The Australian photographer about art, landscape photo, about turning point, beauty, creativity and the artist’s purpose
Mike Stacey has been photographing the landscape for more than three decades. He has spent considerable time in places that are remote from the built world – places that are windswept, bleak, beautiful, desolate, unblemished and at times uncomfortable and challenging. Depicting the essence of such environments through photographs has been a life-long project that continues.
Essentially he photographs light, colour and tone. These three elements are most tangible where there is little else. Places that are vast and empty, places where light and colour manifest themselves to their full potential. Hence he looks for locations that are void of the usual landscape components; where there are no distractions impeding a complete appreciation of these universal ingredients.
Bleek Magazine: What is art for you? How do you define art photography? When did you realize that the thing you’re doing is art?
Mike Stacey: One of the biggest defining factors of art for me is that the work, whatever medium it may be, must allow the viewer to see some aspect of the world in a new way. It should open the viewers eyes and mind to views, feelings, emotions or facts that they hadn’t considered, or noticed previously.
Art photography, for me, is applying the above to taking pictures. This is a big ask for a photographer because we deal with reality through our tool of choice, abstraction isn’t easy, the camera doesn’t lie. So it depends on what your vision is, what is it that you are conveying to the viewer? For example, a documentary photographer is dealing with realistic interpretations of subject matter and doesn’t need to rely so much on abstraction to get their message across, so aspects such as subject, light, composition and final aesthetic play a big role in the impact they hope to create.
Landscape photography is different. One of the big dilemmas is for example, how can we shoot a location that’s been shot thousands of times before so that the viewer sees or feels something different? Abstraction can help but again, most techniques for achieving this have been done; over and over again. Who wants to see another long coastal time exposure or deliberately blurred in-camera movement image? So this is a challenge and I think if you’re really confronting that challenge and producing work that does make people think, and above all – makes people ‘feel’, then you’re heading toward an artistic interpretation of your subject.
Bleek Magazine: What do you think about artist vision in photography/art? In your case was it something you’ve got from the very beginning or you got it after you’ve started practicing photography?
Mike Stacey: Artistic vision is being able to see images before you shoot them, then the process of realising that final image, in terms of how to create it, begins. For me, seeing photography as a truly artistic medium didn’t happen until I had spent a long time shooting landscape photos and mastering the technical aspects of photography. I think once you have all the mechanical stuff under control, you’re free to move on in new directions. I got very tired of taking pictures that anyone else could take and one of the most influencial critiques I’ve had was, “Mike these are stunning images. They’re technically perfect. Composition is spot-on, exposure, depth of field etc could not be better but… anyone could have taken them.” At the time I was taken back and it took a while for this comment to really sink in, but sink in it did.
It’s still fun going out and just taking photos, the simple pleasure is there, but I needed to create work of greater depth and substance. That was the turning point.
A key thing I have in my mind when taking photos is: “What do I want the viewer to ‘feel’ when they look at this image?” As opposed to “What do I want them to ‘see’?”
Bleek Magazine: What (which) part does mind take in the process of making art on your opinion? Do you always realize straight away what your are going to do right now or is there still some place for your own reflection?
Mike Stacey: Mind is part of the artistic process of course. I see it as the piece that is involved in making sure all the technical aspects are under control: exposure, light, DOF, composition etc. But that’s all just knowledge that anyone can learn. The artistic process runs off at a tangent from here and involves a completelyt different way of thinking. For me, this was challenging having come from a science and mathematics background, I’m very left-brained and analytical so I had to find ways of thinking creatively, which is a right-brained facility, in a familiar way that would work for me, given my background. I almost had to formularise the artistic process and mould into it into a left-brained view, then I could proceed. That seemed to work and helped me get off the beaten track of traditional landscape photography. Now, I find I don’t need the formularisation so much and have managed to find other methods that work for me.
