Jakob de Boer has spent most of his professional life as a television director and producer, with well over 100 episodes and a number of memorable commercials to his credit. Born and educated in Toronto, Canada into a family that produced globally syndicated television, he spent his childhood traveling the world, went on to study business at Western University and continued his studies in film at NYU. He has also worked in film, both as a director and producer, and is currently preparing to direct a film based on a screenplay he has written.
De Boer also manifests his creative spirit in capturing images of Masters of all descriptions, including their work, their working environments, their points of view. He has been described as “a hunter of moments.” Here, is the story of how he came to create this revealing series of Masters of many arts and trades that brings these images together for the first time.
A: Good question, but difficult to put into words. A friend once said that he sees me as “a hunter of moments.” I think this is true. It’s usually the play of light and the structure of shapes that cause me to bring the camera to my eye.
Q: When did you first become interested in photography and in Leica cameras?
A: My great-grandfather from Holland had a Leica, and he was a great photographer. My mother carried on this tradition and is truly an intuitive photographer. I seemed to have carried on this photographic tradition myself, but in the end, it was Anton Corbijn that aroused my curiosity. He had just finished this film “The American.” I connected with his style, his image making. He shoots with a Leica and that brought it all home for me.
I actually had something of an epiphany after I had field-tested every full frame camera and lens I could get my hands on. Though many of them reproduced images quite nicely, when I tested the M9 and S2, these cameras and lenses captured a certain character, a distinctive personality. It’s interesting, because when I make an error in taking an image, the personality of the lens stands out. These have proven to be some of my best images. In the end, what you choose to take a photograph with determines your vision. There is a soul with Leica, and their lenses, a nuance that it brings to the image. After a while, you become aware how embedded it is in your images. You actually create with this nuance.
Q: Can you say something more about what this special character of Leica lenses is, and how it enables “mistakes” to be transformed into something memorable and meaningful?
A: Every Leica lens speaks, as though it has its own language. The signature of each lens is quite apparent in my images. When I reach for a lens, it’s based as much on its signature as it is on its focal length. The combination of these two aspects is the language.
You can understand each lens in terms of poetry. The 75 mm Summicron, for me, is like one of Rumi’s poems — enigmatic, soulful, almost haunting. In contrast, the 35 mm Summilux is like a Japanese haiku. Clear. Crisp. Strong. So when I am taking an image, I will often reach for a lens that will describe the poetry of the scene, or use a lens to create a contrast. The lens is always speaking, at least for me.
Q: What cameras and equipment do you currently use?
A: The Leica M9 and the S2. On the lens side: 50 mm Summicron, 75 mm Summicron, 35 mm Summilux on the M9 and the 70 mm Summarit, and 180 mm Apo-Elmar on the S2.
Q: What are some of the specific features of the Leica M9 and the S2, other than the lenses, that you find especially conducive to your kind of work?
A: The M9 and the M, which I am now working with, allow me to become, in a way, invisible while delivering image quality that is outstanding. Once you understand what I call the zen-ness of using these cameras, your photography changes. When I look through my viewfinder, I rarely pull my eye away — just a few quick adjustments with a free hand and you’re done. My subject remains unaware, and in this way remains connected.
The S2 and also now the new S, which I am currently using on a trip, is a completely different experience than shooting with the M cameras. It is a powerhouse. The images are bold, pungent, yet the package is that of a 35 mm DSLR. I love the auto focus on the new S and the dynamic range. The magic of the S is in its ability to separate values in a scene. Both cameras have a clear place in my workflow, functioning side-by-side on my trips and photo shoots.
Q: What approach do you take with your photography?
A: I put myself into situations where I allow the circumstance to dictate the result. I ask the subject to bring me into their arena. Then there is this quiet shift, where the subject lets go, seemingly lost. In this moment they expose themselves. I wait for this moment, the authentic moment.
Q: Where did the idea behind your project “Masters” come from? How did you choose the specific men and women featured as masters? There’s quite a broad range of professions shown, from a sword smith to a hair designer. How important to you was it to show off a diverse range of professions?
