The First Interview: James Rice

James Rice lives in Carmel, Indiana, USA

I first met James Rice at a Leica Akademie Master Class in Chicago, Illinois.  In the years since, Jim and I have taken advantage of every opportunity to shoot together and have even traveled together to Cuba through my company Complete Cuba.  Taking advantage of the opportunity to spend nine days with Jim was a learning experience for me as he is a very disciplined photographer.  Most importantly, I am privileged to call Jim a dear friend.  So it seems perfect for Jim to start this series...

Five Foto Facts

First camera: Kodak Brownie Holiday (with flash), approximately 1958 

Favorite camera: Leica M Monochrom 246 w/50mm APO Summicron

Photographer who has most inspired you: Craig Semetko

Favorite travel destination: Cuba

One place left on your travel bucket list: Portugal, Spain, Germany, France, UK, South Africa, Iceland. (That's 7 Jim...)

James Rice, Havana Cuba

James Rice, Havana Cuba

The Interview

RDBD: Tell me a little bit about yourself.  What do readers need to know about you to get to know you?  What is your personal, professional, and photography background?

James Rice: My father was a civil engineer and my mother was passionate about photography.  I subsequently became a civil engineer and a photographer.  Imagine that!  I grew up in a small, rural town in southern Indiana.  As I look back now, my life has been demarcated in stages, punctuated by life-changing events.  As a young boy, I was extremely happy, inquisitive, and fortunate to be growing up in the mid-1950’s in a small town in America. My mother gave me my first camera around 1957 or 1958, and I would drop it in the basket on the front of my bike and we’d go exploring.  I had a natural gene for exploring, and back then, a little boy was safe to take off on his own in a small town and discover what life was all about.  I went through a lot of rolls of Kodak 127 b&w film.  Even as a little boy I was content to document what I saw, including the magnificent American cars of the 1950’s.  My mother spent time helping me learn composition skills as we looked at my prints.  I can still remember the thrill of opening that bright yellow Kodak envelope that held my negatives and prints!

On November 28, 1961 an intruder entered our home after I had stepped on the school bus and shot my mother and father with a 12 gauge shotgun.  My mother was killed instantly and my father critically wounded.  He wasn’t expected to survive, but somehow he did, though he spent over a year in the hospital recovering.  He would wind up being crippled for life.  My mother was only 31 years old when she was killed.  My brother, sister, and I went to live with our maternal grandparents in the same town, and in the midst of the shock and grief, all my photographs and my two cameras (Kodak Brownie Holiday and Imperial Satellite 127) were lost forever.  After that event, it was difficult for me to hold a camera because it reminded me of my mother — and so it would be nearly 40 years before I would seriously pick up a camera again.

In many ways, life didn’t really return to normal for me.  I was always anticipating another catastrophe so my life was unsettled, though I did a good job of hiding that, as kids are prone to do.  I played basketball and baseball as a youth, though in retrospect, I realize I did that mostly to make my maternal grandfather happy.  In the end those sports didn’t bring me much joy.  I learned to work hard at a young age.  As a result of the shooting, we lost our home and subsequently our family didn’t have a lot of money.  I worked mowing lawns and in my early teens I got a job at a local paper mill.  Later in my teens I started a painting company with a friend.  I went to college and earned a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering, just like my father had done before me.  I married young (age 21), started my own engineering company, and wound up back in the same hometown I’d grown up in.  My wife and I had two wonderful daughters, but after 28 years of marriage we divorced and one day I found myself all alone again.  Ironically, it was 40 years after the shooting that took my mother away when I found myself alone again.

