Mike McCawley talks about everything but gear

This interview started way back in November of 2016, way way waaaay back before some really bad sh*t happened for most of the folks interested in reading this blog.  Coincidentally, Mike’s camera was also broke during that time.  After getting it back, the man has pumped out an impressive amount of really stellar photos–and it’s quite fascinating to me to see each new photo he posts and know some of his thoughts on making photos and interacting with social media.  Is the Chicago Mike-aissance a thing?

Where are you from?

I’m originally from the Pacific Northwest, Washington State (the dry/desert side of the state, not the pretty evergreens you might imagine when you think of that area). I moved to the Chicago area in 2004 and now live in Evanston which is a great little city just north of Chicago.

What got you started shooting street?

I’ve been interested in candid photography for a very long time, going all the way back to when I was a kid and my parents had these cool “Day in the Life” books that were just full of photos from all across America and Russia (and maybe other places) that were all taken on the same day. Seeing life captured in that way was very powerful for me and growing up I always have enjoyed looking at that kind of photography. A few years ago I finally got around to jumping into photography myself and immediately set out to learn the ropes of shooting street. It’s been incredibly challenging and humbling, but also very rewarding as I see my work improve over time.

Yes! That was one.

 

It does look fascinating. So this was published in ’87, so I guess it was a bit past the Time/Life great photo spreads of the 50’s and 60’s. But well before the internet, obviously. Do you ever think about the impact the internet has on us as photographers? You and I are both of the generation that grew up looking (some case lusting after) printed work.  I wonder just how much the internet has had an effect on us as photographers, and the genre of street photography in general. What do you think your trajectory may have been?

I think that in some ways the internet has created a culture of chasing attention on social media vs creating art for the sake of art. I know I’m certainly guilty of trying to play that popularity game. I think there are a lot of people entering photography in the social media era that are doing it because it seems like an easy way to find attention online.

Yes, I do think my trajectory would have been quite different if I’d gotten my start in the pre-internet age. For one, I’d have a much harder time finding people to look at my photos – let alone finding talented people to give me advice and critique to help me progress. It’s a double-edged sword I think. On the one hand we now have the ability to very easily form communities of like-minded people to come together and discuss things like street photography. To be able to give and take critique or discuss various aspects of the genre. I’m convinced 90% of street photography discussions online are about what the definition of street is.

But on the other hand I think the over-reliance on critique can be very limiting. As a beginner, I found critique to be very helpful. But it didn’t really help me develop my own eye because invariably all you’re doing is editing by committee, really. People look at an image and say “well you don’t have the right leading lines” or “the figure to ground is lacking” and it’s like, what the hell? I mean, yes to a point it is very helpful to have people pointing out things that might have missed your own eye – but what I found to be the most helpful to developing my eye and my style was to go to the Evanston library and check out every book of street photography that they had on hand – which was a lot, surprisingly. I learned more from flipping through those books than I did in months and months of online crit groups. There came a point in my path where I figured out that the whole “editing by committee” thing was mostly not helping and decided to just trust my eye and if it didn’t work for everybody that was ok as long as it worked for me.

Who are some of the great photographers that inspired you? (Let’s maybe stay out of the social media world, but it’s your call if you want to.)

I was first getting started with street photography around the time of Vivian Maier’s story coming out and her work grabbed my attention in the beginning, for sure, but I also dove in to study as many of the “greats” as I could as I’ve personally found there to be no better path to improving my own work than to study a good book of photography. Garry Winogrand is one obvious one that I’m sure is an entry point for many in this genre and I’m no different there. Others that I admire greatly are William Eggelston, Fred Herzog, Elliot Erwit… One lesser known photographer I quite like is Joshua Mann Pailet from New Orleans. I’d say my number one influence above all others is Martin Parr – an easy choice I suppose – but I just really love his quirky eye for detail.

What would you consider the most insightful piece of criticism you’ve received?

This is a great question and a hard one to answer but I do recall posting an image in the HCSP critique thread a long while back. A man and a woman standing on a corner being grouchy with each other. Terribly composed. The light was terrible. I thought it was an interesting moment though with the woman giving the guy this pretty peeved look. At the time, I was pretty happy with it and posted it up for some critique – hoping for a few “good jobs” (which is what most early requests of critique are all about, right?) and somebody – I think it was Justin Vogel – made a comment along the lines of “People have expressions. What’s interesting about that?” And that bit of advice really struck a chord with me and really affected the way I saw what I was shooting. Another bit of advice I read , not necessarily crit, is that adage (maybe it’s an adage, maybe I’m just quoting someone from the internet, I don’t know) that it’s better to take an interesting picture of a boring subject than a boring photo of an interesting subject. It made me really think about what types of things were interesting to photograph. Looking at photos from the greats – it led me to more question what it was about the subject that caused that photographer to lift the camera. I can’t say I always find interesting things to fill my frame with but I sure try.