A: The project has grown organically. I have always been looking for Masters — the painter, the draftsman, the photographer. Understanding how they tick provided an insight into myself. There is something intoxicating about standing in the presence of a master. They are paradigm destroyers, operating on a different level.
The bottom line is that there is a lot of war-torn photography out there and I wanted to do something different, something to inspire people. In terms of choosing the Masters, it has been a process of being in the right place at the right time and discovering people. Sometimes, it’s through extensive research; at other times people that know my work refer them to me.
Q: You have observed that the masters in your project are not merely master craftspeople, but “paradigm destroyers operating on a different level.” What do you think it is that differentiates such people and elevates their work, and what is your strategy for capturing these qualities in your images?
A: I am often asked this question. One apparent difference is that they all have a distinct soulfulness. They truly see the world around them. Most are so good at what they do, they generally don’t want to talk about it; as if the magic would to dissolve should they.
What seems to define them as Masters for me, and makes them fascinating, is that at some point they realize that in order to go to the next level, they have to let go; allow things to flow through them —channel. For instance when the hair designer, Gianluca, is cutting hair he’s sculpting with a pair of scissors, talking constantly to his clients, giving very little thought to the actual cutting. He just lets it happen. Every once in a while, he’ll pause and see what’s happened, then continue to let it flow. In every case, these people allow it to flow; with an awareness that they must get out of the way for it to flow. It’s a very cool thing to witness.
My strategy depends on the personality of the individual and the situation. I rarely photograph a person in their environment, since I am not really interested in their work as such, but rather finding an authentic moment with that person. I always start by asking them to bring me somewhere or to do something that they love to do. We almost always end up finding the image — the moment — together.
Q: This engaging picture of Gianluca Sasso can loosely be described as an environmental portrait of a master hair designer doing his work, but what makes it so powerful and authentic is the visceral sense of joy in both parties that’s emphasized by its informal in the street context. How do you feel about this image and, what made you decide to shoot it in this way? Also, why did you opt to present it in black-and-white?
A: Thank you for your kind words. I was originally going to photograph Gianluca in his studio, but it became clear that to be in his studio would mean being in his territory, his comfort zone. So he agreed to cut a model’s hair on the street with people passing by. It was raw and real. Gianluca was doing what he is very good at, but in an environment that was out of context. This made him present. It was a cool moment. I waited about a good ten minutes after sunset and clicked the trigger. It was a moment that screamed black-and-white.
Q: There is a wonderful sense of spontaneity in your portrait of Ian Roberts, painter and master of composition, peering out over an umbrella. As a concept, composition connotes precision and care, and yet this image has an impish devil-may-care quality. What do you think it says about Ian and his work, and what were you thinking when you took the shot?
A: Good question! This is Ian, being Ian. He is playful, but with soul. He’s full of fun, yet totally aware, flirting with his own sense of self. Ian was a TM monk for many years, then shifted fully into being a painter, and now is writing a book on the search for beauty. In a way he is a master of expression, through his paintings and writings, but also in himself.
When I was designing my website, one of the features I wanted was to allow the viewer to hear the Master speak, or listen to them work in conjunction with the images. When you hear Ian speak, you gain an insight into this image.
As with all my images/photo shoots, I stay away from the thinking part. I just stay present as part of the situation unfolding.
Q: All your portraits of Jorg Krebber, the healer, capture significant aspects of his character, but none is so revealing as this black-and-white close-up of his beautiful hands that exhibits masterful use of shallow depth of field. What is it about this image that makes it so captivating? Which camera, lens and aperture did you use, and why did you decide to present it in black-and-white?
A: It was shot with my M9, with the 75 mm Summicron at f/4.8. I agree, this moment is revealing of Jorg. As a stand-alone image it makes you curious; the hint of his white sweater, the gray stone behind, the way the light hits his hands as if he is holding it — it feels classic, yet it is not.