So at age 49 I decided to see if I could seriously pick up a camera again, and more than that, to see if I could once again find the joy in photography that I had as a young boy.  Photography was rapidly morphing from film to digital, and so after a bit of research, I decided to buy a Nikon D50 DSLR along with a kit lens or two.  I progressed through several different Nikon camera bodies (D70, D300, D3s) and built up a solid collection of Nikon’s better lenses.  But through all of that process, I still found myself struggling to find the pure joy I’d experienced as a boy.  I couldn’t find my photographic vision and so I was taking meaningless photographs with little context.  One night, I accidentally stumbled across a YouTube video produced by Konstantin Adenauer entitled “Craig Semetko: A Portrait”.  Something inside of me began to stir as I watched the video over and over. The Leica rangefinder camera that Semetko used intrigued me.  Soon I had purchased a copy of Semetko’s first photo book “Unposed” and pored over it for hours.  The black-and-white photographs in the book reminded me of my mother’s black-and-white photographs that had mesmerized me as child.  I sold my Nikon D3s, all of my Nikkor lenses, and purchased a Leica M9 rangefinder and a 50mm Leica Summicron lens.  I decided to make things simpler: one small camera and one small prime lens. I started exploring life that was happening around me and documenting it, just like I had as a kid on my bike. I started processing my photographs in black-and-white, and discovered that the M9 produced digital photographs that looked amazingly like film.  Within a few years, I had rediscovered the little boy with his camera in his bike basket that had been lost for over 40 years.  I found me again.

Eventually, I reached out to Craig Semetko to thank him for the inspiration that had truly changed my life, and we subsequently became close friends.  I explained that his photographs helped reconnect me to a mother I had lost so many years ago.  To this day, Craig continues to inspire me and now also serves as a mentor, pushing me to become the best photographer I can possibly be.

I eventually remarried and my wife became my best friend and an ardent supporter of my passion for photography.  I gained two wonderful stepchildren, regained a relationship with my own daughters that was previously fractured by the divorce, moved to the Arts & Design District in Carmel, Indiana, became an owner in a major consulting engineering firm in Indianapolis, and life became sweeter than I ever imagined it could be.

I’ve also been blessed by surrounding myself with a group of great photographers/friends in Chicago.  I now feel like Chicago is my second home, besides being a great place to be inspired.

RDBD: What type of photography do you consider your primary genre and why? What does it mean to you?  How did you become focused on this area of photography?

James Rice: I dislike pigeonholing myself into one particular genre, because I find that can become claustrophobic and stifling to my creativity. I basically feel like I have become a documentary and fine-art photographer.  My goal is to document life as it happens around me, wherever I happen to be, whether it’s in an urban, suburban, or rural environment.  

I think most people would agree that life can become mundane, but in those mundane times there are almost always special moments that happen, and I like to see and capture those unique moments.  Ordinary moments in life can become incredibly interesting if I press the shutter of my camera at just the right time.

From the very beginning, when I took off with my camera in my bike basket as a young boy, I was documenting life as it happened around me. Forty years later, it took me a while to rediscover that I was at heart a documentary photographer, but once I made that realization, everything fell in place.

People like to look at other people, so a lot of my photographs show people in the midst of everyday events.  I do work hard to capture a moment that is interesting or one that generates questions in the mind of the viewer.  The "street photography" genre is hard to define, but a lot of my photographs could be placed in that category, I suppose.  Yet, to me, effective "street photography" is not just pointing a camera in the general direction of people on a street and clicking the shutter with little thought to composition, context, exposure, and message.  Instead it is searching out the special moment, looking for light and shadows, a great background and a compelling foreground, and all the things that collide simultaneously to make a really special photograph.  It's difficult work, and only a very small percentage of the photographs I make actually see the light of day, so to speak.  

I've also been documenting the decline I see in rural areas in America, with most of those photographs being made in Indiana and North Carolina.  People are typically absent in those photographs, because one of the characteristics of rural decline is streets with vacant storefronts and empty sidewalks. Small towns are becoming ghost towns. Streets that used to be filled with people now are usually empty, with weeds growing up between the cracks in the sidewalks.  The few people seen on the streets are often drug addicts in search of the next hit. Methamphetamines and opioids are waging war on life in rural America.  At some point I plan to publish a book on this topic, and my working title at this time is "A Quiet Rural Catastrophe.”  I have "quiet" in the title in that I believe there's a certain amount of avoidance or denial of what is happening in rural areas.  On the other hand, the methamphetamine and opioid issues are so bad that the drug issues are becoming well documented.

RDBD: What motivates you as a photographer?  Specifically, why is photography important in your life?  When you are tired of shooting, what gets you out the door anyway?

