This interview featured along side my Digital feature in S magazine, Featuring my Cape town shoot of model Chane Husselmann, featured elsewhere on my site.
Here is the copy, enjoyed this chat and using the Leica SL
INTERVIEW – JAMES MEAKIN
James Meakin created his feature ‘Off-Road’ in South Africa. Shot in a reportage style, the series is a blend of spontaneous moments, urban street scenes and opulent landscapes. In images reminiscent of a modern road movie, model Charme Husselmann skilfully channels the character of a young vagabond with a mixture of melancholy and joie-de-vivre.
What would you say ‘Off-Road’ is all about? Is it a classic Cars&Girls story, or does it go deeper than that? And how would you describe your style, and in what manner is it represented by this series?
I’ll combine these two questions into one answer: my work is influenced by many styles of fashion photography, and I wanted to embrace a more reportage feel to capturing a model’s spirit, while keeping my eye for beauty and bringing fashion to life far away from the studio world. I put together the pieces of the puzzle and ran with it. At times it was quite an intimidating experience. We were amongst genuine street gangsters deep in the heart of Cape Town, the car drew a great deal of attention, and the streets seemed pretty edgy for a small crew – with only our lone security guard reassuring us that they were on the same side! That edge created a timeless place, and a street scene that could have been in so many places in the world. I wanted you to not really know where you were. Was it a night out, or a morning after? Had the girl gone off the rails, was she lost or in control, deviant or innocent… That buzz is what being on location is all about, a sense of the unknown and a reactive creative process – it was pretty rock and roll to be honest. This girl was young, very early in her career, and she had to be brave – and I had to give her that confidence. She was way outside of her small-town box, and loving it! She literally flew straight to the AW fashion shows after this shoot, and went huge overnight. You’ve got to love that for casting kudos.
As a medium-format photographer, why did you opt for the full-frame Leica SL to shoot this series? Where do you see the differences, and did your choice of camera have an influence on the series?
I use an SLR as a commercial workhorse. The precision and speed of the modern camera has defined a generation of digital photographers, and clients in turn demand so much more content on shoots these days, often with specific workflows via art directors. Any other camera simply slows you down and exhausts you, and excessive quality is often lost on websites and digital formats. Having said that, ever since converting from a Phase One I’ve been using a Leica S (Typ 007) for 2 years now, for editorial projects and the vastly superior image quality. I tend to work with shallow depths of field, to add a more cinematic feel to websites and phone screens.
The Leica SL is a special camera – the lenses render so beautifully that it easily competes with medium format, and it offers the agility and dynamism that reportage demands. I was so happy to find this camera. One of the most amazing things about mirrorless cameras is the ability to monitor your image inside the viewfinder as you shoot. In bright or dusty conditions this is a game changer. There was no way the digital operation could have been tethered on much of this shoot, it simply wasn’t safe to have a laptop loitering in the background. The Autofocus was right up there with any traditional SLR, which was a relief. It allowed me to just harvest the moments – the camera technology should never get in the way of that. We were constantly on the move, there was no time to set up, it was real ‘run and gun’ (literally, in our case, because of security!). The whole thing was made for this kind of camera.
I was extremely pleased with everything from the Leica feel to the colour grading and the filmic quality of the images. I especially like the way it renders flare so naturally, unlike other SLR lenses. It’s a sexy bit of kit too!
What are your expectations of a camera? Also, you were an engineer before becoming a fashion photographer – does this technical background play any kind of role in your photography?
Being technically minded is both a tool and a burden. Sometimes it’s important to release that whole mindset, in order to engage purely with the creative aesthetics and be more conceptual. On the other hand, my understanding of AF systems makes me a sniper with a piece of kit like this, and can actually lead to shots that others might miss.
Every now and again, though, mistakes make the best images in creative shooting. Unplanned errors can actually add something. One of the shots in this series had one error in 100 frames, where the camera captured a drain cover on the floor instead of the model walking towards me. I loved the way the eye just takes in the scene without spending too much attention on the detail here. So it’s nice to allow errors to slip in from time to time, especially in editorials where you are pushing boundaries.
To me a camera must be 100% reliable, ergonomic in the hand, a real workhorse. Weight isn’t actually such an issue for me.
For your outdoor photo shoots, you often choose unusual and at times conflictive scenarios. What’s the idea behind that, and why South Africa this time around?
First of all I like to inspire everyone with a surrounding, and create a stage where phones don’t work and city people suddenly realise that they haven’t see a sunrise in so long. You can’t help being touched by the beauty of nature when you are in it. It’s visceral on the senses, and affects everyone. Why not make that effort if you can? It’s important to me I shoot with shallow depths of field, as I hate background-dominated images. Just giving a subtle sense of something is often enough – perfect for a Leica! I think you don’t need to force a story on someone – I’d rather allow the viewer to interpret the character in their own way. Sometimes I don’t want to explain why we are in a certain place. Then it’s up to you – it’s your own internal movie. I believe in a little daydream, and a hint of the surreal. I want people to look at more than just fashion or famous models. Content alone is not enough – we’re better than that!
What about the styling – is this something you like to be actively involved in, for example when shooting Beauty projects?
Beauty projects are refreshing, not least because in any image I am first and foremost drawn to a face – everything else must fall into place. It allows for emotion, intimacy, and an unashamed worshipping of eyes and skin. It breaks through a model’s comfort zone, as there’s no hiding when the camera is this close.
Fashion is definitely key in all of my images. For this project, I checked out the locations several weeks before the stylist, Lorna, called in the clothes. This meant she already had a sense of the colour palate, contrasts and style of imagery, so that by the time we were on set, it was a seamless marriage of her ideas and mine. She didn’t pick the obvious options that arose from this initial brief, and I loved that because that extra juxtaposition added another sense of mystery to the character we created. Fashion can be brave! I love stylists who can think outside the box and make a clever statement with their work. There’s a real art to putting a great shoot together. I try to only work with exceptional stylists, as this can literally make or break a concept.