Saturday, October 11, 2014

Q & A with Michael David Murphy

Michael David Murphy is the Program Manager for Atlanta Celebrates Photography, currently taking place in Atlanta.

How did you get into photography to start with, and particularly street photography? 

I took a class here and there in High School. Weird, but our high school's photography program (Amherst, MA) churned out two good photographers — Tim Davis and Tim Barber.  My name's not Tim — that'd be a trifecta.

I'd just finished an MFA in writing from the University of Washington. I'd spent two years on a deep dive into poetry - and as I was coming-up for air, the first digital cameras were coming out. I could suddenly afford to photograph, in a way I hadn't been able to, before. 

I've gotta go back one step before U-Dub. You were at University of Oregon. Why did you choose to go there?

I wanted to be in the Northwest because I really appreciated the idea of being in the upper left-hand corner of something.  It seemed like a good place to begin figuring it out, so to speak.  That, and Reed didn’t want me to transfer in.

Hitch-hiked from Alaska to Eugene for my junior and senior years. Wasn't thinking about photographs then.  

What were you doing in Alaska?

I was working for an Iditarod musher.

No shit?

Took a year-off from college and worked at a candle factory in Massachusetts and for a musher west of Fairbanks.

Same here. I took a year off college to work in a park near Fairbanks. Summer of 1989. Drove the Al-Can. But I had my own car. Hitchhiking is crazy.

MDM, 2010, from Certainty Principle

WOW! What park?

Chena River St. Park about 30 miles east of town. 

That was just north of where I was. Brooks Range was right above us. 

How did you get a job as a dog musher?

I was fortunate that my mom worked for a guy who knew a guy who knew a musher in Alaska.  And I wasn’t a musher — I worked at her kennel.  Mushing was a small part of keeping the kennel running smoothly.  I was the puppy person.  I had thirty puppies to feed, water, clean-up after, chase after, and take on walks in the woods.  It was an incredible time.

Did they offer dog mushing at Chena, when there was no snow? I remember a park offering that — in the summer.

People had dogs. I was there in summer so I didn't really explore the winter culture. I think the river froze over and became a highway into town.

Gotcha. Alaska is an incredible place. I lived there as a little kid, in Sitka. Then went back as a 19/20 year old. It's hard to believe it's America. Feels like another country. 

I'm sure you have some fine hitchhiking stories but maybe that's off-topic. Were you collecting material for poems and creative writing, or just being young and adventurous?

I wasn't really writing then — I was writing letters to people on birch bark, but that was about it. Bark makes great paper!

Yeah, that sounds about right, living in the north and writing on bark. You're confirming all the stereotypes. John McPhee made canoes from it.

What an incredible book. I'm conflating two books, I think. The bark canoe and the Alaska book.

Yes, two separate books. Coming Into The Country and Survival of The Birch Bark Canoe.

Also strange that it was the summer Chris McCandless went "Into the Wild".


No, I think it was 91ish. 92. scuze me. That's when I left —he went into the wilderness there as I was coming out. I couldn't hitchhike fast enough back to the Lower 48.

What brought you up there? I'm trying to tie it to your creative life later? Was it a sense of exploration? Or something about revisiting Sitka?

Definitely trying to revisit the place and carve something out for myself. Some kind of connection to my earlier life. We grew-up in a military family — always moving. Wanted to go back and see if it made sense, which it both did and didn't.

Hitching the Al-Can I'm guessing you spent some nights on the ground in the middle of nowhere.

Yes. With grizzlies nearby. It was full-on adventure.

Burning birch bark to ward them off, then scrawling life notes in the charcoal.

More like standing in the middle of the Al-Can with my hands waving like a crazy person, stopping the first 18-wheeler to come through after Mr. Grizzly wandered over.

OK. Back to Eugene, where I live. What were your impressions of it in the early 90s?

Sleepy place. Still in the shadow of Prefontaine. A not very diverse utopia, like quite a few college towns. 

True, it is quite homogenous racially.

Like Boulder, like Burlington…It was wonderful place to figure it out. I started writing there. Charles Wright (the new, and well-deserved Poet Laureate) gave a reading there that kind of changed my life.

