In 2011-2012, Sarah M Lee shot most of the commercial portraits to accompany Coldplay’s MX album and tour. Her work has appeared in many publications, including the covers of TIME magazine, Billboard, Rolling Stone, The Sunday Times, Intelligent Life and Vanity Fair. Sarah is also an official BAFTA Photographer. In November 2016 she was made a fellow of the British American Project. As part of her ongoing project “Tender are the Nighthawks”, Sarah took to the streets of Camden, London in the early hours of the morning, armed with the new Leica CL. Her voyeuristic portraits of complete strangers capture the weary, almost melancholy feeling, which unifies all those making their way home on the bus. We caught up with Sarah to talk about her work and her experience of shooting with the new Leica CL.
How did you first get into photography?
I came to photography relatively late, in that I was given a camera for my 18th birthday, a Pentax K1000 with a 16-50mm lens. Fortunately, someone I can’t remember, yet to whom I’m forever grateful, let me in on the secret that if I started working for the student newspaper I’d have an unlimited supply of film and access to a dark room with printing materials. What I couldn’t have known was that the student paper in question was being picture-edited by Abbie Trayler-Smith (if you don’t know her work – look her up she’s extraordinary) and other photographers on its roster included Ed Alcock, Dom Tyler and Christophe Tweedie, so it was an unbelievable hot house. Not just a place to learn, not just to print (which I did) but also to grow and develop as a photographer. Unquestionably I “graduated” from this experience into the career I now have. It was at the Guardian Student Media Awards, where I met the Guardian’s then picture editor Eamon McCabe, who offered me a job on the strength of a portrait I’d taken of the novelist Iris Murdoch.
Following the tradition of photographers such as Nick Turpin and Tom Woods, this series captures candid moments on the night buses of London. What was it that influenced your choice of subject and setting?
Well Tom Wood’s “Bus Odyssey” was one of the very first photography books I ever bought, long before I imagined becoming a professional photographer. So yes, he’s definitely an influence and that may well have influenced my fascination with the public transport system. I also love Nick Turpin’s work, Bob Mazzar’s work on the London Underground, Misha Pedan’s incredible work on Russian public transport in the 1980s, and Michael Wolf’s wonderful pictures from the Tokyo subway system. But I don’t feel I’m working in specific tribute. The public transport system is always going to attract humanist documentary photographers because it’s full of people – people from all walks of life. I love photographing people most of all. I’m endlessly interested in people and their lives.
What were you hoping to communicate with these images?
“Tender are the Nighthawks” is shot only in the dead of night, between the hours of 2 and 4 am. I’m interested in the quiet, tired, occasionally melancholy portraits of a city that is done for the night. Like many photographers before me, I’m drawn to the public transport system. For me it is because of how democratic it is. In London it is used by all, but in these hours everyone is united, regardless of race, socio-economic background, class, etc. by one simple common denominator: the desire to get home and into bed. As a photographer I’m always attracted to the things that connect us and remind us of our shared humanity, rather than those which divide us. From a photographic and visual perspective too, I’m endlessly fascinated by the dramatic quality of lit bus windows and illuminated bus stops on dark streets. Ideally what I’m trying to do is capture the almost cinematic quality of these fleeting moments of human intersection in city life.
You shot with the new Leica CL, which combines iconic and innovative design with unparalleled craftsmanship, how would you describe the experience of shooting with Leica’s latest APS-C camera?
I was slightly nervous using the CL because I’m already very immersed in this project and all the images thus far have been shot on the M10, but I needn’t have worried about using a new, smaller, camera. It was everything that I could have hoped for and more; excellent in low light, beautifully solid and robust in its construction. It never felt like a compromise, which is a huge compliment given it was working alongside the mighty M10.
The reduced weight of the CL allows the photographer complete mobility. How did the camera feel in your hands?
Well as a photographer, who never leaves home without my Leica slung across my shoulders it was lovely for a change to have something lighter than an M rangefinder. But what I really loved was that, for a camera that fits discreetly in the hand, it has the feel of a professional camera in the quality of its engineering. For these images, I used it with the lens adapter and my 50mm Summilux, but I’ve also very much been enjoying the 18mm “pancake” lens that has just been released. With that lens the camera is even lighter and more discreet and I’ve found that combination makes for a great companion to my M10 when I’m on certain shoots. I recently had to photograph a child of seven years old, who had been traumatized by losing a close friend and classmate in the Grenfell Tower fire disaster. He was noticeably agitated and not that comfortable when I raised my rangefinder to my eye. He knew he was going to be photographed but I could tell he was uneasy, so instead I used the incredibly discrete CL and it made my young subject far more comfortable.
