Friday, October 16, 2015

Michael Field: Through the lens of a designer

-Anne C. Morgan, Head Curator

In preparation for the IVDM's newest exhibit PHOTOLAB: Michael Field: Designer, Hiker, Photographer, Michael agreed to sit down for an interview with us. You read some of it in our latest Land of Extremes article in the Imperial Valley Press. Here's the complete interview!

IVDM: When did you first start being interested in photography? What sparked your interest?
MF: My father always took photos on our adventures so I grew up with that being a part of the outdoor experience.  I bought a film camera at a thrift store that used 120 film when I was about 20 years old and started experimenting with night photography and natural landscapes with human elements in them.  I was fascinated with the design and mechanics of old cameras and I ended up with a collection of over 100 cameras.  I have a photo published in a hardcover book taken with a thrift store camera.  That's one of the myths about photography: that you have to have a super fancy camera and a shoulder bag full of gear to take good pictures.  That's not true- the world's greatest camera is actually whatever camera you have with you- for most people it's also their phone!

IVDM: Did you take classes in photography or was it all experimentation on your own?
MF: Yes and yes.  One of my college art professors taught me how to paint in a photo-realistic style by painting from photos with tiny brushes.  That got me thinking about photography as an art form (it's a lot faster!). I started treating my photographs more like paintings and paid more attention to composition and the lighting.  I did study photography with Professor Walter Cotten at San Diego State University.  I learned a lot from him and by working with the other students.  We'd all go to the same desert locations and shoot the same shots.  That helped me develop my own style.  I donated most of my film camera collection to the black and white photography program at SDSU for students to experiment with.

IVDM: How long have you been hiking and photographing San Diego County and Imperial County? What drew you to this area?
MF: My family moved to San Diego from Canada in the winter of 1964 and we stayed in one of the cottages on Crystal Pier in Pacific Beach.  We were in heaven.  One of our first weekend trips was a hike up Palm Canyon and we've been in love with the desert ever since.  The Boy Scout troop I belonged to was very active and we went backpacking once a month. I've been continuing the "one overnight adventure per month" policy ever since. A lot of the Scout leaders designed and sewed their own backpacking gear at that time. That's a big part of my inspiration to design and sew my own camping gear.

IVDM: Do you have certain images in mind when you go out to shoot or do you wait for inspiration of what you see at the time?
MF: I always start out being very systematic in my explorations and in my intent to get specific images.  I examine topographic maps and Google Earth to try and understand topographic features- like following the shoreline of ancient Lake Cahuilla.  I always leave the house with a specific destination and time of where I'm going to be when the light is going to be good.  To be perfectly honest though, many of my better shots are opportunistic.  Being at the right place at the right time can happen on short notice.  I'm constantly scanning my surroundings and moving around when I'm out with my camera.  I keep both eyes open when I'm looking at the viewfinder. THe best shot is frequently behind you.

IVDM: You take absolutely stunning landscape photographs.  But many of your images purposely include signs of humanity- a chair, train cars, trash, etc. Why? What draws you to certain "human reminders" as well as the landscapes?
MF: Thank you. Southern California is a beautiful place to live and we are all very lucky people to be here.  I'm fascinated with the intersection of art, natural sciences, and history.  That's the sweet spot- when you can make connections to the past, present, and future.  I want my photos to look like Albert Bierstadt landscape paintings of early California- only I might have a dead tree or rotten chair as the center of interest telling the story of a failed development.
Yosemite Valley, Yosemite Park c. 1868. Albert Bierstadt.
BBC News used one of my photos to illustrate an article titled "the World's Deserts Need Better Management". I'm also fascinated with cycles of abundance and scarcity that have repeated throughout time- both historic and geologic time.  You can see the evidence of these cycles in our desert today.   When ancient Lake Cahuilla was full to the brin it was a time of abundance for the people that lived here.  Can you imagine how beautiful it must have been to live on the beach of the biggest lake in California? I try and imagine the lake being full when I'm out taking photos of the ancient shoreline.  After the lake evaporated it would be a tough place to live off the land.  Today we live in a cycle of artificial abundance because we have the ability to import water from hundreds of miles away.  That's rapidly changing now and I'll take photos to record things as they unfold.

IVDM: Does your eye for photography help you in designing exhibits at the NAT (San Diego Natural History Museum)? Or does your work as a designer influence the photographs you take?
MF: Yes and yes! Focusing in on specific content and the presentation of that content is the key to successful exhibits and photographs. A huge portion of our effort to create engaging exhibits at the NAT goes into editing. We spend weeks or even months looking at everything that will not be included in the exhibition.  Same thing with photography- I'll spend most of my time looking at what I'm not going to photograph.  Visitors have to be able to see things very clearly and that means getting rid of distractions and being able to get close enough to see the detail.  This is actually great for photographers who wan to improve their photography- get closer to your subject.  Dramatic lighting is also critical for both exhibits and photography.  Inside the museum we can completely control the light to highlight specific objects, textures, saturate colors or even hide things that we don't want people to notice. Outdoors with a camera it's a little harder, but you can still achieve those same results by waiting for the sun to get lower, clouds to come over or by walking around to change our vantage point.  Capturing dramatic lighting in a photo also means you need to out-smart your camera.  You need to darken your camera's exposure setting a smidgen to achieve rich saturated colors and capture that magic ray of light.  It's easy to do and just about all cameras have a way to darken your images- even most camera phones.  Try it on your next sunset photo!

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