Mike Peters – The Dream

Photographs ©Mike Peters

Mike will be showing images from September 11, 2010 at Lunasa in NYC. The opening will be on Tuesday evening, September 6th at 6 pm, until 9, or later.


Your work inhabits a unique zone in street photography. It’s candid, but still very much portraiture. From our brief discussions I understand that for the most part you aren’t explicitly asking permission from your subjects to make the photographs, but more often than not, there’s subconscious agreement. Maybe this is a tough question to start, but how exactly do you approach and photograph people you find interesting in public spaces?

This may sound pretty simplistic, but basically I just stand in front of the person, frame, focus and wait for them to notice me. Sometimes they’re so wrapped up that they never notice me and the shot is lost. But when they do, it’s usually in that fleeting instant as they’re looking up and at me that I will make the photo. I believe that there is an instant, before they can decide to register on their face whatever reaction they may deem appropriate, or turn away, where the subject has surrendered to the inevitable opening of the shutter. I do my best to steer their ultimate reaction in a positive, or at least non-confrontational direction, by what I do after I’ve made the photograph. While the person is usually still looking, as I lower the camera, I make sure there is a friendly smile on my face, and I may nod an acknowledgement, say thanks, or all of the above.

Sometimes there is enough in their expression or body language to convey whatever it is I’m feeling about their presentation, and eye contact is not necessary to carry the image. It really just depends on the person. However, the concussive nature of the shutter and mirror assembly in my camera usually gives me away, so my post exposure action is the same as above. Matt Weber always calls my Hasselblad the Scandinavian Howtizer, and he claims that people usually recoil in fear or run for cover when they feel and hear the impact of the shutter. I think perhaps he exaggerates, but then he is used to the gentle whisper of his Leica.

I shoot with a lens that is either slightly longer than normal, normal, or much wider (110, 80 & 50 on 6×6) I’m almost always pretty close, anywhere from 3 to 15 feet away. It seems to me that being fairly open about my intentions, holding a big camera and looking through it frequently, and shooting very openly right in people’s faces at a conversational distance, and not running away afterwards, tends to put people more at ease than if I were to attempt some form of subterfuge. If you act as if you’re doing exactly what you’re supposed to be doing, then people seem to get that you’re doing something respectable. Bottom line is, most people like to be noticed one way or another, but more so if you come across as non-threatening. However, there are always those who take offense at everything, so it’s good to just be able to smile and walk away, and try not to let the exchange intrude on the rest of your day.

There was an interview I read awhile back with Alec Soth where he talked about choosing subjects and how after awhile he learned to follow his intuition. Are you looking for certain types of subjects (or characters)? And how has this changed over the years, especially as your projects have evolved.

In the beginning I just photographed anyone who didn’t seem too scary, I was pretty indiscriminate. In time though, I began to wonder, why do I choose the people to photograph that I do? I may walk down the street and pass hundreds along the way, but there is one that catches my eye, and I just have to make a photograph. Usually it’s someone who seems to be in a private moment, fully engaged in their mind, their bodies and faces expressing something that I feel a certain familiarity with or connection to. And that is the key, that sense of looking into a mirror and seeing a bit of myself reflected back. I feel most strongly about images where the person appears to be expressing something that I can know and understand, because I’ve been there myself. Or so I think, I could be completely wrong about what is going on, but the visual clues strike a chord within me that I cannot ignore. I also tend to be drawn to people on the fringes of things, not so much the action itself of whatever is going on, which is pretty much exactly where I am most of the time, on the outside looking in.

I’ve learned more about myself through photography over the years. When I was younger, I was very unsure of myself and how to reconcile where I came from and where I wanted to go in life. It wasn’t until I was in my forties that I really became comfortable in my own skin and could accept more fully who I was. At that point, my personal photography really began to get much better. Like my sense of myself, my photography was all over the place when I was younger, but the bones of what I’m doing now are there to see as I look through old film. I can trace right back to the beginning that I could do the work I am doing now, but I was unable to tap into it on a regular basis back in the days of yore. Some people are lucky and have a strong sense of themselves at an early age and are able to do great work right from the get go, but not me.

