Cira Crowell ended up with her first Leica — and her first camera — completely by chance. It was her late grandfather’s Leicaflex SL2. “I just randomly happened to be given the old camera off the shelf,” explains Crowell at her home outside of Santa Fe, New Mexico. “That was my very first camera, and it was one of my best teachers.” That was some 25 years ago, and she hasn’t put down the Leica since, traveling the world over from Nepal and Bhutan, to Germany and Iceland, capturing images of life at the extremes.
“I decided to become a photographer because it is a way of seeing the world moment by moment,” says Crowell. That’s what she has done with her work that spans photography, new media drawings and projected animations. “For me, photography is a way of life. It’s a way of thinking. It’s a deep philosophy as well as a creative form.”
Her latest ongoing project takes her far away from New Mexico to Nepal. The project is called Envisioning Everest, and Crowell stays and trains in the New Mexico mountains to help her stay prepared for the thin air at the high altitudes of Nepal. Her photos aim to show Everest as more than just the westernized “Death Mountain” (as recent headlines have described it)., but a complex place that looks different from every angle. “In its homeland,” Crowell explains, “Everest is called Chomolungma, which means Mother Goddess. It is a kind of Mother Earth — life-giving, water-giving source.”
Crowell is not new to Everest. She has trekked over 800 miles in the Himalayas from 8,000 to 18,000 feet. When we caught up with her and her dogs in New Mexico, she was preparing for another expedition to the mountain for her project. To get ready, Crowell does interval trail running, at 8,000 feet above sea level, strapped down with her fully loaded ruck every day. Besides that, she will also hike up to 12,000 feet in elevation once a week. “I’m really acclimatized by living at this elevation, and that’s an important part of the training,” she says.
As much as an expedition to a mountain like Everest is about training, it’s also about the things you carry. Having the right gear is a crucial part of any extreme expedition. “The right gear can make a difference between being able to stay out another hour and catching the beautiful light,” says Crowell. She still uses a Leica from the SL line, albeit a modern digital one. The digital Leica SL was a dream come true for her. “I was able to use the old lenses that I loved so much,” she says about the original Leica lenses she had to shelve before the SL. “They went from being paperweights to being my favorite tools.”
When shooting, Crowell prefers black and white, capturing as she says, “the quintessential Leica look.” It’s the depth and creamy light that newcomers swoon over and professionals know as a hallmark of the best German glass out there. The Leica SL is also built to last and rugged enough to withstand the harsh conditions of the Himalayan mountains along with the vintage lenses. There is also a timeless quality to shooting in black in white that lends itself to the larger project that Crowell is working on. “By choosing black and white, I can unite the stories whether the images were taken ten years apart or with different cameras. I can unite everything for a deeper story which is about life and light. That’s what my work is about, the inner connection of light and life.”