I usually have a ‘feel’ for what I want to create then I go out and experiment. Some times it takes numerous visits to the same location for the right feel to begin to appear in my photographs, then I know I’m on track and can begin to take a deeper dive into the methods I’m using. A key thing I have in my mind when taking photos is: “What do I want the viewer to ‘feel’ when they look at this image?” As opposed to “What do I want them to ‘see’?”
Bleek Magazine: What do you think about “soul” in photography?
Mike Stacey: I think I’ve touched on “soul” already when I was talking about “feel”. Soul is a bit different for me, as it is for everyone, it depends on the individual’s interpretation of the word. Much of my landscape work up to this point has been aimed at a spiritual – transcendent level that hopefully lifts the viewer out of their present reality and can open up their view a bit, that’s what I hope anyway.
Bleek Magazine: What do you think about technics in photography?
Mike Stacey: The technical aspects are all left-brained functions that are very necessary to achieve the final result you’re after, but that’s where they end. Once technics are mastered, they should be left behind. The technical workflow needs to become second nature so that the photograher doesn’t have to waste mental energy thinking about it when shooting. Their mind can then be free to try and compose the image in a way that will achieve the desired result.
Beauty is powerful and is used and abused by all landscape photographers, but this shows limited vision on the artist’s behalf. The “tarting” up of nature through heavy contrast, over saturation and other techniques really turns me off. The natural world is just not like that, why dress it up like a glamourous cheesecake, sweetened with all the token additives – it’s abusing the priviledge we have to be photographers and artists.
Bleek Magazine: Light is the base for creating a photo, how do you work with light, does luminance influence your work a lot?
Mike Stacey: Light influences my work, as it does every photographer, but it’s just another tool that can be used to realize the vision. Sometimes I might need dramatic light, soft light, flat light, whatever. Depends on what I’m trying to achieve.
Bleek Magazine: What is your attitude to black&white photography in our day? Do you think that choosing black&white when colour is already available is some kind of artist message or is it a question of techniques and aesthetics only?
Mike Stacey: I don’t think using black and white film, or black and white digital processing is any kind of artistic statement, those days are long gone. The current contemporary view is for colour, and realism – not that I adhere to fashion but it is important to be aware of what’s happening. Again, the use of black and white or colour is a choice that I make based on the outcome I’m trying to achieve – on what I want the viewer to “feel” when they look at one of my pictures.
The technical workflow needs to become second nature so that the photograher doesn’t have to waste mental energy thinking about it when shooting. Their mind can then be free to try and compose the image in a way that will achieve the desired result.
Bleek Magazine: What do you think about beauty in photography? Should it be always the aim for an artist? Did the art of photography changed the attitude of people to beauty in visual arts and how? What is beautiful photograph for you?
Mike Stacey: Good question. Beauty is something that spurs certain emotions, like awe, wonder etc. but these emotions don’t represent the whole gamut of human experience so why would an artist confine themselves to the portrayal of beautiful nice things? Beauty is powerful and is used and abused by all landscape photographers, but this shows limited vision on the artist’s behalf. The “tarting” up of nature through heavy contrast, over saturation and other techniques really turns me off. The natural world is just not like that, why dress it up like a glamourous cheesecake, sweetened with all the token additives – it’s abusing the priviledge we have to be photographers and artists.
It’s challenging, as a landscape artist to pull yourself away from the portrayal of beauty but it’s a worthy experiment just to test yourself and your own level of personal creativity.
What is a beautiful photograph for me? There are too many to mention but lately it’s a portrait that shows me the human condition in all its glory or otherwise. At the moment, I’m thinking of “Migrant Woman” by Dorothea Lange. Looking at that image, and many of Lang’s other works, makes me “feel”, and stirs my insides to a point where I’m moved from my current situation. That’s what great photographs can do.
Bleek Magazine: How important is a “moment” in photography? How would you describe inner feeling of right moment? Is this feeling always promising a good shot for you?
