A brilliant master photographer, Craig Cutler reveals his work, his life, and the mindset and techniques of his unique creative process that enable him to capture timeless images that explore transcendent realities.
Q: What camera and equipment do you use?
A: I have a Leica M-System and Leica S-System, both for different reasons. I use the S-System for commercial work whereas the M-System is solely for my personal work. Over the last 25 years I have carried an M camera with me everywhere. It is second nature for me to have my Fogg bag strapped over my shoulder with a Leica inside. Currently I am passionate about shooting with my Leica M Monochrom.
Q: How would you describe your photography?
A: I would describe my work as structured simplicity. I never considered myself a photojournalist capturing discovered moments. Instead I find myself building images in a subconscious manner with what my eye can create.
Q. Can you tell us something more about how you actually go about creating an image in your mind and then proceeding to execute it with your camera?
A: This is a great question that is also the subject of a class I am teaching this fall to design students – how to come up with concepts and ideas. This has to be split down the middle. What I mean is that I approach my artwork differently than my commissioned work. For personal work I am constantly gathering ideas from what I see around me. This can come from many different forms: something I see walking by, something I read, someplace I went. I build a library of fragmented ideas and sketches and later piece them together to create a concept. I always tell students, if you are a photographer looking for inspiration and ideas, look outside of that discipline and do not look at other photographers’ work for ideas, but find ideas in other places.
In my commissioned work I try to stay clear of obvious solutions to assignments. I try to search for interesting metaphors to create a unique visual. I like to pull things out of context to tell stories. Whether it is commissioned or personal work, the underlying theme has to have a strong visual with a simple concept. I am also a firm believer in sketching. Every idea I come up with starts with a sketch. To me this is far more important than the actual shoot. Whether I decide to continue on to the shooting stage of an idea, it lives or dies with a sketch.
Q: How did you first become interested in Leica?
A: When I was assisting other photographers I was often sent to Ken Hansen’s photography store in NYC to pick up cameras. It was Ken who introduced me to my first Leica camera – the M6. Once in my hands I began to understand the Leica philosophy – the simplicity of how it functioned, how it allowed you to create without cluttering your mind with things that did not matter on a camera. To this day I only buy my Leica cameras from him and we have become very close friends.
My favorite combination has been the Monochrom with a 24 mm f/1.4 lens, or the 50 mm APO f/2.0. The 24 mm at 1.4 is incredible and allows me to explore without distortion. The 50 mm APO is extremely sharp. I have never experienced a lens that is sharper than this yet still yielding beautiful contrast and tone. I always keep a yellow filter on both. Recently I have been playing with a 28 mm f/2.0 and enjoy being able to work quickly by looking through the attached viewfinder. The one I have is much older and I am amazed by how accurate the image in the viewfinder is to what the camera records.
As far as shooting color, my go to camera is the M9 with a brass 35 mm f/2.0. It is the oldest lens I have and probably the most perfect. I use the S2 for commercial work. I am always confident that I can shoot with the 70 mm wide open yielding incredible sharpness where I want it, with complete falloff beyond my focus point.
Q: What exactly did Ken Hansen say to you when he handed you your first M6 and what were some of its other features or capabilities that got you hooked on Leica?
A: Yes, Ken Hansen did introduce me to my first Leica and every Leica I have acquired since then. Ken said something like, “These are the best lenses in the world, choose your f/stop, set your shutter speed, start shooting, and throw away the owner’s manual. It’s that simple.” What got me excited was that it became about shooting images in their purest form. My mind became free of what I like to call the technical waste. Other cameras have that, and I do not want it.
Q: What is it about the Monchrom that you find especially conducive to your personal creative work? You also mentioned that you keep as yellow filter on your lenses when shooting with your Monochrom. What is your reason for doing so?
A: I have always been a passionate B&W shooter. I bounced back and forth between my twin-lens Rolleis, Hasselblads, and Makinas. It wasn’t until the Monochrom that I felt completely comfortable switching over to digital. To me it looks and feels like film: grain as opposed to noise, lens falloff as opposed to mush. It was also important to me that I could use real B&W filters. I pretty much leave a yellow filter on all the time. It gives me the perfect amount of contrast without looking gimmicky or theatrical. I keep a 24 mm on one body and I switch back and forth between the APO 50 and Noctilux 50 on the other body. What I like about my oldest silver 35 mm is how quickly it focuses and it’s built like a tank. I was stunned by how sharp the 50 APO was from the very first portrait I took with it. Every eyelash was sharp even at f/2.
Q: This image showing a female figure holding a red origami construction in her hands, and the woman herself, in a plain cream-colored dress, is gorgeously out of focus. Evidently this was shot with a Leica S2, but what lens and aperture did you use to achieve this beautiful bokeh, and what feeling or concept were you trying to capture in creating this compelling image?
A: Yes, this is a great representation of why I like the S2. We used the 120 macro lens wide open only focusing on the origami tips. The woman’s dress then became a beautiful backdrop to the subject and no longer a dress.
Q: Your brilliant black-and-white self-portrait with Leica M captures the casual simplicity and intensity of the creative photographer on the prowl, and the out-of-focus urban background and ornate frame around the window or mirror are a compositionally perfect way to focus the attention on the subject and put him in context. Do you think this image captures who you are, and what do you think it says about you and your creative process?
A: I have an entire library of what I call mirror self-portraits, only in B&W. I only shoot these when I stumble upon the right situation. I’m fascinated with the process of aging. I intend to keep shooting these my entire life and hope to create a book. The best one ever done was Irving Penn’s self-portrait shot into a shattered piece of mirror.
Q: The image of two guys standing in a lush field, with a gorgeous cloud-filled blue sky in the background, next to a pink motorbike that has a burlap sack perched on the saddle, seems to capture a way of life in a rural agrarian society. Can you tell us where it was taken, what the assignment was, and what this picture means to you? Also the lighting is perfect – what time of day was this taken and did you arrange the lighting or composition in any way or just shoot it as you saw it?
A: This was a great assignment I was commissioned to shoot for National Geographic. It was a story based on the pros and cons of altering the genetics of rice, corn, and wheat. This particular image was shot in the Philippines at the International Rice Research Institute. Back in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s the rice farmers would buy Honda scooters to represent their cultural status in the community. The rice farmers built a bridge to get the bike out, which was no easy task in 100-degree heat. I then waited until a late sun sky to capture this shot. The S2 was used with a 70 mm lens.
Q: How do you see your photography evolving over, say, the next three years or so?
A: My work is evolving with an equal balance on film and still imagery. I find the most exciting assignments, whether self-assigned or commissioned, to be the ones where I have motion work and still work combined together into one idea. I have recently finished a yearlong project where I combined film and 8×10 photography called “Peg & Sphere.”
I have no intention to ever stop shooting still imagery, but I see the future in being able to conceptualize in both film and still imagery together. Today you have to be able to conceptualize ideas in both formats simultaneously. That is the future.
Thank you for your time, Craig!
– Leica Internet Team
Connect with Craig on his website, blog, Facebook and Instagram.