In this installment of my interview series with creative photographers, I posed some questions to my good friend and photographer Michael Gordon. By way of a disclaimer, Michael and I have been friends for well over a decade. We shared many miles on the trails, many campfire conversations and many memorable experiences in the wild. Michael and I started our photographic journeys in a similar place: we were both generalists and avid outdoor explorers using our cameras as means of documenting our experiences and caught in an incessant pursuit of the next “keeper,” no matter the subject or circumstances. Over the years we each refined our approach and found different ways of expressing ourselves in images. To me, it had been an immensely rewarding and interesting experience to have a front-row seat for the unfolding growth and self discovery of a fellow artist. And, though I always thought I knew what motivated Michael and how he came to define his work as it stands today, I never quite posed the questions to him directly until this interview.
If I had to sum my own impressions of Michael’s work, it would be “visually intriguing”. Michael’s work is about meticulous composition, exploring and elevating subjects he personally cares about and studies. Unlike most, he does not seek to command attention from his audience by any means necessary but, rather, offers unique interpretations to consider. His visual vocabulary is as rich as any photographer I know, utilizing a variety of subtle effects and compositional tools to create long-lasting images, in the sense that the more you study them, the more you discover in them. I invite you to take the time to carefully study his work beyond a fleeting glance. To see more of Michael’s work, visit his web site.
Your work seems to defy common labels of style and methods. It is not quite “traditional” nor “modern”; it does not quite fit the definitions of either “straight” or “pictorial” photography, etc. If you had to define your own niche, what would it be?
Thank you for this keen observation, Guy. If there’s anything I aspire to with my work it is ‘to be unique’. That my photographs cannot be easily labeled is perfect. I’d much prefer to have a category or style named after my photographs than to have my work comfortably placed within a well-defined category. To be honest, I have not tried to define what it is that I do, and don’t know if I want to. I have a simple and abiding love for my subjects and the landscapes in which I work, and I love the art and craft of photography. And I love weaving the two together into engaging and unique photographs. I’d rather leave the labeling to others.
Like many, you started your photographic journey as a generalist working in 35mm color and pursuing any number of interesting natural subjects. In recent years your work seems to have gravitated towards B&W and deliberate compositions, creatively utilizing both sharp detail and blur to form a unique look. Describe this transition and how it aligns with other influences in your life over this same period.
Edward Weston said that “composition is the strongest way of seeing”. I try not to be so deliberate about composition and would like to think that my subjects guide and inform my camera position, but when my gut feeling is that ‘this’ is the right way to photograph this subject, that’s exactly how I do it. Compelling subjects, strong composition, and good light is a recipe for success and a method to engage viewers beyond a simple passing glance of my photographs. Black and white is where my best work occurs. It’s liberating and exciting to be able to distill a subject/scene into little more than line, form, tone, and light. What I love about the view camera is the upside down and laterally reversed image on the ground glass; if what I see reversed and upside down does not excite me, there’s little chance that a right side up interpretation will.
Another liberating moment occurred for me when I stopped caring about what photographers thought of my work. I began to explore view camera movements (deliberately altering the plane of focus and controlling adjacent sharp/soft elements); selective and soft focus; and shooting subjects in which many photographers would be hard pressed to find the “beauty” (as if “beauty” is the only thing that can or should be photographed). I sure wish there were more teachers of open-mindedness and non-conformism; instead we have a plethora of online photo forums; books; and e-books that virtually dictate the way landscape/nature photographs should be made and should look. I felt that after more than 80+ years of the f64 aesthetic in landscape photography, it was perfectly okay for me to break rules, ignore the status quo, and find my own way with *my* photography. I have achieved some of what I’ve wanted to; most importantly, the doors now feel wide open for me to take my photography in any direction I choose.
While many turn to digital tools and methods to achieve creative visual effects, you chose instead to explore the possibilities offered by optics and the flexibility of the view camera. Can you articulate the motivation behind your choice of tools?
