Michael McCamish’s photos capture the nature of things
In our Smart Phone Age, when anybody and everybody can easily snap pictures, it takes something more than a camera to be a photographer. Michael McCamish’s pictures have a substance grounded on the gritty sidewalks of San Francisco, but over the years the spirit of his work has changed. McCamish has always worked with film, a method that is quickly becoming a lost art. A small gallery devoted to classic photography, Studio Space Junk, is exhibiting a retrospective of his work.
The Pulse: Why do you make photographs?
Michael McCamish: I have made them for different reasons over time. Initially, it was a vehicle to connect with people on the street. I was living in San Francisco and walking from work through the Tenderloin district, and I was fascinated with the street culture. The street became a theater to me, and I started to think about street scenes as theatrical scenes.
TP: What kind of compositions do you look for?
MM: It started out as a social critique. I was studying theater while working on my Ph.D. in anthropology, and I was working with the homeless population and going into prisons, doing heavy activist work. My theater study helped me to develop an eye. Whatever I saw that caught my eye and drew my attention would be my subject.
Most of my recent photographs are of nature scenes, anything that evokes a certain spiritual element, and also an element of uncertainty. I like to delve into the realm of uncertainty and play with that abstractness. I’m really into water scenes and trees, and I have a five and a two year old, so they’re the centerpiece for many of my photos. too.
TP: Who are some artists who influenced you?
MM: I have countless books on street photography. Weegee is definitely my favorite. He would follow ambulances around and photograph really traumatic scenes, but do everyday life as well. I also like the work of Josef Sudek and Gary Winogrand. My theatrical background influenced my photography. Eugeno Barba and Jerzy Grotowski are some experimental theater folks who inspire me. I also like the aesthetic of Sleepytime Gorilla Museum.
TP: Is our civilization in decline or repair?
MM: I think that there is some repair going on, but I’m concerned by what’s happening with the police. I teach criminal justice and anthropology at Chattanooga State. I’ve been documenting the criminal justice system and have been seeing this development for a long time. For hundreds of years, coming from slavery, we’re seeing divisions taking place, particularly concerning police.
People are becoming aware of these inequalities via social media. People have always known that the justice system is horribly corrupt in every direction, from the courts to the police to the prisons. The numbers speak for themselves. The whole prison industrial complex is a picture that has been translated into reality.
Like a photograph immediately speaks volumes of numbers. It’s like going to San Francisco and seeing all of these people sleeping on the sidewalk, seeing the reality of this beautiful city that I was in love with.
TP: What is beauty? What is ugliness?
MM: I listen to industrial metal, and find great beauty in that music. You have to have an ear for it, and it’s the same way with your eyes. Color schemes are amazing, but I’m into black & white, and when I see the light interacting with the landscape or with humans, especially around sunset, things that really make me think and contemplate existence are beautiful to me. Ugly can be beautiful if it’s done right. Ugly is not well thought out, it has no meaning, it is a lack of intention.
TP: How does working with film differ from digital photography?
MM: What happens with film that doesn’t happen in the digital realm is the physical technique. Instead of just pressing buttons, there is a dance with your hands in the darkroom. You put a soul into the picture. In the darkroom you become the second photographer, because you can take it in so many different directions. You have a technique and you apply it to a negative, but every time you print that negative it might be a little bit different, and that adds to the beauty of it. There’s an intention that takes place in the dark room, a thought process, and a planning.
A closing reception will be held at Studio Space Junk on Sunday, July 26 from 10 a.m. to noon, followed by a Q&A with the artist.
Studio Space Junk
436 Frazier Ave