Starting from Scratch
A Chance Encounter
As many of you know from the site, my artistic interests extend well beyond photography. Art is the filter through which I process life. The camera is a tool in a long line of creative options that I use for projects. One tool that has never held my interest is the video camera. Labor intensive and historically mediocre in image quality, the video camera and all its contraptions seemed more like a hobbyist’s vortex than a useful option. For years video was playing catch up with still cameras, just like digital played catch up with film. But now we have finally reached a place where video is on a level playing field with photography. Still images can be grabbed from RED Cine cameras and printed out to exhibition size. Its resolutions, at 4K and 8K, are opening up new possibilities of time lapse, slow motion, and gyroscopic sequences that were never possible in the past.
The future of video is an endless frontier. The pioneers like Gottfried Reggio and Ron Frick are not exactly household names. Any type of film production that does not have immediate commercial outlets is usually relegated to the dusty corners of the “Documentary” archives. The advantage of video’s slow start is that younger cinematographers can drive the genre. It’s very unlikely that a 20 year old painting sensation is going to show up the Renaissance Masters. There is an opening in video and no better time to dive into work than now.
These ideas all came together in my head last year when I met Cameron Michael. A painter by training but cinematographer by profession, he and I instantly hit it off. While he was unpacking what seemed like an endless amount of aluminum tubes, we started talking about travel, scuba diving and our mutual interest in art work that seems to bend our experience of time. He was hired to produce a time lapse sequence of an apartment I built years ago for the NASCAR driver Jeff Gordon. Why would you do a time lapse for an apartment? Well, if you are trying to sell a $30 million place, it doesn’t hurt to paint a pretty picture of the views of Central Park the future owner might see from the living room. It’s the type of day job stuff that every photographer knows and occasionally loathes. But for Cameron it seemed like a pretty easy gig compared to some of his other adventures, like filming whale sharks at 100+ feet while wearing a rebreather and staying underwater in excess of 2 hours.
To give you a little background on Cameron Michael, he was born in Florida and went to the Art Institute of Chicago where he studied painting, has a stack of scuba certifications, and is an all around nice guy. Our shared art education became the launching point for our conversation and this interview, and his Floridian upbringing led to the first travel work that has impressed me in years. Please enjoy the film “Awaken,” which you will see below.
New York City is a market saturated with creative people from all over the world. How is a young painter turned cinematographer supposed to make their mark? And how can they do it on almost no budget? Well Cameron’s approach is admirable and successful, two traits that don’t always go hand in hand. I’ve seen success in New York come from lying, backstabbing treachery, mixed with a dose of shameless self promotion. Mark Ellison, one of my mentors, once said that “New York is a place where mediocrity is frequently mistaken for genius.” Cameron’s approach could not be further from the cut throat paradigm that people associate with the City.
With nothing but his camera, tripod, and hardly enough money for the subway, he spent 6 months lugging basic video equipment around Manhattan to film the city day and night. He snuck onto rooftops, nearly got himself arrested and hardly knew if he completed the project. In the end, he released a short piece called “The Manhattan Project.” It takes a progressive look at the flow of the city through the eye of a bird, an ant, and maybe even God. It was the single best business card I have ever seen an artist make for themselves. With this film, he caught the attention of real estate brokers who saw the possibility of showcasing architecture and they came with a bankroll that would afford Cameron a budget to fund the work he really wanted to make for himself.
After producing “The Manhattan Project” Cameron was hired by Fort Meyers & Sanibel Island to produce a promotional video for tourism. On paper, it sounds like a profoundly lame project. This is buffered by the fact that I used to go to Sanibel Island as a child. It’s a nice place, but in no way a remarkable natural landscape that I would feel compelled to revisit. But Cameron had a very different vision of what the landscape had to offer and like many of his projects now, his clients said…“Ok, go ahead and shoot it however you want.”
The completed video, which clocks in at just under six minutes, illustrated some of the distinct advantages that new applications in video have over landscape photography.
