interview: Mike Aviña

February 13, 2012

Mike Aviña seems to be the photographer we would all like to be…the photographer’s photographer. He is smart, informed and damned good at street photography. It is Aviña’s ability to constantly challenge himself that makes his work so exciting. He takes us along on his journey of self discovery and shares his “ahah” moments with us providing a source of inspiration for our own work. Many of his photographs have a gritty, urban feel and he seems to be uninhibited about pointing his camera at any subject. I wanted to learn more about his methods and motivations. Mike was kind enough to answer a few questions. (click photos for larger)

Will you please tell us your age (by decade) and where you grew up so we might have an idea of your cultural influences?

I’m just entering my forties. I grew up in California, and moved around quite a bit. It’s a big state, with vast cultural differences from north to south. I love and hate California. I feel like it is a bubble, or dream world of sorts–but full of contradictions, perfect for photography.

If you have a career, what is it? Where do you live and work now?

I’m an attorney and environmental planner. I work on environmental review of public and private projects. Working on the policy side of project review sometimes helps one see how particular people are situated in larger issues.

How did you get into photography?

I became interested in photography completely by accident. I started shooting regularly with a phone camera—taking pictures of everyday things for fun. Suddenly the plastic tumbler at a diner or peeling advertisements on a building were interesting because I was able to take usable pictures of them easily. I started digging in and reading about photography–I stumbled on Winogrand’s shot of the Los Angeles street scene, the one in Hollywood with the long shadows. Suddenly I realized there were these amazing scenes in the everyday world and you didn’t have to go to the ends of the earth to find them. I think that picture changed my idea of how and where photography might happen.

Did you start out doing street photography or come to it from another photo genre? Do other subjects interest you… do you shoot other types of photos now?

I started out just taking pictures with a phone as I mentioned and I started doing research on photography. I had no guide posts to speak of, but I read the article everyone has seen about Alex Majoli using point and shoot cameras, I saw Winogrand’s street work, I circled back to the big photographers I already knew about and saw their work in a fresh way, both documentary and more “street” oriented photos. I was of course, aware of landscape photography, studio portraiture, and other approaches but somehow the convenience of little digital cameras and the richness of everyday life became the main event. This led to shooting film and the realization that strong images are hard to make, but once hooked, there was no going back, so I am primarily interested in documentary and street photography for my own work. There are of course, fresh innovations that are worth following—Simon Norfolk’s landscape work comes to mind.

You seem to be well informed about photography in general, have you taken courses or do you have a good library? Do you spend much time looking at other photography online? How does other work affect yours? Name one or two established photographers who have influenced your photography.

Looking at the work of significant photographers is critical. Visual literacy gives you a palette of ideas and ways of shooting and also shows you how high the bar really is. Photography is so accessible now, you can absorb a good survey on the web. That said I’ve made a point of going to the local university library and spending time in the stacks just looking at photos to absorb different ways of working. Seeing how people sequence images in books and on the web teaches you about the meaning that emerges in the different ways images are combined.
Personally, Bruce Davidson and Eugene Richards are very important for me. Their method of working close to the subject, of confronting the viewer with the gaze or dignity of the person in the frame is superlative. Harvey Stein is also a significant influence. I took one of his workshops at ICP. He is a quiet, tall, fellow that often engages the people in the photo and uses wide-angle lenses like Davidson and Richards. He just published a book with 40 years of images from Coney Island. Between the three of them, I think they cover the waterfront of human experience, all using broadly similar methods.


Does travel to another place get your creative juices flowing, or does your home turf provide sufficient inspiration and subject?
I love to travel but I think the ability to find the interesting frame right in front of your nose is the mark of a good photographer. Learning how to organize the shapes in a rectangle into something interesting, can, to some extent be reduced to a formula—rules of composition, etc. (which of course should be abandoned whenever necessary). Seeing the universal or significant situation in front of you is harder. So I guess, I’m happy to shoot anywhere–having enough time is more important than being in a particular place. The puzzle of the local and immediate world is always more rich than we imagine at first, certainly more rich than I ever imagined before I became interested in photography. That said I would love to travel more, the exhilaration of shooting for 12 or 14 hours and being dehydrated and disoriented is the best kind of day in photography as far as I’m concerned.

