Interview: Michael May

November 8, 2012

“Monty” Michael May has a sharp eye and highly developed photographic technique; a deadly combination for street photography. Monty’s street photography can be slick and graphically bold, or clever and witty — but all of it demands repeated viewing. As a professional photo journalist he has plenty of photo opps and his output is prodigious. I wanted to know more about Monty May and how he keeps his passion and profession separate, or does he? (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?

First of all, my dear friend Greg, thank you very much for your invitation for this interview. I feel very pleased and honored, this is nothing I do regularly for sure. Let’s hope that everybody can understand my rusty old school English, because I’m not a native speaker.

I was born in 1958 in Germany as the eldest of four children (two sisters and one brother). I finished school in 1978 with no ambition for any career and spent 15 (useless but obligatory) months in the army. After I finished my military service,
I began to study sports and German philology at the University of Cologne and later in Münster in 1980.

Unfortunately, I broke my ankle during a football match in such a complicated way, that I had quit doing sports and begin a “career” as a sports invalid.
After this non-successful start at the university, I changed to political and communication sciences. My parents were not rich so I had to do various jobs to finance my studies for example in a chain factory and later for 3 1/2 years in a slaughter house – a back-breaking job, but with high payment.

You have a family…how many children do you have and how old are they?

Yes, I’m married to the best wife of all and she works as a teacher. My youngest son is 20 and he just passed his exams. Actually, he works as a German volunteer in Greece for one year, sponsored by the European Union to teach young Children in Chios how to deal with computers and new media. My eldest son is 23 years old and he studies informatics and English and hopes to become a teacher like his mother.

As I understand, you are a professional photographer working for a newspaper, correct? How long have you been doing that?

I have been working as a professional staff photographer for a local newspaper since 1991 and before that, I worked as a freelancer for different papers with the focus on sports photography (ice-hockey and football).

How did you get into photography? Did you study to be a photojournalist?

I bought my first camera in 1982, a used Minolta XG9 SLR with a 50mm lens and the first film I used was orthochromatic (Agfaortho 25). Who the hell knows why.
This is a picture from my first film:

In the following years, I shot a lot of color slides and B+W. With our kitchen serving as an improvised darkroom laboratory, I developed my first films in self-taught alchemy experiments. I was the typical hobby photographer of those times and did a lot of reading about theory and practice.

I started my job at the newspaper in 1991 with two years of practical training, learning all about journalistic photography and improving my basic skills with more tricks and knowledge about darkroom work.

What was your most interesting assignment? What was your most dangerous assignment?

In this job you do a lot of boring routine work every day like shake-hand pictures and media conferences, but there are a lot of very interesting assignments during the week like photo reports on various topics and encounters with interesting people.

Argentinian pianist, Bruno Leonardo Gelber

I usually prefer situations, where my role is defined as an observer. To accompany a street worker for half a day can sometimes be more spectacular than a reportage about film stuntmen jumping out of burning cars.

In my job, everything happens in real time, like car accidents, fire alarms or manslaughter for instance. You always stay alert, everything can happen within the next few minutes.It’s not a typical 9 to 5 job.

Exclusive interviews with famous and prominent people like Tony Blair, Bill Clinton, Kofi Anan, Al Gore or for example Lech Walesa can be very inspiring. You can hear a lot of interesting details “off-records” and may smile about some private anecdotes and strange manners.

Lech Walesa

Even more exciting can be dates with well known photographers during preparations for exhibitions in Iserlohn. Eating pizza with Steve Mc Curry, touring through the pubs with Joakim Eskildsen or serving a self-cooked meal to Jim Brandenburg at home … all these encounters are real highlights. Here a studio shot of Richard Kalvar…


The most dangerous assignment was a double murder in front of our newspaper building at ten o’clock on a Monday morning.
When I entered the crime scene two minutes after the shooting, two dying persons were lying in the middle of a busy 4-track road, another three wounded on the sidewalk. Not a single policeman had arrived at the scene yet, only an ambulance that happened to be in the area had stopped.
There was a lot of panic in the street and I was standing in the middle of the road with a NIKON FM2 and a 28 mm lens taking pictures without a bulletproof vest. It’s a strange experience when you are not sure, what’s happening. You don’t realize in that particular moment that it could have been a mad sniper on his personal killing spree. Thank god, things like these don’t happen every day.

When and how did you first get interested in street photography?
I’ve always preferred taking pictures of people not in a studio, but in their social environment. At home, at work or in their leisure time. Talking, waiting, watching and shooting from time to time. No posing, acting or staging. Everything must be in a flow and I just capture that tiny piece of life I need.

