How Photographer Christopher Michel Makes Stunning, Soulful Portraits
All images by Christopher Michel and used with permission. Be sure to check out his website.
“How important is that photo of you with your parents?” asks photographer Christopher Michel when asked about portraiture. “I’m guessing pretty darn important…Photography is a kind of alchemy – photographs almost always become more valuable over time.” Mr. Michel’s words ring true for lots of us these days after coming out of some very difficult times. For Christopher, making portraits is a collaborative process. As he tells us, the aim is to always create soulful portraits.
The Essential Gear of Photographer Christopher Michel
“I unabashedly love cameras. I’m primarily a Leica shooter but also use the Fuji GFX 100s. I also shoot film regularly. I carry a Contax T3 everywhere – and regularly shoot a Leica M6, Hasselblad 503, Plaubel Makina 67, Rolleiflex, Mamiya 7II, and Contax 645. These cameras a work of art and a delight to shoot. As I mentioned, I primarily shoot Leica. The Leica M10 Monochrom is one of my favorite cameras of all time. I also shoot the Leica Q2 (IMHO, best small camera out there) and Leica SL2. The SL2 is simply brilliant – it allows me to deliver that Leica look with precision (the beautiful viewfinder).”
Phoblographer: Talk to us about how you got into photography.
Christopher Michel: Art has always been a part of my life – my Danish grandfather was a painter and taught art at the University of Michigan. My mother is a painter and sculptor. But I never considered photography until I was given a camera in 1998. I was moving from Boston to San Francisco and began to make photographs on that long drive West. Holding that first camera in my hand – and the permission it gave me to see – was immediately addictive. I started to make more and more photographs – and, by 2008, I left my job as an entrepreneur to pursue photography full-time.
Phoblographer: What made you want to get into portraiture?
I believe memories are the currency of our lives. Photography is a kind of alchemy – photographs almost always become more valuable over time. This is especially true with portraiture. How important is that photo of you with your parents? I’m guessing pretty darn important. I love using photography to help capture these lifelong treasures. My new role is as the first Artist-in-Residence at the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering & Medicine – working on capturing the stories of scientists and engineers making history. For example, I spent yesterday with Nobel Laureate Dr. Jennifer Doudna at UC Berkeley – helping tell her incredible story. She’s the kind of new hero and role model that the world needs.
Phoblographer: Environmental portraiture is fascinating for its combination of capturing and creating. So let’s start out with this. Do you feel you’re more of a creator or a documenter? Why?
I’m not sure I see the distinction – I do both. But, if pressed, I’d say I’m a co-creator. My portraits are real collaborations with my subjects. We work together to create soulful, truthful portraits. No headshots here! I almost always get to know my subjects deeply, and I believe the final photos show the trust and collaboration with my subjects.
“I believe memories are the currency of our lives. Photography is a kind of alchemy – photographs almost always become more valuable over time. This is especially true with portraiture. How important is that photo of you with your parents? I’m guessing pretty darn important.”
Phoblographer: What are some critical storytelling elements that you’ve found yourself using with environmental portraiture? Of course, you tend to go wider to tell the stories, correct?
Obviously, this really depends on the assignment. If it’s a photojournalism piece (where I’m either documenting a story or writing it), I’m doing traditional work setting up the context and telling the story with images and words. These days, I’m mostly photographing academic scientists and engineers. People in lab coats in glass buildings get repetitive quickly, so I’m trying to go deeper. One of my mentors, Jim Estrin of the New York Times, suggested that I try and make portraits of these inspiring scientists in non-obvious places – like where they do their best thinking. I recently photographed Dr. Carolyn Porco (Cassini Imaging Lead) on a windswept beach under a vast sky.
Phoblographer: Of course, you’re photographing these people doing what they’re passionate about or very proud of. How do you balance not getting in the way of them and photographing them in their element? This seems to change based on the situation, right?
With the National Academies’ work, I’m mostly shooting collaborative portraits – they are not doing actual work. When I’m shooting in remote locations (The Poles, Star City, etc.), I’m usually embedded with the organization and eventually blend into the environment…people eventually don’t notice me documenting their work.
“One of my mentors, Jim Estrin of the New York Times, suggested that I try and make portraits of these inspiring scientists in non-obvious places – like where they do their best thinking.”
Phoblographer: During the shoot, what are your conversations like with these folks? Are there questions that you ask everyone?
I always do a 1-hour interview a few weeks before the shoot – and then often grab coffee before we start shooting (though I often get great casual shots during coffee). I think people really start to see me as more of a friend and colleague than a photographer removed from them and their world. Photography is my third career – I was a Naval Officer, Entrepreneur, and now a photographer. I almost always have something in common with the people I’m photographing. This personal connection leads to more authentic, natural portraits of people.
Phoblographer: Tell us about one specific shoot that really sticks out at you.
Well, the most exciting shoot of my life was doing a story about the U-2 spy plane. Flying in a U-2 at the edge of space in a spacesuit is an experience I’ll never forget. Check this out.
Phoblographer: You’re often shooting on location. How does shooting with Leica help you get the photos you want?
My Leica’s are like extensions of my body – I don’t have to even think about how to use them. It’s never about menus – these are tactile, mostly manual cameras that bring me as close as possible to an effortless, almost subliminal, connection with my subjects. The Leica look is also a real thing – the bokeh, color rendition, etc., just work for me.
Phoblographer: What does the Leica SL2 do for you that nothing else has done?
It allows me to get that Leica look with an advanced platform – precision focus and framing, image stabilization, fast shutter speed. It just works.
Phoblographer: Do you still print often? If so, what’s the experience like working with the DNG RAW files?
I leave the printing to the professionals!
“The Leica look is also a real thing – the bokeh, color rendition, etc just work for me.”
Phoblographer: You obviously shoot in a ton of different places. So how’s the durability been with your Leica? Has there ever been a scary moment for you and the gear? What was that like?
Leicas are tanks. At the South Pole, temperatures rarely get above MINUS 30! Going in and out of tents causes extreme condensation – and I made the mistake of bringing my Leica Q back inside. After a few minutes, I could see the camera sweating profusely and took it outside, where it rapidly froze into a block of ice. Not good. Well, I carefully thawed it out, and it worked perfectly. That’s one tough beast!
Phoblographer: What was photography like for you in the pandemic? How were you coping?
I’ve spent much of the past 20 years on the road – shooting in some of our planet’s most remote, beautiful, and fragile places. This stopped completely during the Pandemic – I didn’t leave San Francisco for 15 months. And, counter-intuitively, it was the period of greatest growth as a photographer. It’s easy to make photos when you stand in front of a rocket ship or nuclear ice-breaker, but are you really growing as a photographer? Going deep, emotionally and artistically, requires real effort and growth. And the Pandemic gave me the opportunity to focus. Almost every day, I walked along empty beaches and foggy forests and emerged, seeing the world differently. Here’s Liminal worlds.
“Going nowhere isn’t about turning your back on the world; it’s about stepping away now and then so that you can see the world more clearly and love it more deeply.”- Pico Iyer
Phoblographer: I like to think that the tools we use mold us a bit. So how has the Leica SL2 and the lenses helped you transform as an artist?
Not sure I have an answer!
This interview was brought to you in partnership with LEICA. All images are by Christopher Michel.