I knew at some point I had to meet Adam and work with him.
Adam’s workshop in Verona and Venice provided the opportunity to work with him directly and offered an excuse for my wife and I to travel for an extended period of time. In his review of my images that I had taken prior to the workshop, he quickly noted that many of my images share the sensibilities of Cartier-Bresson as well as the painter Edward Hopper. As we talked, he gave me more examples of their work but also identified other areas in which I needed to put more focus. Adam asked that I send him some of my images as our travels continued after the workshop. His critiques of my images led to the Violin Maker series. Adam’s own photography has also influenced me, especially his series on the Japanese craftsmen. Adam’s influence has been subtle, direct and sometimes hard to define.
Q: It appears as if you often shoot in low light situations. What is it about that imagery that appeals to you?
The sample of images that I sent you of the luthier were the ones that I really liked and to me demonstrated the extraordinary ability of the M Monochrom to shoot in those circumstances. I think what appeals to me is the atmosphere, the mood, the evocative contrast of light and dark. I have made images taken in bright light, they have definition of detail, but to me they just don’t have the same appeal as the low light images. You used the term ‘chiaroscuro lighting’ with respect to the luthier series of images. I also believe that my looking at paintings of the Masters on visits to the galleries of Europe and North America has had an important influence on my photography.
Q: Your images of the Paris Violin Maker are very intimate, how did you find the luthier and establish that kind of rapport?
RL: One of Adam Marelli’s comments was that I needed to “Keep creeping forward with people…. find reasons to get more engaged with them.” In Paris the luthier’s workshop was very close to my apartment and I would walk past his shop almost every day… I was simply intrigued. I followed Adam’s advice and finally rang his buzzer. The luthier opened the door and in my poor French I explained that I would like to photograph him as he worked. In his equally poor English he agreed.
He went to work on a violin repairing the strings, etcetera and I simply photographed him. Neither of us spoke. He concentrated on what he was doing and I concentrated on shooting. I shot for about a half hour and at the end asked if I could come back another day. Three days later I stopped late in the afternoon, he let me in and went back to work and I shoot for another hour until he said, “Voila, we are done.” I thanked him, we exchanged business cards, I packed up, he locked the door, got on his bicycle and cycled down the Quai de la Tournelle.
Q: Can you talk a little bit about the lighting in the Paris Violin Maker series?
RL: The luthier’s workshop was quite small, his workbench was at the back of the shop and in a corner. The only light was his workbench light that is visible in some of the images. There may have been a small ceiling light but it was of limited value. The workbench light was quite strong and directed downward to provide the light he needed. It is this light that provided the ‘chiaroscuro lighting’ for the images.
Q: What is the best advice you’ve ever received about making photographs?
RL: There are probably two things – Adam Marelli’s advice was, “be more engaged, get closer to the subject.” The second came from Quinton Gordon’s workshop and is one of his “Truths about Photography” that is – “Photography is hard work and a really great photograph is rare.”