Michael Crouser Interview

- - Photographers

Jonathan Blaustein: Right now, you’re in the Seattle airport, having just come from Alaska. Is that right?

Michael Crouser: That is correct.

JB: What were you doing up there?

MC: I was working on a job for the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute, shooting portraits of Alaska fisherman. Both subsistence and commercial fisherman, all along the Southeast and Southwest of Alaska.

JB: Wow. Had you been there before?

MC: Yeah, I’ve been to Alaska quite a few times, working for different clients. I also have worked on a personal project there.

JB: How big of an area were you ranging?

MC: I started in Juneau, which is in the extreme Southeast, and I ended up near Bethel, which is in the Southwest of the main body of the State.

JB: Can you translate that into the lower 48?

MC: Miles?

JB: Yeah. How far were you rolling?

MC: Boy, that is a good question. I just don’t have any idea. I’ve never sat down and calculated how far it is from Juneau to Bethel. But while I was near Bethel, I was going up and down the Kuskokwim River, photographing the fishermen in the different villages.

JB: Well, you and I have had a bit of a difficult time hooking up to do this interview. It occurred to me only last night that your lack of Internet might have something to do with you traipsing around the bush and the backcountry.

MC: It has everything to do with that. Occasionally, I could go to a tribal council office, where they would have Internet service, but it wasn’t available in most of the places where I was.

JB: You were in a pretty remote locale.

MC: Absolutely. But I like that. I’m very interested in these kinds of experiences and circumstances. It’s nice to see how other people live in the world.

JB: Did you get to eat some really killer fresh fish? What was the cuisine like?

MC: The most interesting thing I ate was walrus. They also have a dish that is made with seal blubber or shortening with sugar and berries. They call that Eskimo ice cream, so I had some of that as well. And I tried some moose meat. When you are in the villages, they really do live a traditional, subsistence life.

JB: Where will these photographs end up? Were you shooting digitally or film?

MC: For this type of job I always shoot digitally. I never shoot digital for my personal work, but commercial clients really don’t want to deal with film and prints anymore, for the most part. This client will use the pictures for a number of different things, as they’re trying to build a library of portraits of Alaska fishermen. They’re trying to promote the human aspect of this industry.

JB: You were shooting some pretty burly dudes, for sure. And you’ve photographed biker dudes as well, no?

MC: Yes, I’ve photographed members of a certain motorcycle club that operates out of Brooklyn. I’ve gotten to know some of these guys, and hung out with them, and done some portraits of those guys.

JB: And even though you’re a nice, soft-spoken guy from Minnesota, when you were shooting those big fishermen, do you ever slide into character and start dropping F-bombs?

MC: I do find myself shooting in a lot of different kinds of cultures and sub-cultures, and I never really try to pretend that I’m something that I’m not. Whether it’s ranchers in Colorado, or bikers or fishermen, I can pretty easily join in. I don’t pretend I’m one of them, but they don’t seem to mind having me around, just being myself.

JB: How do you split your time between commercial and personal work?

MC: It’s a tough question, because it changes with the different phases your life goes through. Sometimes, you don’t even know you’re in the phase. It used to almost all commercial, and a bit of what I would have called personal work.

I didn’t have an outlet for it as fine art, so I never thought of it as such. Now, I’m more involved in book publishing, gallery exhibitions, and selling my work. So personal work becomes fine art, with that label.

I spent a lot more time on that, these days, than I do on commercial work, but that’s not by any personal rule. I’m always open to whatever happens.

JB: Well, the impetus for this interview was that you and I met last year, when you had a show at Verve Gallery in Santa Fe.

MC: Right.

JB: I was really taken with the project, “Sin Tiempo.” I saw some really exquisite black and white photographs, that I recall being gelatin silver prints. I’m sure you’ll correct me if I’m wrong.

MC: They are.

JB: And they were photographs taken in Europe that had the feel and emotional tenor of fifty, sixty, seventy year old pictures. You look at them sideways, and you can easily imagine some of the pictures being made by Cartier-Bresson, or Willy Ronis, or somebody of that age. Then, I looked at the title card, and they were dated as being 2011, 2010, 2012.

MC: Right.

JB: I was taken aback by your ability to channel a sense of time dislocation. The experience of the art was very different from the literal time in which it was made. And when I mentioned that, you told me that was very much your intention.

MC: It is very much the goal. I don’t claim that I’m trying to make old-looking photographs, but I am attracted to scenes that don’t give away a sense of popular culture today. I’m not very interested in reflecting or commenting upon our popular culture, and a huge percentage of photographers today are interested in that.

