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Sixty Inches from Center Sat May 05 2012

From Ansel Adams to Ol' Dirty Bastard: A Conversation with Mike Schreiber

by Tempestt Hazel

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SIFC-GB-Featured.jpgIn one of my favorite Black Star tracks, "Thieves In The Night", rapper Mos Def challenges listeners to "separate the real from the lie." Maneuvering comfortably in the classic techniques and processes of analog photography, New York-based artist Mike Schreiber works to achieve exactly that by creating images which resonate globally with music lovers and photography aficionados alike. Whether it is of musicians who regularly occupy the headphones and speakers of millions of music fans, or the people on the streets of Cuba and Jamaica, Mike's portraits place emphasis on the humanity of his subjects. His photographs remind us that these people are just that-people. He does not attempt to make them into caricatures of themselves or play into a larger-than-life persona. Mike pushes in the antithetical direction with the goal of making a photograph that brings out, as he puts it, a version of themselves that "their mother would recognize."

Fittingly titled True Hip Hop, Mike's recent book reflects the results, experiences and anecdotes of a career that has brought him and his camera in front of everyone from B.B. King to Voletta Wallace, the mother of the late Notorious B.I.G. In light of his upcoming debut exhibition in Chicago and book signing at The Silver Room, I spoke with Mike about his signature style, starstruck moments and what it means to be a photographer's photographer.

At this point you have taken countless photographs of some of the top names in the music industry. Your book is an obvious testament to that. From Ol' Dirty Bastard to M.I.A., Biz Markie to Erykah Badu, Nas, Method Man, Mos Def, Talib Kweli, Keith Murray-the list goes on and on. But I'm curious about the opposite end of your career. When did a camera first come into your life?

Well, I've loved taking pictures since I was a kid. My Grandpa and my mom were ALWAYS taking pictures, and my dad was a pretty good photographer too, so I always had cameras and picture-taking around me. It just always seemed natural to have a camera and take pictures.

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Along with being a self-made and sought after photographer, you pride yourself on not being a photographer's photographer, meaning you don't get geeked over the hardware and you don't necessarily try to speak that language. Has this ever been an obstacle for you in your career?

First off, I think you'd have to define what a "photographer's photographer" means. To many people, the fact that I DON'T get excited about technology makes me a "photographer's photographer". Equipment is simply a means to an end. It's what you need to achieve whatever you're looking to accomplish. That's true whether you're a photographer, painter, writer, musician or baker. So it's all about perspective.
I rely on my brain and instincts more than on a machine. Ansel Adams said, "The single most important component of a camera is the twelve inches behind it". With technology being what it is, people tend to forget that they're still in charge and the work should be YOUR work, not the camera's. I'd rather make the decisions than have a computer do it. I sometimes make the wrong decisions, but magical things can come from your mistakes. Technology takes away the mistakes and makes everything too clean and crisp and perfect for my taste.

Regarding being an obstacle, I have no idea. You'd have to ask potential clients. I'm not sure I'd really want to work for someone who was more interested in what camera I use than the work I produce.

How would you describe the Mike Schreiber style?

Hmmm... I dunno. I know my style is an extension of my personality. I guess it's gritty. Simple. Straightforward. Truthful. In focus. I try to shoot things that I'm interested in, and to show them the way they really are. My approach is the same regardless of who or what I'm shooting. I've never been interested in the culture of celebrity and I think my style reflects that. To me, there's no difference between shooting a multi-platinum selling rapper or a kid in Cuba. The circumstances might be different, but my approach is the same. I always try to get to some kind of truth in the subject, no matter who they are. It doesn't always happen, but that's always the goal!

You've said in the past that one of the challenges of photography is to make a photograph that stands the test of time. Do you feel you are able to accomplish that in your photographs? Which ones have made it to that point, in your opinion?

I think I've achieved it a few times. The most obvious example being the Mos Def photo (pictured above). That one has definitely stood the test of time. Thirty years from now, I'm sure it'll still be out there. That's kinda cool. Only time will tell, and it won't be up to me. The viewers decide what's relevant, not me.

When not working on assignments and instead being guided by your own interests, what tends to be the subject of your photography?

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I like to travel to places I've never been before. South America, Africa, Louisiana! I love seeing new places and people. Discovering new things is fun for me. I'm thinking about getting a van to drive around in and take pictures.

I studied Anthropology in school because I'm really interested in different cultures. I think that background has influenced my approach to shooting more than anything else. I like to shoot things the way they are, with very little interference by me.

I love how spirited your street photography is, whether it is on the streets of NYC or in Cuba or Jamaica. Is there a difference from place to place? How do the street scenes of NYC compare to those of other places you've traveled?

Thanks. Truthfully, when I'm home I don't really do much street photography. It's really only when I travel. The difference between here (the U.S.) and other places I've been is that here people tend to not be as open to being photographed. In other places I've traveled to, people have tended to be much more open to getting their picture taken. And I ALWAYS ask. I never try to steal pictures from people. I wouldn't want someone jumping in my face with a camera, so I don't do that to others. If I was a news photographer it'd be different, but I'm not a news photographer.

I really just love taking pictures of stuff. Old people, kids, dogs... I try to capture how a place feels. That's the ultimate goal.

True Hip Hop is years of photographs, memories, experiences and encounters-a substantial body of work from your career all compiled in print like this for the first time. How did it feel when you first flipped through its pages?

It was pretty exciting. When I first started shooting, my only real goal was to go to concerts for free and, hopefully, not have to get a "real" job. So to have a book with my name on it, full of my pictures and stuff I wrote about them was pretty cool. I also didn't really believe it was actually going to happen until I physically had the book in my hands. So flipping through the pages and reading what I'd written was pretty cool. I think the book reflects me very well. I'm very proud of the book and the fact that I've been able to stay true to myself along the way.

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Have you ever had a moment of awe during an assignment-otherwise known as a moment when you're standing in front of someone you admire so much that your ability to form words or cohesive thoughts vanishes, even momentarily?

A few times. The first time was when I got to meet B.B. King in his dressing room at the Blue Note. Also, sitting in a location van eating blueberries with, and shooting Phylicia Rashad for Trace was kind of trippy. Oh, and I met Dionne Warwick at the Apollo. That was a bit creepy to be honest. It was like she was reading my mind! And I was nervous to meet Dr. J. Coolest cat on the planet!

If you weren't a photographer, what do you imagine you would be doing with your life?

Exotic dancer or movie star... or both!

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Meet the man in that 12″ space behind the camera. Mike Schreiber will be exhibiting a collection of his photographs and introducing his book True Hip Hop to Chicago music and art lovers at The Silver Room in Wicker Park tonight, 6pm - 10pm, with a Q&A with the artist at 7pm. To see more of his work, visit his website, mikeschreiber.com.

True Hip Hop | Exhibition and Book Release
Opening Reception: May 5, 2012, 6pm - 10pm
On view through June 16, 2012
The Silver Room
1442 N. Milwaukee Ave.

 
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