Mike Caffrey gives us an exclusive look at his 2011-2012 portfolio. What’s unique about this is his unique presentation. Not only is it highly effective but incredibly inspirational and engaging. It brings across his energy and dedication in everything he does. There’s also a story to be told through the sequence, you can really get an idea of everything that has happened throughout the past year, and at the end you feel like you went and experienced everything with him.
You can also check out more of his work here: http://www.mikecaffrey.com/more.html
I decided to get in touch with Mike and interview him to give a little insight to our readers.
For the past 20 years I’ve made my living as a musician an a record producer/engineer. Five years ago I started experimenting with shooting video as part of the record making process. Then four years ago I bought a Rebel XTI before a trip to Marfa Texas and was hooked on stills.
As I continued, I decided that the bands I was working with would be the most interesting subject to other people, and I had unique access. So I started shooting bands in the studio and live and then expanded from there.
1) What inspired you to make this visual piece, organized in the way that you did?
It seemed like the most logical way to show what I do. I like capturing energy and excitement. I’m drawn to photographing action and often shoot my subjects while they are moving. This type of presentation adds to the feelings of energy and excitement that are in the photos.
With so many photographers doing great work, there’s really no need for another one unless they are doing something new or something totally unique to them. When you use all of your skills together, you end up with a vision that’s unique to you.
2) Out of everything you’ve done this past year, what was your favorite project?
I don’t know that I have a favorite, but the biggest one is the Jersey Girls book (unrelated to the MTV show). I was hired to shoot it about 14 months ago and it came out this Spring. I shot a mix of low-light night shots and daytime beach and boardwalk shots. Both cases required meeting total strangers who are not used to being photographed and making interesting photos spontaneously. As a record producer, I’m used to directing performances and making them authentic, so I’m pretty comfortable in this context. I ended up with the cover and another 25 photos in the book.
I have a few sets of photos from the past year that stand out to me. A series titled Three Cigarettes that I shot in almost total darkness in Maine. The Proposal series that I shot in the fountain in Washington Square Park. I got some great stuff while shooting three nights of Mike Posner’s Up In The Air tour. I’ve got a few sets on NYC streets at night that turned out really well.
Probably the most important thing from last year was taking a master class with Antonin Kratochvil at Maine Media Workshops. It’s the only class I’ve ever taken and I took it right at the time I was most ready to learn what he was teaching. The instructions he gave us on the first day led me to discover my beliefs of what photography is for. Why make a photograph in the first place? Why not just write an essay or a letter? The same ideas apply to music and have affected how I approach that as well.
3) How do you decide whether or not to work in black and white or color?
B&W is my default, but I’m happy to shoot color when asked. I think there’s less for your brain to interpret when you remove color. Color is the surface, the exterior and removing it highlights the content and the interior.
Ralph Gibson says that when you shoot a B&W photo, you alter reality by reducing it from three dimensions to two, reducing it’s scale and removing color. B&W ends up three steps away from reality while color is two steps away. I think that surreality sets the viewer up to receive the photo differently.
Noise is much more tolerable in B&W. I rarely shoot below 1600 ISO and often at 6400 or 12,800. For certain things those ISOs can look amazing, but in color, the chroma noise looks awful.
4) With your black and white toning process, what is your preferred method?
I do everything in Lightroom. I have a few presets that I’ve made, that are connected to certain looks or locations that I shoot repeatedly. I’ll start with one of them and then adjustment as necessary. I experiment a lot with point curves. I usually leave the B&W color sliders set to zero, but I’ll play with the color calibration in a lot of cases.
5) What do you primarily enjoy shooting? (genre) Is there anything you do not shoot?
Action maybe? People being themselves or revealing a true part of themselves that’s not often seen? I’m not sure what the common thread is in what I’m drawn to. The genre of the doesn’t matter me. I’m more driven by process. The Jersey Girls photos look very different from what I most often shoot, but they were shot the same way in terms of interaction with the subject.
