Kwerfeldein Magazine Article
Photography saved my life when I was a teenager. It gave me something to hang on to and immerse myself in, an excuse to be out in the world, to look and stare, and eventually to meet people, and learn about myself. Photography also gave me a voice at a time in my life when I had no voice. It was a way to express how I saw the world and a way to connect with my feelings and attempt to convey those feelings in pictures. I felt alone, lonely and devoid of confidence. Photography was my escape and salvation.
In my high school library I pored over copies of photography magazines, reading endlessly about cameras, lenses and techniques. Little was written about the photographs, or why photographers made the images that they did. It was all nuts and bolts.
I did find the work of Robert Frank, W. Eugene Smith, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Walker Evans, Robert Capa, Brassai, Don McCullin, Andre Kertesz, Diane Arbus, Richard Avedon, Dorothea Lange and many others to be a great inspiration to me. I did not know what made their work so good, but I did know that what I felt when I looked at their photographs was more than visual pleasure, but something deeper and more complex.
When I think back, all of the photographs that were so important to me in my early years were in black and white. I worked for many years on personal projects using 35mm black and white film, but when I look at that work now, I feel most of it is trivial. All of my work that is of any consequence has been done in color. I’m not really sure what to make of that, but what I do realize is that perhaps I was trying too hard to create “important” work and not spending enough time exploring my own interests and following my heart.
Something else that I did not know then, was that I had to experience more of life to know what was important to me so I could have an opinion about the world and feel great passion before I could ever make a photograph with enough content to balance the form. I was too in love with photography to be a good photographer. I had to learn to love life more.
While in college, I had learned how to use a 4x5 view camera. I was quite taken with the direct simplicity of the process, and the beautiful view of the image on the ground glass. I also became aware that it posed a special challenge when photographing people. It made me very deliberate and forced me to decide exactly who and what I wanted in the photograph. I first had to overcome my fear of talking to people by asking if I could make a photograph. Due to the time it took to set up, my subjects became comfortable with the process, as did I, and eventually, they would surrender to the camera.
I spent many years walking the streets of my home town with the 4x5 camera over my shoulder. I would meet people on the street and ask if I could photograph them. It was terrifying each time I would approach someone even though the camera itself was a great conversation starter. The significance of those early photographs loom large in my life, however it took me many years to understand the lessons that they were teaching me.
Until 2001, I continued making portraits of people I would meet on the street using the 4x5. At that point I became interested in a more spontaneous way of making photographs, and also had become very interested in the deceptive simplicity of the square format. In 2002 I switched over to shooting all of my personal work with 6x6 film cameras, and began to focus on making unposed photographs of people on the street.
The square format has set me free compositionally. I am very comfortable with its limitations and relish the challenge of making the frame work. Being free of having to decide about landscape or portrait orientation allows me to simply concentrate on what is in front of me and where to stand. Making the frame is very intuitive for me, and the square is very comfortable. The square also clearly differentiates my personal work from the work I do for clients, which is always a rectangle. I know when I see the square, I have only myself to please when I make the photograph.
During this transition from 4x5 to square, I also began to reexamine my earlier photographs. Finally I began to understand what made those photos resonate with me. I was making conscious choices about the people I photographed, and I began to see that there was something about each person that I could relate to in some way, be it their expression or body language. From that point, I was able to trace forward and find the images that I had made along the way where I was able to make those same connections. I had finally found my voice!
Just this year, in 2013, I’ve begun a transition to shooting square digital images in an effort to become more productive with my time. What I can get out of a digital file approaches what I could get from film, and maybe in some ways it’s even better. I have gotten to the point where the gear I use to make the images is far less important than the image itself. Technique and gear are only important to the extent that they are sufficient to convey the image, and are otherwise transparent.
And now, as I move through the world, I’m able to recognize myself in the faces of others, to pick them out of the crowd and connect with them, even if only for a fraction of a second. The photographs I make are my search for the universal truths of life in the faces of others. My photographs are my attempt to show that I was here, and to acknowledge that those that I photographed were here too. All I have to offer is my point of view.
I’d like to leave some proof that we existed, in this place, at this time. I only hope that my photographs can resonate in the hearts and minds of others.
In the decade following the attacks in New York City on September 11, 2001, which I witnessed from a few miles away, I tried to sort through my feelings about what I witnessed on that day, and what transpired in the years that followed. I looked into the faces of the people around me, and photographed what I saw and felt during this time of great transition and upheaval. The title of this work is “The Dream.”
I have wondered what has happened to the American Dream—that if you work hard, you can achieve anything. Is it a realistic possibility to expect to be able to follow that dream? Is it still valid in this new world, or do we have to change our expectations? What I do know is that life has become much harder for a large swath of the people I encounter on a daily basis. Yet there is still hope that things will get better. And there is an understanding that no matter how difficult things are, we are lucky to live here.
A layout for my proposed book of “The Dream” can be seen at this link: http://www.mikepeters-photography.com/Category/THE-DREAM
Since 2011 I have been working on a different project about an area of Manhattan called the Meatpacking District. It was once dirty, smelly, and at night and on weekends quite desolate, a perfect place for street prostitution and rough and tumble bars to thrive. Now it is quite fashionable. High end stores, restaurants and clubs have replaced the grit and grime with glitz and glitter, and people from all over the world flock to the area in search of a good time.
With this project, I am photographing at night with a flash. I stop people that I find interesting and ask if I can make a photograph. In their faces I can see the same desperate drive to have fun, just as I felt as a young man. And within these structured interactions, I can usually find a moment of spontaneity and revealing individuality. It is these moments in which I once again connect with my subject, where I give my attention to their existence, and they share their precious time and open themselves to the process of being interpreted by me, and you the viewer.
As always, I am thankful for the people who I photograph, for it is they who give me a sense of purpose as I tell a tiny part of their story, and as I slowly figure out my own story. Photography continues to save my life, each day keeping me out in the world, engaged with interesting people, and putting food on my table. I am grateful for all of the gifts that photography has brought me and my family. Indeed, I am a lucky man.