Monday, February 18, 2013

Michael Kirchoff

Michael has spent his years capturing the still image of people, cultures, and landscapes with a unique and distinctive style. A native Californian, Michael resides in Los Angeles, though equally at home trudging through Redwood forests, riding the rails deep into Siberia, or navigating the chaotic streets of Tokyo. Michaels fine art imagery has garnered recognition from the International Photography Awards, the Prix de la Photographie in Paris, been published in Black & White, Fraction and Diffusion Magazine, as well as often exhibiting work throughout America. He has also been an active Board Member for the L.A. chapter of the American Photographic Artists since 2006.

View more of Michael's work here

Ashley Kauschinger: Several of your projects have a deep relationship to travel, architecture, and landscape. When did your love affair with this subject matter begin? What do you think is powerful about it?  

Michael Kirchoff: Some of my earliest memories are of flipping through the pages of National Geographic Magazine and being dazzled by the photos contained within their covers. Every page was a new and exotic location that I’d never heard of, and I was completely mesmerized by it all. It wasn’t just the thought of traveling to these exotic locations, but noticing how mankind was changing and shaping the existing landscape with its very own marvels of science and architecture. The structures that different people and cultures have constructed throughout history have always fascinated me. My parents, particularly my father, had a deep love of history, and this contributed to my desire to get out and explore. Around the same time I was given my first camera for my birthday, and used it extensively on a trip that I had been inspired to plan myself, while I was between the ages of seven and ten. My parents and I traveled by car throughout the Western U.S. for a month while I snapped away, and I was hopelessly addicted to travel and exploration of both the natural and man made world from then on.

The power derived from shooting this subject matter comes from creating images that give you a definite sense of the scale and magnitude, revere the past, and at the same time present them with an air of mystery. This mystery that I love to inject into my work is what I hope brings people to go out and discover these and other places for themselves. I’m a big advocate of getting out there and experiencing the wonders of this planet yourself. People need to leave their fears behind and not let it keep them from discovering the things that have the potential to bring them great happiness. Search and you will find, so to speak.

AK: Where are some of your favorite places to travel -- Top 5 locations you have photographed? 

MK: That is a difficult question, but I’ll do my best to keep it down to five. Here’s the basic list that comes to mind at present: St. Petersburg, Russia; Prague, Czech Republic; Beijing, China; Harbour Island, Bahamas; and Lake Baikal, Siberia. Within the U.S however, I could shoot forever in places like NYC or San Francisco and the Bay Area. Also, some of the most incredible natural spaces I’ve ever encountered could be found in states like Utah, Colorado, or along the coast of Maine. Okay, I get it, too many already right? I told you it was difficult to keep the list brief. The immense and varied landscape of the U.S. is always calling, and the history and culture of Europe and Asia needs also to be experienced and documented by anyone with even and inkling of curiosity.

The largest body of work I’ve been creating has been photographing the cultural landscape of Russia and her former territories.  It’s called “An Enduring Grace”, and I’ve been working on it consistently since 2007. That series alone has led me to travel solo along the original route of the Trans Siberian Railway, a journey that I will certainly never forget. It is also one that had enabled me to visit cities and towns I never would have seen otherwise, and bring back some truly wonderful images. There was a bit of trepidation about going at it alone, but then my process usually dictates that I am alone in order to achieve my desired results.

I’ve found it quite the challenge traveling and shooting alone throughout Russia, since I have no ties there and cannot read or speak the language. Thankfully though, I’ve always seemed to find a way to get around language barriers. Maybe my furious hand gestures and charades-like acting amuse people well enough to get me into, and back out of, some difficult places.  Because of my love for travel and history, I’ve developed a deep connection to Russia, both in terms of its culture, and of course its people and landscape.

AK: Describe your shooting process. Did you get permission to photograph in these locations? Do you like to work slowly with a large format camera, or to be more mobile with a toy camera? 

MK: First of all, before I leave for any location, I do a fair amount of research. I get some travel guides, peruse Google for helpful links, and occasionally reach out to people through social media who have insight into where I’m headed. It doesn’t bother me to go into a location blindly, but I’d rather have a rough outline in my head as to what I may want to achieve while I’m there. My process often leaves much to chance, so if I can eliminate some questions and variables while I’m out there, then much the better.

Permission to me is a relative term. I will definitely ask it if I feel it’s my only option, but will often find my own way to get things done if I’m refused. Going in through the out door has allowed me to get places most people don’t get into, at least for a short time. I like to fly under the radar whenever possible, but often stand out in a crowd, so I find the need to be quick on my feet. I like to shoot well-known places as well, but in a much less than conventional way than people are used to seeing. I usually find myself taking on the role of observer while I’m shooting, so I’m constantly hiding, stalking, and trying to predict what will happen next within my current environment. This goes for weather I’m shooting people and events, or even an architectural subject, as clouds and weather patterns play a key role in many of these images.

My fine art work finds me using cameras and film that are often unpredictable or downright problematic. I don’t know why, but for some reason I like to make things difficult for myself while I’m working. I usually use things like Diana and Holga toy cameras for some of the images, and a 60’s era Graflex XL medium format press camera for others. With either camera I sometimes forego even using the viewfinder, finding it unnecessary for my needs. Anyone who’s ever used a toy camera knows that they can break at any given moment, so I usually carry several. The Graflex allows me to shoot expired Type 665 Polaroid (also very unpredictable) to get a large negative, while still allowing me the mobility and quick reaction I like. It’s really the best of both worlds for me, but again, it is also a camera with its own set of quirks. Once, while traveling by ship along the Volga River between Moscow and St. Petersburg, the lens I was using had the shutter mechanism die on me. I had a different backup lens, but didn’t like the results I was getting with it. I was only a couple of days into this trip and thought I had a disaster on my hands. I went back to my cabin and with nothing to lose, began to disassemble the lens as much as I could with the few tools I had with me. I couldn’t figure out what was wrong exactly, but upon putting it back together, it suddenly worked again! It hasn’t failed me again since that happened three years ago. Quite often, luck prevails.

AK: What advice do you have on how to support yourself while being a fine art photographer, staying motivated, and conceptually moving forward?

MK: Thankfully, I sort of have it easy there. I don’t just shoot fine art work, I’m also a commercial photographer, and often work with other photographers doing lighting for still and motion projects. I travel often for that as well. Every single day I am immersed within some aspect of the photographic medium, so quite often the fine art side motivates and supports the commercial side, and vice versa. I have to say however, more of the motivation comes from the community of other photographers I work with, and am friends with. I feed off of the excitement others show for their own work, and love being supportive of their efforts. I am always amazed at the ideas others come up with for some of their work, and that in turn helps motivate me to conceive new work. Be honest and gracious with your colleagues, and it will return to you tenfold. This I know from experience.

Also, networking through social media has become an important part of staying out there and working hard. When I hear of someone saying they’re headed to overseas to shoot, it gets my blood moving, and I begin to think that I need to be out shooting and exploring more myself. I always have one eye gazing out at the horizon wondering where to go next.

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