10 minutes with Michael Lewis

Interviews with Photographers September 20, 2013 8:25 am

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

I first started taking pictures with the 35mm Nikon camera my dad bought in 1969 while in Vietnam. He was a dentist in the Army. He bought a camera one weekend in Saigon while on a weekend pass. The dentists had access to photo-chemicals to develop x-rays; so my dad began processing black-n-white pictures he would take around the base; and make 8×10 prints (which he brought back and I still have) to pass the time. My mom was pregnant with me while he was over there. I always thought photography was cool, I liked that my dad would take pictures of us and disappear on an occasional Sunday and come home to share the prints.

I started college as a psyche major. It was something I truly wanted to do and felt a kinship towards. After my first year, my folks sat me down and asked what I wanted to do. After a little tug-of-war, we came to the conclusion that maybe advertising would be a good call for me. I changed my major, and after one semester of that, the folks sat me down again. At the end of that conversation, my dad asked me a life-guiding question: “okay, you’re at this ad agency…which side of the drafting table do you want to be on?” Without question, my answer was the side of the table with the drafting pencil. He said, “Maybe you should go to art school.”

I don’t really remember ever considering any other medium other than photography, not even for a second. When I had my BFA show, I surprised my dad. When he walked into the gallery where my work was hung, he was surprised to see that I had also hung a different show on the wall outside the gallery: “Larry Lewis, Vietnam, 1969-1970”

Michael Lewis

Michael Lewis

Michael Lewis

Michael Lewis

Michael Lewis

Michael Lewis

Michael Lewis

Michael Lewis

Michael Lewis

Michael Lewis

 

That’s pretty incredible. I love what you did for your dad with the show and what amazing parents you had who really worked with you to ‘figure out’ what you wanted to be – and supported it. Who were the first photographers that you loved? 

I started doing mostly street photography while in Philadelphia. I loved Robert Frank, Garry Winogrand, Nan Goldin, and Lee Friedlander. But as much as I loved the documentary quality and patience of these guys; I quickly started to manipulate what was in the frame. I felt no need to tell a literal truth. Soon I was looking at Eileen Cowin, Annie Leibowitz, Lucas Samaras, and Cindy Sherman. But most of my inspiration came from music. I would sit in an almost meditative state, listen to music, and sketch little scenes (almost like a story board) as they popped in my mind. Bob Dylan and Lou Reed always evoked strong imagery for me. I later would recreate the crude drawings into photographs.

 

Michael Lewis

Michael Lewis

Michael Lewis

Michael Lewis

Michael Lewis

Michael Lewis

Michael Lewis

Michael Lewis

Michael Lewis

Michael Lewis

 

Do you remember your first paid assignment? Was that also the moment when you knew that you could make a career out of photography or did that come about another way?

I have three distinct “first paid assignments”: The first paid job was for Jorge Colombo at SF Magazine. It was a portrait of a furniture maker (and some shots of his work) up somewhere in Northern California (I can’t remember where). I walked into the SF Magazine offices with 20×24 matted prints that I had just taken off the wall from my graduate show and handed the huge “book” to the receptionist. I came back the next day to the front desk to pick them up and Jorge came running out saying “I want to meet that photographer!” It was a wonderful working relationship, and I did a lot of shoots for Jorge after that.

The second paid assignment was a an ad campaign for a paper company. The campaign involved using photographers from around the country photographing some the top ad/design people of their town. These portraits were used to show how well they reproduced on the client’s paper stock. Dan Winters did Los Angeles, Philp Lorca Dicorcia did Boston, Geof Kern was Texas, I photographed Steve Tolleson, Jennifer Morla, and Rich Silverstein in San Francisco; and there were other notable photographers (I can’t remember who) doing portraits in other US cities. I knew I was in good company, but at the time I didn’t realize how much these others were heavy-hitters. I was discovered because I was included in a book; “25 and Under“; and I was one of the few unknown photographers included in the project. I was living in SF at the time and was down in Los Angeles assisting an architectural photographer when I heard that some of the ads were running in the current issue of Vanity Fair. I remember going to a 7-11 and looking at my images in the magazine in slight awe, but I was so broke at that time that I didn’t have any cash in my pocket to buy it!

