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Photography files: Zackery Michael

Fashion and portrait photographer Zackery Micheal’s images have a wistful quality to them that reveal a deep intimacy between the subject and photographer. He is the man responsible for the cover of Arctic Monkey’s new album Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino, and his nostalgic images have graced the pages of the likes of Vogue, GQ, Vanity Fair and Harpers Bazaar. We spoke via email and Michael spoke openly with me about his path to becoming a photographer, the way he approaches his subjects and doing shots with Alex Turner.

What do you think of Susan Sontag’s description of  the camera as a “weapon?”

That’s quite a statement. I think Susan is great and has a lot of beautiful, intense, and poetic views on photography that I do share. I don’t view my camera as a “weapon” per say, when I think “weapon” I think “self defense.” As a photographer I’m on the offense—I’m in control. I use my camera as my ticket in the door, my date to the party, my reason to visit a country. It gives me a reason to do everything. I find it hard to justify doing anything without it. These days everyone has a camera, so in a way its become a less relevant item than when Susan was writing about it (if only she could see photography now, ooof!) As an artist all I have to offer is my vision, my opinion, my experience, and ultimately just myself as a person. The camera is just a medium I’ve chosen to capture that.

There are many paths that lead to becoming a photographer, many people begin by assisting other photographers, some study the medium at school or others are entirely self taught–how did you begin to practice professionally?

I did one year of community college in a small town in Oregon where I pretty much just took all art classes; photography, painting, acting, color theory etc. I originally wanted to be a filmmaker because at the time I was making lots of skateboarding videos of my friends. When I was 17 my cousin was living in New York City and asked me to come visit him. I came during fashion week and was blown away by the vibrance of the city and how much cool shit was going on. I went back home and started getting discouraged about filmmaking because nobody was motivated, and photography was something I could do own my own, which I liked. I told my school advisor I wanted to be a fashion photographer and he straight up told me: “well then you should drop out of school and move to New York City and do it, because nobody here knows anything about that.” So I did. I spent 3 years working odd jobs, interning, paying my dues, being a broke kid. Then I was a photographer’s assistant full time for 7 years. I started shooting on my own full time 3 years ago.

There’s a big debate about analogue versus digital within the entire sphere of art. Where do you stand on this debate, specifically when it comes to your own photography?

This is an ongoing and multi-sided debate. I much prefer and mostly always shoot on film. Sadly with the immediacy that is expected of photographers these days in the commercial world, that is not always an option. I do end up shooting a lot of digital for advertising. However I am a firm believer that the process and work put into an image reflects the quality of a photograph. The more you put in, the more you get out. When shooting digital, all the magic and creativity sort of disappears. The world is growingly scared of “error” these days. Once you hook up to a computer the work becomes more of a “creative democracy” with too many cooks in the kitchen, which is a recipe for disaster… (bad dad joke?) Fuck, I’m not funny at all…

Your compositions appear quite stylised, is there a particular era in history which informs your work? If so, what is it about that era that draws you back to it?

I more often that not find myself referencing a lot of 60’s/70’s reportage photographers. Thats a generic response because you might say, who doesn’t…? But I’m more interested in the social decay in the imagery. They aren’t amazing images just because they were shot on film. They are interesting because they were telling a story that was real. While shooting fashion, talent or advertising, part of the job is creating or recreating scenarios. Clients love to see “references” of what the images are going to look like, sometimes almost down to the pose. Especially in fashion, reality can get really lost. I always look at my fashion images and think “yeah this is nice, but why the fuck is she jumping around on a bed, who is she? what is she doing?” If I’m not convinced whats going on, then my mother, or some chick in the middle of America reading the magazine sure as hell isn’t going to get it either. People need people to relate to a photograph in one way or another. My favorite photographer Elliott Erwitt’s, quote is: “Photograph what is, rather than what is made up.” I always like to add to that myself: “If it isn’t real, it better be believable.”

You are based in New York – when photographing the city and people in the city do you approach the photograph as an insider or an outsider?

I have spent the majority of my adult years in NYC. I moved here from Oregon when I was 18 on a wing and a prayer so in a way I feel like I grew up here. Meaning, I feel I truly became an artist here. That being said, I do not feel like an outsider while photographing in New York City. Any photographs I take in here are very personal to me and the people or cultures that I’m associated with. I do sometimes wish I could shoot more like an outsider here. I admire those that go to coney island to take portraits of characters all day. Truth is I spend so much time on the road around the world that when I’m back in NYC I treat it like my hometown. If I’m not shooting a job, I’ll go to a gig or exhibit, shoot pool, eat all the food I’ve missed, go skateboarding or get drunk with my pals.

You shoot all over the world; is there something about being in a different place that changes your approach to a scene?

I definitely don’t go as far as premeditating any approach based on where I am in the world. But I have learned that I create much more work when I am in different places often. I hate feeling like a tourist. If I’m traveling alone I will purposely stay in shitty accommodations so when I wake up I think “fuck this I’m outta here” and I’ll go exploring all day. I come from a very modest upbringing, so it’s my worst nightmare to be perceived as “better” than any of my subjects. I have to be on the same level as what I’m shooting. If I’m going to Paris for a fashion shoot I have no problem staying at the Ritz, but If I’m going to Myanmar to photograph the culture and people there living in poverty, I need to be staying within that poverty as well. Method Photography, if you will…

In a world which is so oversaturated with images, does it ever become difficult to forge your own path within the medium?

