Edd - I know that a lot of research goes into a project like “From the Main Line.” Tell us about your working methods in the field. What do you look for? What draws you into a scene. Do you know where you are going to shoot in advance, or do you find your photographs while exploring the area?
Michael - I have found a synergy between what I like to call armchair scouting, historical research and my fieldwork. There is obviously a great deal of initial planning, especially since I often have limited time to travel. I do most of my scouting on Google Maps, saving and marking locations, based on previous visits, target locations, or intriguing names or landmarks within the landscape. I’ll note what time of day the light is right for a particular area, say a prayer to the cloud gods, and then start planning a trip. When I get out in the field, I do reference the maps, but the serendipity of discovery in the field is also very important. I can’t tell you how many times I have obsessed over a location only to get there and be disappointed, but on the way to that place find some incredible scene. Research indeed informs and helps to plan a trip, but I still rely on my intuition in the field while making photographs.
Its tough to say what draws me in to a particular scene; Sometimes it’s a subject, whether it be a relic or landmark of the railroad, town or a natural feature. There are however, with in those more spontaneous moments, the combination of light, feeling, and often a sense of scale or a dramatic play between the railroad and surrounding landscape that will make for a great image. There isn’t a specific formula that I can say goes into making an image like this, but there is nothing more exciting on a day shooting than being enroute to a location at dawn, and that morning light is playing in the clouds, or across the trees. That first photograph of the day is always critical, once it happens, its game on until the end of the day.
Outside of shooting or actively planning a trip, I am constantly analyzing my work, looking at prints or even on screen, conducting a mental audit of an area, looking to decide if I have enough work to convey a sense of place to a given area, before I move on to other locations. So far I haven’t been able to just turn my back on an area and say “I’m done here,” but the goal is to convey a story for each region or division within the project, touching on the character of the landscape, towns and the defining attributes of the railroad itself.
Edd - There is a consistency of vision in your black and white work that forms a strong unifying element in “From the Main Line." Most of this work is done in large format film. What prompted you to work in this way? What does large format black & white film bring to the project?
Michael - I don’t want to demystify the notion that large format has a great deal to do with the product, but to be honest, as I look back and begin to incorporate more and more digital capture I realize it was more my approach, composition, and style, that unify the work. Large format for me is a tool; at the time I started the project it was the main tool I used simply because digital wasn’t there yet, not for me. How can you justify trading a 5x7 negative for a 20-megapixel camera? You can’t; they aren’t even in the same ballpark. There are merits of the large format camera and I do love using it, as it provides a wonderful connection to the craft of making photographs. But once I started working with the advancing technology of digital capture in depth, during my commissioned work for Conrail I began to see how powerful this tool could be when used correctly.
When I commit myself to change like moving to digital, it’s after I have weighed all benefits and drawbacks of each tool. I have a few friends I will often confide in, who are not necessarily photographers, but people who will give me their honest opinion, whether I like it or not. One of these people, Anthony, a dear friend, who would often roll his eyes and harass me when the digital camera came out, sat down one evening with some work prints I made. He had never seen any of the digital work printed, just either on camera or on a laptop after a day of shooting. He sat there quietly thumbing through the prints, sighed and looked at me and said, “you’re right, the change to digital has not impacted your vision, your work, not in a negative anyway.” That was the confirmation that my transition into using digital capture was successful. A change in tool didn’t impact my vision. There are a lot of people who will argue the merits of film or digital, but after many years making pictures, the results are what matter to me. The tool you use to make pictures, whether it has a sheet of film loaded in it or a 50mp sensor, makes no difference to me, as long as you do it well.