Heidi Volpe interviews Michael Muller about his Travel Channel shark portraits.
Michael Muller was hooked at age 15 when after a year of shooting snowboarding he was getting published and paid. Now, he is an award wining advertising and editorial photographer represented by top agency Stockland Martel. I got a chance to talk to him about his recent project with the Travel Channel, Shark Shoot Fiji and the lighting equipment he developed for this underwater project: he took the studio and plunged it deep in the Beqa Lagoon.
Heidi: How much testing did you do to develop the system?
Michael: There was a fair amount of R&D that went into the creation of these lights. To start, I had to go through several different fabricators that delivered me products that either did not work or were so unsafe, I would not get into a pool with them, let alone ask someone to join me. I wasted or should I say spent a lot of money getting to the place of almost giving up before I met the guys who I would eventually make the lights with. This was a very difficult path, because continuing forward always meant that I would have to spend more money on faith that the next person would be the one who would be able to make it come true.
Once we got the prototype working light made, they happened to be delivered the day before I embarked to the Galapagos Islands to shoot the Aqua Timer campaign for IWC Watches. They arrived at my house at about 4 or 5 in the afternoon as we were packing all our gear for a 3 week expedition. The trip was also in conjunction with The Charles Darwin Foundation and UNESCO so there was a huge amount of pressure to deliver striking images. I had promised the President of IWC that I would create images like no one had seen before without having the lights in hand. The weeks leading up to the departure were probably some of the most stressed filled days of my career for making these promises and going on faith that the guys would get it and make them in time. When they did arrive that afternoon I was beyond over joyed yet still stressed that they would in fact work. Being so late in the day with an early am departure flight approaching the following day, I put my trunks on and had the guys hook up the lights and jumped in the pool. I was thrilled when the lights fired and that was the extent of testing.
We packed up the lights and headed out to the Galapagos the next morning where we used the lights in open ocean and did all our fine tuning on the job so to speak. I did in fact get IWC mouth watering images like I had promised which felt very good to do. That is how guerrilla type inventing goes when you’re not a huge manufacture of goods, I don’t have the money or man power for major testing so you do what you can do with what you have. I can say that not giving up in the face of failure was the biggest lesson. It is so easy to throw in the towel after so many set backs but to continue on is the biggest challenge and once again I learned that you should never give up if you believe in something, don’t quit right before the miracle happens!
Tell me more about the lights.
The lights were first tested in open ocean in the Galapagos and then further used many days in the pool with Michael Phelps and all the other olympic swimmers for the Speedo campaigns I shot. I have also used the lights for a multitude of other underwater shoots I have done. There isn’t a whole lot of testing that needs to be done since the lights are just a basic strobe head that happens to be waterproof. The main testing is what the light does underwater and how to control it with use of reflectors, grids, etc. Light reacts differently underwater than it does on land. It bounces and spreads out everywhere so it has taken many hours and days underwater with my team to get just where we are today and we still have so much to learn. That is what I love about “light” and photography, I have been doing it for 27 years almost daily and could do it until the day I die and still know just a fraction of what there is to know about light and the use of it, and how to control it. The minute you think you have got this thing called photography “down” is the day you should maybe put the camera down because your being very ignorant, light is something the greatest minds that have ever lived find mysterious and fascinating. Always be an explorer and try to learn something new with each shoot, never rest on your laurels thinking you’ve got it down!
Does light behave differently in salt water?
No only that Saltwater has many more elements in it. Living particles fill every inch of the ocean and all of these things no matter what the size, either reflect or react to the light when it hits them. A filtered pool like the one I have at my studio is the easiest place to control light, there are no waves or surge or current to deal with and the water is much clearer then what you must deal with in the ocean. If I could have a pet great white in my pool that would be amazing, but until now they have not figured out how to do that. Honestly even if they did, I would not capture an animal like that to keep in my pool, but I sure do wish I had my own private ocean in my back yard filled with clear, warm water. That said there would be no challenge or mystery to that, so I would get very bored quickly so the way it is now is just perfect! Wait not perfect, because we are destroying our oceans right now, so if correct that, then it will be perfect!
On Shark Shoot Fiji, you narrated the underwater footage. How did you really communicate underwater, I am assuming that was not live? or was it?
I did in fact navigate underwater using an OTS (Ocean Technology Systems) mask system. They make the best most reliable communication system available on the market today. Until I started using the OTS system it was a nightmare trying to communicate using hand signals with my assistants underwater. Even in a pool we had trouble but when we were in the ocean with 18ft great whites swimming around us all, the ability to talk and direct the lights where I needed them was and is crucial for successful lit subjects! I am so grateful for this system that I believe was developed for the NAVY and Military. There are some, very few benefits to battle, this being one, and one of maybe three things. If there were no wars and I had to use hand signals underwater, then I would trade in this mask system in a heart beat!