I grew up in a blue collar town in NJ, surrounded by hard working people who lived pretty simple lives. I really like those kinds of people, I come from there, so I feel that I can make authentic photographs of people like that. And that is essentially who I prefer to photograph when I’m out and about. I don’t really relate to guys in suits or the country club set, so I almost never make a photograph depicting someone like that. Not that I couldn’t make a photograph that was authentic of someone from a different sphere of society, but in my personal work I like the idea of photographing people that usually go unnoticed. To photograph someone is my way of acknowledging their existence, beyond their family album.

Many of my photographic influences did just that. LIFE magazine elevated the ordinary person to the entire world when they sent W. Eugene Smith out to do a photo essay a nurse midwife, or Leonard McCombe to photograph a working girl in NYC, or Grey Villet to photograph a furniture salesman, and countless others. Those were the images that made me sit up and take notice. I work a little differently then they did, but my interests are the same. I notice ordinary people, doing nothing in particular, living regular lives. Just like me. So that’s what I photograph.

You mentioned W. Eugene Smith and Leonard McCombe which makes me curious about other influences. Do you feel that you’re working in a certain documentary tradition? I most curious about the dynamic between the documentary tradition that focusses on a specific subject, be it a group of people, location or what have you, and the tradition of street photography, which from some perspectives abides by a notion of having no agenda. It seems that you’ve developed a hybrid approach. Is this something you’ve thought about over the years?

When I began photographing, it was not so easy to find books on photography, beyond technical volumes and pretty pictures, in the local library, which was my only real resource along with photo magazines. Early on, and because I subscribed to the LIFE Library of Photography while in high school, photographers like Smith, McCombe, Villet, Cartier-Bresson, Capa, and others, were really the photographers who’s work made my heart sing. Especially Smith, who seemed to dip every image into a deep vat of meaning. On the other hand, I was also quite fascinated by the portraits of Irving Penn, Richard Avedon and Arnold Newman. They seemed to bring out something deeper in their subjects.

However, as a counterpoint to LIFE’s earnestness, Robert Frank offered his particularly raw commentary in The Americans. And of course there was Diane Arbus, who seemed to live under the skin of her subjects. Both of their images were disturbing yet endlessly fascinating and yet seemed to be very sadly compassionate. Being very young and naive, I wasn’t sure what to make of either of them, but I could not look away.

I was also exposed to the work of Mary Ellen Mark, Bruce Davidson, Andre Kertesz, Brassai, August Sander, Lee Friedlander, Stephen Shore, Eggleston, Winogrand (who was Winograd at the time), Ernst Haas, Pete Turner and Jay Maisel. All of this went into the early mix of who I admired as a young photographer, which led to my being all over the place. I couldn’t decide which I liked more, or even who I was or what I was all about, but that had nothing to do with photography. I was as undefined as one can get and yet still function on some low level of cognition. I was a mess, as was my work.

From all of my myriad influences, street, photojournalism, documentary, portraiture, commercial and fine art, it’s no wonder my work doesn’t really fit into any defined genre of photography. I feel like my work picks and chooses from each part of the spectrum, finding a place thats really none of the above. I shoot on the street because it’s easily accessible and I don’t have to make an appointment to go there. But, I really don’t consider myself as a street photographer in the classical sense as my interests are more about the specific people I’m photographing and less about the situation unfolding in front of me.

I photograph people simply because I find my fellow humans to be far more relate-able and fascinating than any other species. I grew up in the city, so I feel no real connection to landscape. And 95% of the time, I make what many people consider to be portraits, yet I exert no control over my subjects beyond where I stand and when I push the shutter release, as I prefer that they be spontaneous rather than calculated. The other 5% of the time, I may be engaged in a conversation with my subject and will make an image at some point, and rarely I will ask permission. However, asking is becoming something I am doing more of as I experiment with shooting at night with either a tripod, or a flash.

