Photography could be described as both a product of, and having a defining influence on, the aesthetics of the day. Looking back to the advent of color photography, and in particular the American photographers of the early 1970s, one can see their influence in defining a distinct image of America. Photographers such as William Eggleston and Stephen Shore were reflecting the contemporary aesthetic seen in cinema, magazines, television and even the postcards of the day. Their choice of subjects saw supermarkets, diners, dusty roads and pastel colored cars elevated to long-lasting cultural signifiers.
Fast-forward to today and we are witnessing a similar aesthetic phenomenon. The modern-day look of Hollywood films and runaway TV series such as Stranger Things have nurtured a global appreciation for low light scenes. Dark and moody atmospheres are punctuated by sporadic neon lights and enveloped in a foreboding fog. This is also a “look” anchored in the past. The retro feel of the images is enforced by a choice of subjects similar to those American photographers of the 70s. Vintage cars, diners, derelict streets and motel parking lots are all making a comeback. Interestingly tapping into a sense of longing for a past, which the current generation never experienced first hand.
French photographer Arthur Janin recently travelled to LA on his own aesthetic adventure. His desire to capture the ultimate low light shot saw him seeking out the lonesome scenes of a bygone America. With the window down and his Leica SL on the seat beside him his journey began “in search of the light, the light that transforms the banal into magic.”
How did you first get in to photography?
I have always been interested in photography. I shot with my parents’ analogue camera when I was a child but I really started photography in 2007 at the age of 20 when I bought a DSLR. Back then I showed my photos to a professional photographer called Marie-France Jeannin, known for her portraits in France. She told me that I had the “eye” of a photographer. My images were well composed, well balanced and relevant. So I continued to learn by myself, that is to say, I am self-taught.
You say that you are inspired by American cinema. Can you tell us more about this?
I love beautiful cinema images. I also love desaturated color, blue tones and cold white balance just like you’ll see in big American movies. Some movies that have inspired me in this regard are The Revenant, Gran Torino, Django, The Hateful Eight and series like Breaking Bad, Fear The Walking Dead and Strangers Things.
Who are the photographers that have inspired you? And why?
A lot of photographers have inspired me but my favorites are Stephen Vanasco and Florian Weiler for their amazing portraits. Josh Sinn, Michael McCluskey and Patrick Joust are also favorites of mine, mainly because I love the way they capture light at night. I love the locations they shoot and they often include old US cars in the night fog.
When did you first pick up a Leica? And how has your relationship to the brand evolved over the years?
I bought my first Leica camera in January 2012, it was a silver Leica M9 with an Elmarit 28mm f2.8 ASPH and an APO-Summicron 75mm f2 ASPH. In November 2012 I bought a black M7 because I’ve never been able to stop shooting analogue photography!
A couple of years later I bought a silver Leica M240 with the famous Summilux-M 35mm f1.4 ASPH FLE. From that moment on everything picked up speed. In September 2015 a new star was born with the Leica Q and that soon entered my life. The same year a second star, the LEICA SL, appeared in my camera bag. Finally in April 2017 I was lucky enough to have one of the first Summilux-SL 50mm F1.4 in France. I think it’s fair to say that I’m truly in love with Leica!
This low light series presents a strong and coherent aesthetic. How did you come up with the concept and what were you aiming for with the look of these images?
I love California, especially Los Angeles because of the light at night. The poorly lit streets create an uncomfortable, disturbing, almost scary atmosphere. That’s exactly what I’m looking for.
I drove a lot every night to find the right street with the right car in the right place under the right light. Therefore I felt a bit like a hunter, chasing cars and light without knowing where I was really going.
The cold feel of the images is almost tangible. How did you go about creating this?
As I said, I love cold tones and desaturated colors, the likes of which you find in the movies. To create a similar effect in photography, sometimes you just need to cool the white balance a bit and bring down the saturation. It’s a way I like to create my own style.
What importance do the vintage cars have in the composition of these images? And what other things were you looking out for to complete the composition of your shots?
I’m in love with US vintage cars. Most of the time I get down on my knees to shoot at the right height and out of a kind of respect for them. I think they bring something to the story of a photo, in a similar way to including a person in the shot.
I’m also always looking out for illuminated signs like the ones you find at diners or hotels because the neon lights bring a lot of colors into the picture! The best component though is without doubt fog at night. Especially when it’s punctuated with just a few light sources, such as from the windows of a house. My next series will work very closely with this kind of subject, and I will title it Light Hunter.
Which parts of the city did you shoot in to capture this vintage LA feel?
I shot in East Los Angeles, Sun Valley, Alhambra and many other places because, as I said, I was always driving around without knowing where I was really going. I had the windows open and drove at a very low speed in order not to miss anything!
One of the challenges of shooting with limited available light can be the bright white direct light of certain light sources. How did you go about dealing with this challenge?
The direct light never really bothered me. This is maybe because I shot mostly at F1.4 and the street lights were often quite small. The camera and lenses took care of the rest, so it really wasn’t such a big issue for me.
How did you work with exposure times and ISO settings to create these low light shots?
I mostly shot with aperture priority at F1.4 with the Summilux-M 35mm on SL at ISO 100 when I was able to use a tripod, which was most of the time. The motel shot was taken with a Super-Elmar 18mm at F11 and 1s, whereas the Leica Q photos were shot at ISO 1600 F1.7 between 1/30s and 1/50s without a tripod.
You shot primarily with the Leica SL but also the Leica Q. Apart from the lenses, what are the main differences in your approach to the two different cameras?
The Leica Q is the one you always have with you, light, small, very easy to use and a great in all kinds of different situations. Whereas the Leica SL is heavier and bigger but built with the best electronic viewfinder in the world. It’s always a great pleasure to look into that viewfinder and see exactly what your photo will look like! The colors and tones are different on these two cameras. I find the Leica Q is less vivid in terms of color and a little bit warmer. To sum it up, I think that the Leica SL is a more “professional” camera, whereas the Leica Q can really be used by everybody.
What other projects are you working on at the moment?
I really love the atmosphere when fog falls over houses at night with just a few light sources, so I will try to find beautiful locations by night to create my next series called Light Hunter.
If you could offer one piece of advice for your fellow photographers, what would it be?
Shoot what you love, what you find beautiful. Also try to find your own style with tones and colors, and don’t forget that the composition of your picture should be a very personal thing.