Wow. What did he say?

With Wright, it wasn't necessarily what he said, but how he said it. Poetry can be that way — it's not so much the facts, but how the news is delivered.

How did he say it then?

Most of his poems are about God or Dante, and I just can't relate, but it's his delivery, his searching, his teasing-out of the essential phrase, nugget, or nuance that completely altered how I looked at words, language, and how one might go about making sense stringing it all together.

Do you think photography is like that too? That it's not necessarily the message but the messenger? McLuhan: The medium is the message.

MDM, 2006, from Moonshots

It can be like that, for sure. I'm going to try and go long with a thought here...

MDM going long. He's got a man open in the end zone...

When you're young, you tend to find friends and loves who are similar to you — they like the same things you like. They reinforce your world view. And as you (or me, rather) get older, you realize that you can love and learn from people who can be 180 degrees different from view, but their expression of who they are, and how they live in the world, can completely resonate. That's what I learned from that Wright talk, and I try to keep living that way...

The openness to difference – in that what difference delivers is surprising and enriching, rather than confirming and re-confirming and re-confirming. Not too deep, but interesting.

I made the catch but only got one foot in.

There is a strain of reversal or deliberate antithesis in your website. The unphotographable, for example. Or the removal of a tennis ball from a match or removal of punches from a fight. You're a contrarian.

I love omission, retraction, obfuscation, misdirection, nuance, ambiguity and hypocrisy. Other stuff, too! 

And you trace that to the Wright talk?

Not really.  In grad school I studied the surrealists, and they’re the root of much of that.  In Wright I saw someone who had an air of failure — if you keep looking up at the heavens, asking the stars about salvation, you’re going to have a lot of unanswered questions, but you might as well keep asking, right?  That’s what I learned from him; the persistence of vision, and embracing failure in a way that mollifies it to the point where you can put it in your pocket and save it for later.

OK, so you're a young poet with an MFA. How did the conversion to photographer happen? You bought a digital camera and then what?

I bought a digi-camera and like everyone else (in 2001) caught the bug. Went on a major binge of self-teaching. I'd hole-up for days in the San Francisco public library, teaching myself the history of the medium. Their photobook collection was incredible. I realized that photography was allowing me space to creatively explore in a way that was more free (and easy) than putting words on a page.

I'd probably choose the word accessible rather than easy. A low bar to entry but a high bar to mastery.

Perfectly said, Blake.  It’s an unpopular attitude, but for me, there is an ease to photography, when compared to writing.  Others feel the exact opposite, but writing (or writing well) has a degree of difficulty that has always stupefied me.  Day to day, it’s the most challenging, least understood thing I do.

What about your poetry at this point?

I stopped writing and started standing in the street with my camera. Ditched one for the other completely.

This is around the time I discovered you via 2point8.

I thought I'd try and write about my experiences learning photography. Which is when 2point8 happened. I spent a year shooting the intersection of Grant and Post. 

No-Flash Corner. You were immersed in street shooting. Why? What was it about that style?

My favorite photographs were street photographs. So I thought I'd try and make my own.

I can't find any of your old SF street photos online. They're not on your website. Maybe they're on 2point8 somewhere? What do you think now about the photos you were making then?

They're fine. Not great — typical student work. They're searching for something and only finding it once in awhile. I should put No Flash Corner on my site, though.

MDM, 2005, Ways of Working, from 2point8
So you view that period as a learning period, and maybe not as something you can still stand behind? But I have to say the writing you did during that period is still quite valuable, especially to younger street shooters trying to sort out what's happening. Each time you posted one of those Ways of Working I felt like a student going to class.

In hindsight, it was the writing and the photos that made sense together. The charting of a process. I didn't have any photographer friends who could talk to me about all this dumb stuff. So I just wrote it all up and clicked "Post" and there it was.

It's written by someone who's in the full-bloom of love for photography. Yeah, that sounds weird, but it's that headlong rush, and you probably know that, or remember that yourself, Blake. Right?

Has the bloom faded?