I tend to concentrate on places that offer a variety of people for me to photograph, rather than on specific groups of people or subject matter. The places I gravitate towards though do tend to have the types of people that I am interested in photographing, regular types going about their daily lives. So I’m not really a documentarian either, as what I do happens far too haphazardly to be useful in any way.

My approach came about by eliminating what didn’t work for me. As a commercial photographer, I have to deal with logistics all the time, making appointments and having the images work for a specific purpose, or a whole bunch of purposes, and keeping that in mind. All of my paid work is done digitally using a 35mm camera, and it seemed to me that every time I viewed the world through a rectangular frame, I see it as a job. So, for my personal work; no agenda, no logistics, square format and film.

I had been shooting most of my personal work since the late 70′s up until 2000 with a 4×5 camera, which I still love but find the scarcity of emulsions and the disappearance of ready-loads to be the death knell for me. Plus, I did want my work to become more spontaneous. When I look through a square finder, the world is sufficiently different enough so I’m not at all confused about this being a job. And film, for all it’s limitations, imperfections and tediousness is a way of staying connected with the fundamental process of photography, which I love.

I see documentary photos as telling a true non-fiction account of specific subject matter. Unlike a documentarian, I don’t try to tell any stories with groups of images. Each image is made to stand on it’s own and is made without regard to any previous image or to serve any part of a story telling process. But like a documentarian, I see my photographs as true and non-fictional impressions of what I see, and how I feel about what I see. I’m not trying to be impartial, I want my images to be evocative, to strike a chord of emotion and a sense of connection to the subject within the heart and mind of the viewer.

When I group images together, they tend to be more about where I was shooting. My current project, The Dream, which I’m wrapping up, was shot in a variety of places close to where I live over 9 years. Initially, I thought I was working on a few projects, but at one point it became apparent that what I had was really one big project, which is my impression of the lives of ordinary Americans in the years since 9/11. I did not set out with that in mind. The images, as I made them lead me along. For me, photography is a path of discovery that reveals itself as I move along, one foot in front of the other, one image at a time. Along the way, as I have found images to make, I’ve also found a greater sense of myself and what is important to me. So, my work is not as all over the place as it used to be, and neither am I, so that’s a good thing.

We’re coming up on the 10th Anniversary of 9/11, what type of changes have you noticed in people over the years? Have you seen it in your photography? Do you think the 10th Anniversary will be a significant turning point for people?

I tend to notice that people are more distracted with their gadgets, or simply by the stream of thoughts in their heads. The effect is the same though, people are not where they are at any given moment. And to me, people seem more weary, but then I do tend to see through a my own situation and how I feel about my life.

In my photography I’ve see a big change. When I started shooting on the street, I was more in search of what could be described as the classic street photograph, interesting things happening, odd arrangements, bigger and broader frames. But as I grow older, I notice that I want to get as close as possible to my subject and to really make my photographs very specific about the faces and body language that I see, and how it relates to the surroundings in which they are. I feel the need to get personal, to draw the subject into the process of making the photograph by waiting for them to look at me, or to simply willfully ignore my presence. I feel that by getting closer I can maybe foster a relationship between my subject and the viewer.

So, I see disconnectedness on the street, people lost in their own little worlds, and I try to pierce that moment and forge a connection, if only for a 500th of a second, so that others can see the people I photograph, not so much as actors on a stage, but as fellow human beings. My hope is that people who look at my photos will see a bit of themselves in the faces of the people I photograph, as I do, that’s the best I can hope for.

