Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Q & A with Julie Mihaly

Julie Mihaly is a photographer based in Poughkeepsie, NY, and the author of The View From Here.

Blake Andrews: I'm curious where you grew up and how you first got into photography.

Julie Mihaly: I first got involved in taking photos as a kid. My Uncle Ralph gave me a snapshot camera for my 10th birthday and I carried it around with me for at least a year. The particular way in which snapshots render the world is what lies behind a great deal of my work.

How would you define "snapshot" and what is it about that style that appeals to you?

A snapshot, for me, is an image without pretense whose main intent is to record people, places and things that have some personal value. It's also, as Diane Arbus, said of all photos, "a record of the gap between intention and reality." And it's that gap that intrigues me and beckons in its own odd way.

Why did your Uncle Ralph give you a camera? Was he a photographer? Did he see something in you that might connect with it?

Ralph worked for 3M and the camera he gave me was a freebie from work, but my dad was an avid photographer. That said, I think my desire to record things was perhaps more influenced by my mom, who was a writer. She wrote short stories about her childhood in Appalachia and the power of the images she rendered made me want to do something similar. I guess I felt more drawn to doing that visually rather than verbally.

When and where was this?

I grew up in Shaker Heights, Ohio, but my mom was from coal country in Western VA —one of 10 kids in a dirt-poor, Depression-era family right out of a Walker Evans photo. The dichotomy of growing up in the suburbs and feeling as if my "soul" roots were in those poverty-stricken hills is one that influenced me deeply. I believe I learned early on that being wealthy didn't make you happy and that being poor didn't make you noble. I was taught to judge people as individuals and to be curious about everyone and every place. I thank both of my parents of that, but most especially my mom.

And if I'm guessing right this was the 60s or 70s when cameras were becoming a common thing in every home? Snapshotting was sort of a national craze, although by today's standards with limited distribution.

Yes, I was born in 1953 and grew up being photographed and photographing. It was definitely part of the national zeitgeist, but very different from the way people use the cameras in their cell phones these days.

What kind of photos did your dad make? And what kind of feedback did you get from your parents back then on your photography?

My dad took photos mostly of our family vacations. He was a builder and rarely got away from "the job," so he shot the crap out of our family travels. Sadly, he was killed in a freak accident when I was 17, so he never really had the opportunity to weigh in on my work. My mom was always supportive of my work- no matter what shape it might take.

My entree in the world of official photo-dom came about when my brother, who'd received a Nikon F4 for his high school graduation present, borrowed $100 from me when I was 16. He gave me the camera as collateral and when he never paid me back the $100, I got to keep the camera. Ergo, I used it to create a pretty blatant ripoff of "The Family of Man" for a section of my high school yearbook. 

Sorry to learn of your dad. So your uncle Ralph planted the seed but it wasn't until high school that you considered yourself a photographer? Did you study photography in college?

Butterfly with running girl in background, Central Park, New York, NY

Yes, it was in high school that I really started to consider myself a photographer. I spent my 1st year of college at Vassar where I submitted a photo essay for a project in one of my classes and got very positive feedback —though in retrospect it was pretty cheesy and I don't think the professor knew diddly about photography. But I realized then that I wanted to be somewhere where I could study photography and writing and other related disciplines so I transferred to the newly-founded Evergreen State College (TESC) where I really began a serious pursuit of the medium, later transferring to the San Francisco Art Institute where I earned a BFA and MFA in photography.

Did you meet some of the Blue Sky folks at Evergreen?

Yes. Chris Rauschenberg and I were both in the same interdisciplinary program titled "Image And Idea" and we've been friends ever since.

Chris definitely comes from a snapshot-friendly worldview.

Yes, Chris is a snapshot-o-phile.

Can you briefly describe the "Image And Idea" curriculum?

“Image & Idea” was supposed to be a multidisciplinary program that incorporated photography, film and writing, but it really boiled down to a great immersion in photography. I learned how to make fine B/W prints, met people with whom I’m still great friends, and found my calling thanks to the input of faculty members like Kirk Thompson and fellow students like Chris and Craig Hickman.

Reading between the lines a bit, a transfer in the early 70s to Evergreen was about more than just academics. That was akin to "Turn On Tune In Drop Out", or "Go-West-Young-Woman", or maybe just basic youthful exploration/rebellion.

Evergreen was the opposite end of the higher educational spectrum [from Vassar]. Then I left TESC for SFAI. It was the 70s— I tried to pack as many schools into that 6 year undergraduate and graduate career as I could, moving to NYC 3 days after I got my MFA.


As an aside about Evergreen, after the main color darkroom closed in Portland, the closest one became the school darkroom at Evergreen. I know several people who now drive up there regularly to use it. So in a way Evergreen is still having an impact on the broader photo scene, at least on the West Coast.