The flower's changed. And I moved from a city that was well-suited to that way of working, to one that most definitely is not.

How so?

Atlanta isn't a pedestrian city.

I haven't spent much time there. But surely there's some sort of downtown core?

There is. It's a core in that it bears so little relation to the rest of the place, it kind of feels like a miniature model of what a city is, or can be. Shrinky-dink'd. There are people walking around, but it's not the life-blood, the pulse, the movement or the force and power of the place. There's a school, and some office buildings, and a park, but it just doesn't make any urban sense to me. Photographically, and non-photographically.

Does Atlanta still not make sense to you? Can you elaborate?

Atlanta doesn’t make much sense to me, geographically.  I keep looking for the ocean or the mountains, so I can frame exactly where I am.  As a city, it's making more and more sense every day.  The city’s changing in unexpected ways.  People are ditching their cars and biking more, and there are so many great upstart arts organizations doing great projects and transforming the place.

MDM, 2010, from Certainty Principle

Is it the geography or is it you? Maybe you were just ready for a different type of shooting.

Could be me. It's me!

How would you describe the photography you're doing now?

The photography I'm doing now is called video. LOL

You do have many videos online. Some are quite entertaining. So that's where your energy is going?

When I first started working with video I realized I was looking at it in the same way I looked at people walking toward me on the street -- when I was photographing in San Francisco. I looked at the street as a stream of information, of potentialities, risks, failures.  When I started working with video, I saw the same exact thing. I wondered how I could slice it or sequence it and represent it in a way that meant something, to me, or not. Most often, I'd have an idea like, "what would it look like if I erased 14 of 15 frames from this video of Meb Keflezighi winning the New York Marathon. Could I then rebuild his stride so he's running 16 times faster than normal? Yes, I can. Wow.

Yes they definitely twist reality in a fun way.

I made these videos five years ago, when I was really interested in the amount of information that could be contained in a single frame of film. This video stuff comes directly from my photographic interests. How do we read photographs? What do you see first? What's revealed over time? Can that process be slowed and/or choreographed?

Are the original photos yours?


That's the convergence of photo and video right there. And monitor/mouse culture. 

Exactly. And there's something very meaty in that, for me. 

So these were made early on in your transition from photo to video?

Yup, in 2009.

When did you move to Atlanta?

I moved here in 2006. I was still photographing, but was becoming very interested in video. Then our lab in town went outta business, and that really slowed my photo output. 

I think what you're forcing on the viewer is a bit similar to the experience of walking down the street looking for pictures. There's a lot of information there and you've got to take it a bit at a time and focus on parts here and there. Of course your videos are more directive. You're choosing the point of focus. And maybe causing the viewer to reflect on that process.

Yeah, over time, it's morphed into other things, but that was the initial observation — realizing that found footage (in particular) is very much like walking out your door with a camera to see what can be seen.

So what do you do with the videos?

Videos are submitted to be shown, and get shown. I've exhibited them along with my still photographs. So I'll show both photo and video work in exhibitions. Sometimes just video! There's no real "end goal" in mind. I make the thing because I want to see what it would look like if someone made the thing, and no one's already made it, so I go ahead and do it.

In other words, you make videos to see what material looks like videoed.

You couldn’t have said it better yourself.  ; )

Speaking of off-beat projects, what about the Grateful Dead tuning collage?

Yeah, there's that!

MDM, 2012, Grateful Dead Tuning '77
Were you a Deadhead?

I guess so! Never self-described, but factually, yes.

I spent a few years in my youth going to lots of shows. Autzen Stadium 1994. I brought my parents to that show. Their first. Maybe you were in Eugene then?

I saw you in the parking lot! I was the guy selling Sam Smith Tadcaster!

I was the guy in the tie die with a pony tail. Were you really there?

Too funny. Yes. And I remember telling you a few years ago I worked at The Kiva back then through junior and senior years at UO. They didn't have a good football team back then.

On the tuning thing... I wanted to do a project that mined something from the Internet Archive. So I spliced together every recorded bit of the Grateful Dead tuning from 1977. Listening to it is an act of performance art. LOL.