I really don’t think the 10th anniversary will be a turning point for anyone, not for the families of those who were lost that day, or for any who have been damaged or left behind in the struggle since then. The media will make a big deal of it, but I don’t think anything changes simply by the turning of the calendar. I do believe that the way the aftermath of 9/11 was handled politically has done more to tear the fabric of our society than the perpetrators of destruction on that fateful day could have ever hoped for. We had an opportunity to come together, but instead we have been ripped apart by extremists from within. I think it will take a generation or two before we can say that we’ve turned a corner. I’m not sure I’ll be around to see it, but hopefully my photographs will survive so that others can see what I saw, and get a sense of how it felt to be here and now.

I think it’s interesting that 9/11 was the biggest media story perhaps in the last 100 years. It was broadcast live on TV and there were probably more photographs captured of it than any other big event in history. Then in the 10 years that have followed we’ve had this explosion in imagery because of digital cameras and the internet. It’s sort of a strange demarcation line but I think it’s real.

I’ve always enjoyed the opinions you’ve shared about photography on various platforms. Has the internet impacted the way you work? I mean, we likely wouldn’t be having this conversation if it weren’t for the social nature of photography on the web. I’m curious what you think about it all.

I agree that there has been a deluge of images everywhere since 9/11, but that would have happened even if that day was ordinary. The process was very well along, and the outcome of the digital revolution in photography was already a foregone conclusion by 2001, if not a year or so before. The general acceptance of digital cameras, even now of very high quality in phones, and the ease with which they can be put up on the web has certainly democratized the medium. The technology truly enables almost anyone to make a photograph that is in focus and well exposed. Everyone with a DSLR thinks they are a photographer now, but really, making a compelling image, and especially a series of them over a long period of time is still pretty hard, and it takes boat loads of patience and dedication. The problem is, fewer people have any clue as to what a great photo is, even some professionals in the industry. So now, everything is great and everyone’s amazing! Just like when they were kids. I didn’t get that when I was a kid, so I still struggle with wondering if my work is any good.

The internet, what a miracle, thanks Al Gore! Ok, really, it is pretty astonishing that it even works, never mind wirelessly. Everything is at our fingertips, so much is wonderful, and yet so much crap to wade through to find it. In the olden days, we had to rely on books and magazines to periodically feed us our small dose of good images. That made big publishers the gate keepers and taste makers for great photography, doling out what they wanted, and everyone else just kept their photos in shoeboxes under their bed or in a storage unit until they died, when all their life’s work would be tossed into a trash container and put in a landfill. Unless you were famous or lucky, then someone would take the time to preserve your work for generations to come. Now, the gatekeepers and arbiters of what’s hot have been spread far and wide. And some of them are good with a well defined point of view and a decent grounding in the history of photography.

I’ve been shooting personal work since the late 70′s. Until about the mid ninety’s when I set up my first web site, I’d make a few prints, show a few friends, watch them yawn, put them back in the box and forget all about them. Now, I post on my web site and on Flickr. More than half the fun of making photographs is to be able to show them to people. Flickr has opened up a whole new world of people to me. People from across the globe who all make interesting and beautiful work. And people who now can look at my work and leave comments. In essence, I get to share with the world now. That’s pretty darn amazing as far as I’m concerned. Not that Flickr is perfect, but for what it does, I’m happy to use it.

If not for the web, I would never have run across you, or many others out there who have become friends. The web has been an education for me, about the world of art, galleries, and the work of so many other talented photographers and insightful bloggers who explain it all for me and sometimes confuse the hell out of me. I don’t always agree with what people say, but it’s good to hear many different voices along the way to making up my own mind about what’s going on. In a sense, you have to become your own editor with the web, otherwise the noise will overwhelm you.

