Rfotofolio is pleased to feature the work of Jean Miele. To inspire…
Would you please tell us a little about yourself?
I’m from New York. Brooklyn, actually. Three generations on both sides of the family. According to a personality test I once took, I’m pretty much 50% extrovert and 50% introvert. I love to socialize, and teaching and leading workshops is a joy for me. I also need to go off by myself, sometimes for days at a time. I have what some describe as a “strong” personality. As opinionated as I am, though, I have an easy time seeing both sides of an argument, and I’m kind of obsessed with the relationship between perception and reality. It’s fascinating how this applies to photography, of course, and I absolutely loved Mia Fineman’s “Faking It” exhibition at the MET last year, which corrected the history of photography based on the premise that manipulated photography has always been at least as prevalent as “straight” photography. But I’m also endlessly interested in the way multiple versions of “the truth” arise – in news, politics, and especially interpersonal relationships. Take a look at all of this, along with the photographers whose work inspired me most (Jerry Uelsmann, Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, Minor White, Duane Michals) and, somehow, my work starts to make sense.
How did you get started in photography?
I shot thousands of really bad B&W pictures in high school and college. When I got interested in printing b&w in the darkroom, I made a lot of terrible prints. My real training began when I started working as a photo assistant in New York. I assisted all kinds of commercial photographers, and traveled the world as an assistant to annual report shooter Dana Duke. Eventually, I went to work as a photo editor for the Image Bank which, at the time, was the biggest stock photo agency in the world. The apprenticeship that was professional assisting was a huge part of my education – and so was editing stock out-takes from some of the best photographers in the world – but I still think the secret to learning to make good pictures is making lots and lots of bad ones.
Did your family affect your decision to become an artist?
My parents met at Pratt. My dad was studying to be an architect, and my mom was studying studio art. Add to that the fact that both of my grandfathers were old-school “shutterbugs” and it’s easy to weave a story about how it’s in my blood. Maybe. On a deeper level though, it took me a long time to realize the composite image landscapes I make, and the way I like to use photography to transform and rearrange things were my way of exercising some control over a world that, in my youth, felt particularly out of control. I guess, subconsciously, I decided that I could make the world perfect – at least in my photographs.
Where do you look for inspiration?
I think inspiration and intuition are really closely interrelated. The best inspiration comes from listening to the little voice in my head that says “What if?” And wasn’t it Garry Winogrand who said something like, “I photograph to see what things look like as photographs?” Curiosity drives a lot of what I do. Exploring, playing, processing and printing my pictures different ways, combining images and commingling techniques. Making stuff. That’s all part of my process. And I look at pictures – particularly vintage photography. I’m always reading (history, novels, historical-fiction, science, articles) and constantly making notes and snapshots as a way of collecting ideas. It’s often surprising which seemingly random ideas gravitate towards each other to point me in a new direction.
When did you start to develop a personal style?
I’m still working on it. When I look back, though, there are a few photographs I made early on that had many of the elements I seem to favor: black-and-white, metaphorically driven, highly enhanced images with a strong, singular focal point.
How did your series “Scientific Inquiries” come about?
I was teaching a black-and-white workshop for Mark & Xenia Kogel at the Vancouver Photo Workshops. When the workshop was done, Mark and Xenia, took me, my wife Carol and our daughter Cally on a little holiday/shooting trip to Tofino. Tofino is a spectacularly beautiful part of British Columbia, along the west coast of Vancouver Island. We had a great time, and I shot some nice stuff. Back in my studio in New York, though, it just seemed like the pictures were missing something. I hate that feeling of “almost” but not quite, and was playing with compositing the images together, and processing the files in different ways, trying to make them “sing.”
