Hubert Burda Media

INDRA LEONARDI: Capturing Souls

As the high-society photographer of choice, he create timeless portraits by capturing the souls

Indra Leonardi, the esteemed photographer and founder of Leonardi Portraiture, has never forgotten the first clients to come to his new studio in 1989. “It was [Djarum head] Budi Hartono’s family,” he recalls. “His brother-in-law had attended the same college as me [Brooks Institute of Photographic Arts and Science in Santa Barbara, California]. 

“I remember clearly that the photo shoot was during Lebaran, because I had a hard time finding an assistant who was available. The whole family came to see me, even [medical doctor and art collector] Oei Hong Djien. I didn’t quite realise how high-profile they were. I just thought: ‘He’s my friend’s brother-in-law.’ Until now, whenever I meet Hartono, I always say thank you to him.”

Fifty-three-year-old Leonardi is the high-society photographer of choice in Indonesia. His portfolio is very much about the “love business”, taking in weddings, engagements, family gatherings, and baby and maternity albums, as well as corporate work and video projects. His best images are not just photographs; they are artworks.

Courtesy of Bella and Erwan

Photographic skills have run in his family for a long time. His father, Gunawan Leonardi, founded the famous KingFoto in 1977. “My father’s career started long before that, though,” says Leonardi. “He had a small photo studio in Siantar, North Sumatra long before he came to Jakarta.”

During his distinguished career, Leonardi has produced a number of prestigious images, notably his print “Madonna and Child”, which won the 1997 Gold Medallion Award from the American Society of Photographers (ASP). He has Fellowship Degrees from ASP and the British Institute of Photographers. In 2007, he published Indonesian Portraits, which features 183 public figures, including former presidents, politicians, artists and sports legends. 

His second book, Inside Studio, will come out later this year. It’s a collaboration with entrepreneur and socialite Amalia Wirjono and Dia.Lo.Gue’s Hermawan Tanzil. It features Christine Ay Tjoe, Eko Nugroho and other artists and their studios in Indonesia. “In many ways, an artist’s personality can be seen from his or her studio,” Leonardiexplains of the concept. “The book is not only about their artworks, but the places where their masterpieces were born.”

Courtesy of Bryant and Stephanie

Leonardi is unstoppable currently. He’s also busy preparing his third book. This will feature Indonesian artists including Putu Wijaya, Sunaryo and Heri Dono. “I have been an art collector for the last 25 years,” he says. “That’s why I’m so attracted to this subject.”

Prestige meets Leonardi at his impressively decorated studio in Kemang. The weather is gloomy and rainy, but Leonardi’s cheerful personality lightens up the day. “It was simply because my father owned a photo studio that they assumed I was a good photographer,” he grins when asked how he got started on his career. “I would say photography came naturally to me. I grew up in that world. I was practically living inside a photo studio when I was young. 

“After graduating from high school [Tarsisius in Jakarta], I went to Singapore to learn Japanese. This was because I planned to study at a photography school in Tokyo. But it was hard to learn Japanese, so my brother suggested I apply to Brooks Institute instead. It was not until the third year that I realised I had any talent for photography.”

As his passion and talent grew, Leonardi began taking part in photography competitions. During academic breaks, he and classmates went on week-long road trips to Utah and Arizona to take photographs. Driving for hours, sleeping in the car and taking showers at McDonald’s, Leonardi cherishes his memories of those days. That was when he and his classmates dreamed of becoming as famous as Ansel Adams or Annie Leibovitz. 

Courtesy of Paulus and Angel

“Hengki Koentjoro [an accomplished photographer specialising in black-and-white work] used to be my photo-hunting partner,” says Leonardi. “When we were in Los Angeles we would hang out in front of photography studios, admiring the images from the outside. We would wait there for hours, until they closed. We learned about composition, lighting and angles. It was the good old days of the pre-internet era!”

After graduating in 1987, Leonardi worked at Portraits by Merrett, owned by Merrett Smith, for a year. “He photographed Hollywood celebrities and musicians, like Steven Spielberg, Harrison Ford and Michael Jackson,” says Leonardi, “That was when I started to become strongly interested in doing portraiture photography.”

In 1989, Leonardi came home and helped his father manage KingFoto. He also opened his own studio to explore his interest in portraiture. Keeping up with the times, his business today has two main lines: The Leonardi for high-society work, and the newly launched PHOS, a photo studio with coffee shop, for the millennial market.   

“The best portrait is one that captures the soul of its subject,” says the photographer of his approach. Good portraits, he says, “display the perfect expression, mood and personality of the subjects.” The photographer “understands that the best portrait is one that captures the soul of the subjects. Therefore, they strive to have a deep understanding of the character [of the subject] and bring out the[ir] best angles.”

Says his website: “Indra has worked with well-recognised figures in Indonesia and abroad, capturing their best features in timeless portraits. Indra’s special strength is his ability to dig deep into the soul of his subjects. He engages them in friendly conversation to reveal their true personalities, which he captures in beautiful portraiture.”

Indra Leonardi

Asked for tips on how to make subjects relax, Leonardi says: “Choosing the right background music is important. It can help create the mood you want. Before I meet them I do research on my subjects and their work and their interests, so that I can easily engage with them. 

“When I work with a couple ahead of their wedding, I like to know how they met and what their favourite activities are. It’s part of a photographer’s duties to make his subjects feel comfortable. In today’s digital era, communication is easier. When coming up with a mood board, you can get ideas from your clients about clothes and accessories via the smartphone.

“During a wedding, I give the couple space to be themselves. I am not always directing them. In the days when photographers used film, there were moments when everything stopped while they changed film rolls. People relaxed and that was often when the magic happened, when two individuals showed their natural gestures. It might be holding hands, a quick hug or looking into each other’s eyes. All of these things define intimacy. You have to be quick and sharp to capture those precious moments.”

Leonardi’s signature is a timeless portrait that is based on four fundamentals: lighting, composition, colour coordination and expression. His works is both elegant and exquisite. Celebrities and socialites have fallen for his magic touch, among them Sandra Dewi, Laudya Cynthia Bella, Stephanie Sampoerna and Angel Susinto. 

“There’s a fifth fundamental: good taste,” Leonardi adds. “Digital technology has made everyone a photographer. But your taste is what’s important to differentiate you from others. Flexibility is also important, especially for true creativity.”

Leonardi says each wedding or event he covers has its own excitements. But he surely can’t forget the day he met the great Pramoedya Ananta Toer, author of Bumi Manusia and political prisoner, for Indonesian Portraits in 2006. 

“I photographed him at his home,” he recalls. “He had a quiet personality. From the way he talked, I could sense his great mind. I wanted to capture his humble and idealistic personality, so I had him stand by the window in front of his bookshelves. 

“The shadows from the window resembled prison bars, a reminder of when he was jailed [from 1969 to 1979) on Buru island [in Maluku]. He didn’t want to dress up for the photo, which made the picture very real. One of the reasons I love being a photographer is that I can meet a lot of influential and inspiring figures.”

At the end of the conversation, Leonardi reveals his latest hobby, which is taking photographs with his iPhone. People can see his “great eyes” through his Instagram Story feeds. The images are beautifully crafted, mostly in black and white. They look as if they were taken with a professional digital camera.

When Prestige tells him he is doing “iPhoneography”, Leonardi laughs. “I didn’t even know that existed! Sometimes it’s not easy to bring a camera, so taking pictures with smartphone is very convenient. It’s also a new way to train my eyes.”