The important thing, for me anyway, is to be able to, at times, withdraw from looking at the work of others and reading too much criticism. It’s too easy to look at someone else’s work and immediately begin to feel like my own work suffers in comparison, or we’re so similar, or I was thinking of that and now he/she has done it, whatever. I can quickly get burned out and demoralized by the avalanche of images every day. There are times when I just have to stop looking and reading, shut the hell up and go out and make images in a way that is totally single minded and free of the noise of all the images and words that have tumbled into my head from the web. For me, it’s real important to not be constantly conjuring up images as I walk along the street, it gets in my way. I need my head to be as empty and quiet as possible when I’m out and about, trying to stay out of my own way so when the pictures find me, I’ll be able to let them into the camera. It’s a challenge, and sometimes I do ok, and other times not so well. That being said, I spend far too much time lurking about the virtual world. Eventually I hope to find a balance. But, probably not. I’m sure I’ll just keep lurching about, making it up as I go along.

One of the topics that comes up often when I talk to photographers about projects is about endings. It seems many of them have a hard time ending projects or knowing when they should end. What are you thoughts about this as it applies to your current project? How do you know when it’l be done? And what are your plans for it? A book?

With some projects, ending is something that happens when you decide you’re ready to move on. Or with others, there is a more definite end, a time frame or a place or person is not longer in existence, or accessible, so you’re done. The Dream has been a bit harder to pin down as to when it ends. It’s really my response to our post 9/11 world, so there is no end to that as it’s ongoing, until I end. So for me, everything I do until the end of my life will be about that. My photography is about what it is to be in this place and at this time, so any ending on this part of the story is completely arbitrary.

Last fall, I was thinking that I was done and ready to pack it up and make a book. Then, along came a publisher, a very fine small press that specializes in photo books who has done some wonderful work, and they expressed interest in what I was doing. So, I thought, wow, it’s really time. But, it wasn’t. Our view of my work was really quite different, six months had passed since they first made contact, and new work had been done that would fit in nicely. Also, my original production schedule to have a book out by September had passed, and I decided to let it go until the end of this year before I would call it done. I figured I’d let the tenth anniversary come and go, see what other images I could make, and then, call it a decade. The Dream will be done at that point. I’ve already moved on to other projects which I am slowly working on which have no deadlines. But they are smaller in scope and judging by past history, I will someday find other interests that will peak my curiosity and lead me in other directions. And then, they will be done.

My process is very organic. I don’t do big ideas or try to prove a point or examine a concept. I go where my heart and mind wanders, and see what’s there. And each time I go I find things out, about where I am and who I am in relation to what I see. Each photograph informs the next and leads down the path to more. It’s just how I am, and how I work.

And sometimes, I’ll tire of one thing and decide to do something else, just to see if I can. Until this year, all of my images were made candidly in daylight, or at least in light sufficient enough to make photographs without additional lighting. Now, I’m going out at night every so often, slowly starting to find my way using a flash and asking everyone if I can photograph them. It’s a new challenge, both on a technical level, and more importantly on a level that challenges my entire approach to the way I’ve been working over the past decade. Slowly I will come to grips with what this has to offer, and hopefully be able to come up with a body of work that is worth the time for people to look at. It may take years, or not. But I’ll know when I’m done when other projects hold greater interest for me.

Ultimately, I do like the process of collecting the work into a book format. Within the covers of a book is truly the best way to define and complete a body of work. I feel the work I do is best suited for the book format. Although I do very much like the idea of seeing my work on a wall, printed large and giving each image the space it needs to breathe and have a presence on it’s own is very special. But, an exhibit is more like a musical performance, impermanent, and soon gone. But a book lives on for a good long time, the pure physicality of it gives it a feeling of permanence and purpose.

I feel as if I’ll always have to do my own publishing though, so my output will be limited. I’m not a name that will sell books, and my work will never appeal to the masses, so publishers will probably never pick me up. Plus, I work full time, far too many hours, and my time and energy for getting out there and competing for the attention of publishers is limited, and far beyond the scope of my meager capacity for marketing and self-promotion. I just don’t have the emotional fortitude for it, plain and simple. So I’ll just stick to doing what I do best, making photographs until I can’t. And then, all of my projects will be finished.