Michigan Photographers: Matt Callow answers Reader Questions
February 23, 2006
Van Waffle asks: How has moving to another continent affected the way you see things?
Matt Callow: The short answer, I suppose, is that I don’t think it really affected the way I see things all that much. I think that if I’d moved to North America and found myself in the Great Plains, or the Rockies, or in a huge sprawling city like LA, I might have found the change so dizzying I couldn’t help but see the world in a different way. But as it turns out, Michigan and the UK have more in common than they do differences, so I had no great culture shock when I moved here.
Beginning with when I left home at 18 and went away to another city, I’ve always moved some distance to a new place every few years. Moving on and starting afresh became second nature to me. Granted, this latest move was slightly more of a leap than relocating, say, from London to Brighton, but I still tend to take these things in my stride. I’ve always been the kind of person who needs to get to know his new environment very well, very quickly. When I arrive at a new place I always spend a lot of time just wandering around getting to know the neighbourhood, or driving around discovering what’s out there further afield. Even now, many of my weekend mornings are spent exploring the back roads in the local townships, and I’ll bet I know my way around this county better than most people who’ve lived here all their lives. Nowadays I do all this exploration for photographic reasons as well as for my urge to get to know a place, but the two are intertwined.
I think perhaps photographers “see” the world differently to other people, at least I think I do. It’s a banal point, but you can always count on me to know exactly where the sun is at any given time, or to give you a decent estimate of the day’s Exposure Value. And then I’m always thinking about how something I see might be photographed, regardless of whether I’m holding a camera. I think this way of seeing has been ingrained in me for a long time, perhaps even from before I took up photography seriously. And it can be a little wearing. I think sometimes there’s a danger of not always interacting fully with the world, and instead seeing it from a distance, as a little more than a potential subject. But then perhaps that’s why I’m a photographer, not a politician?
Now, did that way of seeing change when I moved here? I don’t think it did, really. Moving here just opened up a whole new set of subjects. I suppose for a while I was pretty obsessed with documenting America and Americana, casting my cynical immigrant’s eye over my new surroundings, but that seemed to wear off after I’d been here while and everything started to feel more everyday and less startling. This is my home now, the novelty has worn off, and I think now I see the place less as an outsider and more as a local.
Scott wonders: What kinds of post-production, if any, do you favor?
Matt: I’m primarily an analogue kind of guy, so I try to digitally manipulate my images as little as possible. I do as much as I can ‘in camera’, which means I like to get to know what my cameras can do, and then use film, technique, and processing methods as appropriate, always with the final image in mind. That way there’s usually little to do in post-production. When I’m posting images to the web, I usually scan from the negative (or alt-process print), and then use Photoshop only for minor adjustments such as dust removal, curve correction, and so on. I try not to take the image too far away from what was originally conceived and captured. There are exceptions to this, obviously, but I’m always happier with my work when I get the results I’m looking for away from the computer.
Dorothy wants to know: Do you feel that digital is cheating? Why?
Matt: I’ve garnered something of a reputation for being anti-digital, and to some extent it’s true, but mostly it’s just me being contrary and mischievous. I love technology, and I like digital cameras. If it wasn’t for digital cameras I’d not be a photographer, simple as that. But these days, ever since my last digital camera broke a year ago while I was taking a picture of a hipster at SXSW in Austin, TX, I’ve been almost entirely an analogue photographer. And that’s become very important to me, it’s part of my identity now as an artist, an essential part of my creative process, and I’m not sure I could ever go back to using digital cameras.
To me photography is a process. An organic process, in which every stage of the process feeds every other stage, and the final result – the photograph – is just one of the equal stages. Creatively I get just as excited about standing on a cold, windy lakeshore waiting for a long exposure to elapse, as I do splashing fixer around in the kitchen, or trying a new printing technique, or digging through a box of expired film at a flea market, or experimenting with arcane processing methods, or being surprised at the serendipitous results of a light leak, or willing a Van Dyke print dry, or being annoyed when only one of my sixteen exposures came out, or reading about how someone hacked the shutter on their toy camera, or watching through a viewfinder waiting for my wife to smile in just the right way so that I can click the shutter.
When I’m making an image, all of those kinds of activities mix together to become essential parts of my doing photography. The end product – the print or the jpeg file – may be what the viewer thinks of as my photography, but for me, that’s just a small part of it. Now, with modern digital cameras, where the technology does most of the work, I think the joy, the excitement, the soul of that process is lost. And I think that’s sad. I think people who work that way are missing out, and I think photography in general will suffer because of it.
Also, because of the huge popularity of digital photography, the traditional film industry is dying. Kodak are no longer making black and white paper, Agfa have already gone under, Ilford have had all sorts of problems. Nikon and Canon are reducing their film camera range and Konica Minolta have pulled out of photography altogether. It’s looking bleak. I’m not worried that film manufacturing will disappear altogether, there’ll always be a market for the stuff, however small it might end up being. And anyway, because of the peculiarities of my kind of photography, it wouldn’t really affect me all that much. But as digital cameras take over, and film photography becomes a niche, hobbyist activity performed by crackpot old fogeys like me, the next generation of photographers may never get to stand in the dark and see the magic of an image appearing out of nowhere in front of them, and that makes me sad.