Wow. Can't believe that people head to TESC to use the darkroom. That's actually very sweet somehow. As it was meant to be...

from Botanicals

What was in NYC?

After years of waitressing and doing my own work, I segued into teaching photography at The School of Visual Arts, Rutgers, and The Nova Scotia College of Art and Design. Then, after more than a decade, I decided that paying the rent with a bit less agita might be a good idea and I moved into the world of photo editing and research, working at magazines ranging from Vogue to Vanity Fair, et al.

You're jumping ahead. What about back in the 70s? What brought you to NYC? I assume you were done with the West Coast? Was it to pursue photo opportunities?

I moved to NYC in 1978, partly because I'm an Easterner at heart —I missed the seasons— and partly because that's where you went to become a real artist.

Do you think that's still true? Do you need to be in NYC to be a real artist? Or in a major city?

I don’t think you need to be in NYC or a major city to be a real artist, but I think you need to visit them to get your work seen on a major level. Ironically, I saw more of many of my San Francisco friends once I moved to NYC as they all came to the big city to show their work to local galleries. These days you can get your work seen so much more easily via websites and FTP portfolios. It’s a great boon, but making a personal connection is still hugely important.

When and how did you get involved with Dianas?

I was goofing around on a day trip to San Rafael one day in 1976 and found a "Lina 1" toy camera for 40 cents at a local Goodwill. I've, as you might imagine, collected Dianas over the years, but none of them ever leaked light and vignetted as perfectly as that first one. I was instantly drawn to how it rendered things, but I also loved not looking like an "official" photographer. People were more relaxed than they might have been if I'd had a honking big SLR around my neck, and that sense of collaboration between subject and image-maker that came with taking snapshots was more organic with the Diana.

Did you know other photographers at the time making work with Dianas?

Remarkably, no. I mean, I knew people who used giant pinhole cameras and knew some of the Blue Sky people who used Dianas, but none of them were in NYC. I honestly didn't know anyone else in the city who was shooting with one at the time. My first photo friends in NYC were more classic street shooters- Mitch Epstein and Len Jenshel in particular.

Once you began shooting Dianas did that become your main camera? Or was it just one tool in the quiver?

I actually started using a Polaroid SX70 quite a bit just before I moved to NYC —another snapshot camera, another square format and another informal piece of technology. But I always continued to shoot with my Nikon. 

I'm curious because the Diana captures such an unusual worldview. Maybe it goes back to your Arbus quote. The "gap between intention and reality" can be fairly wide with a Diana, which is part of its charm. But it's hard (at least for me) to move back and forth quickly between that style and "normal" seeing.

I think you get used to knowing what will render what in what way when you work with multiple kinds of cameras. It seemed natural to me. I've always used whatever format might fit what I wanted to say rather than trying to fit what I wanted to say into a format. 

I think the 70s were sort of primed for Dianas to be discovered. They were in thrift shops all over, and Szarkowski had helped usher in a very loose era of documentary photography. 

Yes, there was more acceptance of Diana work back then than there is today, which is ironic because you can even choose to take Diana-esque pix as one option on a cell, and Instagram is riddled with Diana wannabes.

Erick with toy dinosaur, Warwick, NY

If there was more acceptance of Diana work back then (by the art world), maybe it's just that snapshots in general were more accepted. I think most professionals and serious fine art photographers nowadays have a dimmer view of snapshots. There's less trust of chance or lightleaks or imperfections, at least to the extent of the 1970s. I'm probably just being nostalgic but I can't help feeling a pull toward the looser 1970s style. But with all the tools available to photographers now it's hard to consciously give up control. 

Ah, yes... but giving up control was part of what made it fun.

I think it ties in to something you said earlier about your love for "an image with no pretense". One of the obstacles in contemporary photography (for me) is that feeling of pretense. Too many folks trying to create something deliberate or important, or with an undeclared attitude of pretension. Of course the other end of the spectrum is the 50 billion iPhone photos online of someone's last meal. No pretense but not much craft either.

 Maybe there's a middle ground. You mentioned Instagram earlier. What is your overall impression of it?

I think Instagram is great, but I’d never post my own work there— I simply refuse to flat-out give anyone the rights to my work. I’ve been in the photo business too long not to be aware of how you can be ripped off. It’s easy enough to have that happen via Google images and even work being taken from your own website, but to intentionally give your work away is not something I’d ever do.

Why did you stop shooting Dianas? Or did you?

I still occasionally shoot with my Diana, but when I left NYC 6 years ago for the Hudson Valley (I moved up here to be closer to my mom who had Alzheimer's and was in assisted living in the Valley), I couldn't bring my darkroom with me. It was tragic really. I couldn't even give the equipment away. I dismantled the enlarger and left it on the street with the garbage. I still have about 75 rolls of Diana film that I haven't processed, but I'll get to it eventually and will scan the negs and work from them.

