In this article I was fortunate enough to be able to conduct an interview through email with NY-based photographer Mike Peters. His style of street portraiture is one that has been attempted many times by many names, but never quite to the extent or success of Mike’s work. He is consistent and his work flows well together, but he is not held down by his style and does not limit himself in what he creates. I hope you guys enjoy his work and words as much as I have, and that you may find some inspiration in this article that will help guide and refine your work, I know I certainly have.
Q. “So, shall we start with the obvious and clichéd question of: How did you find street photography?”
A. Well, I didn’t really find street photography, growing up and living in an urban environment I’ve always just photographed on the street. I don’t consider myself a street photographer, just a photographer, and the street is just one place that I happen to make photographs.
If you look at my work, it doesn’t really fit into what is considered street photography today. I feel that the term street photography has become a very narrow place these days defined by the styles that Robert Frank, William Klein, Garry Winogrand and Joel Meyrowitz pioneered. And, if you consider the fact that I was rejected for membership in In-Public, not once, but twice, and the second time when I was invited to submit work, then it all makes perfect sense that I’m not a street photographer as it is defined today. And that’s fine by me, I don’t like the idea of being defined by any label or category.
What I do is probably more closely related to the work of Walker Evans, August Sander and perhaps a bit of Diane Arbus. Ninety-five percent of the time I don’t ask permission to make the photographs I do, preferring to shoot spontaneously and often waiting for the person I’m photographing to look at me. I very much like the idea of forging a connection with the person I’m photographing, albeit a momentary one, before they’ve had an opportunity to react and/or smile. And, if they don’t look at the camera, I prefer that they have an expression on their face, and body, that suggests an internal dialog taking place that either peaks my curiosity and I can recognize and relate to.
I’m more interested in making photos that other human beings can relate to on some level, and in keeping my hand in the process as invisible as possible. If someone looks at a photo of mine and remarks about the technique, then I’ve failed. I want people to see the person I’ve photographed, not how I did it. The form needs to support and balance the content, not take away, and not stand out. I’m not interested in doing a style, I just want to make photographs that reflect how I feel about what I see. That’s all.
Q. “What inspired you to start shooting street with the Hasselblad?”
A. I was really more interested in shooting square then in any particular camera. I felt that square relieved me of having to make one more decision when I was shooting, I didn’t have to concern myself with vertical or horizontal. I was attracted to the uniformity of it, and of it’s built in perfection, like a circle. It is what it is. But, and this is big, it was important in that it was a way to separate my personal work from my professional work, which is all rectangles. I know that when I see a square, I see and shoot differently than when I’m working with a rectangular format. Rectangles are for clients, squares are for me. However, the square is quite rigorous to compose with, enforcing a bit more formality than a rectangle, so I thought that would be an interesting challenge aesthetically when composing in the moment.
Up until 2001, all of my most meaningful personal work was shot on 4×5 with a view camera. I liked how the process slowed me down and changed the complexion of the shoot into a total collaboration between myself and the subject. However, at this point, I really wanted to fully overcome my fear of photographing strangers on the street and leave the view camera crutch at home, as it is a handy conversation starter. Medium format seemed to be the perfect fit, and demanding perfect focus and composition did not leave any place for me to hide as a smaller camera might. Portable enough, but large enough as to withstand enlargement. I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for the smooth tonal transitions of a larger negative.
Also, having been a photographer for over 20 years at that point, I thought that medium format would be a bit more of a challenge technically over the auto everything 35mm slr’s at the time. I wanted to get back to bare bones basics, being responsible for every aspect of the image, from choosing a film whose character I liked, to the f-stop and shutter speeds, and focus. I use only a hand held incident meter, never really finding an in camera meter worth a damn, even now. I wanted that challenge and I wanted to use a simple camera that didn’t get in my way, had great optics, and was reliable.
Winding up with the Hasselblad was a journey in itself. I shot square for commercial work in the 80’s and 90’s with a slew of Rollei 6006 and SLX bodies. I say a slew, because you needed at least 4 in order to have 2 actually working at any one time. And, you never leave the studio with only one camera when a client is paying for the job, ever. Eventually I got tired of fixing the damn things and traded them for a Mamiya RZ system in the mid 90’s.