In this image, Jorg is offering you something — which is very much Jorg. You see Jorg is an experience. He will sit across from you diagnose your health with a few quiet glances at your face, your hands, your feet, then launch into an exacting analysis of your diet — only for you to realize he understands food as a medicine. In black-and-white the image echoes images we’ve seen before, yet there is a sense that we’re behind the bars and that he possesses something. It’s the inverse of what we typically associate with this kind of image.
Q: You decided to shoot Jorgos Foukis, the aesthetic surgeon, in what looks like a ruined medieval church. What made you choose this context? One images shows the subject in front view, his hands in his pockets, with the architectural details clearly defined. This image has an assertive character. Whereas the other image of him in the church shows him in an enigmatic side view, in a contemplative mood, with an out-of-focus archway forming the background. What were you trying to convey by presenting these two disparate images?
A: I photographed this in a roofless monastery. It was very cool. The rain was drizzling through. Moss had claimed the stones. The monastery is beautiful in its imperfection — perhaps more beautiful. Nature has had its influence over time. As a Master Aesthetic Surgeon, this is Jorgos’ realm: the search for beauty, the question of perfection.
These images are two sides of the same coin. Jorgos is assertive and ambitious and yet, in a moment, can be carried away by some thought. There’s a zen-ness to him. You see both sides of him, but it’s still the same coin.
When you hear Jorgos speak on my site, with his images fading in and out, for 45 seconds you’re there with him, and understand that coin.
Q: I was fascinated by the way you captured Stefan Daniel, the Leica Master, and the various aspects of his personality. The image where he is holding the Leica M up to his face, the irrepressible Leica fanatic, is great. However, the image where he is sitting on a chair hunched slightly forward with his hands clasped with the Leica M on a table beside him, conveys his intensity, seriousness, and devotion, as well as his formidable presence. Do you agree, and how do you decide which aspects of a person you wish to bring out, or is it all an intuitive process?
A: I very much agree with your comments. To capture this is where the dance begins, but Stefan did something especially interesting. Whereas most subjects will do some final, quick adjustment to their clothing or hair before you take their photograph, Stefan tweaked his little Leica pin on the lapel of his jacket. It was an unconscious act that spoke volumes. You come to understand that this person is doing exactly what they are meant to do.
We had a lot of fun. There’s a soulfulness that underscores Stefan that goes beyond his formidable presence — a disarming genuineness. His piercing blue eyes are dead clear. Every time he looked at the camera, his eyes were like magnets drawing me in. For me everything is an intuitive process. I tend to just roll with whatever is rolling down the chute.
Q: I think your color portrait of Tadashi Enami, the sword smith at work, is a splendid environmental portrait, and the intensity of his expression is just perfect. It was obviously shot at a fairly slow shutter speed to get the sparks flying and slight motion in the subject’s hand but the technical quality of this image is extraordinary. How did you shoot this picture, and what do you think makes it so successful.
A: It was quite a trip to find Mr. Enami. Planes. Trains. Taxis. When I arrived his Tatara clay furnace was roaring. The place was a sauna. I found him standing in this pit, forging steel in the way of the Samurai.
There was an immediate sense this was a beautiful person; and yet it felt like he was from a different time. When he worked, he transformed. He was no longer Tadashi Enami, but rather some conduit of the Sword-smith muses. This is what I wanted to capture.
I set my 35 mm Summilux to an f/stop that gave me 1/30 of a second exposure and waited. After a short time, Mr. Enami forgot about me and went into his world. This is the result.
Q: Do you have any planned exhibitions or ways to have this work shown? What would you like to see happen with the “Masters?”
A: I had an exhibit in Florence on May 29, and another one outdoors is scheduled for September. I’ve also been asked to show in Munich and London. We’ll see. The “Masters” is archived online and is intended to very much be an online experience. My goal is to connect people through this archive with these Masters, who have transcended the notion of their craft, creating art in its place. We have designed the site so you can see and hear the Masters in their own words.
I have a great team and this is intended to be a living archive, so we will add to it continually.
Thank you for your time, Jakob!
– Leica Internet Team
To see more of Jakob’s work, visit his website.