Charlie Lieberman: From Filming “Heroes” to Loving His Leica

All images by Charlies Lieberman. Used with permission.

“A while ago, I found myself getting restless about my career choice,” says Charlie Lieberman to us in an interview. “Since my youth, I had admired good photographs and was envious of those who made them. So, I decided to change everything and see if I could teach myself how to make good photographs and prints.” The photographer who became a cinematographer then came back to photography earned a big break after teaching himself how to make what he calls “good photographs and prints.” His work leads him to photograph indigenous cultures for Anthropology books. Crazy, right? It’s not the first thing you think of when you talk about being a successful photographer, but it’s undoubtedly a dream for many, whether they realize it or not. After being discovered by a documentary filmmaker and tasked with shooting production stills, Charlie moved entirely into cinematography and worked on the show Heroes. With that past him, he returned to the world of the still photo.

The Quiet Moments Amongst the Loneliness of the Coronavirus

Mr. Lieberman’s latest works are photos that he shot around his neighborhood. With so many photographers itching to be out shooting, and losing motivation, Charlie’s work is a refreshing epiphany amongst the images of empty city streets and people hanging out in windows. “All the photographs in this Coronavirus series have been shot in areas of my neighborhood that had completely burned to the ground in the California Woolsey Fire, [sic] of November, 2018,” explains Mr. Lieberman. “With the statewide lockdown, I was limited to find things to shoot within walking distance of my home. I had been planning to spend the month of April traveling up and down the west coast between Southern California and Northern Oregon.” Of course, that didn’t happen. Suddenly, Charlie found his world becoming much smaller. So, he made lemonade out of lemons.

Storytelling, in this way, is entirely different for Mr. Lieberman. Cinematically, he’s used cuts or in-camera moves to editorialize a story. “The director and the cinematographer can lead the viewer’s eye, limit what they can see, and hide what they want to withhold,” he relates. “Also, music and sound can enhance the entire experience of the story, particularly the desired emotional reaction.” But still photography is a different type of storytelling where you often need to find a way to tell everything in a single frame. Further, that single frame is an unmoving image, usually without sound involved. When documenting a scene, you’re doing it without a forced point of view.

“The viewer is free to look around the photograph and can create whatever story nuances their minds choose. In some ways, a truly great photograph is harder to accomplish, it must stand alone in making its statement.”

Charlie Lieberman

Charlie remembers that before the fire happened, everything he was shooting was overgrown. But Mother Nature claimed its victims. Before all this, the brush would obscure his views of many of the scenes he’s captured. “After the fire, all that was left was the dirt, the rocks, and scorched tree trunks,” says Mr. Lieberman. “Now that we’re beginning the second post-fire Spring, the continued rising from the ashes is lovely to behold, and the views are outstanding. The added bonus of the beautiful morning fogs makes for pictures that, for me, are serene, natural, beautiful, and, most importantly, hopeful.” Indeed, Charlie isn’t really aiming to show off a foreboding scene. He’s trying to share quiet moments that take in what is still sublime. Ultimately, it’s to be a moment of silence and peace in the photo.

“I also wanted to remind people that there’s a side of nature that isn’t trying to kill us.”

Charlie Lieberman

The Creative Influences of Charlie Lieberman

To be a true creative is to be influenced by lots of things. Painters are influenced by gardening or other mediums. And similarly, Charlie draws inspiration from across the art world. He adores paintings, music, literature, photography, and other areas of the arts. But these days, he’s trying to be more internal than external. So he’s working on reducing his external influences to be as original as possible. It’s to make his work more personal. The goal here is to continually improve and make better, more compelling images. “If I happen to capture something that’s been done similarly by another photographer, so be it,” admits Charlie. “At least I found my way to that honestly, by myself.”

With a Leica in Hand

Photo by Jay Yowler

There’s also a vast difference in the mentality behind this type of creation. As most photographers would relate, there’s a solitary sense to it unless you’re working on a set and production. But cinema is a very collaborative art: lots of viewpoints coming together to make something for the viewer. Charlie calls his stills a view into his private world. With that said, he likes to employ a cinematic framing method to his stills. “I also tend to shoot many images using ‘wide-screen’ aspect ratios,” Mr. Lieberman recalls. “This is often achieved by stitching a few frames together. That allows me the much larger enlargement possibilities of a medium format sensor.” The reason for this? Large prints!

To create these images, Charlie follows in the footsteps of many documentarians before him and reaches for a Leica. “I have two current, digital Leica Ms, both with full-frame sensors, one color, one only B&W,” lists Charlie. “I like making the choice of body (color or B&W) at the moment of capture, just like in the days of film. I’ve never later regretted those decisions.” Charlie reaches for all prime lenses for the M system. He’s got a lot: from 18mm wide angles to 135mm options too. Best of all, he can stuff these into a bag that’s not too large. For other work, he reaches for the Leica Q2: the only autofocus camera that he has.

“It’s the only auto-focus camera I know of that has a focus scale and the old-fashioned depth of field scales engraved on the lens. I shoot a lot at a hyperfocal distance setting and found myself getting very frustrated with digital lenses that lack these markings.”

Charlie Lieberman

All images provided by Charlie with permission. Be sure to visit his website for more. Also, become inspired by his journey on Instagram.

Chris Gampat

Chris Gampat is the Editor in Chief, Founder, and Publisher of the Phoblographer. He also likes pizza.