I've tried listening to a long segment but I tune out (no pun intended) after about 10 minutes. Have you ever listened to it all the way through?

I have.  And unfortunately, I listen to it in the way you would if it were something you composed - I hear all the faults and flaws in the editing.  Could have been better!

It's almost a willful rejection of any final project. Just pure process. What is it about those tuning sessions that's attractive? I think to someone not into that style of music it's ridiculous. But listening to some of it I found myself entranced. It never goes anywhere. Some would say none of the Dead's songs do either. But this is more in your face about it. I think I'm going to play the full clip on my radio show, just to fuck with listeners.

It's that suspended state of waiting. Pure anticipation with no pay-off.  

Like shooting film but never looking at the results?

Yes. It's weird but there are threads of these ideas through my other projects. Tense moments that never get relieved.

The funny thing about your Tuning '77 piece is that if you don't listen closely it sounds very much like a normal Dead show. They would stop and start and putter around for minutes between songs going nowhere. This has a very similar flavor in small amounts. And the segues between clips are very clean so it's easy to dismiss as a normal Dead recording. I think they may be the only band you could do this with and pass it off as real. So maybe there's a reality vs. composite duality thing at work. Or I'm just reading too much into it.

But anyway, that's why I want to play it on the show, so it sounds real but to make people wonder WTF?, or perhaps not notice anything amiss. (Postscript: I wound up playing about 11 minutes of Tuning '77 to finish my September 30th show)

Some guy in LA wanted to do a limited-edition vinyl run of Tuning '77 which would have been another world of awesome.

What happened with that?

It stayed in the realm of ideas, unfortunately.

The photo world is very concerned with final product. Packing photos into tidy projects with statements, in a group of 30 or 40, or in a book or whatever. The idea of an endless stream of photos or ongoing tuning session has little credence in the fine art community. Maybe it's only suited for Tumblr. I feel like I'm caught photographically in an indefinite tuning session. And I have to say it's wonderful.

I may not be shooting currently, but I'm still very much in photography. I help run an annual photo festival here: Atlanta Celebrates Photography. Every October, city-wide. Hundreds of events and exhibitions. It's full steam ahead time now. 

ACP probably brings you closer to the world of finished products. How has your experience been there?

Honestly? It's been great. I totally love what I get to do for a living. Running a small non-profit that's dedicated to photography is a gift. It feels like the "good work".

But to your point I wish more photo-based artists thought a little outside-the-box about what they're doing, how they're presenting their work, and what they want their work to do in the world. That's where photographers need to think creatively. Anyway... [Stepping off soapbox.]

Can you elaborate? Do you mean photographers should be more socially engaged? Or display their photos more creatively? Or what?

I have a hard time when photographers say they want to "see their work in a gallery."

What's the matter with wanting to be in a gallery?

There's nothing wrong with galleries, or the desire to be in them, but it shouldn't be the end goal. It seems too narrow of a focus. Maybe your photos would work best if you teamed-up with a street-artist who could wheat-paste them on that huge underpass, you know?

Zoe Strauss?

Interesting — yes to Zoe, and I wasn't even thinking about her! Was more thinking about JR. And generally, this great organization in Atlanta called Living Walls.

Who is JR?

French street artist who works photographically — with wheat-paste murals.  And remembering an artist...who took photographs of icebergs in Argentina. She was a student here in Atlanta. And when it came time to show her work... She figured she'd build a few lightboxes, and find a loading dock on Peachtree that was accessible to people... And put her lightboxes of icebergs in this cold loading dock in October. Which I thought was so great!

How was it received?

I'm still talking about it five years later! Best installation of iceberg photographs I've ever seen!

I kind of feel like the need to be in a gallery is a fear-based need. And if you can relieve that fear — the fear of failure, or recognition, or whatever it is — and start seeing how your work might live in a wider (maybe weirder) way, things can really take rewarding, surprising turns.

I've bypassed the gallery world for the streets. I leave lots of old work prints around town and on telephone poles. And I mail them to whoever will take them.

YES. I took one!

In your position with ACP do you have a chance to give this sort of hands-on advice directly to photographers? Or is it more of an administrative job?

