Featured: Michael Kirschner

Interview with Michael Kirschner

How long have you been involved in photography?

Since 1983 (though I had a crappy 110 camera when I was a kid in high school, too).

What motivates your photography?

What ultimately motivates me is, not surprisingly, what Cartier-Bresson deemed the “decisive moment”. All the photography of people I do is unplanned/unposed and – for street – is done as inconspicuously as possible. While musicians and people involved in events (parades, protests, etc.) are effectively performing and should expect to be photographed, it’s really the challenge of hitting those moments that capture something unexpected, unusual or interesting that drives me.

But what I also find motivating is capturing the era. Having done this now for several decades, I look back at my older work – and of course work of others who came before – and see a different era in the same places I am today. We may be shooting for different reasons, but we are, by doing so, documenting the times we live in. That, too, occasionally drives where I go and what I shoot.

What tools are you using to assist in the creation of these images?

Like the ultimate sound system, you want cameras that are true to what you see and that don’t get in the way. Ultimately, the equipment I use fades into irrelevance (but of course certain basic choices must be made based on the situation one expects to find oneself in – I prefer to use a DSLR with fast, long lenses for music photography and the tiny Sony RX100 set at its widest angle – equivalent to 28mm – for street. I typically use digital these days, but have a raft of Pentax, other M42, Minolta, and some oddball film cameras I’ll take out just for fun and because once in a while it’s refreshing, and takes me back, to breathe in fixer.

What other photographers inspire you?

Cartier-Bresson of course; and Jim Marshall for music photography and his absolute comfort around musicians, which somehow made them comfortable enough to allow him into their lives.

But I have to say that the street photographers I have met here in the San Francisco Bay Area through the San Francisco Street Photography group and our photowalks and events have been most instrumental and direct in driving me to improve, to see things differently and to take more chances as a photographer. We have such a diverse and extraordinary range of talent and skills here it just blows me away. You got a taste of it at our show, eXposed, this past winter.

Do you find other arts forms play a role in your work?

Both of my parents are artists. I’ve been around painting, sculpture and mixed media as well as art shows and everything that goes into that (i.e., paint, hammers, nails, canvas, framing, matting, etc.) of all sorts my entire life. As I grew up in this milieu I met many artists and somehow learned, through osmosis, about the history of modern art, and have met and known many talented artists. While I never had any aptitude for those types of art whatsoever, I somehow seemed to take to the camera right away. So the role of these other art forms has been there but primarily in the background and, I think, as a foundation for what I find myself doing. I think that all helps me with understanding light, understanding framing and understanding what could potentially be considered “interesting”.

Music as well, is important – particularly improvisational music, which sets linear expectations on its head. Understanding that improvisation, at its absolute peak, is not just randomness but is a holistic channeling of the moment and all its influences and energies through artistic talent and skill has an implication for spontaneity in photography, as well. This is what conspires to create that “decisive moment” in photography that I look for.

Are you engaging with your subjects as you shoot?

Particularly for street photography, I absolutely do not. If they engage then it becomes something else – “street portraiture”, usually. That can be OK and interesting, but the awareness of the camera instantly changes the situation and the dynamic.

I also prefer not to engage while shooting music or events but sometimes, particularly when I know a musician, they will mug for me and that can be fun. For certain situations, however, engaging is the right thing to do; if capturing the intensity of a protester can be aided by having direct eye-to-eye engagement then I do it. My standard maxim, Kirschner’s Second Rule, is “obey good rules; break bad ones”. Essentially, rules for photography are only in one’s mind.

That said, at musical or other events there are almost always spectators. Often that is where one can find the really compelling and unique shots. They are not necessarily “performing” so taking a street photography approach to events will often result in unique images, unlike what other photographers are getting.

What is going through your mind when you push the shutter?

Street photography for me is not really an intellectual pursuit, or at least it is not dependent upon deep thought. It’s a matter of seeing, evaluating and reacting in time. So what’s going through my mind may be something like “3-2-1- NOW!” though sometimes it’s “3-NOW!!!” or “NOW! NOW! NOW!” By definition, you typically only get one chance to capture a moment. You have to see it coming, prepare (whether that’s framing the shot or simply being in a better position), and always have your finger on the shutter button with the camera pointed in the direction of the action, if not to your eye. Always.

Shooting street, I am not aiming for perfect framing in-camera. I cropped in the darkroom; I can crop in the (Adobe) Lightroom. While perfecting framing in-camera is the desire and goal, if I know I can get what I want in the frame then I’m good. Again, this relates to the camera hardware not getting in the way. Film or megapixels, today’s technology is so good you do not have to worry too much about whether you’ll be able to print a cropped image: it will still look fine if the technical details of the exposure are adequate.

In situations where I generally know what to expect, music or event photography, I always try to frame in-camera. For music, understanding song structure (to the extent it exists) in a generic sense or the musicians themselves helps me to know when a photographable moment may occur so I can prepare for that.

Do you find yourself working the scene or do you quickly capture and move on?

I rarely have patience to stand around and wait for something to happen when I’m shooting street. That feels too much like a setup. However, when the environment is unique due to light and shadows, for instance, I might “work the scene” for a while before moving on.

What are you trying to say in your work?

I’m not sure that I’m trying to say anything specific. My work should – at its best – generate an emotion, a connection to the moment or to an event or an experience in one’s own life. Otherwise I suppose I’m usually saying something like “Get off my lawn!”

Is there a common theme or narrative in you work/style?

Individuals, humor and/or light is what I chase for street photography, though occasionally when warranted suffering and angst can energe as a theme. If I can capture an emotion and make the viewer feel or relate to it, capture a story in an image, or force the viewer to say “what the hell is going on here?” then I know it’s a successful photo.

For music, it’s capturing the essence of the musician that drives me: their energy, their love, their spirit. I also enjoy sharing successful images with them; I get great feedback and they get a great shot!

Thank you so much for your time today. Is there anything you want to add?

We are very lucky to live here, as photographers. We have the best of so many worlds in the microcosm that is San Francisco. Regardless of what type of photography you do, you can do it here in a world-class environment. Having access to an incredible resource like the Harvey Milk Photo Center, as I have found over the decades, is itself extraordinary and continues to motivate me.

– Questions by Photo Center Director, Dave Christensen

I take a camera wherever I go. 
I started shooting in 1983 when my parents gave me a Minolta XG-M along with some of my grandfather’s old Minolta lenses for my birthday. I took it with me to every concert I went to (which was often!) and quickly caught the eye of a New York-based rock and roll magazine that needed west coast photographers as well as John Cipollina’s manager. I was soon on my way to free shows, the photographers’ pit, meeting some of my musical idols and even a (tiny) little bit of cash!

I spent lots of time shooting, developing and printing (at the Harvey Milk Photo Center, in fact, in the mid-1980s and through the early 1990s).

I lost interest at some point along the way (caused in part by Minolta’s decision to obsolete all my lenses!) but then got irreversibly frustrated in 2011 when my Panasonic point ‘n shoot demonstrated its profound inadequacy to shoot an important show at a nightclub in San Francisco.

I did some research and decided on the Pentax universe – it met my noise vs. ISO and cost goals at the time. I’ve been acquiring M42 and K-mount cameras and lenses ever since (along with picking up the incredible Sony DSC-RX100M2), and getting back to what I once loved and again love: photography.

People doing what they do best is what intrigues me. That leads me to what is now called “street photography”, music photography and – since I live in San Francisco – event photography, where there are events nearly every week that are worthy photographic targets.

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