Where does one draw the line between imagination and reality? Is it a subjective call to decide whether or not something is real or not if one has imagined it first? These questions are being explored by long time Leica photographer Olaf Willoughby. When he is not conducting insightful interviews with some of the world’s best photographers, he dives into the body of work that ranges from street photography to fine and abstract art. A truly versatile photographer, Olaf shares his perspective on Imaginary Landscapes, an exhibition to open at The Leica Store, SoHo, 460 W Broadway, New York on July 27th, 6.00 – 8.00 pm.

Please share with us the creative approach you had for producing the “Imaginary Landscapes” project; surely, a certain degree of technical creativity was also present during the process, correct? Also, what were your goals?

This body of work is rooted in the idea Landscape has a place deep in our sub conscious. Whether that is a primal memory from roaming the savannah or a remnant of early religions which infused trees, water and mountains with the spirits of Gods and ghosts. We’ve all stood in awe at the wonder of nature at some point.

Here my goal is to recapture that ancient sense of magic. These images combine the basic elements of the landscape; stones, trees, water, flora, clouds to show the interconnectedness and beauty of the natural world.

What equipment did you use to produce this?

These images were taken with a range of Leica cameras; M6, M9, M240 and lately the Leica SL which I think is a marvellous piece of kit. Processing is done with Apple Macs and Adobe Lightroom CC and Photoshop CC.

The pictures show morphed perceptions of natural landscapes including forests, flowers, stones and water; how was the process of overlaying the images? Was there a system you established to go about this in an organized way?

I previsualise the idea of images as ‘actors on a stage’. So each shot was taken with a view to the negative spaces in the image, anticipating that they would be composited with further images. The first step is to make basic corrections; exposure, white balance, cropping…etc in Lightroom. The images are then ‘round tripped’ into Photoshop where I use a mix of blend modes and layer masks. Individually the steps are very simple. They would be in the early chapters of any book on retouching. But this approach does need patience, slowly building up to the desired effect, often experimenting with two or three different images.

© Olaf Willoughby

Some of the images like the one above suggest a type of surrealism, where you may visualize cracks in a stoned road but in reality it’s a superimposed image of a tree and rocks, what are you trying to convey here?

Intrigue. Wonder. Imagine what it must have been like when we thought that the forest contained spirits! I quite like the idea of surprise too. In this image the trees will get immediate recognition but the rocks will hopefully prompt closer examination of the whole image. Maybe this is wishful thinking but some of the images in this series might belong in a contemporary fantasy. Rocks might crash through the forest in Indiana Jones or come to life in Harry Potter.

© Olaf WilloughbySymmetry is an omnipresent factor in nature and in terms of composition, your images are truly well balanced, both in color and in shape, including ranges of symmetry across most of the images, like this one on the left; is this accurate and how does it play to the overarching objective of the project?

I’m glad you picked up on symmetry. I love the whole concept of pattern detection and it is something I look for because it is repeated constantly in nature. Think of the similarities between the way veins transport water and carbs in a leaf and the flow of blood in the human body and how that in turn is mirrored in a landscape seen from the air. In this image I deliberately chose a man made shape in the cut wood to contrast with the organic softer meadow of flowers. Again I’m imagining the element of surprise.

The two images above look like impressionist paintings from the early 20th century, with blurred figures and wide range of colors; is this something you wanted to show?

Photography started out being considered the gold standard for reality. Here I’m using blur to (exactly as you’ve noted) create the impression of wind. Firstly in ruffling the surface of the water and secondly to give the viewer the ‘feeling’ of being immersed in the saturated color of a beautiful New England forest in the Fall.

© Olaf WilloughbyThis one is very curious, it seems as it were the back of a female body, rising from the surface of a pond and has the reflection of a tree – talk about imagination! Can you explain this picture and how it was achieved?

Thank you! I’d love to tell everyone that I had a master plan. But the truth is I’m a great believer in creative play and accidentally stumbling into solutions. I shot the mossy boulder in a dark stream in Vermont and couldn’t work out how to treat it. Combining it with Fall leaves from Aspen brought it to life and the jigsaw puzzle fell into place with the tree reflection. I added a soft glow to the leaves to give it the feeling of a fairy tale.

In light of your upcoming exhibition at the Leica Store in New York on July 27th, how did this show come together and what are your expectations? How was the curation process for the show?

The curation process was rigorous! Rene Perez from the Leica Store, SoHo, amongst his many other responsibilities manages their exhibitions. His challenge is to present a rolling series of shows, which blend varied genres with the right level of quality and engages his Client base. I submitted three folios to Rene, one of which was too similar to another exhibition due to run around the same time. Luckily ‘Imaginary Landscapes’ is very different to anything else the store has planned in 2016. I then submitted 34 images in the series of which he selected 18 to run in the exhibition, two of which are really large prints in the store entrance. Needless to say I’m thrilled and looking forward to it.

Finally, is there anything else you’d like to mention in regards to the exhibition or other projects you might have in the pipeline?

My co-teacher on Lightdance workshops is Eileen McCarney Muldoon. She and I are running a one day workshop at the Leica Store on July 26th, the day prior to the exhibition. It is called, ‘Western Masters, Eastern Insights’. Students will tap into the Japanese practice of Shu Ha Ri which embodies the principle of study, assimilate, innovate. In it we examine the works of some of the masters of photography to inspire exploration of new visual styles. This is a unique and very exciting concept which we plan to expand and co-teach at other venues in 2017.

Thanks Olaf!

About Olaf Willoughby:

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 10,000 members. Olaf co-teaches workshops with Eileen McCarney Muldoon at Maine Media College, Leica New York and London plus Brooklyn.

If you have an intriguing project or body of work that we might feature, completed or in progress, contact Olaf at: olaffwilloughby@gmail.com or www.olafwilloughby.com.