It's a bit of both. I've done some teaching. And I've led some workshops... Day to day, yes, I have an administrative position for a visual arts non-profit. It's only two and a half of us, so we all get to do the admin work! ;)

Is there a strong tradition of photography in Atlanta, either historically or now? Lots of photographers around and energy?

Lots of energy and photographers around, yes. Traditionally, there's been a strong commercial photography industry here, but that's changed recently. The good news is that there's been big and sustained support of the photographic efforts of the High Museum in the last five years; they've done great shows and have an excellent collection. An incredible resource for the city.

Is it Coke money? Or TBS? Or big $ funding the arts? CDC? (Kidding)

None of the three. It's more individual support from patrons of the arts. There's a lot of quiet money in Atlanta, and it's great when it pokes its head-up and endows a curator, or lends its collection and makes some noise.

MDM, 2013, from We Are The 15 Percent

Tell me about your 15 Percent project.

It's been an incredible 14 months or so. It's a crowd-sourced photographic archive that's charting the changing face of the American family. Every single day I work on it, I feel lucky to be able to be stewards of the project — it's a collaboration with my wife, Alyson. We've been overwhelmed with submissions and support for the effort. We have thousands of photographs still to post. And receive new ones every day.

How many submissions? 

We've posted about 1,500 so far. And we have three thousand in the backlog.

Do you edit them? Or post everything?

Our goal is to post everything. We don't edit them, but we try to post them in ways that create a visual continuity, over the course of a few days or a week.

Wow. You may have to increase the rate of posting.

Yes, probably. We're currently working on a book proposal for the 15% -- so that should come together in the next few months.

What about Unphotographable? Is that still active?

Unphotographable is very much active. But I'm just not experiencing them as much as I used to. I'm not seeing pictures that I can't take for one reason or another. They're as rare as good photographs. And as fleeting.

When you're not actively photographing, everything falls into the unphotographable category.

I have a book-length edit of Unphotographable that needs to be published at some point. I'd like to put a bow on it.

Will Steacy edited a book based on a similar idea. Yours are more poetic I think, and with the graphic forms a bit different. I'm guessing you've seen it.

You're guessing correctly.

Why the urge to publish these projects as books. Isn't it similar to the photographer blindly wanting a "gallery" without knowing why?

I don't see it that way. Gallery shows are so finite - they're there and then gone. Books of both projects would ultimately be quite different from their digital representations — another shape or form. Substance. It's more like making a print of a picture vs. keeping it on yer hard-drive. Or that's how I see it.

Yeah. Just playing devil's advocate. What about making a book of 2point8 advice? I know 2point8 is still online and probably still useful for many people. Is it a deliberate choice to keep it public as a resource? Do you ever hear feedback now about it?

I still receive feedback about it. It kind of pre-dated social media, so it's a bit unknown now, but people still dig it up, and find value in it. Which is why I've just left it there, running. So many of the links and images are broken now, which is a shame, but if it's useful to a few people here and there, I don't see a reason to take it down.

Broken links. Unknown. Withering. That could be motivation for a book.

I've never considered that, but it's an idea! I feel like the guy who wrote that site is someone I used to know. But I feel like a new person every four or five years, so that's about right on time.

MDM, 2011, from Barthesbybarthesbybart

What does that mean? You can't relate to yourself as a street shooter?

It feels far away. It was me, but it's a me I don't have direct and constant access to these days.

Do you miss that you?

Most definitely. It's always easy to be sentimental about yer past. But my present is really great and new and incredible in ways I would have never imagined. I'm glad I was there looking at Friedlander's "Monuments" in the library, and then taking my Leica out into the streets and trying to make sense of how one might fit into the vast photographic stream -- but it's not a present concern. I miss the great coffee and living in an incredibly vibrant, pedestrian-oriented city, but it's okay to leave a place you love -- especially for a great unknown. Atlanta is Alaska, in that way.

Wait, it still feels unknown? How long can that last?

No, it's no longer unknown. I'm very much an Atlantan now. Seven years! Going strong! 

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