Coincidentally (and that’s another fundamental source of inspiration, as far as I’m concerned) I had been reading a really interesting book written by a 19th century “natural philosopher” who was interested in applying principles of scientific research and experimentation to psychic and paranormal phenomenon. I loved that he felt no need to compartmentalize his curiosity about the seen and the unseen into separate categories, and the way he was so calmly certain that magic was just science we didn’t understand yet. I started playing with combining my Tofino pictures with images from his era, and I knew right away that this was just what those pictures wanted me to do. Layering the past and the present together, adding hidden meaning, trying to fathom the meaning of stuff just beyond my grasp. Those are what photography has always been about, and it dovetails perfectly with how I see the world. It took a couple of years to really flesh out all the little details that I think makes this work special: Each print is hand-embossed. The corners are rounded. I created a 19th-century-style studio stamp for the back of each print, like you see on the flip side of CDVs. The work is presented in an old-school handmade, bookcloth bound portfolio case. Each image is built around a central idea or quotation. I figured out each element a little bit at a time, listening to that little voice in my head telling me I could take things a little further. It wasn’t until most of the puzzle pieces were in place that I realized I had kind of reclaimed my photographic heritage; by integrating elements from all periods in the history of photography into the work, from collodion to inkjet, 19th century to 21st, I had managed to embrace and integrate everything I love about photography into the work. I had renounced the false dichotomy between “traditional’ and “digital.”
What challenges do you face as a photographer?
Overcoming procrastination, distraction, and what Steven Pressfiled calls Resistance with a capital R. Pushing myself to go beyond what I’ve already comfortably done.
How do you overcome a creative block?
Action. I start working. Millard Fuller, the founder of Habitat for Humanity said: “It’s easier to act your way into a new way of thinking than to think your way into a new way of acting.” I think that’s exactly right. When I’m in action, one thing leads to the next in ways I never could have pre-planned in my head.
Would you tell us about your workspace?
The walls of my office are lined with shelves full of photographs, postcards and found objects. Among the things on display right now are: a small wood model of a turn-of-the-century ice boat, old large-format film holders, rocks and such picked up at from various far-flung places during my travels, a collage by my artist mom, a darkroom grain-focuser, a beautiful small set of 1930s stainless-steel differential gears, 19th century tintypes, a couple of enamel plaques stolen from abandoned industrial sites, snapshots, old rusty tools and nuts and bolts (also found while out shooting), metal screw-top 35mm film canisters, an 1897 brass microscope stage adjuster, postcards with images by Gustave LeGray, Duane Michals, Mel DiGiacomo, Edward Quigley, Wang Wusheng, Cartier Bresson, Albert Bierstadt, Bumpei Usui, Josef Ruzicka, Simon Dinnerstein, and Chuck Kimmerle, among others. Oh – and there’s a MacPro with two monitors and a Wacom tablet, and a bunch of other stuff for making photographs.
Please tell us what a perfect day of shooting is for you?
Driving down the road with a good friend looking for we don’t know what. Stopping to chat with people and asking whether there might be some long-abandoned factory or hidden waterfall just down the road. Following our intuition or just looking out the window until we stumble on something worth shooting, then spending the day lost in the process of exploring and making pictures. Of course, it doesn’t hurt if we find some friendly local bar that evening and have a few.
Any stories about your work you would like to share?
Well, there was the time I was eavesdropping on a couple of museum goers who were talking about an exhibition of composite landscapes of mine. I guess they hadn’t read the wall text because their take on the places I had created was “This guy’s been everywhere!” …And then there was the time in Taos, New Mexico, when I found out from an outlaw-biker at the bar after shooting a full moon rising above the sunset-lit Brazos Cliffs that I had only been a few miles from where Ansel Adams had made “Moonrise Over Hernandez.” Or the story about finding and shooting an abandoned iron mine (with a 1000-meter open mineshaft!) in the industrial heartland of Sweden. My favorite, though, might be about how I ended up in Iceland on the 17th of May (Norway’s National Day) shooting landscapes with a bunch of my Norwegian photographer friends, and camping on the very beach where their Viking forebears had first landed to settle the island 1000 years previously. I had been teaching a workshop in Oslo, and one of my students, Johanne Seines Svendsen (doing incredible wet-plate collodion work now), mentioned that she was going to Iceland a couple of days after the workshop with our mutual friend Ketil Born and some others from Mo i Rana, in the north of Norway. They had everything arranged: locations scouted, cars rented, tents and provisions at the ready. In a matter of minutes my jealousy changed to elation, as we realized I was already booked on the same Icelandair flight they were. All I had to do was change my itinerary to get off the plane in Iceland during the stopover on the way to New York! That’s the kind of coincidence that makes me feel like I might just be on the right path, and that perhaps we’re all always in exactly the right place at the right time.
Thank you Jean for sharing your work and words with us.
To learn more about the work of Jean Miele please visit his page at Jean Miele.