Cira Crowell is a third generation Leica photographer whose work spans conceptual fine art, adventure landscape, cultural studies, portraits and humanitarian documentary themes. Cira travels the world capturing evocative incidents of life and light to share in books, shows, talks and online and has trekked over 700 miles in the Himalayas from 8,000 to 18,000 feet (1100 km from 2,500-5,500m). A recurrent theme throughout her work as a conceptual artist and photographer is light and the myriad ways, in which luminosity reveals the interconnection of light and life itself, from the physical to the philosophical. The following series of photographs were captured during Cira’s latest adventure in the mountainous regions of Nepal. She road-tested the new APO-Summicron-SL 75 f/2 ASPH. and was inspired by the results. We caught up with Cira to find out her inspirations and motivations, as well as her take on black and white photography and shooting with the new 75mm addition to the Leica SL professional lens portfolio.
You describe yourself as a third generation Leica photographer. Can you expand on this a little by telling us how you first got into photography?
It was a rite of passage to use my grandfather’s Leicaflex SL2, which became my first film camera twenty-five years ago. When Leica reinvented the 35mm single lens reflex SL2 as the mirrorless, full-frame SL it was like falling in love with photography all over again. Many of my older lenses belonged to my father and grandfather, who purchased his first IIISeries in 1939. The lenses I currently use on my SL Typ 601 are thread mount, R, M, SL and S. Leica’s integration of landmark heritage gear with completely new technological advancements supports passion that evolves over generations.
Who or what would you say has influenced and inspired your photographic style?
I have an academic background in the arts. It’s critical to understand the progression of photography, identify and study inspirations even if they seem to be opposites, for example, Dorothea Lange and Hiroshi Sugimoto. There is a tendency to overly define and limit “style”, so instead I focus on a very simple central question that has literal, metaphoric and personal meaning, as well as unlimited possibilities in any situation.
Where does your passion for black and white photography come from?
Black and white photography is a unifier, poetically evoking a sense of unity across cultures and time. If color is prose, monochrome is haiku, communicating the bare essentials with a twist of mystery and possibility. I dream in black and white and study surroundings in terms of luminance, so black and white is an intrinsically personal form of sharing my view of our world.
Light is a recurrent theme within your work. Can you describe the many ways, in which you work with light?
Light is the main character in my work. I am fascinated by the interconnection of life and light from the physical to the philosophical. I try to express luminosity of spirit as clearly as luminance, working contre-jour (against daylight), as well as in low light at night. Light does not just fall on objects; it radiates and shifts, filling space in unique ways. Leica cameras with their dynamic range, contrast, depth, detail and creative flexibility capture the changing character of light.
For this series shot with the new APO-Summicron-SL 75 f/2 ASPH. you traveled to Nepal. How did this trip come about and where did your journey take you?
I’ve walked over 700mi/1100km in several high-altitude, Nepalese-Himalayan districts in four trips over five years. During that time, friends have become family, mountains and villages have become familiar, caring has led to commitments. From August to October I had the opportunity to test the new SL-Summicron 75 in Kathmandu, the remote western region of Dolpo and the Everest region of Solu-Khumbu.
What were you hoping to capture with the images you shot there?
I’m always studying how light animates life, so I was hoping to capture a sense of the spirit of Nepal – from the chaos of Kathmandu to the vastness of the highest mountains on earth, practicalities of life to spiritual expression, ancient traditions as well as modern transitions.
This series of images includes landscapes, close-ups and a portrait. The outstanding image quality in all instances suggests that the APO-Summicron-SL 75 f/2 ASPH. is an all-round lens for almost any situation. How was your experience shooting with it?
The tough, poetic yet precise SL-Summicron 75 was developed and produced with a new level of technical precision and is a game-changer for the SL system. It is a joy in hand with a well-balanced, compact profile. The 75 is fast and silent, even with Electronic Shutter Always On (the SL equivalent of Silent Mode). Out of the box it was clear the 75 would be a classic, lifetime lens.
You were trekking in the mountains and carrying your equipment with you at all times. How did the Leica SL and the new APO-Summicron-SL 75 f/2 ASPH. react to the rough and dusty conditions?
Harsh, varied conditions ranged from heat and humidity, to thick dust and smog in Kathmandu, wind exposure on the Tibetan plateau in Dolpo, days of soaking rain in lower hill regions, four passes around 17,000ft/5,000m, -0F/-20C temperatures hiking around Everest Base Camp and several aerial opportunities in helicopters. With only the protection of my backpack the 75 was outstanding in any condition. The build, interior and exterior coatings and assembly were so superior that the lens was still in perfect shape when returned to Leica.
Thanks to two ultra-lightweight, internal focusing lenses and the unrivalled craftsmanship Leica guarantees, the autofocus of the APO-Summicron-SL 75 f/2 ASPH. provides a new level of precision and speed. How did you find working with the auto, as well as the manual, focus?
Photographing with the Summicron 75 is noticeably different. The palm length lens barrel is far smaller than previous SL lenses. The manual ring has the diameter and familiar feel of a seasoned R prime, smooth and responsive. The Dual Syncro Drive twin stepping motors provide snappy autofocus performance. Photographing and trekking in Nepal is a demanding experience and the Summicron 75 made everything from portraits to aerial work a joy.
If you had to choose one of these images as your favorite, which would it be and why?
Two images come to mind that illustrate the diversity of Nepal and the versatility of the Summicron 75 – the luminous portrait of the Hindu Sadhu at Kathmandu’s Pashupatinath Temple and the sunset image of Mt. Everest (traditionally, Chomolungma). There is tremendous resolution whether the subject is 7ft/2.1m or 7mi/11.2km away, details in the holy man’s twisted dreadlocks and white ash compare with the last light illuminating the rock strata and sunlit snow of Everest’s summit pyramid. These photographs were each made under challenging circumstances, one near burning funeral pyres in the heat of Kathmandu and the other at 18,000ft/6,000m, in winds and sub-zero temperatures atop Kala Patthar. Both images reflect a modern Leica look that is the signature of the new generation of SL Prime lens.
What one piece of advice would you offer to your fellow photographers?
What is your guiding question? Match your gear to respond to that question and don’t just work with your gear, live with it. When your gear becomes a natural extension of you, your photos will reflect your passion and perspective. There will be an immediacy in your images that consistently answers your central question. If a photograph is worth a thousand words what do yours convey?
You also collaborate with a number of humanitarian projects. How did this work come about and in what way have you contributed to these worthy causes?
Photography can have a very narrow feedback loop. Working with a humanitarian cause, even for a short time, expands perspective, knowledge, relationships, and widens global understanding. I’ve spent years as a conceptual gallery-oriented photographer, travel-adventure photographer and working in humanitarian health camps. Though the work seems completely different, my core question remains the same in any situation. The resulting images have been used internationally to raise awareness and funds at talks and shows, through print/book sales and online. Fundraising has supported re-roofing a village following the 2015 Gorkha earthquake and remote health care for thousands of Nepali villagers.
What are you working on at the moment and what do you have planned for the near future?
Each month on Instagram I highlight a different project or cause. To celebrate the release of the APO-Summicron-SL 75 f/2 ASPH. this month I’ll be sharing 75/75: seventy-five images made in Nepal with the new lens. My next major projects include a black and white book on Nepal, continuing to creatively support humanitarian causes and hopefully completing the personal goal of walking one thousand miles in the Himalayas.
You can connect with Cira and see more of wonderful art and photography on her website, as well as her Instagram. Those, who share Cira’s love for all things Leica will also enjoy her “Leica Crush” Instagram page.