(Questions in bold, by Brent Randall)
Michael, your first memories of photographs were the Kodachrome slides of holidays with your grandparents. What was it about those images and that time that spurred your interest in photography?
I grew up in a US military family. We were always moving; East Coast, West Coast, lots of zigzagging and new schools. Nearly every Christmas I would see the Kodachromes my grandfather took. He was an amateur but knew what he liked and was good at it. The shots were satisfying because they never changed; they told the story of who my relatives were, how time passes and, by extension, whispered to me about who I was and might become.
You abandoned taking photos due to the cost of processing and developing film. Now we have digital, which is practically free. Why do you still choose not to take photographs?
Like most, I shoot digitally as well as film. I gave up on photography during college because it was expensive but fell back into it during graduate school with the advent of digital. Now, if I choose not to photograph something it’s more because I’ve seen enough similar examples — the scene or subject I’m facing — already photographed. My favourite pictures offer new ways of seeing; it’s getting more and more difficult to find those particular views.
Unphotographable is focused around moments which could have made a great photo but didn’t. What was the catalyst for this project, and which was your first ‘missed’ opportunity?
I was in Harar, Ethiopia, easily the most photographable place I’d ever seen. There was this thriving street life; the city’s walled with all kinds of passageways, beautiful open corridors and courtyards, but the privacy of the people who live there seemed more important than my need to take pictures. I was there, and then I’d be gone, with a satchel full of photographs that would some way prove I’d been there — something felt fairly twisted about that transaction. As a photographer, I’ve never believed that, whatever the cost, the world owes me a particular picture. On the plane home, while looking at some oilrigs off the Libyan coast, I thought about starting Unphotographable, a place where I could keep track of these missed opportunities. The threshold for what becomes a real picture and what becomes a new piece for Unphotographable is whether or not I tried. If I tried to capture something and couldn’t, for whatever reason, it’s good enough. Honestly, they’re the hardest pictures I’ve ever tried to (not) take. A great picture might make a horrible Unphotographable entry. William Eggleston’s tricycle would be dull; Ansel Adams’s Yosemite would be monumentally difficult to describe. Sometimes the best photographs last longer than 1/125th of a second; a seconds-long situation that would yield a blurry photograph might look great in text.
It’s too easy to see your entries as poetic sonnets or infographic texts, though you prefer to see your text presentations as actual images or holistic moments. You’ve said that text unfolds over time, with viewers tending to take more time with it as opposed to images — why do you think that’s the case?
Text oddly works its way into your ear first, and you can’t hear everything at once. Reading text provides a slow unfolding: You don’t know this sentence will end with sarsaparilla. Images are more instant and easily assimilated by the eye. Unphotographables are an attempt to recreate what we see in a particular scene in an order that’s meaningful.
When would an image take precedence over text?
Photographs are lightning bolts. They deliver so much energy quickly; that’s exactly why the Web and social media have taken off. We’re smitten by the spark and zing of pictures, how they can instantly transform, inspire and derail us. They’re the perfect medium for the digital age. Text is a slow lover. Words take more time to work us up but have the capacity, when the right ones are strung together in the right order, to unlock the world in profound and memorable ways.
With photography there’s an element of truth, an insight into a moment that was captured but has now passed. However, text opens up the possibility of fiction. As a trained writer, how do you retain the truth of a moment with the core of writing being based in creation?
There’s great friction in keeping Unphotographables from sliding into make-believe. I’d built as large a ‘Stop!’ sign as I could for that road. I’ve no interest in writing fiction — I want to be as true as I can to a particular moment. The real, actual world is ten times weirder and more wonderful than anything anyone can conjure. Imagination’s an incredible tool, but it’s too wide open and freeform for me. I like limits, especially the one that says keep it real.
Are you ever tempted to inflate a moment in order to create a perfect or more rounded Unphotographable?
I’ve missed taking the most unbelievable pictures that would have made dull Unphotographables. They’re two different mediums. I can only write about the missed pictures that lend themselves well to language. Words, in this case, create a perspective in the same way a 50mm lens at f1.2 for 1/30th of a second creates a certain view. I have a perspective and hope that by noticing I keep it from ballooning a particular scene into something it wasn’t.
If you were to transform Unphotographable into ‘Unfilmable’, how would the synopsis of your screenplay read?
It would have to be a screenplay that could absolutely never be made or advance past the table read. UK multimedia students use Unphotographable as a ‘script’ of sorts to create their own short films and videos, which is gratifying to see, but an unfilmable movie would have to be one that never gets made, screened or seen, alas!
What’s the world’s greatest image?
It hasn’t been taken yet. We’re just about reaching the connected state where we’re all ready for it, hitting refresh refresh refresh. It’ll come and blow our minds. That might be hogwash; let’s say the best photograph ever was probably taken from one of the Apollo missions when they turned to look back at earth rising over the moon with one of those tricked-out, interstellar NASA Hasselblads.