10 minutes with Michael Lavine

Interviews with Photographers April 15, 2013 8:42 am

When did you first know that you wanted to be a photographer?

I fell in love with photography at a very young age. My first image was made with a milk carton pinhole camera when I was in 5th grade. Later, my mother’s boyfriend, Paul, had a camera and he had put a darkroom in our bathroom, so that’s where I learned the basics. I bought a stolen Nikkormat from a “friend” in 1978 and I was off to the races. By the time I was in high school I realized that I had a natural gift for composition and was pretty good with visual art. After a few years in art school, it became clear that I excelled in photo and sucked at everything else, so I just went with my strengths. To be honest, I never planned for a “career” but landed in the middle of the indy rock scene as the photographer of record by a serendipitous twist of fate. I was good and I was in the right place at the right time.

Michael Lavine

Michael Lavine

Michael Lavine

Michael Lavine

Michael Lavine

Michael Lavine

Michael Lavine

Michael Lavine

Michael Lavine

Michael Lavine

Michael Lavine

Michael Lavine

 

How did you land your first shoot?

What I consider to be my first assignment was photographing the band White Zombie for their first album cover PsychoHeadBlowout. When I was 22 years old I moved to NYC In 1985 to attend Parsons to study Photography. In college I was a real party animal and I used to go to a lot of rock shows at CBGB’s, The Pyramid and other clubs. Everywhere I went I kept seeing this beautiful girl with a crazy mane of thick curly red hair. The people at Parsons were all pretty square but one day I spotted the frizzy redhead in the Parsons cafeteria and I got up the nerve to say hello. I think I said, “didn’t I see you at that Sonic Youth show?” Her name was Sean Yseult and we hit it off right away. She asked me if I would take photographs of her band White Zombie and that shoot was my first album cover. The image was a straight B&W studio shot but there was something really in your face about it and the cover got a lot of attention in the downtown scene.

Michael Lavine

Michael Lavine

Michael Lavine

Michael Lavine

Michael Lavine

Michael Lavine

Michael Lavine

Michael Lavine

Michael Lavine

Michael Lavine

Michael Lavine

Michael Lavine

Michael Lavine

Michael Lavine

I love this story – I didn’t realize you had shot that album cover. Its so iconic of the music scene then. You went on to photograph most – if not all – of the major bands and musicians, as well as actors and other celebrities. Do you feel like that album cover opened the door to meeting more musicians or was it something else?

I don’t think it’s any particular assignment so much as the people you meet along the way that defines ones path forward: it was my friend from college, Bruce Pavitt, the founder of SubPop that hired me to shoot so many of his bands, It was Rick Rubin, who introduced me to the people at Geffen that really helped me get started shooting for the major labels. It’s kind of hard to imagine now but back then there weren’t that many photographers around. It was quite difficult to be a photographer, the skill level required to work professionally was tremendous and there was a tall barrier separating the pros from the amateurs. Anyway, the work kind of snowballed into more work. when I look back, I think that the SONIC YOUTH Daydream Nation album package was a real turning point for me. Ironically back in 1987, nobody outside of downtown NYC even knew who Sonic Youth was.

Michael Lavine

Michael Lavine

Michael Lavine

Michael Lavine

Michael Lavine

Michael Lavine

Michael Lavine

Michael Lavine

That seems hard to imagine now.. both the lack of photographers and anyone not knowing Sonic Youth.

I was wondering about your newer work, Sliced Eye. I have been following you via Instagram and the work you put up is really interesting and the text which accompanies the image. When did you start this project and how do you feel about using such a public platform to share new work?

I am uncomfortable with the idea of using social media as marketing tool for my commercial work and Ive been struggling to find a methodology that I find respectable. If I have work to promote I use facebook and twitter but I made the decision a while back to keep my instagram feed free from outright promotion like pics of tear sheets and BTS shots. My personal work is based in a classic street photography sensibility and using my iphone camera wherever I go just seems like a logical extension of my image making process.

Over the last few years I’ve become completely obsessed with the idea of creating emotionally charged imagery. I’m mainly interested in exploring the rich emotional landscape of sadness and loss and the powerful feelings that are associated with pain and heartbreak. I’m coming up on my 50th birthday and everything just feels so intense. I’ve been spending a lot of time attempting to express my feelings through narrative short film and I’ve found that by far the most essential element to a successful film lies in the writing. Without good writing, the narrative falls apart and the movie sucks. So I’ve been trying to write. What happened to my instagram feed was a natural collision of these two different means of expression, my iphone photography and my writing, a sort of you’ve got chocolate on my peanut butter kind of moment.

I find the photos and the text to be really beautiful and intense. Its kind of amazing to go on an instagram feed and see this series happening as you make it. Do you have the text in mind before you take the photo or the other way around?