James Rice: Life motivates me to pick up a camera.  That may sound trite, but it’s true.  There is still a lot of little boy left in me, and that is a good thing.  I still love to explore and my imagination still runs wild.  I almost always carry my camera bag with me, no matter where I go.  To miss a photo opportunity is something that really hurts

I also spend a lot of time studying the work of some of the great masters of photography, and that motivates me to become a better photographer.  Of course, I'm constantly looking at the work of Craig Semetko.  I love "The Americans" by Robert Frank, "Personal Best" by Elliott Erwitt, "American Photographs" by Walker Evans, "McClellan Street" by Peter & David Turnley, and various works by Henri Cartier-Bresson.  To me, there is no better advice for anyone aspiring to become a better photographer than to study the photographs and writings of the masters of photography.

Having a mentor that inspires you and pushes you to improve is important and a great motivation for me.  Craig Semetko has been that person for me.  He has helped move me from being a "tourist photographer" to a "thinking photographer."  That whole transition has become a sort of standing joke between us.  I still refer to myself as a "tourist photographer" when I'm in a self-deprecating mood.  Another photographer who has inspired me is Nicholas Pinto.  Nick is a Chicago-based photographer with a unique eye and an intense passion for photography.  His passion is contagious and certainly motivates me to be a better photographer.

I've mentioned that Chicago has become a "second home" for me.  That's mostly the case because of a wonderful group of photographers either based in Chicago, or like me, who may live elsewhere but have friends who are photographers in the Chicago area.  It is a significant motivation for me to have other photographers I can go shoot with, talk to, share ideas with, and learn from their work.  My "family" of photographers with links to Chicago that motivates me regularly includes Craig Semetko, Nick Pinto, Dan Tamarkin, Susan Wingerter, Narayan Nayar, Joe Hohner, Jenny Hohner, Anja Bruehling, and of course my ReddotBluedot friends, Keith Sbiral and Amy Gardner.

Another motivation for me is having a "go to" local camera shop.  I can't emphasize how important that is to me. Anyone can order from B&H or Adorama, and don't get me wrong, they provide a great service.  But having a great local camera shop is important. Over the years, I've supported Roberts Camera in Indianapolis and Tamarkin Camera in Chicago.  As a dedicated Leica shooter, Tamarkin Camera is, in my opinion, the epitome of what a great camera shop can be for a photographer. Dan Tamarkin is passionate about photography and therefore passionate about serving his customers.  There is an incredible gallery as part of the shop, The Rangefinder Gallery.  Just visiting the gallery or the store is something that inspires me and motivates me to get out and shoot.

RDBD: Please tell me why you chose the image to submit as your one image.  What meaning does the image have to you?

James Rice: The one photograph I chose was made in Havana, Cuba.  The subjects are a father and his son.  I turned a corner as I was walking in Havana and stumbled across a father teaching his son how to box.  They were standing a distance back inside a building and I quietly made my way close enough to capture this image.

I just experienced the two-year anniversary of my father's death.  There is a special bond between a father and a son, and now that my father has passed, whenever I see a father and a son, I feel a lump in my throat and think of my father.  When I saw this scene in Havana, I instantly remembered being a little boy with my father, and my heart was racing as I made this photograph.  It will always be one of my favorites.

RDBD: In an era where everyone has a smartphone and selfies and micro-blogging daily activities are quickly becoming the norm, why does traditional photography still matter?  

James Rice: We're getting to a point in time where nearly everyone has a smartphone, and nearly every smartphone has a camera.  I've seen the statement that if you have a camera you are a photographer.  I don't think that is necessarily accurate.  To me, traditional photography hearkens back to the days when many of the masters of photography created photographs that are still mesmerizing photographers after decades and decades.  A great photograph is hard to make, and when a truly great photograph is made, it lives on and inspires other photographers, perhaps in ways only passionate photographers understand.

The sheer number of photographs available on social media is staggering.  I think that the proliferation of photographs may be diluting the impact of a great photograph and simultaneously discouraging great photographers from pursuing their passion.  

I think gallery shows for photographers are a way for traditional photography to survive in light of the impacts of social media and smartphones.  There are many unknown, unpublished photographers around the world whose photographs have the ability to make our world a better place to be. Those photographs and photographers deserve to be seen.

I think what you're doing at ReddotBluedot with this series is similarly important in supporting traditional photography.  An interview like this might be just the thing that inspires a photographer to pick up his camera and head out the door, particularly if the creativity has been on the wane.  I know I'm inspired by hearing other photographers’ thoughts as well as seeing their work.

RDBD: What is one thing you think I should ask, but haven’t…and what is your answer?

