This interview is part of a series in which Olaf Willoughby talks with Leica Meet members about their photographic projects, their stories, goals and learnings along the way.
Some of the most rewarding aspects of The Leica Meet are the new friendships and the remarkable talent we encounter. One such person is Laurent Scheinfeld, a Paris-based photographer with a unique perspective on that iconic travel destination, the Eiffel Tower. Here he describes his fascinating project.
Q: To start, can you give me an overview of your project, its title and its main theme?
A: “I Want to See the Tower” is the title of my essay. It’s all about the interaction between visitors and the Eiffel Tower here in Paris, France. It is one of the most visited monuments in the world. Trocadero Esplanade, which undoubtedly is the best view point for admiring the Tower, counts several million tourists from all over the world every year. Surprisingly, the dream becomes reality and the place then offers a strange ballet of people shooting themselves in front of the Eiffel Tower, playing with its image as if it was a goal in life to get their own picture in a posed or grotesque attitude in front of the Tower. I love my native town Paris and I love the Eiffel Tower. Through a social and psychological analysis of the viewers, I try to catch the decisive moment when the people and the Tower are in harmony; the Tower’s ubiquity disappears and leaves the viewers in a state of grace. Is there anyone on Earth who didn’t one day say, “I want to see the Tower”? There are millions of pictures of the Eiffel Tower, millions of pictures of tourists in front of the Eiffel Tower, yet very few creative treatments of the relationship between the two … and that is what I want to seize in my photographs. The tower itself is never seen in full. I concentrate on that relationship.
Q: And how does that theme develop as a story throughout the project?
A: It’s the story of typical characters passing in front of the Tower. They may be young or elderly, male or female, tourists or workers. They come from all over the world. I have selected a representative sample of what can be seen in the Trocadero Esplanade, one of the most spectacular places from which to admire the Tower. All the pictures in my series were shot here. I use the Trocadero Esplanade as an open photo studio where my natural flash is the sun! People enter into my invisible studio by three main entrances and I wait for something unusual or interesting to happen. Staying in the same place gives consistency to the series. I benefit from the same proportion between the people and the Tower. You will never see the Tower in full because, for me, the people are more important. My characters are my main subject and the Tower is there because it’s a magnet for millions of people. The Tower serves as a flag, a reminder. That’s why the proportion of the Tower to the people seems inverted; big characters, little pieces of the Tower!
Q: Is the project purely for yourself or do you have a commercial or cause-related end in mind?
A: I’ve been fortunate to have one of my early series projects, “Fantastic Tower” exhibited last December at Habitat Vintage’s showroom for two months. I’ve also had another exhibition called “Tout est possible” for three months. Currently, I’m considering creating a book to see if the project gets any commercial interest from a publisher, but for the moment, I’m submitting the series for contests and to magazines. Let’s see what happens.
Q: What photographic choices have you made; colour palette, composition, use of flash, etc.
A: KISS is my keyword. “Keep it simple stupid” is what I aim for in my images. Very few elements, focus on the characters, easy reading for my viewers. As I am a 100% B&W photographer, contrast is very significant for me whether color contrast, form contrast, or texture contrast. I prefer a vertical composition as this enhances the presentation of the people in front of Tower, even if the Tower itself is not the focal point in the essay. Finally, I position myself in a very narrow space so I can get some kind of equilibrium which binds the series together.
Q: What is your vision for the project and how will you judge if you’ve been successful?
A: Trying to bring fresh air into a place over saturated with photographs is a challenge. I like challenges! I am constantly impressed by the strange ballet of people photographing themselves in front of the Eiffel Tower. They play with its image as if it was a goal in life to get their picture in a posed or grotesque attitude in front of the Tower. I try to adopt a social and psychological approach to the subjects, catching the decisive moment when the people and the Tower are in harmony.
Q: Did any particular person or body of work influence or inspire you?
A: Show me a photographer who denies being influenced by others. We all bring our own point of view from the artworks of the masters. Even if I have a lot of homework to do in the next few years, I’ve learned the sharpness of B&W compositions and the 50 mm lens preference from Henri Cartier-Bresson. I learned the richness of viewpoints from Sergio Larrain. Plus the photographic attitude of several Magnum photographers. I learned to stand very close to my characters from Bruce Gilden. At the end of the day, I am putting it all together in my own modest special sauce.
Q: Not all projects are smooth sailing. Have you had any setbacks and what were your learnings?
A: Shooting in front of the Eiffel Tower is not difficult. Everybody does it every day! Shooting at a 2m distance from the people is less obvious. Parents for instance can be worried if they notice their children are in the frame, someone can be angry to be photographed … but that’s the life of street photographers! There’s nothing new about it. In fact, the major setback is when you stick to your spot and nothing happens, nothing interesting to shoot and you return home with an empty box.
Q: Are there any technical or workflow challenges you’d like to mention?
A: Bruce Gilden says he loves feeling the energy of people in the street and he does not hesitate to shoot with a flash despite being very, very near to his characters. I don’t have his talent nor his ability to shoot that way, so I had to find my own way to let the people enter in my frame. Even if hyperfocal setting is not that easy with a Leica, I try everything, even shooting at knee-level without looking through the viewfinder. On the one hand I get nice perspective, unusual POV, and a great feeling of energy. On the other hand, post-processing is mandatory and I do delete a lot of clichés. At the end of the day, I’ve decided to continue with it and some of my Leica Meet friends now call it “The Scheinfeld Method”, which makes me laugh a lot!
Q: What Leica equipment do you use and how is it particularly suited to the needs of this project?
A: My wife offered me a Leica Monochrom for my 50th birthday, with a 50 mm Summilux lens. It has been the gift of my life and that camera has been the key factor in my photographic progress. I am sure that different cameras might also suit this project. I even tried another camera with some good results. But for my part, I feel more comfortable staying with my faithful Leica companion because I have full control of both settings and triggers. Moreover, I love the monochrome results which I consider very close film.
Thank you for your time, Laurent!
– Leica Internet Team
Laurent spent 25 years as an entrepreneur and investor. He began serious photography on a daily basis in 2013, attending several Magnum Photos workshops and doing a lot of homework, reading books and trying various techniques. He is also very proud to have a long-term project about one of the last big circus families, the Gruss Circus. He is naturally addicted to Facebook and appreciates the dynamism and professionalism of The Leica Meet founders. You can see more of Laurent’s work on Flickr.
Olaf Willoughby is a photographer, writer and researcher. He is co-founder of The Leica Meet, a Facebook page and website growing at warp speed to almost 8,000 members. If you have an intriguing project or body of work that we might feature, completed or in progress, contact Olaf at: firstname.lastname@example.org or www.olafwilloughby.com.