Despite the fact that I spend an incredible amount of time in front of a computer scanning, working with, and printing my photographs, I prefer a somewhat ‘purist’ approach to my art and craft (no matter how confused this sounds!). I want it “right” in-camera so that my post-production efforts are minimized. The large format view camera offers extraordinary control over perspective, focus, and blur, and it allows me to visualize what the printed photograph will look like on my camera’s twenty square inches of ground glass; it’s like looking at LiveView, albeit with a twenty square inch viewfinder! Perspective distortion and sharp focus/blur is visible real-time, and this allows me to “shape” the final image while viewing it on the glass. Despite Photoshop’s computing power, there is simply no accurate digital simulation of vintage lenses, and no easy mimicry of shallow focus combined with camera movements. This just cannot be done in Photoshop (or with a LensBaby) in an authentic and convincing way. Even if it could, I’d still prefer to do it in-camera, not with Photoshop filters and near- impossible masking. Perhaps the biggest motivation for me is my background: I learned with film and the view camera. Using the most efficient tools to achieve my intentions seems to me the “right way” to work. The look of my photographs must be driven by my imagination and creativity, not by how skillfully I can use Photoshop or other post-production tools.
Your work is often grouped into personal projects rather than singular images. Can you talk about some of these projects, where they originated and how you arrived at the interpretive approach for each?
I realized early on the pitfalls of amassing a collection of what LensWork editor/publisher Brooks Jensen calls “greatest hits”. That is, a lot of expertly executed but singular photographs that individually look great but don’t hang together well as a collection. The ‘greatest hits’ approach to landscape photography can be an expensive trap. One can only shoot so many glorious sunrises and sunsets of mature iconic locations before burnout sets in or the work begins to look like most other competently crafted but pedestrian landscape photography. After analyzing my entire collection of works, several distinct themes emerged. I grouped these works into cohesive projects which have no likely terminus, so I can and will always shoot for and add to these portfolios. I may venture into the desert without clear photographic goals, yet in having three different desert-related series (and a fourth in the works), I could end up coming home with a Joshua Tree portrait; a Desert Palm Oasis photograph; or even a dilapidated dwelling – and any of them will fit my existing collections. Instead of aimlessly wandering for one’s photographs, projects/series can provide focus and inspiration. I’m currently working on a new series, and each time I return home, develop film, and see the results, I get excited about heading out and shooting more!
At what point did you begin treating your images as expressive art rather than purely a medium for capturing natural beauty? Was it the proverbial “lightbulb” moment or a more involved process? How did this decision/realization change your approach?
It was indeed the proverbial lightbulb moment, and it was some years back (while still working almost exclusively with color) when I became concerned that I was merely replicating the pantheon of nature and landscape photographs from the big names of our genre. While it’s clearly a ‘good enough’ approach for many, I had to do something completely different with my photography. I had only two goals: to eke an existence with my photographs (with no specified monetary goals) but more importantly to be recognized and respected for my work. A complete analysis of what I was doing – and the impending Digital Photography boom – made me realize that both would be difficult to obtain unless I was doing something distinct, unique, and honest.
I pay little attention today to what others are doing in my photographic genre. While there’s a ton of great work out there to look at and be moved by, I need to stay focused on what I am doing and follow my own inner compass. This means that I often produce work that is not very well received by my peers or other photographers, even though it is well received by collectors and non-photographers. I don’t need my work to be popular, well-liked, or conforming; it just needs to be the best I can do and it must come from my heart.
If you could go back in time and provide just one piece of advice to a younger and less experienced you, what will it be?
Begin earlier! The guitar and music were my artistic tools during my earlier days. I invested in music and my band the same passion and energy that I invest in my photographs today. Which meant that there was little time for photography or anything else. While photographs and images have always been a big part of my life, I really didn’t begin using a camera until my early-20’s. I wish I had begun earlier, but I have no regrets about my path.