So the move from Diana was tech-driven? Just because you couldn't keep a darkroom? You can scan and print them inkjet. (Can't wait to see what's on the 75 rolls.) 

The Diana decision was technical, but also influenced by the fact that the person with whom I live is sensitive to chemicals, so I even have to wait until he's out of town to develop film in the bathroom. Sigh...But I've become more enamored of newer, still snapshotty cameras. I'm getting back into shooting square B/W portraits, but with the Leica point and shoot camera. I just can't bring myself to carry a big, heavy camera at this stage of the game. I just had a show of work that I photographed with a tiny Nikon Coolpix and printed the images 17" x 22". Just little things I noticed on the streets of my current hometown of Poughkeepsie, NY.

I saw some photos from that show on your site. I think you've kept the snapshot aesthetic but you're moving away from people photos and into quieter scenes driven by mood/texture. But I should probably let you describe them instead of me. What attracts you photographically to stuff in Poughkeepsie?

I wasn't feeling particularly drawn to anything in Poughkeepsie, which says a lot about the town. But then I realized that if I wasn't seeing anything that appealed to me as a photographer, it was my responsibility to find something that did. So I took to the streets and much of what I photographed is much of what I've always shot in one way or another- the little things that people see, but don't really "notice." I loved finding and revealing this completely inconsequential bits and pieces of the life around me and giving them a sort of esteem in the way I shot them —composed the pix of them formally and thoughtfully.

from Notes In Passing

Maybe part of what you were seeing was the lack of stuff. After moving anywhere from NYC, the paucity of visual material must be dramatic.

I think there was stuff here, but yes, it's just not as rife and easily accessible as what lies on the streets of NYC. I'm hoping to head into town for a few shooting forays when the weather gets a bit better.

I made a similar move about ten years ago, from Portland (medium sized city) to Eugene (college town). The move has made me more finely tuned to my surroundings. I can see stuff here now that I probably wouldn't have noticed when I first moved here. But I need to search harder here for photographical material.

I definitely think that's what happens under the circumstances. It takes a while to let your cones and rods settle down and see what's there without wanting to see what you've already seen. I think it takes a bit of time before you see what’s actually in front of you vs looking for the types of images you would have taken in that more familiar, busier locale.

You mentioned your SX-70s photos a moment ago. I wasn't sure how to interpret the ones on your site which are set in pairs to short narratives. Is the text autobiographical?

Those images were from the first book I had published by Blue Sky and the text is and isn't autobiographical. Most of it is, but some of it is actually about my mom and my sister. The book, which was intended to be largely ironic and funny, was taken pretty seriously by many. I received quite a few letters from a number of women who said that I accurately related their feelings of inadequacy and self-loathing. Not my intent at all, but if it made them feel less alone in those sentiments then that's fine with me.

from She Began To Realize

Tell me a little about Boom Underground.

Well, when —thanks to the advent of the internet— the print magazine world began to lay people off in droves, I decided that if I couldn't get a job that paid me enough to live on at one of the dwindling number of magazines that exist, I'd just create the magazine I'd most want to work for. One copy of "HTML for Dummies" later and Boom Underground Magazine was born. It's been a labor of love, but one that is wonderfully engaging and educational. I've learned so much creating it and am so proud that it now has over 11K fans on Facebook.

Is it only online, or also in print?

Just online, though I'd give my right arm to be able to produce it in print. But Boomers, the market that the zine addresses, are a dwindling breed. And though we still have enormous spending power and have a good 20-30 years left in us, I think it's unlikely that those who publish print would go for it.

I thought most magazines were aimed at Boomers.

I think that the really successful print mags are marketed to 30-40 years olds if not younger these days, but that's a whole other discussion.

That said, a great friend of mine and wonderfully talented photographer, Monica Church and I are thinking of creating a tiny little print photo magazine that would be a give-away up here in Poughkeepsie. It's still in the works, but we hope to get something going by the end of this year.

Monastery of Monte Oliveto Maggiore, Buonconvento, Tuscany, Italy

What about the Al Gore project? I read somewhere that you're involved in photo research for his new film. 

I was part of a team of 5 international photo researchers that gathered imagery for his next film. Sadly, I think the project is currently on hold, but it was really great fun to do the research and a pleasure to meet him.

Which current photographers excite you?  

I like the work of so many folks. Larry Sultan, Emmet Gowan, Jim Goldberg, James Hamilton, Chris Rauschenberg and on and on. I'm a big fan of trolling LensCulture to see who's up to what from every generation of image-makers. 

Which ones were most influential when you were developing as a photographer?

Again- so many. Historically I'd say Lartigue, Sander and Atget. Then there's Arbus, Winograd, Larry Clark, Friedlander and perhaps most of all, Robert Frank (who I was lucky enough to spend a bit of time with when I taught photography at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design).

(All photographs above by Julie Mihaly)