Well thank you! I come up with these fictional sentences mostly when I am lying down trying to sleep. I usually reference some sort of feeling that I had that day and build a story around that feeling. They are not autobiographical events but more just expressions of emotions. The photographs are made completely separately and are basically a travelogue of where I happen to have been. If I have a meeting in midtown, then you will see something from midtown. I have some guilt using my iphone and not carrying a real camera around but I’ve come to terms with the digital age and embraced the concept of iphone imagery. I’ve made some prints and they actually look really nice. When I match an existing phrase to an existing image I usually look for some sort of shallow connection that ties the two together in an unexpected and non-literal way. I enjoy fooling around with the word play as much as I enjoy making the photographs.

Michael Lavine

Michael Lavine

Michael Lavine

Michael Lavine

Michael Lavine

Michael Lavine

Michael Lavine

Michael Lavine

Michael Lavine

Michael Lavine

 

When did you start shooting video? I love your music videos and video portraits.. Are you coming up with the concepts for the music videos? With your Video Portraits, do you shoot these before or after shooting still portraits of your subjects?

I made a few music videos with a small production company called High Risk I had in the 90’s but I found the process to be too demanding and my photography business was being neglected. When my business partner Steve Brown died of AIDS in 1995 I put motion on the back burner. I didn’t do anything else for 15 years but then I got I Canon 5D in 2010 and I realized that I could make good looking video without all the crazy production. I made the Heavy Trash video with one assistant.

For the video portraits, I had a client that was asking for BTS video and I felt like I needed to tell the story in a different way, not just over my shoulder, but more integrated with the stills. These are simple interview based profiles that are unscripted and improvised and really fun to watch. I got a GREAT response and I really thought that everyone would be asking me to make them, but to be honest, I haven’t gotten that many commissions. I’m hoping they will catch on!

Can you tell me about the short film that you directed, Weekend Away – Did you write the story? How long did filming take? Did directing a short film feel more collaborative than being behind the camera?

Weekend Away is a short film about a woman who decides to escape for the weekend on a road trip to the beach. Her travels bring several confrontations with characters that reveal her inability to actually escape from anything at all. The film is based on a short story written by the author Justin Taylor and I wrote the screenplay myself. The production took months to organize but we only shot for 4 days. And then it took months to finish all the editing and color correcting and sound mixing. The process is incredibly complicated and while some of my skills as a photographer came in handy there was so much more that I had to learn along the way. Writing screenplays and directing actors are not skills that one knows about as a photographer. I’ve become obsessed with figuring out how to tell a story using emotional content. It can be a lot of fun to take a photograph of an actor sitting in a chair but it’s a whole different ball game to guide actors through a scene with a commanding understanding of the complex and subtle language that actors use to communicate. Weekend Away is actually my second short and I definitely am getting better at it. I feel more confident now about the filmmaking process. A big item on my bucket list is to direct a feature so hopefully if I keep pushing I can get there.

I know this is well beyond a ten minute interview but before we wrap up, I wanted to ask your thoughts on editorial photography. Mainly, what do you think the future might look like for editorial photographers? So much has been said about how rates haven’t changed in years, how photographers are expected to do more for less and with quicker turnarounds, but it doesn’t seem to be slowing down all of the talented women and men who go into this field.. do you have any advice for them, and do you have any predictions for what we might see in the future?

Hmm, the future of editorial? Have you looked at any charts of print circulation lately? It would be a great hill to ski down. Long and steep with no bottom in sight. I have 2 teenage daughters and I’ve never seen either of them reading a magazine. And my wife owns HER OWN MAGAZINE! (they read hers) So I don’t have too much faith in the future of print. But hey, I remember not so long ago when shooting for the website of a magazine was considered to be an embarrassment, practically a disgrace. Now its totally cool. We all know the digital revolution has turned the world upside down. So as the transition from print to web continues there will be more assignments not less, you just might be shooting for Rookie instead of Teen Vogue. And yes the pay is the same as when I started 25 years ago. But at least it hasn’t gone down like in music and advertising. You don’t shoot editorial to make money, you shoot editorial to feed your ego. As far as advice goes, I might not be the best person to ask that question considering I’ve never been able to make much of a dent in the editorial market. It helps if you are young and beautiful and have a cool blog, but mainly, you need a SINGULAR vision. Find a style and stick with it. Focus on subjects you care about. Pick a theme like humor or irony or debauchery, something that suits your personality. If a photo editor can recognize your photo without reading the credit, you know you’re on the right track.

 

(Michael is based in New York. See more of his work, here. See more from the series Sliced Eye, here. Learn more about his film, Weekend Away, here)

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