Fivecats wants to know: What photographers have influenced you and what photographers do you currently keep up with, photography-wise?
Matt: As I never went to college to study photography formally, the selection of photographers that I’ve collected as influences over the years is rather ad hoc. Also I have rather a short term memory for such things, and tend to get into a certain photographer or artist in a big way for a short time and then move onto someone else.
That said, William Eggleston was my first photographic love, and he still is, even though the work I do now is very different to his. In terms of the greats there’s Alfred Stieglitz, Bill Brandt, Paul Strand, Edward Steichen, and a whole myriad of others. In terms of modern photographers, recently I’ve been very much into Ken Rosenthal, and last week I saw an exhibit of Hiroshi Sugimoto’s seascapes that just blew me away.
It might be an obvious point, but I think that’s important to remember that when it comes influences, it’s much more than liking someone’s work and then trying to recreate the technique or copy the style. My photography is influenced subtly by all sorts of work that at first glance might appear to have nothing in common with what I do. So, outside of photography I’m hugely influenced by certain painters, especially JMW Turner (who’s work I love), Picasso, and Edward Hopper. Then there’s comic book illustrators like Dave McKean or Frank Miller, film makers such as Jim Jarmusch, Wong Kar-Wai, and Martin Scorsese. It’s difficult to describe (and perhaps a little pretentious) but I think music is a huge influence on my work too, and the work of people like Arvo Part, John Coltrane and Tom Waits share an intangible quality that I’m drawn to, and in some respects try to incorporate into my work. But maybe that’s just me, I don’t really expect people to buy or understand that.
And then photography that I currently keep up with? Well, over the last couple of years the rise of social networking tools on the web – sites such as Flickr and Livejournal and Del.icio.us – has transformed the way photographers interact and share their work and ideas and inspirations with each other. Flickr in particular has brought together a huge number of photographers, many of whom work in similar ways to myself, using toy cameras or pinholes, and all sorts of analogue experimentation. I could point to loads of people who’s work I like, but to keep it short I’ll namecheck just three: CK, Nicolai_g and Heyoka all do amazing experimental work, but with a consistent level of quality that’s inspirational to me.
Bill S asks: I was wondering what the biggest difference from a photographer’s perspective is between Michigan and England. (feel free to add similarities as well)
Matt: Actually the similarities are the most interesting thing, I think. Wolverhampton, where I grew up, is a large industrial city in the English Midlands, dominated for years by steel working and the car industry. But by the end of the twentieth century the city’s manufacturing core and related economy had largely collapsed, and the city suffered tremendously. This is a very similar story to the one here in Ypsilanti and south east Michigan, and I think it’s one of the key reasons I feel at home here. And of course it means that many of the photographic subjects – urban decay, city life, railways, factories – are the same.
Another similarity between here and home is the proximity of all this urban sprawl to the countryside. Back in Wolverhampton I never had to drive far in order to find myself in the beautiful Shropshire countryside, or the Welsh hills, or even Lake District in the north. That countryside, however idyllic it might seem on the surface, always showed signs of past human activity, be it mining, or forestry, or whatever. It’s the same here. In the wake of Michigan’s highly profitable nineteenth century lumber industry, the landscape left behind might seem wild and natural, but really it’s a very human, artificial landscape, and very reminiscent of home. The way humanity interacts and leaves its mark on the natural world has always been one of the things I’m interested in exploring with my photography.
Andrew wants to know: What’s your favorite photographic subject in Michigan?
Matt: Well, it changes of course, but at the moment I’m rather taken by the old farmland up on the high ground in the townships north of Ypsi and Ann Arbor. I spend a lot of time exploring the dirt roads and farm tracks out there, taking photos of the ancient trees in the middle of fields, the creeks, the frozen lakes, the old cemeteries and run down farm buildings. Unusually for this area, it feels as though the landscape has been standing unchanged for decades, which in some cases maybe it has, though sadly it’s now being swallowed up all too rapidly by the seemingly unstoppable suburban sprawl. But strangely even that appeals to me, photographically at least, and it feels important to me to be documenting this most recent human imposition on the world, even though I find it distasteful.
And then with Michigan being home to the Great Lakes, the great photographic subject is, of course, water. It’s hard to go far without coming across a lake, or river, or creek; even my house backs onto the Huron River. And then there’s all the rain and snow we have to live with, for what seems like most of the year. So consequently water has become one of my favourite subjects, almost by default. I feel I’ve barely got a grip on how to photograph the stuff, but I’m in no hurry. By far my favourite mass of water in the state is Lake Superior. Photographically I haven’t explored it nearly enough yet, and I certainly haven’t spent enough time up there, but I’m sure I will. Just standing at Whitefish Point during a winter gale was such an awe-inspiring experience, that I know I’ll be going back there time and time again. I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to do it photographic justice, but I’ll try.