I can’t think of anything that I wouldn’t shoot. Unpleasant people would turn me off of anything, so context is more important than content. As far as income generating photos, I think I’m best suited for certain brands - Converse, Levis, G-Star, Ray Ban, maybe A&F. They all have ads that use B&W, available light, and there’s often a subtext of Rock and Roll. In emotional terms, Rock and Roll may be genre.
6) Your work also translates well to video, with that in mind, do you also shoot video?
I’ve done a bit. I shot a short film. I’ve shot Tony Kaye quite a bit - directing, painting recording music and literally running around on the street at night singing an playing guitar. I shot a band’s live studio performance while recording them simultaneously that ended up pretty cool, but I hate editing. I’d do more if I had a proper editing budget so that I could hire an editor and just direct them. I use a 1D4 and a 5DII, but they’re really not optimal for shooting video. It took me a long time to learn to avoid the L lenses and use dedicated manual focus lenses. I’ve got a Zeiss and a Voigtlander with Canon mounts that I really like for video. The difference in the ease of focusing is astounding. I even used a Pentax 6x7 lens on a shoot for Time Inc a few months ago. I’d like to shoot more with something other than a DSLR.
7) Tell us a little bit more about the tools you use, and the equipment in relation to brands of camera and computing used to capture and process your work.
I use Canon. In full frame terms, if I could only have one lens, it would be a fast 28mm prime. I have no patience for auto focus. Technology should be helping, not hindering, so I use a 1D4 with a 5DII as a back up. Since the 1D4 is a 1.3 crop, the closest I can get to 28mm is either 31.5mm or 26mm. The 24 1.4 has become my default lens. It has Canon’s shortest minimum focusing distance so I can shoot close. Perspective distortion doesn’t bother me. In fact I think some is necessary if you want a feeling of intimacy in a photo.
If I carry a second lens, it’s usually the 50 1.2. That becomes 65mm on the 1D4 which is like a wide telephoto lens that shows some context. I think that’s often overlooked.
The 35 1.4 is my favorite lens in terms of image quality. On the 1.3 crop, it’s a bit of an in-between lens for me so it gets a little less use.
I love shooting with the 85 1.2 and the 135 f2 when I have a reason to, but I don’t do a lot of head shots or beauty shots.
I think traveling light and not having a ton of heavy gear slowing you down makes a huge difference in results. During the Kratochvil master class, I found carrying anything beyond a camera and a single fixed lens made it difficult to do what he’d instructed us to do. I ended up shooting the entire week with the 24mm on the 1D4. Since then, I’ve cut back to carrying just the camera on a very short shoulder strap with the 24mm and if I have a second lens it’s in a Think Tank belt pouch - no lens or body caps. The simplification is freeing.
8) What is your workflow like from the conception of an idea to the final delivered product?
Mostly, just do it. I’m not someone who thinks that heavily manipulated photos are not photos, but I’m more interested in either capturing or creating a moment. I try to stick to available light because I believe it’s a different experience for the subject, leading to better results, and I prefer the look of reality. I don’t have much need to storyboard things, just the right location. Then put it all in Lightroom.
Commissioned work is a little different. Mood boards or reference photos can be helpful, but it’s really about listening to what people ask for, while simultaneously trying to figure out if what they say the want is what they actually want. It’s an interpretation that I’ve done for years making records, so I’m pretty comfortable figuring that out. I don’t have as much experience as a photographer as I do being a producer, but the communication process is the same even if the art is different.
9) What interests you in the future?
I believe that we are headed for a convergence of advertising and entertainment that is deeper than ever before. Our entertainment mediums are changing and the business of entertainment is changing. Record companies are underfunded and becoming irrelevant. Corporate sponsors are one source that will fill that funding gap. Converse’s recording studio in Brooklyn and Red Bull’s studio in LA are some early examples.
I think this convergence will bring interesting opportunities. For instance, a record that’s funded by an ad campaign made up of visuals shot, untagged, throughout the entire record making process. The unique relationship that a producer has with an artist is one that you can’t have through photography alone and results in unique and intimate artistic content that stands out in our world of manufactured media. This is the type of project I’ve been developing myself for over the past couple of years.