One thing that I believe is difficult to overcome with social media platforms used by photographers (like Flickr) is that the majority of people are there to show off their work–but it’s not a place where people go to specifically view or discover people’s work. The audience is photographers, all trying to justify their own views/styles. Do you feel like this plays into some of these online critiques, that it is from an artist’s perspective and not a viewer’s?

Oh absolutely. As I said to the earlier question, I think most people seeking “critique” online are only looking for page views and atta-boys. I know I was guilty of this early on. These days I rarely put an image up for critique and usually only if I really am unsure about it or just want to get some other eyes on it. Instead of the whole “editing by committee” you find in the bigger critique groups – it’s so much btter to have a small cadre of people that you trust based on their work, or their critique of others work that you’ve seen – and that feedback is vastly more valuable to somebody that’s earnest and honest about wanting to improve. And yes, most people that look at street photography are other street photographers. Pure conjecture but I imagine that if you went to any street photography showing of any kind, and asked around – you’d find out that most of the people there are also trying to do their thing with regards to street. I don’t think it’s a bad thing either. I’d rather be a photographer’s photographer than somebody gobbled up by the mainstream. I can’t think of higher praise than my work being respected and enjoyed by others working the craft – especially those that I look up to.

In an aside you mentioned Ansel Adams’ quote “there are no rules to good photos, there are only good photos”. What would you consider a brilliant photo that defies rules (or maybe just completely avoids them altogether)?

The first one that comes to my mind isn’t by one of the “greats” but by Sam Ferris from Australia (who is also great of course). That image of his of the birds flying against the sun reflecting off an office tower. I can hardly think of a rule that this doesn’t break… First of all, there are no people in it and the only real sign of humans are the buildings themselves and maybe the smog. The light is all blown out in the middle. The subject – the birds – are dead center. I can’t even explain why this photo works – but it just does. And that’s what AA was talking about right? Either a photo works or it doesn’t. This one does and I love it.

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Tom Wood was an avid documentary photographer that also shot quite a few landscapes throughout his career, and I don’t believe they have been widely shown or seen. I recently saw some of your landscapes, and was a bit surprised by the complete departure from your street photography style. How do you feel one aesthetic better serves a genre better than another?

Aha, yes… my split personality! So what I like to say is that my street work is my passion and my other photography – the cityscapes, landscapes, bird photos, etc – is my hobby. With street it requires a certain mindset. Being “on” while looking for something of interest and then if you’re lucky enough to find that something, you have to hope you can even capture it at all. It’s just so damned hard and I love that about it and I love the art form. I love studying the giants of SP, I love talking to others about the genre with the other photography, I do it more to relax. It’s a much more meditative practice. I love the patience of waiting for the Sun to rise, or taking my time to find just the right composition, or just spending a lovely evening with somebody special watching the sunset while not really caring if the photos we take turn out or not. There are so many fewer surprises with this kind of photography, and that’s part of why I like it I think. As rewarding as the surprises are with street photography – with my other photo pursuits I’m not wanting surprises. I want to have full control over as much of what I’m doing as I can. I also enjoy the post-processing workflow with this kind of photography. As far as the different aesthetics. I believe that with street one should go for a fairly documentary route with very little post work and a lot of consistency in aspect ratios and overall appearance. I’ll crop and play with highlights/shadows/contrast/etc but I’m not going to load a street shot into Photoshop and create a bunch of layers to make the blues pop or whatever or start cloning out things that are annoying to me. With my landscapes and such… they’re more what I call my “pretty pictures.” I like colors that are fairly saturated and I like images with more dream-like qualities as well. Long exposures of water or clouds, light trails, etc. I’ll crop to any ratio. Do a lot more photo manipulation, whatever it takes to end up with the image I see in my head. This isn’t very modest to say but I find that the non-street stuff comes rather easily to me. It’s not anywhere near the challenge that street is for me. It’s not that I’m saying that I’m the best or anything, just that I’m content with my skills in this area and people seem to dig that work to the point of buying prints and getting me into some magazines and good social media attention which are all nice things.

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