Dirk Schumacher, a technical officer with the MOD for British Forces in Germany, created his “The Future of Remembrance” portfolio with the Leica X1. The project was created to support the work of the local hospice and examines the last 14 days of his father’s life. In part one of our interview, Dirk talked about his start in photography. Here, he describes in greater detail the project.
Q: What characteristics of the Leica X1 do you find especially useful for your kind of photography?
A. I like the simplicity of the camera, with no programs or anything like that. This gives me the opportunity to create the picture myself without needing any computer in a case held in front of me. Also the single focal length lens is challenging but also extremely useful since it encourages me to think where and how I place the objects. It also trains my eye and teaches me to pre-visualize, which is a very important aspect, I think.
The black-and-white algorithms in the JPEG mode are just brilliant. The camera delivers real black-and-white images with a wide dynamic range.
I really enjoy the manual focus too, once one got used to it. I find it very supportive and if I need autofocus, it’s very reliable even in dark conditions. Other cameras might provide slightly faster AF, but it’s seldom as reliable as the one of the X1. I also discovered that you can use and benefit from color filters just as in analog black-and-white photography, which really shows in the JPEGs. And I don’t sacrifice any image quality when I occasionally use yellow or light orange filters.
The lens itself delivers very high quality and sharpness from corner to corner, even wide open. The high quality of the glass used lets a lot of light through, so it’s OK for available light and dark scenes as well. It also performs very convincingly in night scenes.
And of course, the ability to easily access manual aperture and shutter speed settings is a plus. But most importantly, it delivers the Leica look in my pictures, a very characteristic signature of the Leica lenses. With a specific shutter speed/ aperture combination I achieve a three-dimensional quality, a real sense of depth in my images that is just unique. Once you discover this you will never accept anything that cannot deliver this impression and quality.
Q: You noted that the pictures you shoot with the Leica X1 have “the Leica look” a very characteristic signature of the Leica lenses” that is characterized by a three-dimensionality and a unique sense of depth. Can you say something more specific about the elements that define the “Leica-look” and why you feel it is important in your work?
A: It is the absolutely precise sharpness, even wide open that disengages the subject from the foreground an/or background that lets the image have a greater plasticity. It is opening up the picture and one gets the impression that this two-dimensional medium actually opens up into another dimension. One could walk into the picture and look behind the isolated subject. It is hard to describe, but for me, this hits the point. And this is of course a very useful tool to enhance the impression of the already strong images Leica lenses are capable of capturing. Yes, other lenses produce sharp images as well, but certainly not to such a degree and I can’t find this impression with other lenses. This makes Leica pictures very powerful testaments to what we have seen with our eyes.
Q: One image is a beautifully composed portrait of an elderly man gazing out a window. Despite its elegant simplicity, it conveys a deeply emotional content and a certain contemplative serenity. What does this image mean to you and what was going through your mind when you pressed the shutter release?
A: Before I took the picture of him he said that he has settled now in his new environment and made it clear that he was absolutely aware of his situation. He felt well looked after, free of pain, and his previous concerns and anxieties were gone. He was kind of pleased and lucky that he made the decision to move into the hospice. Then he made a joke, had a coffee, took the cup away and looked out the window since he was expecting another visitor. I had the impression that a burden had fallen from his shoulders. It’s hard to explain what I felt at the moment, but I just wanted to preserve it and so I pressed the shutter release.
Q: This image shows a little kid playing in the grass, engaged with the spatial-temporal world while off to the side and in the background an elderly man in a wheelchair looks out into the distance, less engaged perhaps, but implicitly encompassing a larger perspective. The dichotomy is expressive, compelling, a profound statement about the cycle of life. Do you agree, and what how to you think it works in enriching this portfolio?
A: I certainly agree, as previously mentioned. I think, the image makes clear that to be born, to grow up and live and finally to die belongs together. Dying is part of living. And this is the motto of the hospice association.
Q: There is a palpable tension in this image showing an elderly man gazing at two visitors wearing name tags. There is nourishment and a cup on the table, and the mood is certainly somber, connoting feeling and caring but in the context of perhaps a terminal illness at a crisis point. It is certainly a powerful image, but can you tell us what is actually going on here?
A: The picture was taken during a conversation between my father and nurse staff what he has to expect when his condition gets worse and how they would treat increasing pain.
Q: Dying is something we essentially do individually and alone whatever support system we may have, and that is certainly captured in the image of a solitary expressionless patient lying in a hospital bed, and image that of an out-of-focus reclining patient in a room dominated by medical machinery and its digital readouts. What do you think these images say about the hospice program? Is their unflinching truthfulness and authenticity at odds with the positive message you are trying to convey?
A: I think not really, as this is part of the day to day situation for some of the guests. But the image on the left shows my father sleeping in his room, a bright room, with lots of space and with his personal belongings (not really visible). But the main thing, there’s no machinery. His condition got worse but the image still conveys still respect and dignity. The picture on the right is a short time before he passed away, all this machinery is to supply painkillers, so his remaining time is as painless as possible. There is no life-support machinery. It is a humanitarian act.
Q: A nurse or caretaker holds a lantern with a glowing candle in it facing a wooden coffin with sensitive looking hands touching its top. It is certainly a moving image that conveys the inevitability and finality of death, and the lantern motif is repeated in another image where it is placed in a hollow receptacle carved into a post. What is the significance of the lantern and what do you think it represents thematically in your documentary?
A: As my father had passed away and his death had been certified by a med, the door to his room had been closed and a candle was lit and positioned next to the closed entrance door to his room. The candle was later replaced by the lantern and after the farewell ceremony, which was held in his room, and the coroner took the coffin to move him out, it was accompanied by the lantern and later placed inside the pole. This lantern symbolizes the eternal light. I think it’s a nice gesture.
Q: You used the Leica X1 for this project. Is there any other Leica equipment you’d like to try?
A: I would love to work with the Leica M Monochrom even though I think this would be challenging due to its different way of post-processing caused by the monochromatic sensor. I’d also like to try a 21 mm Leica lens.
Q: How do you see your photography evolving over, say, the next three years or so, and do you plan to explore any other genres or pretty much continue in the same vein? Do you have any other documentary projects or exhibitions in the works for the near future?
A: I will certainly carry on improving my photography since I have found my genres or field of interest. I’ll try to learn more about the psychology of portrait or people photography because I think this is very essential for creating strong images. In this regard I will seek contact with professionals, art critics. and schools of art. I plan to stick with black-and-white photography working with strong contrasts since this is my pictorial language. I will take part in an exhibition about a project I took part in with a group of five other serious enthusiast photographers where I documented the making of various things. That was in 2011 and I used my D-Lux 5.
This summer I will travel by train to Hamburg and will start at 12:00 to photograph a portrait of the city and will move around in the city to photograph as many sites as possible and will stop at the place where I started at exactly 12:00 hours on the next day. I plan to use the X1, and it will be 24 hours of continuous photography with some stops just to eat and drink. I will then produce a photo book titled “Hamburg 24”. I am curious how my photography will change over this extended period of time. I will certainly be exhausted after the shoot but I believe it will be fun.
And I have another long-term project. I plan to document the life and work of the British Forces in Germany and the drawdown of the Forces. I’ve already started this and I’m trying to get permission to enter as many sites and occasions as possible and later I would like to document the abandoned locations. This is really an historic event and very challenging for me.
Thank you for your time, Dirk!
– Leica Internet Team