The first Leica I ever saw was my grandfather’s when I was a child. This object transformed our family life into memories. He definitely appreciated quality and precision. He also collected rare Italian violins. He died and more than 30 years later I inherited it.
I had bought my first camera when I was fourteen years old and was always taking pictures. At high school I used the dark room and enlarger. One of the greatest surprises was seeing the paper in the developing tray go from white and slowly morph into a crisp black and white photo. All that time from taking the shot till this moment had been worth it.
At university I studied economics but was always curious to do something artistic. After University I went to Los Angeles and studied acting and worked on films. I realised I didn’t want to sit in an office and pour over research. I had to get out and do something creative. When I returned to New Zealand I started a photographic company and worked as a commercial photographer and director of TV commercials and music videos. I also produced and directed a film that never got finished. The first time I used a Leica was for a photo essay on the demolition of a building. I loved the simplicity. It was an old M4 with a 35mm lens. It was especially great for people. They weren’t intimidated by a large camera and after a while they really didn’t notice I was taking their picture.
My book project Water The Essential started as an idea very early in life. I grew up by a beach in New Zealand and the summers were spent swimming, fishing and later windsurfing and sailing. The sea always fascinated me. Water was always this life-giving element that scared me, challenged me but also gave me great pleasure. I remember being in big surf one day and diving under the wave to this place of great tranquillity.
I had spent a number of years painting abstract paintings and this lead me to a new simpler distilled form of photography. Black and white especially distils light into an abstract form. Black and white also creates a timeless quality. I am always seeking a universal truth to a picture that cannot be judged by a time period. Through out history all art forms have used water as a key narrative or the subject of the work. I like the idea that the strength of an image can be seen now and a thousand or more years into the future.
The real core of the project started in 2014 when I was living in Switzerland.
I loved the zen like nature of water as it flowed and weaved its way around the rocks of streams and into the rivers and lakes. As I took more photographs of it I discovered the infinite ways that water behaves. I was also thinking of larger things that are important and realised that really this is absolutely the most important thing that we have. From then I was totally committed to this project.
After all water is in every living organism on this planet. Not just the 7.5 billion humans. I was committed to a project that had substance over style.
As some one who has taken pictures of many subjects as a commercial photographer I realised that focusing on an issue has deeper meaning and ultimately, becomes a change agent.
One of my heroes Sebastiao Selgado, not only takes pictures that are beautiful but also has a larger message behind it. For me doing this project gave me greater meaning to my life and others. Today there is an immense glut of images and literally billions are created every day. What I try to do is to focus on a subject that is important, show it in a unique simple way and to make people think and contemplate the image. It is not easy task being a photographer and it requires real belligerence and persistence. However it has slowly paid off. I now have a number of exhibitions in Switzerland and the United Kingdom. What is also exciting is a book publishing offer. The work is now going to collectors around the world.
So often especially on commercial jobs I have been distracted by the excessive equipment and how to use it when the real value to me as a photographer is what I see and ultimately to the viewer of the photograph. Its as if my brain is directly connected to the image and my subconscious as an artist is opened up. There is no play back only the next picture. So often when I have used digital cameras I go back and look at the image to see if its perfect, in doing so I get out of the moment and miss the next shot. Also I shoot too many pictures and none of them are particularly good.
Its old fashion but I grew up on film and love the discipline of 36 frames. If you cant get the picture in 2 or three frames move on and find a better idea or subject. Also the expense of processing film is a real discipline to really care about the picture you are taking.
What I love about old Leica film cameras is the simplicity and purity of creating an image. With one camera, an R 4 or R8 a 35mm lens and black and film it frees me to focus on the subject. I am not really a technical photographer but with a fantastic lens and the right exposure the results can be stunning. These cameras do not age and like a fine Violin can be passed from one generation to another.
I am still taking pictures with my Grandfather’s Leica with fantastic results.
More than 60 years later, one camera has captured four generations of one family.
Thanks to the Leica Store in Zurich and Leica Switzerland I now have work being exhibited on my project Water the Essential. Please come and see it and contact me personally about using Leica and my project.
Vaughan James is a photographer and writer based in Zurich Switzerland