The third job was actually two jobs. I shot for Richard Buckner SPIN in the afternoon and then Hal Lipset (the private detective who created the bug in the martini glass) for Fortune Magazine that night. To date, this is still one of few days that I have doubled booked. I was walking with my head quite high that night.

But honestly, these weren’t the moments that I made me know photography would be my career. I knew that the last year of undergrad. I left art school with a pocket full of confidence. It was because of that attitude that I approached these clients in the first place. Back then I thought as long as I can get someone to look at my work…why wouldn’t they hire me?

 

Michael Lewis

Michael Lewis

Michael Lewis

Michael Lewis

Michael Lewis

Michael Lewis

Michael Lewis

Michael Lewis

 

Do you still approach work in that manner? It seems like you are always busy and always have an assignment or project to work on, but I’m sure there are quiet times. How do you stay confident during when things aren’t so busy?

With confidence? Sure! You have to. I don’t typically doubt my abilities. That’s the kiss of death. I know what I am good at; and (sometimes more importantly) I know where my strengths don’t shine as bright. I’ve been shooting long enough to see current trends in our industry come and go. Although aware of these changing tides; I’ve always tried to continue to refine (and further define) my unique point of view. I’ve seen other photographers try to bend their aesthetic to fit in the mold of the current flavor of the week. For me, part of staying confident (and true to your vision) is standing your ground and doing what feels true to yourself. Chasing trends will weaken your work, and therefore weaken your confidence.

 

Michael Lewis

Michael Lewis

Michael Lewis

Michael Lewis

Michael Lewis

Michael Lewis

 

That’s a good point. On one hand I understand why a photographer would feel the need to alter their style based on what they think will get them more work and better paying jobs, but its important to know where your strengths are. Are you working on any personal projects at the moment? And on that matter, I love your self-portraits (as we all do) when did you start shooting yourself on set?

Well, there’s two, or maybe three projects going. There’s the series of self-portraits that I first started back in 1997. There’s also a new body of images that have a more fantastical feeling than my other work, which is more rooted in hyper-reality. I’m excited by these new pictures, mostly because I feel liberated from any comparison to my other work. The third project is the “on set” stuff; where I jump into the frame of my editorial shoots in a way that I’m integrated into the scene. They’re most effective when it looks like the shot was composed to have me in it (as compared to “photo-bombing” my own shoot). But I never really considered these pictures to be a project. They are done for fun; a kind of visual diary of my work; while the self-portraits are more analytical, personal, and poignant. Although recently people have been pushing me towards integrating the “on set” pictures with the shoots self-portraits. I’m open to seeing how someone would edit the two together; but I continue to consider them separate (and barely see the “on set” work as an actual project). I do see similarities in tone; but the intent is very different.

 

Michael Lewis

Michael Lewis

Michael Lewis

Michael Lewis

Michael Lewis

Michael Lewis

Michael Lewis

Michael Lewis

Michael Lewis

Michael Lewis

Michael Lewis

Michael Lewis

Screen Shot 2013-09-19 at 3.38.01 PM

Michael Lewis

Michael Lewis

Michael Lewis

Michael Lewis

Michael Lewis

Michael Lewis

Michael Lewis

Michael Lewis

 

They are some of the best photo bombing I have seen. If you could go back ten years and give yourself advice, what would it be?

Hmmm… I assume you’re talking about career advice(?) Because I could certainly ramble on about love and happiness. But if it’s about my photo-career, then I guess it’s a rather simple answer. I used to think I was very diversified because I shot for so many different magazines. But when the publishing world started to be collapse, I realized that I wasn’t diversified at all. Magazines were probably 90% of my income. So, if I could rewind 10 years, I would have saved all the publicist’s cards (especially corporate shoots) I got when then they stopped by the shoot to make sure that their CEO was being photographed to their liking. I was so focused on my magazine clients that I failed to realize that those PR cards could’ve been translated into annual report work. I’m doing that now…and it’s working. But WOW do I wish I had smartened up to this as long ago as when I did my first Fortune Magazine shoot in 1997!

 

Michael is based in Los Angeles. See more of his work, here.

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