Mike Stacey: The “moment”, in landscape photography at least, is when everything around you aligns to create the image. It has a lot to do with light, but often clouds, a sense of stillness etc. can all come together – it’s often a fleeting moment that may last only a few minutes. It’s exciting and humbling when it does happen and at those times, I feel completely transported by what’s going on around me.
The moment, in documentary style work, is similar in many ways but a little more transient.Still, many of the same aspects apply; light, composition and a certain alignment of subject matter define it for me.
Bleek Magazine: Does subject which you’ve choosen for the photo influences on how do you work with it, or is the opposite for you – your wish to try something exactly makes you to choose the right subject?
Mike Stacey: For me it starts with the vision of what it is I want to create and, as I’ve been saying, how I’d like the viewer to feel when they see the image. Once I have a rough idea of what those things are, I set about trying to create it by careful selection of subject matter and choice of film stock, processing chemicals etc. all the way down to the final print and what paper I’ll use to print it on, how it will be presented – type of framing etc.
There is usually a lot of experimentation, and also frustration, along the path between vision and realisation so motivation, determination, and above all – belief in yourself, are key. Being somewhat of a perfectionist, I’m not happy with the experimentation until the final print fits my intended vision. If it does, it goes into my portfolio on the website, otherwise it’s just an experiment.
One of the biggest defining factors of art for me is that the work, whatever medium it may be, must allow the viewer to see some aspect of the world in a new way. It should open the viewers eyes and mind to views, feelings, emotions or facts that they hadn’t considered, or noticed previously.
Bleek Magazine: What can you tell about your “Pretty Vacant” series? Does it have any social context or it’s moslty about geometrial abstraction?
Mike Stacey: That’s a very good question and one that I ask myself all the time. I don’t usually approach subjects without a reasonably clear artistic statement in my head, but the Pretty Vacant works have no statement as yet. That doesn’t mean they have no direction, just that I’m finding it hard to see words to describe my motivation.
There’s certainly some social context. I’m amazed at some of the architecture we “design” and build. Many of the buildings in the Pretty Vacant series are nothing more than concrete bunkers, which in many ways conform to the “brutalist” style of architecture. I wonder what the designers of such buildings are thinking. Do they think they are beautiful? My initial impressions when I began shooting for this set, were that these designs were completely inhumane and exemplified the ultimate in concrete, sterile design that were the exact antithesis of my previous work with the Ether, Dune and Artesian Songlines series. In this way, they raise many social questions and provide me with completely contrasting and challenging subject matter.
Over time, as I’ve shot more and more of these structures, I’ve come to appreciate their minimalism and streamlined functional aesthetic. Geometry is always fascinating for a photographer, I particularly like the the strength of the vertical in a composition, and they must be dead straight for the picture to work. As far as a statement goes, sorry, I don’t have one but I’m happy in a way – I know one will form over time, and it may be a few years away before I can consolidate the reason to myself why I shoot these buildings.
Bleek Magazine: How did you reach such visual weightlessness in your “Ether” works? The light conditions are so different there, but all photographs give the same calm feeling, was it hard to reach one?
Mike Stacey: The “visual weightlessness” comes through the combination of techniques I use from image capture through to scanning to printing. Most of the effect is due to the exposure and the film stock. Colour negative film is really the only medium that can achieve these kind of results so I hope Kodak keeps making it.
It’s not hard to reach the same feeling across a series of work when you have a clear intent behind making the work. I placed very tight parameters on the Ether series in order to constrain it – that gives the overall series of pictures a cohesion and when viewed together, they convey a message. The particular “visual weightlessness” you refer to was a result of applying the parameters to the Ether concept and, for me, was a big part of communicating the message behind the set – which is essentially a spiritual one. However, both the images and the series statement, are left “open” to a certain extent. It’s up to the viewer to come to their own interpretation, I just hope the pictures provide a vehicle for the viewer to be able to launch off the beaten path of everyday thought.
“Pretty Vacant” series
© Bleek Magazine. Translation: Daria Kuznetsova.