“I’ve always thought New York was kind of a living thing in itself,” says Phil Penman. The multitalented photographer was born and raised in the English countryside, but since 2000, he’s made New York City his home. The city’s ever-changing streets have become a muse for Penman, pulling him out of the kind of creative rut that even successful shooters like him can fall into.“I was doing celebrity stuff for about 15 years, and it just became monotonous,” he says. It wasn’t that way in the beginning. “I’ll put it this way: If you’re a kid in your 20s and you’re told you can make hundreds of thousands a year staying in five-star hotels all over the world, you’ll be like, ‘Hell yeah, I’m going to do that!” And he did, catching flights at the drop of a hat to photograph luminaries for the British Splash News agency. But the constant travel kept him from having much of a personal life and over time the work itself became less engaging. “It was crazy, the air miles we were doing,” he says. “The market changed and the business changed, and I said, ‘I can’t do this anymore.’”
In 2003, Penman picked up a Leica M7 that a friend happened to be selling. “I needed something to get me reinvigorated,” he says. Penman started taking the Leica on bike rides around New York, stopping to photograph whatever caught his eye. The excursions soon became a habit, and he started building a collection of Leica gear. He found the M7’s lightweight, compact design perfect for carrying around the city and shooting unobtrusively. These days, though, he shoots with the full-frame mirrorless Leica SL.
“A lot of times I’ll get up at 5 a.m., when the city’s kind of waking up,” Penman says. “I live on 42nd Street, so I just walk out my door and I’m right in the middle of it.” During PhotoPlus Expo last October, he ventured not too far from his home to lead a one-of-a-kind Photo Walk on the green roof of the Jacob K. Javits Center and, using his Leica gear, shared his visual approach with nearly a dozen attendees. To do the job, Penman usually carries a Summilux-M 24mm f/1.4 or 35mm f/1.4 lens for wide shots and an APO-Summicron-SL 75mm f/2.0 for street portraits. “And Leica glass is really a whole other level,” Penman says.
He relies on the quick reflexes he developed as a pro to capture fleeting moments in a fast-moving city. The SL’s uncluttered design and electronic EyeRes viewfinder also give him the tools he needs to shoot quickly, even though he uses manual focus and exposure for precise creative control. “When I’m adjusting my exposure, I can see it changing in the viewfinder,” he notes. “And for focus, after a while, you know your distances. You can look at something and go, ‘All right, that’s 10 feet away,’ and you quickly dial the focus to 10 feet.”
Penman eventually stopped shooting with bulky DSLRs altogether and now handles both professional assignments and personal work with the Leica SL. Getting back in tune with the pleasures of image-making also led him to make some changes in his professional life, which now includes a diverse range of portrait, editorial and corporate clients.
“I want to enjoy taking pictures,” he says. “I don’t want it to become just a job again.” Continuing to work on his ever-evolving portrait of New York keeps that from happening. “I guess my life project is going to be New York City itself, as a whole,” he says. “I just want to carry on capturing the changes that happen before us in the city.”
Leica is offering a complimentary 24-hour test drive of their SL-System. Visit www.leicacamerausa.com to find a participating dealer.
All photos shot on a Leica.