I did however miss the square. By the time I went square again in 2002 I decided to try something inexpensive and simple that I could work with for a while to see how I liked the format on the street. I got a Seagull camera, which had a great lens, but after a while realized I needed a prism so I could focus more accurately and see the frame. That led me to a Rolleiflex GX with a prism, which I loved the simplicity of, but not so much the flare in situations that were even moderately back lit. For whatever reason, even after a few years of shooting with it, the ergonomics never really clicked with me.
In addition, I’ve also shot with a Mamiya 6, which was great and compact, and a Voightlander 667, which was brilliant, especially the lens, but unreliable. Ultimately, I’m a ground glass guy more so than a rangefinder guy as I prefer to focus where I compose and not be relegated to a center patch.
Along the way, I discovered the Hasselblad F lenses and was impressed with their maximum apertures, and their ergonomics. I also realized that the cameras went up to 1/2000th of a second, which was important when shooting spontaneously, and for settling on one film, Fuji 800Z, so I didn’t have to shoot at f16 in the sun. I was lucky to get into it when I did in 2006, as used prices were about as low as I’ve ever seen for this gear. All in all, its a wonderfully flexible system with great lenses, and the F system is heads and shoulders over the C system when it comes to the quickness of focus and setting exposure, and the lenses are all around a stop faster than their C cousins, and focus closer too. It’s a camera system that I’ll use for a good long time.
Q. “Could you name some influences on your work? Artists, life experiences, jobs etc”
A. When I became interested in photography in the mid 1970’s, the photography magazine industry was vibrant and healthy. I learned quite a bit by reading Modern Photography, Popular Photography and Peterson’s Photographic. Then there was the LIFE Library of Photography too, which I subscribed too and read dutifully cover to cover every time one arrived. Through these sources I was introduced to the likes of Garry Winogrand, Cartier-Bresson, Walker Evans, Bruce Davidson, Mary Ellen Mark, Diane Arbus, W. Eugene Smith, Leonard McCombe, Grey Villet, Leonard Freed, Dorothea Lange, August Sander, Brassai, Weegee, Richard Avedon, Irving Penn, Ernst Haas, Pete Turner, Jay Maisel, Arnold Newman, Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, Larry Burrows, Robert and Cornell Capa, David Burnett, Bill Pierce, Don McCullin, Bill Brandt, Lartigue, Steichen, Steiglitz, I could go on, but you get the idea.
All my life I’ve been lucky enough to be a photographer, earning my living solely from making photographs for others. Having freelanced for 20 years doing everything from assisting still life and architectural photographers, to shooting still life work for Tiffany’s, corporate annual reports, photojournalism for the New York Times and other papers, and lots of varied magazine work, has given me a fairly wide array of experiences. Now I have a full time gig working for a university, shooting everything from environmental portraits, performing arts, big events, a bit of still life, multimedia productions, and now video thrown in just to make it interesting. So, I’ve had a pretty varied career, and an extremely varied cast of characters who have influenced me through their work that I’ve absorbed from books and now, the web.
I also have a tight circle of very good friends who are great photographers and have had a very positive impact on me as a human being first, which is far more important than being a photographer. Three in particular that I’ve known the longest though have been the most helpful. I used to assist Billy Cunningham starting in the late 70’s while he was shooting table settings for Tiffanys and interiors for Architectural Digest and he taught me about hard work, fortitude, and the importance of being yourself, of having a point of view and to not be my biggest obstacle in life. Roy Groething saw something in my work early on and gave me respect and a chance to make photographs. And Gene Bowman showed me how to listen without judgment and most importantly, how to keep it simple. But one thing they all had in common was teaching me how to have a sense of humor about it all.
Photographically though, everyone sort of left me alone. Maybe it’s because I was too dense to take it in, or too resistant to what they had to say. I always had to try things on my own, it’s been try this and that, see what feels right and see what sticks. I’ve mostly made it up as I went along. It took a long time for me to distill the influence of all of the photographers whose work I admired and felt a response to. Remarkably, I began to make photographs in the late 70’s that are fairly close to what I do now, but with all the distractions of trying to figure out who I was within the realm of the commercial work I was doing, I didn’t really trust myself or believe in my personal work with enough conviction to realize that what I was doing was good and relevant.