Shooting in low light, did you use the EVF via the display to give you a clearer idea of your final shot?
For this night project I always like to frame from the eyepiece as I would with the M, but for trying to nail focusing at 1.4 in very, very, low light I definitely found the rear screen and the zoom focusing helpful. You have to be very discrete working the way I do on this project and I don’t want to spend ages noticeably pointing the camera at the subject while I try and get the focus spot on. A technique I often use is to see a subject that interests me and use the screen on the CL to focus very close to them on something at the same focal distance as the frame I actually want. I don’t appear to be interested in the person I’m actually after. I then raise the camera to my eye and only have to make a tiny focusing adjustment for a moment when it’s time to take the actual shot.
The amount of artificial light could have posed a real challenge, yet your images suggest you mastered the conditions. How did you go about overcoming this challenge?
Well low light is a big challenge for any camera. The CL is superb at high ISO, but a real test is how a sensor reacts to the challenge of low light and grotty fluorescence, or very yellow streetlights. Again, the CL coped brilliantly without losing the subtle tones that I was after.
Did you shoot with the auto settings or the top cover manual controls? And what do you consider the advantages of both options?
I always shoot manually. I feel more in control of the final image that way. I like to know that I can change the aperture or the shutter quickly, depending on what I’ve decided I want for each frame. Usually I can work out the exposures I want in my head or from the light meter in the camera.
Shooting through glass can often present a real challenge to photographers. How did you manage to overcome this?
I rather like shooting through glass. I like the way it refracts the light. A number of the “not-on-bus” images in this series are taken through the glass of the bus shelter, but you always have to be very aware of the possibility of reflection. I didn’t want any inadvertent self-portraits in this work or distracting glares.
Your series represents moments of fleeting intimacy. How much interaction did you have with your subjects and what was it like looking into the everyday lives of others?
For the most part there was no interaction other than my being an observer. But a few subjects noticed me (usually after the fact) and I chatted to them about what I was up to. Explaining close portraiture without permission at 3 am requires a certain amount of persuasive tact! I also felt a responsibility to explain myself to any lone women I photographed. I think the images are best when the subject is unaware they are being watched.
Did you consciously aim to create the melancholy feel of a lot of these images, or was it simply a combination of setting and subject matter?
I very deliberately only worked between 2 and 4 am because I wanted to capture the feel of the city when the night is almost over. People are pretty much all going home or to their final destination for the night. People are tired. There is, I think, a melancholy that is inherent at this time of day and in the way people allow themselves to give in to their tiredness and let down their guard. I’m glad you noticed this about the pictures because it’s very much something I’m interested in and wanted to capture.
When did you first shoot with a Leica and how does the CL relate to the other Leica cameras you’ve used?
I’ve been using rangefinder M cameras almost exclusively since 2013 and I carry a Leica Q in my work bag too. I also use an M6 sometimes for personal work. The rangefinder is my absolute love, I even use it for studio photography. But it isn’t a perfect fit for everything, which is why I also have a Q, the CL fits brilliantly alongside this combination. It has the speed, stealth and versatility of the Q but by using an adaptor I am also able to use my beloved M lenses.
What advice would you offer to anyone looking to take their photography to the next level?
Whatever level of photography you are aiming for, I’d always try to be aware of the necessity of emotional engagement between the viewer and the photograph. Technical ability, composition, use of color, tone, light etc. all work in service to this important factor. From someone wanting to improve at the most amateur level to someone hoping to climb a rung higher up the professional ladder, I’d also suggest a sense of humility and continual willingness to engage with all photography are important. I am desperate to improve all the time, and constantly try and absorb as much as I can from other photographers and images I admire – not to impersonate them, but to try and use them as prompts for my own creativity. If you are looking to make photography a profession you have to want it more than anything else. This is a tough professional environment but if you do make photography work as a profession, I find it hard to think of a more rewarding or satisfying career.
You have been exhibiting regularly over the last couple of years, as well as contributing to a number of international publications. What do you have coming up in the near future?
I have an exhibition of my work “Behind the Curtain” with BAFTA opening at the Leica LA gallery on 24th February and I’m exhibiting alongside Ram Shergill, which is hugely exciting.
I’m also about to start the crowd-funding for my first book with publisher “Unbound”. It’s called “West of West” and is a continuation of the work I’ve been doing in California on the end of Route 66 that featured on the cover of LFI magazine last year.