Homestory: This is the family of Mathias Grothe

Some of my pictures of the past were pure street photography, others photo reports, documentaries or just some weird bizarreness that happened by chance.
So my first real interest in street photography was joining the Street Photography Now Project in 2011 and look what people call street photography now and how their fresh look is corresponding to the old masters.

I imagine that as a professional you have a well-developed skill set you can rely on for street photography. In other words, you don’t have to think about producing technically good photographs because you do it every day. Do you find that there are any disadvantages to being a professional? Do you ever feel that you have to work to overcome having your street photography look like newspaper photography?

My skills help me a lot, particularly in fast situations. Like most professional newspaper photographers we don’t ask – we shoot fast! It´s okay and necessary. Experimental shooting with bold lighting, framing and unusual compositions in non-repeatable situations can sometimes be Harakiri, if your boss has no sense of humor.

In my leisure time I am free to choose the type of my work and not generally forced to make snap decisions even in street photography. Professional experiences helps to keep cool and take time to study the subject of my contemplated picture from all sides. Looking through the viewfinder, everything ought to be perfect while shooting: composition, lighting, frame and content. No compromises.

“Consequently, when I find an interesting subject, I never assume that the first view is also the best. Most likely, provided I have time, further study will reveal other and often preferable possibilities for effective rendition……” (Andreas Feininger 1993)

I know a lot of colleagues, who don’t take pictures in their private time and draw a clear line between their professional work and private life. I think differently and always look for new challenges beyond my professional work just to get a different view on this world and input to my work. I am not for reinventing the wheel. So when I find creative ideas in other people’s work I often try to adapt them and make something new out of it. In this respect, studying the old masters is always helpful as well as the dialogue with close friends who share my interests in photography. Nowadays the gap between professionals and amateurs is not that big, when the results are provided on digital systems. But how many members of Flickr or other communities and social media want to see their pictures as a fine art print hanging in a real gallery?

All you need is a smart phone today, a toy camera app and a platform to get a sense of achievement by trial and error.

iPhone Hipstamatic image

What I find very fascinating is how many, many talented and good photographers publish their work with most success in the world wide web even with non-professional camera gear.

In our digital decade everyone is able to produce a picture that can be published online or in print media. Photography is not knowledge for the sake of control by a few masters anymore. This is on the one hand good for the development of photography, but on the other hand it dumps prices, kills jobs and levels down the evidence of this profession. Stock photography is a plague.
I know people who want their pictures being published in our newspaper without payment and only for the name below the picture. This makes me totally angry. If it’s free it can´t be any good.

Does my street photography look like newspaper photography? Yes, sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t. Maybe other people should judge about this.

I know, I always look for a narrative element in my pictures, a little story or some absurdities of common life. Sometimes, it’s pure infotainment and I can’t deny having a great partiality for deadpan British humor.

My personal favorites are those pictures where the message just hits you in the face – clearly, cleanly and reduced to the minimum need to tell the story.
Sometimes my newspaper photography looks more like street photography now.

In your opinion, is there much of a difference between documentary and street photography?

To be honest, I’m not a friend of this categorization. Why would we need it? In my opinion we could distinguish between the following obvious and even technical aspects: colour — black and white, film — digital, nature — urbanity, art — crap, people — dogs, camera — smartphone, and so on.

Do we really need yet more division in photography? Do we need a guide-book for street photography? Some people should have one, but No! Do we need a street for street photography? No! Do we need a tele lens for street photography? No

But to answer your question: In my opinion street photography is documentary photography as an observation of our social environment, but not all documentary photography must necessarily be street photography.

Are you more inspired when you travel? Do you find better photo opportunities say, in Cologne than at home?

Of course and I’m always looking forward for these rare occasions when I get the chance to walk anonymously around with my camera in foreign cities.

In the small town where I live (65000 inhabitants) most people know me and as soon as they spot the newspaper guy, chances go down to let’s say fifty-fifty for me to take a good picture.

To pose or not to pose, that is the question. Some people want acquire some local fame, others don’t. In any case they don’t behave natural.

So here is a picture from Cologne — sitting in a pub garden in between unknown people.

Do you still shoot film and if so, why? Do you have access to a darkroom and do your own film processing?
My last 10 color slide films I shot 2010 in Scotland with my Leica. I payed 75 € for the development in a highly professional photolab and they they gave back a piece of shit to me. Developing stripes on every film. No chance to scan this material. I achieved better results with the little Canon IXUS compact camera.

I must admit, that I always hated darkroom work. So I ‘m done with analog photography, but still sitting on a mountain of analogue cameras and lenses.