Looking through your Flickr photostream, you often know a lot about the people you photograph. Do you prefer to engage your subjects and if so, do you “arrange” them in any way other than changing your point of view? Do you shoot first, then talk or the other way around?

I talk to people I shoot, sometimes at great length. I just like working that way — people interest me. While pictures can become their own reality, I think it is easier to make strong environmental portraits if you try to match the feeling of the frame to the inner state of the subject–this requires engaging people and finding out about them. I avoid directing people but once they know you are there they may be reacting to you slightly, so it’s not always literally candid. I experiment with a lot of different approaches–I think it is good to have a well-stocked toolkit of options, but it is best to really dig in and try to advance on one or two particular methods, so I grab frames of people moving and that sort of thing, but I want to continue to work on street portraiture in particular. Of course, the more people become comfortable with you and the better you are at finding a way to be in their world with their permission, you can also get back to doing candid images once they forget about the camera. That’s also a method that I want to explore.

It seems to me that you are the quintessential student, always trying out new ways of seeing. What are your personal goals in photography? Has your work been exhibited or published?

I’d be happy to make a few photographs that have abiding relevance in the sense of showing how the places and people I photograph feel, and complete a few significant long-term projects. Beyond that, photography is a way of life, a compulsion and interest in the world that once awakened, is its own end. California Northern, a local regional journal, published a few of my images, and some other shots have been used for academic papers about transit. I did almost all 52 weeks of the Street Photography Now Project and had images chosen by the instructors and managers of the project. I would like to organize a coherent photo essay soon and publish it online–I just never seem to feel like it is finished. Maybe the best thing is to decide when you have enough for an installment and then do an edit and try to publish it, and then keep shooting.

You shoot both film and digital, is that because of the quality of your final image, or because of the way of working?

I’ve tried both film and digital just to compare them. I don’t like being precious about either — the critical thing is knowing what film and digital offer. With careful exposure and processing, digital, even point and shoot digital, can offer sublime results. Film is more forgiving in terms of exposure and dynamic range but is more labor intensive.

Do you have a darkroom and do your own film processing? Do you make silver gelatin prints or just scan film to digital?
I only really know how to develop film in Rodinal and scan it–I’ve never made prints except from scans. If I have a really good frame in a negative I sometimes pay for a scan with a Hasselblad scanner–from which very fine prints can be made on good printers. Most of my film is scanned at home on a flatbed and processed digitally. This provides some of the benefits of each of the different media, the richness and dynamic range of film and the convenience of digital processing–the ability to refine an image without making print after print to get it right. I’m eager to try out the new digital silver printing processes that allow you to take digital files and print them photographically–you can put a digital file back into silver.

What kind of camera gear do you use? What do you usually carry when you go out shooting?
It all depends on how much time I have. When I’m on a mission to try to get something strong I often shoot film, with an old rangefinder and a 35mm lens. That said, I make a point of having a camera at all times—something small and light, for those shots on the way to lunch. Being open and ready at all times is important.

Can you show us a couple of your best photographs and tell us why you feel they were successful?
These three black and white frames are from downtown Sacramento, California. The wildly variable light and melancholy underneath the facade of California fascinates me — the sun is often quite bright and the shadows are therefore sharp and deep.

Untitled Sacramento River

Any advice for photographers?
Be open to the world, find what interests you personally and keep shooting until you discover the right method for your subject and your own disposition. Take more pictures and spend less time fussing about your particular gear or the limitations of what you are given to shoot. Make your own project based on your own passions and the issues right in front of you.

#39: "Don't ask. Shoot fast." Street Photography Now Project



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