I truly believe that you need to have a bit of life under your belt before you can truly appreciate who you are and where you come from. You need to have made mistakes, and owned them completely, and to have gone through all of the ups and downs, loves and losses, successes and failures of the highest order before you can make work that authentically reflects the power of those emotions. I photograph what I recognize as my own, when I see it on someone’s face, or how they stand. If my photographs convey a hint of something beyond the visual, it’s because I know it, really know it, when I see it.
Q. “What would you consider to be your central themes, topics and/or issues covered with your current photographic style?”
A. I can pretty much say that what interests me now is that same as what interested me over 30 years ago, and that is simply to photograph people as I find them in a way that allows the viewer an opportunity to connect with the subject, and to do it in a way that is straightforward, completely devoid of artifice or exaggeration, and technically transparent. I want to make photographs that are a reflection of the society we live in, and how the effects of living in this time and place are etched in the faces and molded to the bodies of those who present themselves for me to photograph.
I grew up in a working class town a few miles from Manhattan, and as someone who is from and of that place, I have a strong affinity for the unpretentious hard working types who make the things and do the work that keep our daily lives running smoothly. Throughout the years, I learned that it is most rewarding to photograph that which you know the best and are most interested in. I feel like I’m making photographs from the inside, looking in, and to me, that’s the most authentic way to work. And, I think people get that when I’m around.
Many years ago I assisted a few photographers who photographed for Architectural Digest. I was pretty much the tech guy who set up the camera and lighting, and was pretty good at it. I could have made it my career had I chosen to go that route. However, the thought of it just didn’t sit right with me. I didn’t really care about the subject matter, it was meaningless to me. Same situation as when I worked at Tiffany’s, where I could still be had I wanted it, but again, the thought of spending my life photographing superfluous stuff for the wealthy was not something that I felt to be a worthwhile way to spend my time or creativity.
What it boils down to is that I’m interested in ordinary people with whom I may have something in common. And that includes the professional work I do now too. I work at a public university where the student body is made up almost entirely of people from neighborhoods similar to where I grew up. It’s an institution where their core mission is to contribute to the greater good of society, and that makes me feel as if my efforts go towards that same goal.
A few years ago I realized that all of the work that I’ve ever done that I care for deeply has been done within close proximity to where I live, both physically and emotionally.
Q. “Do you often find yourself engaging with your subjects after you take a photograph? To discuss what you do etc?”
A. I rarely engage with the people I photograph after the fact. Usually a look in the eye with a smile and a nod is enough, I prefer the mystery of not knowing anything about them and letting my imagination fill in the blanks. However, if someone does ask, I find it’s best to be completely honest about what I’m doing, give them a card with my name and web site on it, and let them know that I’m truly interested and not up to no good. If I get confronted, I stand my ground and smile, never slink away like I’ve done something wrong because that confirms it for them. I don’t get confrontational.
If someone doesn’t want me to make their photo, and they let me know before the shutter has fired, then fair enough, no photo. But, if I shoot before they let me know, oh well. It’s film and I can’t erase it, and if it’s good, then so long as I’m not making them look bad, I’ll probably use it. I present myself in an open and honest way, always with my camera in view, always shooting from my eye, and always within conversational distance, so in a way, I am as vulnerable as my subject, not hiding or shooting from a distance. If they have something to say, then I want to be able to hear them. It’s only fair.
Q. “If you could go back to meet yourself 10 years ago, what 5 tips would you give yourself? (in relation to your photographs from the street)”
A. First of all, I’d go back 30 years…
1- Decide here and now that indulging my fear is not as important as making the photograph.
2- Trust my instincts.
3- Do the work, and lots of it.
4- Believe in the work.
5- Show it to everyone.
Mike is currently working on self-publishing a collection of his work entitled “The Dream”, a preview of which can be viewed here – its a truly beautiful presentation, that I can honestly say took my breath away. Its like a photo-book with an added dimension that acts to really, fully immerse you into the images and their subjects. If the book turns out to be anything like the slideshow, it will definitely be worth owning. Please indulge yourself in more of his work at his regularly updated websites: