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Photography Album and Q&A with Michael George

OLM: First off, welcome! Care to open things by telling us about yourself, your background and education, the factors that moved you to concentrate on photography? Feel free to add four inches to your height, a cleft to your chin, and a stint with the Army Rangers, if you think that’ll spruce things up at all!

MG: I’m ineffably restless. I imagine that would be a good starting point for explaining my draw to photography. I grew up in Fort Myers, Florida, a small coastal paradise in Southwest Florida. Life was incredibly easy throughout my schooling and I was very fortunate to have extremely supportive parents. I actually fell into a photography class my junior year of high school. It was part of our IB (International Baccalaureate) Program. I of course had no idea what I was getting myself into at the time. To be honest, I don’t think I truly discovered the language of photography until I began my studies in New York City. In 2007, when I made that move, I was faced with an insurmountable amount of death, loss, and friendships cut short. I began to photograph everything, recognizing the medium as the best way to hold onto all those things that felt like they were slipping away. It was a coping mechanism. As for my original point, that restlessness that plagues me every day… I must always be doing something (or rather, a million things). The wide-range of photography assignments, the freelance aspect, that… freedom (in a sense), is incredibly appealing.

OLM: If you’re so inclined, kindly regale us with gossip about what it’s like to attend the Tisch School of the Arts! Fairly prestigious, and with a long list of famous alumni! Are you the Tony Kushner of photography – or the Alec Baldwin?

MG: Tisch is more and less than I expected walking into it. I moved from Florida, a relaxing and friendly environment, and into New York City where competition and everyday niceties can create a somewhat volatile atmosphere. I should definitely note that Tisch is filled with many incredibly talented students and I’m consistently overwhelmed by the projects showcased throughout. Although like anywhere you also have a fair share of slackers that leave you bewildered after every class. People often say the photo program is the place to get the best “bang for your buck” at NYU (it’s even on Wikipedia!). The classes are intimate, usually containing 12-15 students, and the entire department is like a little family. Everyone knows everyone. If there are issues, people listen. I only wish the students were more supportive of one another. Unlike film, photography is a rather independent act. I figure this is what leads to the divergence in character….

OLM: Before we move on to your OLM portfolio, let’s talk shop a bit! Describe your cameras, your choices of film and paper – your equipment, its whys and wherefores, what prompts you to go with these things instead of others? How much technical experimentation do you do, or is it all still experimentation?

MG: I was actually robbed of 90% of my camera equipment at the beginning of the summer. Since then, I’ve been attempting to replace all that was lost. I’ll go over what is left and what tend to be my “mainstays.”

1) Digital Camera: Canon 5D Mark II
Lenses: 50mm f/1.4, 24-70mm f/2.8
2) 35mm Film: Canon Rebel T2 (same lenses as above)
3) 35mm Film: Contax T2
4) Large Format: Deardorff 8 x 10 View Camera
Lens: 300mm Nikkor
5) Medium Format: Hasselblad 500c/m*
Lenses: 80mm f/2.8, 50mm f/4*
* = Stolen

My color film of choice is Kodak 400NC. For the 8 x 10 View Camera I use Ilford HP5 ISO 400 but for no reason other than it’s less expensive than the other options.

I use the Canon 5D Mark II simply because it’s an unbeatable machine. The way it handles imagery is better than 35mm film. It’s the first digital I’ve used that I believe I can say that for sure and without feeling like I’m insulting someone. Although when shooting black and white I still feel that film holds something above digital. Since I purchased the 5D I actually haven’t touched my 35mm film cameras.

Before I lost my Hasselblad I was obsessed with square format. It’s a very specific aesthetic and the waist-level viewfinder alters the portrait/shooting process tremendously. I believe much of photography’s variance comes from the different processes involved with various camera models.

I also believe that process is one of the reasons I’ve fallen so in love with the 8 x 10 camera. The process is long, tedious, and many times stressful. But it also sets a certain tone for the portrait session. The camera has a presence that is almost human.

As for experimenting, I would love to do more of it. I’m making it one of my goals to further explore the camera models we have available in Tisch. I get so comfortable with a small set of cameras and lenses and forget what else is out there. Sometimes I find this consistency beneficial, it adds a consistent aesthetic and style to my work. Other times, I find myself yearning for a revamp. We’ll see what happens.

OLM: OK, let’s talk about the stunning portfolio you’ve got installed at OLM for the month of September, a series of black and white portraits of men. In many of your color photos shot in New York, there’s a feeling that we’re seeing the moment after some great burst of energy – there’s a private, almost hidden sense of intimacy (I’m thinking of your 2007 photo “Alexa,” but there are lots of examples). In these black and white photos, we are entirely in the main moment (even with “Rob,” where the subject isn’t looking directly at us, there’s still the strong sense that he’s not looking at anything else either, that he’s lost in thought and that’s the focus) – and yet you’ve somehow preserved that sense of intimacy. What’s the dynamic like, shooting portraits like this? Aspects must change with every sitter (for instance, nobody’s smiling in this group! Deliberate, or coincidence?), but does anything stay the same?

