6 July 2009
Interview by Gary Geschwind
Photos by Michael McAreavy
I chose to share this image because it was created in San Francisco, California, yet doesn’t look like the typical image that would come out of this geographical location. Additionally, the environment and seasonality played a major part in determining the image’s overall aesthetics. Created in The Presidio during January 2000, I was assured that a wet winter would add vibrancy to the canopy of grass beneath the cluster of eucalyptus trees. Low light approximately one hour before sunset created very powerful long shadows that passed right through my vantage point. The image title was very apparent to me as the shadows continued to do their dance. Holding detail within the foreground trees was my exposure objective.
Following countless unsuccessful drives over to John Muir Woods in Marin County searching for the perfect marriage between redwoods and fog, I discovered a beautiful redwood forest right within my own backyard. Positioned along the crest of the Oakland Hills, I have found this quaint little forest to be a very spiritual space.
This particular image was one that I had pre-visualized. During a previous visit, I had discovered the “peek around” characteristic of the foreground redwoods. I was also drawn by the thought that the canopy of grass was a perfectly shaped blanket. My objective was to return in early morning dense fog, position the camera, and wait. I recall having a copy of Emerson in my coat pocket which to me has always been the perfect transcendentalism reading for a nature photographer. As the fog began to burn off, the scene literally came to life. I metered for detail in the foreground redwoods and made three exposures one half stop apart.
What is your field of photography?
Fine art landscape and seascape photography (using a Pentax 6x7cm medium format film camera).
When did you first become interested in photography?
Michael said he firmly believes that photography choose him. When he was very young, less than 10 years old, he found himself unexplainably enamored by light and the subtleties of its movement. As a result, he wrote poems and short stories around light. However, it wasn’t until he was 28 years old that he finally picked up a camera and began to record with any artistic intentions in mind. He discovered his niche when he saw Ansel Adams photographs in a store in Lubbock, TX. Being a lifelong athlete, it seemed natural that he would head out of town and “climb a hill.” Several years later, he stumbled upon the fact that photograph in Latin means to write with light. Tying his distant past to the present, it seemed only natural that this pursuit of light would become a wondrous passion, and in his estimation the purpose of his life.
Originally starting out with a manual 35mm camera (Canon AE1), Michael transitioned to a medium format setup (Pentax 6x7cm) in 1996. Although he also added a large format setup (Toyo 45AII) around 2005, he feels most comfortable with medium format and has primarily used one fixed focal lens throughout his career (i.e. a 45mm wide angle lens which gives 85o coverage). This has forced him to work looking at aspects of the image both up close (near) and in the distance (far). Working with film, unlike digital cameras, requires much closer monitoring of conditions to get the proper exposure.
Michael believes that images have their own “voice” and he is merely a messenger of the images, delivering them from one witness to another. In a world that is making less and less sense to him, pursuing light with camera and tripod in tow has never made more sense.
What was your academic training in photography?
Michael had no formal academic training in photography. He was self taught, mainly by trial and error. One of the things he learned was to keep accurate field notes of his photographs in terms of exposure, aperture, film type, location, etc. With a laugh, he shared that the notes are all in pencil since pens do not like to work in the dead of winter when temperatures drop below freezing.
What lesson(s) did you not learn in the school?
For landscape photography, Michael cannot emphasize enough, the importance of showing up early in nature and staying late. By this he means the best light for color photography rests within narrow “windows of opportunity” surrounding dawn and dusk. He also suggests one not run from weather, as bad weather, particularly the front and tail end of the storms, will create the most dramatic light and strongest elemental values for creating a forceful landscape composition.
He also suggests one make numerous visits to a physical space in order to learn its nuances and seasonal changes. With regard to his own experiences, he figures that if he shows up, and shows up often, the muse will reward him for being dedicated to his craft.
Has your photographic work been influenced by the work of other photographers? How?
Ansel Adams was probably the biggest influence on Michael’s photographic fine art. When he first discovered this masterful pioneer, he tried to copy his style. However, it wasn’t long thereafter that he became more interested in forging ahead with his own compositional style. Influenced by classical music, more so than any other factors, there have been a select few “masters of light” who have had a profound impact on Michael’s photographic career. David Muench (www.muenchphotography.com) indirectly taught him the importance of using near/far features in his photographic compositions to heighten their level of interestingness. Michael Fatali (www.fatali.com), another world known landscape photographer, has created a portfolio of photographs that truly inspires one to worship light on a highly spiritual level.
What was the biggest break in your career?
Michael was contacted in 1998 by GUILD.com, an art marketer in Madison, WI, to market his photographs. Selection is by invitation only. GUILD, now known as The Artful Home, found him through one of their directors via a networking event. An active artist to this day, Michael has previously held the distinction of being one of their heavily promoted “featured artists.”
What would you say is your most important accomplishment in the photographic industry?
He believes the opportunity to meet other enthusiastic photographers, like himself, through live contact in the field, email, social networks (i.e. Flickr, Facebook, Photo.net) has been the most rewarding facet of his “light chasing” path. Answering technical and compositional questions, exchanging field and equipment tips, and sharing location details (so others can get to the sites where he has taken his photographs) makes the entire experience worthwhile. Michael considers himself an open book and one who will share with anyone anything he has learned about photography and all things related.
What was your most interesting or memorable shoot or shot? Why?
His most memorable photograph is the one he has not yet taken. He is very excited to see and experience what lies around the next “curve” on the trail. Regarding his body of work to date, he confesses to not spending much time looking back upon what has already been done.
Do you have any parting wisdom to share with young photographers?
Choose an area of photography which speaks most clearly to you. Find your own niche. What is your identity?
Although a digital camera enables one to photograph to his/her heart’s delight (with instantaneous review of the results), Michael highly recommends that all newcomers to the world of photography learn to work a camera in its manual settings. Additionally, an invaluable education can be gained by reading Ansel Adams’ series of books on photography.