Dec 202010

Leica S2 at the Levi’s Workshop

Inside a converted art gallery,

photographer Chiun-Kai Shih

was putting on a different kind

of exhibition.  Mixing a cocktail

of creative types, from fashion

designers to Hollywood writers,

the Levi’s Workshop was a live

modeling session and photo

exhibition all rolled into one.

The Levi's Workshop at 18 Wooster Street in New York City.

-Hair & Make Up

The Levi’s Workshop opened October 7th, in the old Deitch Projects space on Wooster Street, north of Canal Street.  Since rilling up the metal gates three months ago, flashes have been firing non stop, in an all out image-fest.  Setting aside their differences, digital and film photography united professionals, amateurs, and curious shoppers in a hands on experiment gone wild.

Thursday was day one of the Chiun-Kai portrait series, where models went from posing to final print before most one hour developers could process a single roll of film.  Thanks in part to the Leica S2, the white walls were soon covered with a quilt of pictures, on display for the entire weekend.  When I asked Chiun-Kai if he made any distinction between his personal and professional work he said, “No, not at all, most of these people are my close friends or people I have worked with for years.  I’m not into moody work, this is about projecting my love for them.  I want to inspire them to pose and give it all back to me.  Its all in the pictures. ”

DB (left) & Chiun-Kai Shih (right).

For anyone who has never been to a fashion shoot, this looked fairly typical.  There was a station for hair and make up, a beat up tufted sofa for lounging, enough lighting to make the Empire State building look like a candle, but there was one thing missing.  Where was the pretentious prima donna photographer that could not be bothered to tie his own shoes?  Chiun-Kai was bouncing around the set, making sure everyone was happy.  He has a maternal quality about him.  Everyone, whether he knew them or not, was welcome to join in, ask questions, watch the shoot and enjoy the day.

Imagine if people were this happy waiting in line at the bank. Maybe Chiun-Kai can make the world a more loving place.

When it comes to camera gear, Chiun-Kai first experimented with the Leica S2 on a shoot for GQ last year in Miami.  When I asked him, what first struck him about the camera, he said “It felt just like my SLR, it was comfortable and fit well in my hand.”  Considering the athletic speed at which he jumps around the set, I could understand that the camera needs to fit him like a good pair of running shoes.

The Leica S2 at rest with the 70mm Summarit f 2.5 lens.

Picking up a camera for the first time at age 10, Chiun-Kai wanted to make movies as a child.  He may not work in moving images today, but there is nothing static about him or his pictures.  Over the years he worked his way through almost every imaginable camera system (Rolli, Hasselblad, Nikon, Canon, Mamiya) and I get the feeling like he is not finished yet.  Between film and digital, he loves the speed of digital.  The S2 was linked to a 30″ Mac screen allowing everyone to view the results of the Leica 70mm Summarit f 2.5 and 120mm Apo-Macro Summarit f 2.5 as the shoot progressed.

-Your Up

How do you get someone standing in front of a white background with an 8′ umbrella hanging over their head to look natural or even interesting?  Watching a shoot, its easy to see who are professional models and who are not.  The models know, from years of experience how to move and express themselves in front of a camera.  Its what they do for a living.

What I found amazing, was Chiun-Kia’s ability to bring everyone to life in a matter of minutes.  Its a bit like watching a mother play with her baby.  Mom does one thing, then the baby copies the move.  Chiun-Kai moves, smiles, and chats you up the entire time in a down pouring of compliments.  The response is immediate, as guards are dropped and suddenly intimate portraits seem to fall out of the camera.  It got me thinking that they should send people with depression to fashion shoots.  It’s the only place where you can receive thirty compliments a minute.  The love, the energy, the playfulness, it’s all there as Chiun-Kai uncovered the hidden gestures of each personality.

-The Silent Worker

Leica cameras are known for being discreet.  Its the camera for photographers who don’t want to attract attention. The Leica M series has secured a cult like following among the top photo journalists in the world.  But how could the S2, nearly four times the size of an M9, be considered discreet?

When you think about it, the S2 doesn’t look much different than an dSLR.  Unlike most medium format cameras and their oddly shaped bodies, the S2 could pass as a Canon or Nikon at a glance.  As Chiun-Kai noted “It works, it’s simple, and once its set up, I can forget about the camera.”  Its the silent work horse of the shoot, blending in by looking like everyone else, but popping out the most incredible portraits.  Leica’s subtlety could pay off with this unit.  Its effortless handling, piercing sharpness, and Leica signature look could position this as the replacement for its larger competitors.

Reviewing the images sounded like people watching the 4th of July fireworks, Oooo, Ahhhh.

-Print Away

New school versus old school, fashion versus art, or science versus hobby, this workshop was about playing with photography.  With the DJ shaking the freshly hung drywall loose, there was no need to define the happenings of the workshop.  Events evolved, people came and went as Chiun-Kai kept shooting away.  People caught in the cross fire were lifted up in a frenzy of activity and then could collapse on the sofa to view the results.  And if one shoot with Chunky (his self anointed nickname) was not enough, get ready for one more day of shooting with Leica’s newest poster boy.  My only question is, can Leica print a poster big enough to capture all that love?

See you tomorrow-Adam

I want to give a special thanks to the Leica team of Kelsey Fain and Biana Bakman, the Levi’s technicians Drew, Will & Co., Chuin-Kai’s team, and all the models for their great spirit and participation.

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