Tell us a bit about yourself. How did you get into photography?
This has become my most difficult question to answer. Not because it was either mysterious or convoluted, but because I don’t feel I should trot out the same old answer! Basically, I’d always been fascinated with photography and the magic of making images, which in the days of black-and-white wet darkrooms was heightened by the special moment, denied to digital photographers, of seeing the image slowly appear on the print as it sloshed around in the developing tray, in red light.
The problem was that photography was not considered real employment, and as far as my school was concerned, my job was to get into Oxford and improve their ratings. So that’s what I did, to study Geography, which turned out to be not such a bad choice for someone who would eventually be a travelling photographer.
I went from university into advertising, in that industry’s most enjoyable days, so I had no complaints, but slowly the call of photography as a full-time occupation (couldn’t call it a career!) got more insistent. The remarkable thing was that the agency, Benton & Bowles, in those days big, American, successful and Knightsbridge-based, was willing to give me a two-and-a-half month sabbatical so that I could go off and travel up the Amazon with my secondhand Hasselblads. Inconceivable nowadays.
The story gets longer, so I’ll just say that on my return I had a show of the pictures at the Brazilian Embassy in London, the Time-Life Books Editor and Picture Editor came along, borrowed the trannies, and several months later ran them as cover, chapter opener and spreads in the first of a new book series, on the Amazon. I resigned the next day on the strength of that. Sounds ungrateful put that abruptly, but the agency was lovely, and gave me a leaving present of two weeks’ photography assignment for one of their major clients. Basically, I had help from kind people.
Why are you so passionate about teaching others?
Because I know it can be done. I’ve had a number of friends and business colleagues say that you can’t teach a creative activity like photography; people either have it or they don’t. I never believed this, because I’d made the transition from the normal suited world to photography myself. I’m completely confident that many people have the makings inside them, and that if the circumstances are right and the ambition is there, it can be brought out.
I’ve been proved right on that one by the complete change in photography over the last several years. There’s a lot of very good work being published online by people who do photography for love, often in their spare time. It would be foolish of me to say that everyone can become a good photographer, just as much as they could become a writer, poet, actor or painter. But if the spark and spirit are there to begin with, it can be brought out.
Now, there are a lot of sites and books and whatever offering to teach, so it’s complicated by the fact that the quality varies. I’m highly competitive, anyway, so you won’t be surprised that I think most are useless.
Your question is spot on, so that’s an additional reason for my being passionate about teaching—I really don’t like seeing it being done poorly. I’ve had a full and very enjoyable career shooting, and frankly I’d like to pass on whatever of that might be useful to others.
What was the inspiration behind your latest release, The Photographer's Eye: Complete Book and DVD Course?
We (my publisher Ilex and I) thought that there were many new things that we could get across on video, in addition to the ongoing series of books. It’s an extension of my strong belief that one of the best ways of understanding a creative process is to be a part of it, standing alongside. So we decided to take a video camera on the road while I was shooting. It’s very varied, from an ancient trail trading tea in southwest China to a studio shot of jewellery, a street parade in san Francisco to a portrait of craftsmen making mandolins.
My own work tends to be varied, anyway, so this seemed an ideal opportunity. The title’s a bit of a mouthful, but at the heart it’s five hours of video on DVDs, with a printed backup. How on earth did we get to five hours? I’ve no idea, and I don’t even want to count the shot footage, but it’s probably nearer 50 hours!
You have travelled the world for your photography. Do you have a particular place or subject that stands out as your favourite?
Not really, but you probably want a longer answer. What I don’t do is choose nice places and go there to shoot. It has always been the assignments that have driven the travel, and it’s probably not surprising that when I look back, the most interesting and memorable ones have been the most unlikely at the time. I would never have thought about going to Sudan on and off for two years, but the book we did—the initiative came from my friends Tim and Vicki, who were respectively US Ambassador there and writer/journalist—was an exciting project.
Cambodia was a powerful experience also, in 1989 and 1990. There were no tourists, just a civil war, and for days on end I was the only Westerner not only in the temples at Angkor but in the entire province of Siem Reap. All of this is a roundabout way of saying that when you’re shooting on assignment, the place you’re in takes over completely. If you engage fully with the location you’re in, the question of favourite doesn’t really enter into the equation.
If you had to choose just three top tips for a photographer wanting to improve, what would they be?
1. Think about why you’re making the image. What is it that motivated you in the first place. What appeals to you will (probably) appeal to viewers IF you get your idea across. It starts with thinking.
2. Be interesting, be different, with every shot you take. Don’t copy, don’t be obvious. We the audience—and particularly we the professional audience—want to be surprised. So surprise us.
3. Devour the work of others. Go to every gallery show you can, look at books of photography, look at what’s current in fashion magazines and good online sites. Decide what and whom you like. Form an opinion.
Michael's latest Book, 'The Photographer's Eye: A Graphic Guide' is available to buy from today. Take a look at the Ilex website
for more information.