James Rice: I think your questions were well thought out and I'm not sure you missed much.  I'll take the plunge and suggest that perhaps a bit of talk about the particular camera gear one uses is of interest to many photographers.

While an expensive camera and lens will certainly not make a person a great or even a good photographer, as we all know, the particular gear one chooses can perhaps be the difference as to whether they maintain a passion for photography for the long haul.

Fortunately, we live in a time where a photographer can acquire a great camera and lenses for very little money.  The technological advances in recent years are amazing.  Yet, my experience is that the various cameras available, while similar in many ways, each have their own peculiarities, and it's important to find the one that fits you best. 

Upon rediscovering my interest in documentary photography, I realized I wanted a digital camera that would produce the best images possible, one that was compact, and one that was simple to use.  After seeing the video of Craig Semetko using a Leica M9 rangefinder, I decided to trade my huge Nikon D3s, which was an excellent camera, for the M9.  I discovered that for my purposes, the Leica rangefinders were the ticket.  The Leica lenses are known for being some of the best lenses made in the world.  They are small in comparison with other prime lenses, and the rangefinder bodies are small as well.  More importantly, the camera controls and menus are extremely simple and intuitive.  I really only think about three things when I use a Leica rangefinder: ISO, shutter speed, and aperture.  I found that by using a rangefinder with a manual focus lens, my shooting slowed down, I did a better job of composing my photographs primarily because I was shooting slower, and in the process the camera just became transparent to me.  I wasn't worried about scrolling through long nested menus to set my camera up, and as I said, I really only dealt with ISO, shutter speed, and aperture.

When I'm on an urban street, I usually shoot using the zone focus technique which is perfect for wide-angle manual focus Leica lenses on a rangefinder camera. That's essentially impossible with an auto-focus camera.

Also, as primarily a b&w photographer, being able to buy a b&w only camera was something that captivated me.  My main camera is the Leica M Monochrom 246 and it shoots exclusively in b&w.  It is a digital rangefinder, and I typically pair it up with the Leica 50mm f/2 APO Summicron ASPH lens.  The Monochrom and the 50mm APO are widely viewed as a "match made in heaven," so to speak.

My backup camera is the Leica SL, and I typically use it with the M-lens adaptor and my 28mm f/2 Summicron ASPH lens.  I traded my Leica M (Typ 240) rangefinder for the SL because I wanted to "kill two birds with one stone," so to speak.  Now that I have young grandkids starting to play sports and generally move about rapidly, I realized I needed auto-focus capability from time to time.  I initially purchased a Sony A7Riii with a 24-70mm G-Master lens in order to photograph my grandkids.  While I discovered the A7Riii was a wonderful camera, I also discovered the menus were a nightmare for me. Compared to the simplicity of the Leica menu structures, the A7Riii drove me nuts.  So, I sold the Sony A7Riii at the same time as the Leica M (Typ 240) and picked up the Leica SL, along with a 24-90mm Vario-Elmarit zoom lens.  The beauty of the SL is that I can use it much like a rangefinder, shooting manual focus with my 28mm Summicron M-lens, or I can use it as a superb auto-focus camera with the 24-90mm zoom lens and easily photograph my grandkids.  And, I have the simplicity of shooting with a Leica camera again.

Keep in mind, the fact that Leica's work best for me doesn't necessarily mean that's what you might need, even if you photograph the same things that I photograph. A Nikon, Canon, Sony, Fuji, Olympus, Lumix, or some other camera might work fine for you.  The key, in my opinion, is to find a camera that becomes so intuitive and instinctive in your hands that you essentially forget it's there – your focus in the field is simply your eye and your subject and the camera just happens to be in-between enabling you to capture the image.

RDBD: What photographer would you like to see answer these questions and recommend RDBD contact to be featured?  

James Rice: That is too hard for me to limit to just one name.  Of course, Craig Semetko.  He has such brilliant insights into photography.  Certainly, Nick Pinto. I've recently been looking at the work of Doug Menuez, who now works exclusively with the Leica SL.  Chicago's own Anja Bruehling is another great photographer who would be very interesting.  Also, Narayan Nayar, a true Renaissance man, would be a compelling interview.  I could go on and on.  There are many interesting photographers and I'm sure you'll eventually get to them all.

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Thank you Jim, for your thoughtful responses and your commitment to the photographic community.