EWW: How do you want people to feel when they have finished looking at your work?
Michael: I hope that they get a sense that they’ve been somewhere. That they’ve taken their own journey – maybe even bringing back some memories from their own lives. I want people to look at what I captured and interpret it for themselves, with their own meaning. Hopefully, I can achieve just a little bit of that – good or bad memories. When I make photos, I really just want to capture that particular moment of what I am feeling or see, but then, I don’t really like to go too deep of what I was experiencing as to leave it up to the viewer.
EWW: Michael, if someone were asked to make a comment about your work as a whole, what do you think they would say?
Michael: That’s a tough question. Not sure how to answer that. I think they would say things like, his photos capture the now, like you are there. There’s an underlying theme to “move forward” in my work – to think. But then again I also have themes to look back and reflect.
EWW: What would be your comments about your work, as a whole?
Michael: I tend to focus on landscapes, textures in landscapes/clouds, lines that you do not normally see at first glance – vast open spaces. I like empty and yes my work reflects in a way of how I feel or who I am. I’m not saying I’m unhappy, I’m just saying I prefer to see and fully experience these beautiful places alone, rather than in groups of humans. Ever since I was a kid I always wandered off alone. While other friends or kids were playing together I was off reading a book in my closet at night, wandering the hills of Coyote Hills in Fremont CA. with my bike or in the farmer’s cornfield around the block from us. I was always attracted to being outside in open spaces with no one around. Vast landscapes – it’s just so peaceful. I start out looking for shots, but usually I just see things off the cuff. Most likely how most photographers are. I try to plan something, but then I walk around and all of a sudden I see how the light is moving across a cloud and how it interacts with a certain mountain and so on. I get this unexplainable feeling inside of me, it’s exciting! I hear myself yelling out loud like a madman or in my head “holy sh#@! That looks amazing! I need to get that now!” I sometimes fumble a bit, and rush before the scene is gone, and sometimes I miss the perfect moment. I guess with all of that said, I capture moments of what I am feeling (good/bad) happening at the time of the photo. I try to encapsulate all of that into a scene. I try my best.
EWW: If I were to walk into a room which included works of yours as well as others, would I immediately know which ones were yours and why?
Michael: I think you would. I have a certain way with clouds in my photos. Some of my angles/compositions are a little weird too. I don’t use software filters, I’m old school and when I need a filter, I still screw one onto the actual lens. I mainly use ND filters but as of late I have not been using any filters experimenting with the way digital cameras react with different focus points. I love digital, it’s come a long way, but it’s still not film. They react very differently to everything. I look for things within landscapes that are alien, other worldly and so on. That also could do with the fact that I’m a big Sci Fi geek. Well, for sure that is one of the main reasons. There are so many places right in your own backyard that look like they could be from another planet. Recently I was in the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest in CA. Beautiful area! But I got the weirdest feeling when I was there. These trees are over 5,000 years old; they look dead, but are alive. Even the sound the Bristlecone Pines make when they slightly sway in the wind, their creak is different, it’s creepy, it’s a low grumble and quite loud actually because it is so quiet up there at 10,500 – 11,300’. It’s like walking into Sleepy Hollow or a Tolkien book – the feeling is surreal. Those alien places are my favorite to capture. I’ve heard from a few people that looked at certain photos and say, “your photo reminded me of this memory” or “It doesn’t look like earth”, “Your photo tells a story”. Those are some of the biggest compliments I’ve ever received, and if I achieve at least 1% of that for the future – I’m happy. I just want my work to make you think of anything – it could be anything.
EWW: Your work seems to focus primarily on the sand dunes, desert, and landscapes. Is that accurate? If so, what draws you to these three subjects?
