Stephen Vanasco is a N.Y.-born, L.A.-raised photographer heavily influenced by the 90s skate scene. The imagery of early skate magazines and the energy Stephen saw in the photos he was exposed to helped unlock the creative potential of photography for him. Never one to sit and wait for people to give him an opportunity, he took a chance and followed his passion for photography. Now he professionally travels the world shooting a mix of fashion, music, skateboarding and street photography, as well as for his brand V/SUAL. This monochromatic series shot exclusively in Los Angeles, represents Stephen’s personal view of what he describes as a melting pot of architecture. We spoke with him about his take on black and white photography, his appreciation for minimal design and why everyone should see L.A. from a helicopter.
When did you start shooting with Leica?
I bought my first Leica, which was a used M6 with a 35mm Summicron in 2012. Over my years making photos with Leica cameras I have come to appreciate different variables. For example, the sheer quality of the cameras and lenses, as well as the simplistic design of these systems and menus, making it as easy as possible for a photographer to pick up a camera and create (especially in this digital age). I think what’s more important is the idea that Leica makes cameras that no other company would dare to; the black and white only digital Leica M Monochrom Typ 246 or the screenless M10-D, as well as still making film cameras such as the M-A. To me this is an attitude of making unique tools for creatives. Understanding their core audience vs. trying to make a general product that they hope everyone will buy.
This monochrome series focusing on the architecture of Los Angeles, tells the story of a city through its contrasting physical elements. Polished glass and metal, colossal stone slabs, meshed wire fences, monolithic skyscrapers and spaghetti-like roads and train tracks. How does this image of the city relate to your personal experiences living in L.A.?
L.A. is a vast landscape of a city. Drive a few miles through it and you get exposed to a different environment. Especially with the booming redevelopment of some spots. You see a transition from these amazing classic and timeless buildings say in the downtown area with new modern buildings being built up right next to them. It is a melting pot of architecture.
The aerial shots and cityscape panoramas present an imposing sense of scale and at the same time place the city in its geographical setting, framed by mountains. How did you go about shooting these images?
Los Angeles is one of those places that I would suggest everyone see from a helicopter at some point in their life. Especially the locals. Having started doing aerial photography 5 years ago I was hooked. Since then I try to go up as often as I can when I am home in L.A. I prefer to do doors-off helicopter flights. The views never get old and the rush doesn’t either. I prefer to use the Leica S system because I’m able to see the vast differences in the city. I love being able to capture as much detail as I can with that system. That’s also one reason why I don’t own a drone and I am personally not into them. I want my photos to by made in the highest quality possible and I know the S system will give me that from the air.
In contrast to these wide shots, your series also includes abstract compositions of modern architecture. How did you go about shooting these images? And what were you trying to express with them?
I believe it is just attention to detail. As the Charles Eames saying goes “The details are not the details, they make the design.” Hearing this made me focus on the details of the designs of these buildings. Rather than be content with the bigger picture I loved exploring a tighter perception. Usually I worked with a 50mm or my 135mm to compress and demonstrate these details. Again, changing a focal length to something tighter will make you see things differently.
You shot this series under differing weather conditions with bright sun and strong shadows, as well as fog and clouds. How much do you select your shooting days depending on the weather? Or how do the weather conditions influence your process?
L.A. is one of those places where it can feel like the weather doesn’t change much all year long. When the conditions are a bit more dramatic it definitely inspires me to go out. Good clouds over Los Angeles can add so much more texture to a picture. But I am a fan of clear skies with harsh light. Especially when working with the Monochrom 246. I love being able to interpret strong shadows and lines in the buildings. Cutting out shapes in a sense with my camera.
Where does you interest in monochrome photography come from? What do you think the medium offers that color photography doesn’t?
It comes from less distractions. Focusing on the pure elements of photography. For example framing, subject matter, use of light and shadows. Stripping a photo down to its bare essentials. Compared to color photos it is bare bones. An honest form of translating a moment through your camera. Not to say that color can’t be honest but at times a color can pop out and take away from what is really going on in the picture if it has no context.
You already mentioned shooting your aerial shots with the Leica S but you also shoot with the Leica M Monochrom and the Leica MP. How does your choice of camera relate to the type of shot you’re looking for?
Whether I use the Leica M Monochrom or the Leica MP is purely dependent on my mood. With the S I love working with the high quality of detail. To be able to blow up a photo to a large format print and to see everything is amazing. Whereas the Monochrom 246 to me is one of the purist tools in digital photography. Working with all the details I mentioned earlier without the need for a filter or image conversion. Your picture is pure black and white. While the MP to me is just a great timeless photographic tool. It’s built to last and you feel it.
Shooting both digital and analog, how would you differentiate between the two? Is there a difference?
I have learned not to differentiate between them. Although technically there is a difference in the experience of shooting and post, nevertheless, in the end it comes down to the message in the photo. That transcends the medium and should always be made the upmost priority when making a photo, no matter the tool.
You are also the owner of Visual, a skateboard and apparel company. How does your photography inform and influence your work with Visual and vice versa?
It is an amazing outlet. I cover a variety of subjects with my photography and I love working with our designer to lay the images out in different ways. Wether it is apparel, skateboards or accessories. It can be especially fun when working with new ways to implement photos with different forms of print.
What projects are you currently working on and what do you have coming up?
We just released a collaborative project with Visual and Boogie. I have always been a fan of his work so to be able to do this was a great experience. As for other things, I’m just wrapping up 2018 and planning for next year. I recently bought a virtual drum scanner so I have spent a good amount of this year re-scanning all of my film work from the past 10 years and will start sorting out photos for projects.
What one piece of advice would you offer to your fellow photographers?
Don’t take photos…. Make them.
You can see more Stephen’s photography and connect with him via Instagram.