MG: The dynamic between photographer and subject while shooting with a large format camera is definitively unique—especially while shooting on the streets of New York. Because the camera’s construction is so alluring it attracts a lot of conversation. Often I find myself chatting with strangers longer than I’m working with my subject. As I noted above, this process is something that I find fascinating. Because of the time, accuracy, and expense required for every image. I rarely shoot more than 3 – 4 plates in a sitting. The subject then becomes more focused on the moment. There’s an emphasis on careful collaboration. We’re making an image rather than trying to get one.

I believe much of the strength in this series lies in the gaze of the subject. That intimacy you speak of is definitely something I’m interested in. Photographers too often miss out on sincere moments with their subjects. Much of this results from a subject’s preoccupation with their appearance. Photographers often say things like “just pretend I’m not here.” I’ve come to understand that is completely impossible. And so I move in the opposite direction and completely acknowledge the act, even emphasizing the moment before I click the shutter. That acknowledgment puts the subject at ease…. They’re not self-conscious about being self-conscious.

Someone once said that contemporary photography is a collection of “sad white people.” In my series the subjects are not smiling because that would destroy the authenticity of the moment. The 8 x 10 has its limits. My shutter speed is often 1/8 of a second or slower. It would be impossible for me to capture a natural smile—a laugh, or otherwise. Besides, there’s much to gain from a quiet moment.

OLM: You forgo a great deal of flash in these shots – the style is austere, almost minimalist – and yet you’re subtly present, as a composer, framing and accenting. The stone-and-steel severity of #2 is mirrored right down to the set of his mouth and the comb of his hair – but you have him perched on a rail like a schoolboy. The black-eyed stare of #5 could be totally forbidding – but you’ve edged his black scarf up just slightly onto his face, humanizing everything in the process. You took the wonderfully pugnacious face of #3 and blurred its edges, introducing an aspect of vulnerability. Could you tell us a little about your personal aesthetic? Do you know the effect you’re going for before you even sit with a subject, or do you follow your instincts during the shoot?

MG: Often my portrait sessions consist of a give-and-take. I approach the session with various ideas for poses and locations but I also leave many details up to the subject. In this series I’ve never directed styling or dress. I’m always intrigued by the way people decide they want to be remembered. I should submit one of my sketches… It honestly looks like an alien code. No one would ever decipher my stick figures close enough to relate them to one of the final images. Sometimes even I can’t decipher them. In that sense, planning is sometimes pointless.

During the shoot I enjoy improvisation. You never know what will work and what won’t until you’re on set. I’ve actually been wrestling with that problem for a while. Everyone idealizes images in their head. The funny thing about a large format camera, the world is transformed on the ground glass. Often I’ll look at the subject directly and think “that’s hideous” but when I see it underneath the darkcloth it’s absolutely beautiful. There’s some transformation that happens inside. I like to call it a magic box.

OLM: Naturally, no interview with a photographer of your skill would be complete without dealing with prophecies of doom! As the technical capacities of digital photography continue to expand – and as the technology itself quickly becomes ubiquitous – what do you see as the future of film, paper, and negative? Are you the practitioner of a dying art?

MG: There have been countless conversations on this subject and so I do not feel my contribution will be of much value. That said, there are many reasons photographers choose to continue using film. As I’ve mentioned before, the process is very different and that process can lead to an entirely different image. When you can’t immediately look down and examine the image you’ve just captured, you feel more inclined to hone your focus. You become more alert. Every image is a little more precious. Film is tactile. Digital images are almost imaginary.

Film image are composed of granular particles (round), digital images are made up of pixels (square). They are opposites in their most basic form. I also consistently see photographers attempting to mimic film-like colors, gradients, and general appearances. Visit Rachel Hulin’s ‘A Photography Blog’ and you’ll see what I mean (http://tinyurl.com/rachelhulin).

There’s also the question of optics. Until they create a digital sensor large enough to use with an 8 x 10 camera no one will be able to achieve the optical effects produced by large format cameras. For the longest time I was shooting 35mm film because my digital was a Canon Rebel XT. The dynamic range was not up to par with film and highlights were consistently blown out. Now that I’ve made an upgrade I can barely tell the difference. As technology progresses there will no longer be an argument in image quality and depth, but rather the debate will be between the processes.

OLM: And while we’re on the subject of the future, what does it hold for you? What aspects of your art are you interested in pursuing, what challenges? Where do you hope to see yourself, professionally, in 5 years? And of course: what advice would you give to anybody just starting out, looking to explore their love of photography?

MG: I will never stop photographing the people that surround me. That is most important.

I know I will always be a photographer. Whether that’s my profession, only fate can decide that. Professionally I would love to be receiving freelance editorial assignments but the print industry is currently in complete tumult. This is a very exciting time to be working in the field. Everything is changing. Nobody knows what the industry will look like or where they will be within it. So although I have my ideals, I know the chances of properly predicting where I’ll be are rather impractical.

My advice to people starting out: Get educated. Photography is not just Flickr and DeviantArt. Treat it as a language not a trend.

More of Michael’s work can be found at inceptivenotions.com

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