- Elastic Time: Landscape photographers have always tried to convey an eternity of nature that has no visible beginning and no end. The magnitude of soaring mountains, crashing seas and churning storms has fascinated artists from Ansel Adams to Albert Bierstadt and J.M. Turner. But how successfully is the dimension of time captured in a still image? Consider this while watching “Awaken”, because I believe that it brings the viewer’s attention to the very idea that nature is eternal, it is constantly in flux, and the elements are always relating to each other. This is facilitated by Cameron’s ability to use high speed slow motion for some sequences and different types of time lapse for others (referred to as Pulse or Interleave depending on the technique.)
- Wide Angle View: The mechanics of the human eye are still quite mysterious to science and common wisdom. While we have a broad field of view, the way in which our eyes actually see is a point of contention for artists and scientists alike. But one thing is certain. When you stand in a vast space, whether you can actually “see it all” or not, the world can feel like a very big place. Photography would love for wider angle lenses with flatter fields of view to solve the problem. But super-wide landscape photography does not in any way feel like standing at the edge of the ocean as you stare out at a vast horizon. It misses the fact that we turn our heads and shift our eyes all the time. Through the use of time lapse work combined with tilting and panning robotics, the compiled view of Cameron’s work gives a sensation that explores the idea that the world around us expands and contracts on a massive scale.
- Movement: The movement of a storm, coming off of the horizon, is more effective in a video than in a still. Surely a still image can imply movement, but there is a unique quality to the way in which the clouds roll and churn as they approach the viewer. For over 50,000 years, artists have devised schemes for creating a sense of movement in still paint or sculpture. And when cinema came along, followed by video, the reality of movement opened up even more options. But very few of the moving options have ever been integrated into the canon of Art. This is mostly due to the fact that the “reality” of a moving image might prove something to the scientist, but it does not in any way impress the artist. Only in recent years has the evolution of video and time lapse work opened up a view of movement that happens at a different rate than our eyes can perceive. It takes a dedicated Zen monk to visualize a flower growing from the earth. And while I would not want to dissuade anyone from taking the Zen approach, it’s a joy to watch sequences sped up and slowed down to gain a fuller understanding of the movement of the universe with all the visual satisfaction of artistic perception.
At twenty-six years old, the future looks bright for Cameron. There is no telling how things might evolve. He has aspirations of exhibiting multimedia installations in the art world, producing enormous prints which are the basis for the work, and seeing where the technology might take him. But while it might seem as if he just popped out of nowhere, it’s worth considering that his artistic trajectory is just picking up momentum. I once heard a marketing expert give a lecture at photo conference and she said that a new venture will take a minimum of 18 months to gain any traction. The room let out a collective sigh of disappointment. The role of the artist, in any medium, is a process that cannot be rushed. It takes time, patience, and endless evenings of where it seems as if the world could not care if you existed, before they actually do.
It seems to me that Cameron’s artistic underpinnings will serve him well in projects to come. While his work does take advantage of some high tech robotics and gyroscopic devices, he does not see himself as technology dependent. He constructs each shot as if it were a still image. He pays close attention to color and employs a painterly approach of shooting either “warm” or “cool” palette shots. The structure of art and design is endlessly adaptable. There is not a piece of technology that will ever render it useless. So to any young photographers reading this, remember that we all started with a pencil. As the tools become more fancy, an analog understanding of art, design, and color are relatively cheap skills to acquire. (As far as I know Myron Barnstone offers the best solution in DVD form.)
The Joy of Discovery
The pleasure of featuring Cameron’s work here on the site is two fold. One, I do feel as if he is moving in a direction that will change how we see. I’m not just talking about showing us new images, but radically altering the way in which we view the world around us, much like Piero della Francesca’s innovations in linear perspective during the 1500’s.
And secondly, it is not so often that someone who requires piles of technology for his projects never loses sight of the fact that cameras serve us, not the other way around. Cameron does not get caught up in pixel-counting and technical specifications. His goal is to figure out how a piece of hardware works so that it can play catch up with his imagination.
If you would like to see more of Cameron Michael’s work please visit his Vimeo, Instagram, and Facebook pages.