It just doesn’t appeal to me aesthetically. A lot of times, photographers are trying to make a critical commentary, or some kind of an ironic statement about the world in which we live, and I find myself looking for something that’s more aesthetically pleasing to me. A timeless aesthetic.

I call the project “Sin Tiempo,” which is “Without Time” in Spanish, because I prefer that to timeless, which is an overused and generic term. I’m trying to make pictures that are without time. I’m not conscious of trying to make pictures that look like they’re from the 40′s or 50′s, but I am conscious of eliminating elements that label it as now, or five years ago. Any specific time.

So there’s no particular hair styles or graphics that are shown. No cars. No fashion that would be able to be labeled as any particular time. And what you get are photographs that do look like images of another time. Fashion changes by the minute, as does typography.

JB: I’m about to throw a word at you, and I’m pretty sure you’re going to embrace it, or reject it strongly.

MC: (laughing.) All right.

JB: And I bet you could even predict it, if you tried really hard.

MC: (pause.) You already used Cartier-Bresson, and timeless, so…I’m not sure.

JB: Romantic.

MC: I think it’s great. I’m interested in an aesthetically pleasing, Romantic, perhaps even dream-like settings. I really am drawn to that. The compositions are rather formal, but the feeling is whimsical. Even the photographs that have some tension to them, there’s always still a Romantic feel. Or a calm feel.

Romance is a good word.

JB: I didn’t know which way you’d go on that. You’ve photographed bull fighters, and working cattle ranches in Colorado. You were talking about timeless, and of course that’s impossible, given that photography requires time, which our readers will know.

But it seems like there is an absolute sense of of longing for a simpler time. What is the attraction for you? What is the commonality of the things you’re choosing to focus on?

MC: Tell me if I go off-the-rails here, but there’s an aesthetic commonality in the photographs. I would hope, anyway. I can’t speak for the viewers, but for me, I am attracted to ways of life that are simpler. But also a little more dangerous. A little rougher. A little of the Earth. More to do with life and death. And the involvement of animals, and physical labor.

I find those things attractive/romantic, both sociologically and photographically. I always suggest to students that if they go after a long-term project, they go after something that interests them outside of the photographic interest. That they find something that they are attracted to, because then they’ll stay with it and explore it more deeply.

With regard to bullfighters and cowboys, we really are looking at at way of life that extends backward to before there were even cameras. This way of life existed before there was anybody to take pictures of it. And there are elements if it that have remained unchanged.

The series I call “Mountain Ranch,” which is about ranchers in the mountains of Colorado, concentrates on the traditional elements of traditional lives. It’s not the story of the modern cowboy. I’m not trying to hold up some juxtaposition between four-wheelers and horses, or baseball hats and cowboy hats.

It’s just that these things are fascinating to me, and they’re going away, as is their lifestyle. Part of it is, I just want to look at it. I love being around it. It looks to me like something that I, Michael Crouser, should be making photographs of because it appeals to me so strongly.

I don’t really know what to say when people say “It’s great that you’re documenting this for posterity.” I agree, but it’s not necessarily the full motivation. It’s interesting to me to be documenting for that purpose, but I think the motivation is mostly an aesthetic one.

These things grow. It starts off as something you might like to go take a picture of, but then you meet people, and start becoming interested in their lives, and families, and the way they work. And the fact that their grandparents lived on that land as well.

I’m not photographing everything about their lives. I’m photographing the traditional elements of their lives.

JB: You mentioned your students at the beginning of that answer, so that seems like a great place to segue a bit. The Santa Fe Workshops is sponsoring this interview, because you’re going to be teaching a worksop with them called “Finding Your Voice as a Photographer.”

MC: Right.

JB: We just heard, at length, about how you have learned to trust your own instincts. And that’s lead to your voice, aesthetically speaking. But all workshops need titles, so why did you choose that one? What do students come to you to learn?

MC: Before I started teaching, I was doing some self-exploration, as a photographer. Just wondering to myself what it is that makes my pictures personal. Why are they mine, as opposed to someone else’s? I became fascinated by this idea that by a series of decisions, or factors, or elements in a photograph, you start to hone your aesthetic voice.

The choices that you make with regard to light, medium, equipment, composition, perspective, subject matter, etc. As you work through those things, and experiment, your photographs become something more personal. More unique to you than they would be without the consideration of those things.

A lot of students that I have in my workshops are really interested in taking another step in their photography. That’s kind of a general way that people express the fact that they want to grow and learn and expand.