What did you learn about the sharks that surprised you.
Every time I swim with sharks I learn something new. I have had so many misconceptions about these creatures and to smash them has been so liberating. I had so much fear surrounding them since I was a child growing up surfing the waves in Northern California home of many large great whites. I was always fascinated with them. Jaws had a huge impact on me as a kid as well like it did most of the planet when it came out. That movie single handedly took the already natural god given fear we all have and injected it with steroids. I though the sharks were coming out of the lights in my pool as a kid, not joking! So having this fear combined with the yearning to learn more about these animals has allowed me to view with my own eyes in person what gentle giants they really are. Watching them on TV is nothing like having them in front of you in person. Sure the TV helps lessen the fear a tiny bit but really until you are in the water with these sharks and your adrenaline is pumping like it always does even to this day with so many dives, it is just not the same.
I always have the blood pumping when I first get in the water but shortly there after my body settles down and I get in the rhythm of these animals. They are like puppy dogs, and I know when you read that it’s hard to believe but it’s true. They do not want us, we are not on their menu. They are more scared of us then I believe we are of them. They shy away from us at all times and only their curiosity similar to ours of them causes them to come in for a closer look. I have been so fortunate to witness behaviors rarely seen by us such as being underwater as a 15ft Great White re-enters the water from a breach. Seeing two great whites going nose to nose to see which one gets the food. Witnessing these behaviors along with many more is just fascinating to me. I study humans when I shoot them here on land, their nuances and personalities to try and bring them out in my portrait sessions and I have had the gamut come in front of my lens and like humans, I am as curious about the sharks as I am the fellows I share this planet with!
You have tremendous range in your work from the past 25 years. How did your previous work lead to this?
I have shot many subjects in my 25+ years of photography and have covered so many different subjects that may be very much the reason it led me underwater. To be honest there are not a whole lot of things left that get me as excited as animals do at this point in my career. I do love shooting people and always will. I do love shooting commercial work but am having a desire to do much larger productions fewer times a month than many small ones which I have been doing for many years. My passion is leading me outdoors again to the wilderness and the vast oceans to turn my lens on our planet and what’s happening to it. Not in a way that focusses on the destruction but more the beauty of it in hopes that it will inspire the destruction to stop. I have always loved and been fascinated with animals as I have been with people. That said, I was not in a place like I am now to go and do what I am doing now which is taking that 25 years experience into the wild and take the skills I learned in the studio and on location, then turning it loose on animals. I want to take photos of things in ways people have never seen before, I want to make people stop and think “how did he do that?” “how did he get that look” only by doing that can you possibly have a chance to get people to stop and think “how can we keep this animal around?” you know? The same approach as I have taken to get people to buy a product or see a movie I am using to try and change perceptions of our planet. I can only try right? Like the road blocks I hit with creating the lights, the challenge is to not give up before the miracle happens!
Was Summit to Summit the start of you adding yet another dimension to your interests as a photographer?
I don’t think it was the start but it certainly is along the lines of what drives me today. To be a part of a movement that educates people about our planet and the lack of clean drinking water around the world is just another example of how I am trying to use my gifts today. I don’t think I was put here to shoot the things I have shot for 25 years and continue shooting them for the next 25 years. I am a student or follower of Darwin’s comment “evolve or die”. I want to evolve as a person, a photographer, husband, and father. I want to challenge myself as an artist and as a human being and what I see happening today on and to our planet does not sit well with me. I am under no illusion that I am going to go out and take a photo that is going to change the world, but at the same time I am not going to sit back and do nothing expecting someone else to fix the problem. I don’t know what my images will do, but that is not my business. My job is to take pictures, give them to the world and what happens, happens. I have to follow my heart and listen to my gut, I always have and it has never been wrong.
Where are you going from here with underwater photography?
I don’t know? I am going where the light leads me I guess. I just want to go out and have fun creating images and documenting this amazing planet we all share. There is just so much to shoot and the subjects are limitless, I just need to show up! I am planning an exhibition to South Africa this year to shoot breaching Great Whites as well as safari all in one trip, so that ought to be a fun. All I can say is that as long as I am drawing a breath and my limbs are all working, I will be out there shooting, both above and below the water. There are a few other ideas I have that I want to try and do underwater that I think will help take underwater photography to anther level, but we will have to wait and see what happens!