Michael: In a previous question I mentioned I like being alone. Not in the sense I like being alone forever in some Hobbit Hole. But I tend to be a reclusive. I’ve always been this way since I was a child. It’s just how I am, nothing to do with my parents or a horrible upbringing, our family life was great etc. I’m married to an awesome wife for almost eight years now. I also have the coolest dog on the planet that decided to be the main subject in my travel photos a lot. He’s become quite popular in a small Sierra group by Route 395 in the Mono Lake CA area. I call him The General (Vito); they now only want photos of The General! I’ll post a landscape and then I’ll get a reply “Where’s the General???” But with the hustle and bustle of society, the mundane work life – it is really hard for me to mentally cope. So where do I go? It’s mainly the Sierra Mountains and the desert surrounding them. The first time I saw the desert was with my parents, I was 9 years old – I fell in love. The desert is a brutal but beautiful place. In all honesty it is the only place I feel the weight of life lifted off of my shoulders, the pressure of bills gone, reaching your goals, maintaining everything and getting away from traffic!! It’s the one place I can concentrate, focus, and feel I do my best work as a photographer. The desert really is my own therapy office to go to and deal with past demons or whatever you want to call them. The desert is my Therapy office and The General (Vito) my travel companion is the Prozac. I let everything go, there in the moment in complete peace, then I come back refreshed and I’m wrecked all over again back in the city. A repeating cycle as if I’m Bill Murray in Groundhog Day. When I’m in desert areas I’m always looking for Nautilus symbols. Not the shell itself but the actual lines of the Nautilus symbol within nature landscapes. In ancient cultures it represents a symbol of life, internal harmony, and the perfection of nature, the nautilus shell evokes a sense of mystery to me. I find them a lot in the desert with the way the wind interacts with the dunes, creating those graceful lines swirled beneath your feet. They are just so beautiful to me. It’s strange too, I could be walking on a desert dune, miles of sand, and then all of a sudden it’s like a painting on the ground, I’m about to make the photo – and my dog runs through it disturbing all of the sand!!! Mother Nature painting art within art for you to enjoy. Now, I’m not a religious person, but something or someone is definitely behind putting these beautiful images everywhere – the earth is surely alive with talent. To me the Nautilus symbol/shell encapsulates what I try to achieve in my work: balance, beauty, consistency and continual growth.
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EWW: Besides subject matter, are there any other consistent themes in you work such, lighting, technique, type of shot, etc.
Michael: As far as techniques go I have no idea what I am doing. (laughing) Honestly I just know what makes this darker or lighter, near, far, angles I see that spark something inside of me, a memory is evoked, how a scene/place makes me feel inside, and then click. I guess the only thing I do differently from a lot of new a photographer, who are just getting into digital photography, is that I use filters that screw onto my camera. I don’t use filters in software and I really strive to get everything right “in camera”. Rather than using Photoshop or Lightroom to “fix” things. I really think photographers should start out on film. You really do notice the difference in a photographer’s work that started on digital and never shot on film. I’m not saying it looks good or bad either way. But you can definitely see the difference with someone’s work that never shot on film. I miss film and I’m hoping when things get squared away on my end, that I can get a dark room going and get back into film. Getting back into the science of it – something like that.
EWW: Michael, I notice that great deal of your fine art photography is black & white. Why?
Michael: I like color photography but I tend to lean towards black and white more and more as the years progress. My grandfather was a photographer from Germany. I think a lot of it has to do with him and his photographs because everything I was exposed to growing up was his black white photo in the dark room visiting him on weekends and then color photography with my dad on camping trips. I like both though. When I go out and make a scene I do tend to see things more in black and white. It’s always a tough decision because sometimes you have these really cool looking dark blue/black storm clouds over a valley lit up, but then, you notice the highlights and the rays of light, the shadows and think this would be great in black and white! Everyone’s reaction to black and white is quite unique too from eye to eye. It’s always interesting hearing “I would love to see that in color” especially with wedding clients. Some photos work better as black and white, but they pester you for the color ones, even though it has horrible lighting in color. Some folks find black and white taboo and ugly. I don’t get it. I think this generation is screwed artistically ha! I’m just kidding, but really, a lot of people do not like black and white. I guess it’s not for everyone. But there is a certain beauty in black and white that color cannot capture. You can make clouds move with black and white photography, within your photo; you can make subjects think, cry, laugh in black and white more accurately. There’s a certain spirit that gets brought out of the photo with black and white. It’s more expressive to me. As with color though, that’s not to say I like it less. I make what works best with the scene and if the photo is in black and white, it’s because that’s how I imagined it when I first made the shot – usually.
EWW: Marketing these days seems to be quite a challenge for many fine art photographers. What do you see as the biggest challenges for a fine art photographer? How are you dealing with these challenges?
Michael: The industry of photography is extremely saturated. There are a lot of us. There are also a lot of us that charge too little ruining it for other photographers in certain markets. For example wedding photography. Normally for 8 hours you would charge $1900-$3,000 depending on the package. A lot of photographers out there are charging $400-$800 ruining the market for professionals. A quick buck. Another challenge I think is that you’ve got to ask yourself, “What market are you in?”
It’s hard for us photographers, but to truly survive and do this full time, you have to do all photography. Hopefully not your entire career but at least in the beginning you have to. Not just one thing like specializing in only “wedding photography” and then you wonder why you can’t do it full time. Do I only want to do fine art photography? Of course, YES. Can I survive on it – unfortunately NO? That brings us to the work world. I need to do corporate shoots, commercial shoots, wedding shoots, product shoots and so on. With that said though, all of these things enable me to do my travel photo work. I freelance with different travel magazines and get to see things. Yes, that is all I want to do, but in order to do my art, I need to do all of it. Just like with any art, good and the bad. All artists deal with this and some don’t deal with that anymore and only do their one medium that they strive for. Pure art. It’s a tough road all artists deal with. You don’t want to sell out, but you also like to eat right??? My only piece of advice is that you need to keep moving forward, sweep the negativity aside. Don’t be one of the “talkers” and “do your goal”. So what if I have to do everything – you need to put yourself out there. There are a few people I know that have goals set. They’ve had these goals for 10 or more years. Goals not achieved. Don’t be that person. You should be able to look at your life and ask, “What’s different now in my life from 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 years ago?” If nothing has changed. Change it. Market, work your ass off, market more, get into social networking, and advertise on the Internet. It’s the way of today and I tried to avoid it for years. I hate social networking but finally came to the realization that this is how the world is and you need to get on the train, or you’ll never get anywhere with your business. It’s no longer the newspaper for advertising or advertising in a magazine. It’s the things that drive me nuts! Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and your own official website. That’s just the tip of the iceberg. The list is endless. It’s a necessary evil these days and I’ve learned it works. I get more work and now I am able to survive. Am I 100% where I want to be with my photography business? Absolutely not. I’m at about 65% and nothing is perfect, but I‘m doing what I love to do. My next goal is to find my own space, set up a dark room, and to produce my own digital and film prints. I want a full working studio and it seems like a million miles away – but I’m still pushing forward.
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EWW: Do you use social media platforms to market and promote your work? If you do, which social media platform seems to work the best for you?
Michael: I do. I use a Facebook brand/fan page, Squarespace, Twitter and Instagram for myself. There are more but those are the main ones that I’ve gotten work from. For Facebook, I have had companies I worked for sponsor some of my photos and pay for the ads. I’ve had clients contact me through Instagram that saw my travel magazine work, and as my official website is up longer, it generates work for me. However, let’s make this clear, these social platforms do not do the work for you. You have to do the work. You need to be up at 6 am, no later than 9 am is my rule if I was up late editing. You need to post online, interact, blog, talk with other photographers, wedding groups, contact tourism boards, corporate event planners, contact magazines, share your work with magazines, find the main contacts at galleries, answer emails, keep invoices organized, do your taxes, bills and so on. You need to do the work. These platforms do not do it for you. You can’t just make a website and then wonder why no one is responding. Also do not work for trades of services with other people, clients, and friends. “Well we’ve known each other for soooo long; can you charge $100 instead of $450?” You work right? To pay bills? Well, I need food in the fridge too; being friends doesn’t pay my bills for me. Trading services and working on referral deals do not work too. “If you advertise me, I’ll advertise you.” I’ve learned no one works as hard as you. They will not work as hard as you do. You need to do it yourself. You might have referred them to someone, and they got that client, but when it comes to getting you something in return. Rarely happens. Friends are friends and business is business. Being on your own, your own boss, a freelancer is not easy peasy like some folks think. “Oh but you get to make your own hours”. Being your own boss is a recipe for destruction in many ways. You really have to discipline yourself, it’s definitely not stress free living month to month, but the reward is greater, because you are doing what you want to do – your passion. I don’t have everything figured out at all. I’m still learning every single day from other business owners and artists. As long as I continue to grow I’m doing something right. But as long as Netflix is around – we freelancers are screwed.
EWW: Michael, just to wrap up the interview, do you have any final thoughts about you and your work, that you think would be important for others to know about?
Michael: Another main theme that runs within my photo work is conservation, preservation and wildlife protection. These issues mean a lot to me and when I can, it may not be much; I really try to donate to these certain causes and help animals. I think everyone should find one cause they believe in and even if it’s just a dollar, remember – you’re helping. I just hope my photo work will inspire and energize viewers to think of anything from their own lives. I already have my own meaning behind each and every photo I make and share. I want viewers to make my photos their own. Thanks for the interview Ed – really enjoyed it.
Official Website: http://www.michael-keelphotography.com