What kind of camera gear do you use? What do you usually carry when you go out shooting specifically street photography?
In former times I used a NIKON FM2/F3 or MINOLTA XD7 with 24mm, 35mm and 85mm for my professional work. For reportage I used my Leica M4/M6 with 35mm and 50mm.
Nowadays my favorite gear is the NIKON D700 with 28mm, 50mm, 24-70mm plus long lenses for sports photography.

For working in the street I use the Fuji X100 to be more invisible and I prefer this little camera under certain light conditions such as hard light/shadow, where the hybrid viewer does a good job.

In crowded places, like tourist hot spots where a lot of people work with cameras, I still use the Nikon D700.

Name a few photographers who have influenced your own photography.
Oh, there are quite a lot. First of all Henri Cartier-Bresson for the “decisive moment” and Elliott Erwitt for his incredible humor. But they were not the first I came in contact with.

I was always fascinated by the ideas of Bauhaus and their representatives like László Moholy-Nagy, André Kertész and especially Andreas Feininger. In addition to that, I like a lot of the great Time Life Photographers, such as Margaret Bourke-White, Leonard Mc Combe, Lisa Larsen and Eugene Smith.

In Germany, it’s the fascinating work of Barbara Klemm (FAZ – Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung), who has always been a shining example of what a newspaper photographer can do as well as Gianni Berengo Gardin (Il Mondo, Stern, Time, Le Figaro)

Last but not least, all the Magnum photographers like Steve Mc Curry, Richard Kalvar, Larry Towell, Sebastiao Salgado and the shooting stars Paolo Pellegrin and Jonas Bendiksen.

Have you exhibited anywhere or received any honors?
I had some small exhibitions between 2000 and 2008 with various topics; “Dance Photography”, “Uncommon Places in Iserlohn” and “People and Dogs”.Moreover, there was a joint art project called “Neither fish nor Stones” with an artist painter and a social documenting about the integration of women of foreign countries and cultures.

In 2009, I was proud to present a retrospective exhibition in the highly rated Town Gallery of Iserlohn, with the title “Jour de fêtes”. The absolute highlight of my photographic career.

Any advice for photographers?
Try to get the best quality with the best camera and the best lens you can afford.
Try to go for the best results with concentrated passion every time you press the shutter button

“Try to get your framing right in-camera, as it will force you to ‘dance around’ more on the streets to get a more coherent shot. Instead of shooting people against distracting backgrounds, it will encourage you to walk around them, taking a photograph of them behind a more simple background (that is less distracting). We will also get closer to our subjects to frame them better, rather than just cropping in from around the frame.” — Gary Winogrand.

Forget all this advice from time to time and have fun!

Can you show us a few of your best photographs and tell us why you feel they were successful?
Some of my best shots are based on film material and are not specially related to street photography like this one:

I made a lot of shots with the old Leica Noctilux 50mm 1:1,2 from 1968 on almost open aperture. Preferring a central perspective, this lens figures out sharpness and softness at the same time. It provides natural vignettes (an “image defect” Leica appologized for in past times), stunning bokeh and radial unsharpness. This lens is very rare and absolute madness!:

I made a series about ambience and still today I ask old people, whether they allow me to take pictures in most bizarre parts of their homes. So many little stories to discover.

But let’s return to street photography: Here are some personal favorites from the Photography Now Project: All pictures are more or less self-explanatory. I’ve started to make a photobook at blurb within the next two months. So the documenting of my “streetwork” will be published.

Oh, one other question…what’s up with the dog in your profile photo?
You mean Sugar?

She’s as great as our other dog named Groucho. Both dogs are 6 years old and have made some bad experiences in life before I took them to my home from the animal shelter. Groucho’s former owner died in his bed at home and this brave dog watched the corpse for 8 days without food and water and he probably would have starved if a neighbour hadn’t found him and called the police.

Sugar is a typical photographer’s dog and a very talented poser. Both are great characters, Love them to death.



Monty May on Flickr


8 Responses to “Interview: Michael May”

  1. Horton Says:

    Go Monty! Great to learn more about you.

  2. Oguz ozkan Says:

    Fantastic interview thanks both of you!!!

  3. Cedrus K Says:

    Very nice interview! Thanks Greg! And thanks Monty for sharing the very interesting background. Cheers to both of you!

  4. Paul Cruickshank Says:

    Great interview. Thanks to Monty and Greg.

  5. Larking About Says:

    Wonderful Stuff – A great read – Thanks both of you!

  6. Brilliant interview – really enjoyed the read! Fantastic photos Michael. Thanks to Greg too!

  7. Marian Grozos Says:

    Thanks, Monty and Greg. Thanks for sharing your very interesting history, Monty.

  8. He leido Interview: Michael May | Street Views & News con mucho interes y me ha parecido practico ademas de bien redactado. No dejeis de cuidar este blog es bueno.

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