I think although there is a lot of saturation in the market, I don’t necessarily feel the pressure from it. I think the Men will always be separated from the Boys (or Women from the Girls.) Being a professional is a mental state no matter what you are doing in life. I’m not threatened by some 16 year old instagram photographer kid in LA with 2 million followers and a digital camera. Any true creative director for any real job knows that’s just a flash in the pan. If anything it has brought along a lot of camaraderie in the photography community. I hang out with a lot of photographers that I respect. We talk shop, help each other out, pass each other jobs, and critique each others work. It’s radical man.

You shoot a lot of musicians; how does music inform your photography? Do you have a good to playlist or certain artists you listen to while you shoot?

Shooting musicians keeps me in touch with real life. They are real people. Real people are not always easy to make look cool ya know. Real people also don’t always enjoy their photograph being taken, which is also a challenge I enjoy. I like making people feel comfortable and breaking down that wall. I love when people say “fuck man, I came into this terrified, thank you for making this such a great experience.” For me, it’s more than taking someone’s picture, its about changing the way they look at photography from that point on. If you can do that for someone, they will never forget that. I once made a playlist called “The American Dream” which I play on all my shoots, its just all my favorite songs compiled into a playlist, it sets a good vibe of images I’m looking to take. Sometimes subjects like to step into your world.

If your photography was music – what song would it be? 

 “Girls Girls Girls” by Motley Crue. 

How did your relationship with the Arctic Monkeys start? Have their various albums and musical eras changed the way you approach them when you photograph them?

My meeting the boys is a very long story that started many years ago. The short version is Alex Turner showed up at my house one day because he was friends with my then roommate and now best friend Ian Shea, an engineer at Electric Lady Studios. It was the beginning of a lifelong friendship and probably the single most important creative and collaborate working relationship I have to date. The amount of trust between that band and I is a once in a lifetime thing that a lot of artists search for, that I found very young. Even with their amount of success I truly believe that their talent and creativity is still underrated. Any artist who has stepped foot in the studio with Arctic Monkeys on a session knows that. Alex is a fearless artist, he has no concept of what should be done, only what could be. I think a lot of that has rubbed off on me. Like I said I spend a lot of time working in the commercial world where everyone is so afraid of everything. When Al and I get together and create imagery, I know its work that will stand the test of time which as a photographer, is all you really want, isn’t it? I’ll never forget one time some label executive or something said to me “Oh you’re Zackery, the bands photographer right?” and Al replied to him “Yeah mate, but like… its more than that, its an much bigger fing we doin’.” That was like 7  years, 3 albums, 5 tours, 200 tequilas, 50,000 pictures ago.

Is there a performer or artist you’ve always wanted to work with?

Bowie would have been my ultimate, I’m still devastated about his passing. I bought a large print of him from Mick Rock when he passed away that is on the wall next to my bed, its the first thing I see every day. This is a tough question, I’m not super obsessed with modern celebrities. I tend to get really into the work of the artists or musicians only after I’ve photographed them and we have a good connection. I guess I’d love to take a portrait of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards together. They still seem like the best of friends after all these years. What a epic duo. 

Particularly with fashion photographers there is a mix between those photographers who are incredibly technical and obsessive with lighting, and those that prefer to focus on the subject and are more spontaneous with their compositions – where do you lie on that spectrum?

My job as an assistant for a very long time was to be obsessed with lighting and technicalities. I learned once I started shooting full time that having too much of that knowledge sometimes works against you. Although that knowledge is always with me, I’m learning to leave that behind and embrace the mistakes and circumstances set before me while shooting. Sometimes “it is what it is.” These days I find myself looking for reasons to wing it and work through the process with the tools at my disposal at that exact moment. I enjoy it, I find it very liberating. I’ve asked a lot of photographers whom have made my favorite photographs about how they were made. Not one has ever said “oh it was all thought out and executed perfectly as planned!” Instead it is “Oh god, thats your favorite photo? That whole shoot went to shit and we almost killed that shot but some how we didn’t.” I always remember that.

When constructing narratives in your photographs – do you preconceive your own stories and apply them to shoots or do you let the stories unfold as shooting begins?

I’m not so much into constructing narratives actually, I much prefer to show people as they are, and any narrative that develops is rooted with the the subject themselves. That’s part of the experience. For instance when I photographed Zoe Kravitz for the first time I asked her about doing one “implied nudity” shot, something sexy. She replied with “fuck it, why don’t we just shoot it all nude?” She was (half) joking, but we did end up doing a number of nude images. I’m sure from the outside it looks as if I had this master plan to shoot these naked portraits of her. Whereas I just found her to be very sexy, so I bounced an idea off her and she came back with hers. That’s my favorite way to work. You have to instigate your subject, in one way or another. I think that’s why I have a continuing relationship with almost all of my subjects. I treat them like an human, and they treat me like one. It’s a nice synergy that usually harbors a nice friendship as well.

Who would you most want to take a photograph of yourself?

Living: Anton Corbijn, Dead: Irving Penn.

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Find Zackery Michael on Instagram and see more of his work on his website.

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