It’s often difficult for people to know where to go. How do you open up the door if you don’t know where the door is? So this class looks at a number of doors that are there for the opening. When you start to explore these things, and consider the work of established photographers, and how they use these elements, they get exposure to choices that they can make.

A lot of photographers who take these classes have never thought of these things before. Maybe they like to take pictures of their kids, or horse races, or maybe they’ve never thought about the qualities of light that appeal to them the most. Once you start experimenting with your own preferences, I feel like your own voice gets sharper. More articulate.

JB: How about group dynamics in workshops? What are some of your tricks for getting people to engage with each other?

MC: I’ve found I like teaching more in a group setting, than working with individuals, because there’s more discussion. It becomes more apparent to the students that there are differences of opinion, and different aesthetic tastes. It happens all the time where one student will be very attracted to garish color, and the student sitting next to them will say “That’s ridiculous.”

There are two vastly different opinions about the same photograph. I think that is interesting for a number of reasons. It shows them that taste is personal, that there is no right or wrong. That’s an important piece of this class, because I don’t teach people that there’s a correct way to take photographs.

I teach people to explore what is they like about photographs, and what they like about taking pictures, and to run with it. Explore it.

JB: Do you find people are attracted to your way of making work? Is there a Romantic vibe in the air, when your students come together? Or are they more attracted to the fact that you’re confident in your personal vision, and they want you to bring that out in them?

MC: I think that some people end up taking a class because they like the instructor’s work, but I wouldn’t say that’s universal.
There are a few classes in which I ask people, just as an exercise, to emulate one of the photographer’s whose work we’ve seen. And there are a lot of things we do as exercises that don’t necessarily correspond to the work they’re going to do for the rest of their life.

But some people do choose to emulate my photographs, which is incredibly flattering, because it never occurs to me that people are there because of my aesthetic. But I am also aware of the fact that there are a lot of reasons to choose a certain workshop instead of another one.

JB: You mentioned that you show other photographer’s work in you workshop. Who are some of the artists whose work you like to use as examples?

MC: I like to show extremes. I try not to just be limited to the people that influence or inspire me. There are people that I find to be controversial, whose work I show.

Are you looking for names?

JB: Of course. We’re always looking for names. People love names.

MC: There is a lot of the aesthetic that appeals to me, like Edward Curtis, and of course Cartier-Bresson, and Willy Ronis, and Robert Doisneau, and Lartigue. I call it the French Mt. Rushmore. Cartier-Bresson, Doisneau, Lartigue and Brassai. It’s an era that speaks to me so strongly.

But I also like people to see David LaChapelle, and Annie Leibovitz, and Albert Watson and Herb Ritts. (pause.) I’m trying to think of more contemporary photographers…Susan Burnstine…

JB: I demanded names, and you gave us some. Now we know you’re also intrigued by editorial masters, as it were. I just wanted to give people a sense of what inspires you.

MC: I might add that I’m inspired by people who are inspired. I’m inspired by certain photographers, but I’m also inspired by teaching; by people learning and growing. It really gets me going.

JB: Do you enjoy getting to come down to New Mexico? It sounds like you get to travel quite a bit. Do you think that Santa Fe offers anything special, compared to other locations?

MC: It’s a great atmosphere in which to learn. The people are so nice in Santa Fe, and at the Workshops. They’re so helpful and positive. They make available a lot of locations that the students can utilize, apart from classroom learning. There’s a lot at hand, as far as landscape and setting.

When you go to Santa Fe, you know you’re not in California, or Minnesota, or New York. People get a uniquely Santa Fe experience when they’re there, from the light to the farmers market. It’s a great place to be. Very comfortable and positive from start to finish.

JB: As far as travel goes, we started this conversation mentioning that you were on a long layover in Seattle on your way to China.

MC: I’m going to Beijing. It will be my first time to Asia. I’m going to speak to the organizers of an upcoming exhibition, to help them plan it from the photographer’s perspective. I do a lot of work for and with Kodak, and they’ve been so very supportive of my projects with Tri-X film and darkroom chemicals. They’re sponsoring it.

JB: If when you’re walking along the road, you see knock-offs of your own photographs, what are you going to do?

MC: It’s interesting that you mention that. I recently found some different examples of knock-offs of my pictures online. People selling paintings of my work, and things like that.

JB: I have an idea. You could just bring in the biker dudes.

MC: Right. I could mix projects for protection.

JB: You gotta call in backup.

MC: (laughing) I like it. They’d probably love it. Riding their Harleys around Beijing.

Jonathan Blaustein

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