Michael Tittel started photography when he was in high school. He earned a BFA in Photography from Ohio University in 1992 and embarked on a career in commercial photography which lasted ten years. At some point the creative journey that photography stood for became, not very creative, even as his commercial work flourished. A career change into art direction and advertising allowed photography to take on a more personal meaning. The work featured in this post, Outsider Inside, shows what he describes as “Themes of disconnectedness, being on the verge of change and human behaviors are what my work explores.”
Your work on the Outsider Inside series depicts random and almost serendipitous moments; surely, there’s a lot of patience involved and even though it can take a while to get that perfect shot, it is also a matter of practice. Have you come to any specific ways to get this type of photography or look into the places and streets where you will most likely encounter a good photo candidate?
My process for the Outsider Inside series is really all about exploring, being open to anything, staying alert and having my camera. One essential tip I’ve found helpful is heading out without the intent to take photographs. Every image in the series came about randomly, while I was doing something else. I think not having the pressure to find amazing things to photograph is helpful. Living life with a camera is a far more productive state to being in than partitioning your life into photo time versus social time or whatever.
I do find being in areas I’ve never been in or cities I am not used to, to be very productive. Probably because I am seeing things so freshly and being very observant is part of the experience of being there. Areas that contain people is helpful too. I never scout out locations; usually I find myself impatiently waiting and nothing really ever happening that is appealing. I don’t think about things that much so wandering seems best.
Being ready and quick with a camera is essential. I tend to use automatic exposure so really the only thing I am doing with the camera is framing and pressing the shutter. I end up running a lot or moving around very quickly to either recompose or reframe closer to the scene. Sometimes I get only one exposure taken and sometimes I might get a few frames. Usually the moments vanish within seconds. I’ve blown a few moments just because I was either too far away or my focus was off but by in large I get what I’m after. I have used a rangefinder for over 20 years so it is pretty much an extension of me.
In reference to the other photographers you mention including Henri Cartier-Bresson, Michael Kenna and others, you highlight the importance of authenticity and the fact that the work they produced was true to themselves; how do you perceive authenticity in photography?
Authenticity in photography isn’t only being aligned or known to a certain style, technology or technique, although that can certainly provide a recognizable aesthetic. It has far more to do with being known for a specific viewpoint or way of understanding the world. Over time the photographers who consistently explore what is important in their lives, end up being the ones I admire most. That can be altruism, exploring personal themes, questions or even being known for making the mundane interesting. A unique and original thread that goes across projects or bodies of work is important. And that feels authentic and true, to me. Photography as a unique way to understand the world. A photographer’s personality should be seen and felt in the work.
You speak about the “endless possibilities” available, in relation to the fact that everyone has a camera in their pockets. Ultimately, anyone can be a photographer, but to a certain point, it comes with a degree of responsibility, how do you relate to this notion of responsibility in the art we create?
A photographer in the end is only responsible to himself. And for any creative pursuit, the journey you owe yourself is one of constant exploration, nurturing and growth. So a certain level of self-respect for what you are doing with a camera is essential.
The responsibility of the artist to create things that are meaningful to themselves and shared with others is the exact difference between anyone with a camera and a photographer. It’s a lot of work to create things with purpose and I think even more work to share them with the world. So the least you can do for yourself is respect the process and your outcomes.
Pertaining to the above matter, Outsider Inside touches on the concept of being out of place, or have a foreign sentiment, it even plays on the intersection between humor and global topics like immigration. Are these concepts you were looking to convey through the series?
The images are very much observational. I am not really participating with the subjects, so there is I think, the feeling of displacement or the photographer being distanced. For me the series isn’t very much about being together but of being alone. Which is really the human state of existence isn’t it? There is certainly a bit of humor and absurdity at play as well just because of the arrangement and viewpoints. The images are subtle and theatrical at the same time.
I see a lot of myself in this work. To me it describes what it is like to drift through the world stumbling into random experiences, feeling lonely, loved and happy all at the same time.
In the end I prefer people to feel whatever they want when they look. I am grateful for any response or any consideration. What they take away from it is uniquely their’s and something I have no control over. Sometimes the act of looking at art is more important to the viewer than actually liking the artwork. Liking something is somewhat subjective but being touched or provoked by something is far more important than wanting to hang a photograph on your wall.
You’ve used the Leica M-E entirely for this series, how does it compare to the Leica M6, also in terms of shooting digital vs analog?
The M-E is certainly not very different than shooting with the M-6. They feel a bit different and I think the M6 through its nature of being mechanical and analog is a more durable camera. My M-E did survive a drop in Cuba and even with its shattered LCD screen still performs well. But the M6 through its nature is just a workhorse. A classic camera. Maybe the most classic.
The biggest difference for me on the film versus digital discussion is the ease and control of digital. I am not sure if I could have made this series with film as easily. I make a lot of exposures to get these moments captured, thousands over the course of a few days. And the auto advance of the M-E makes me a bit quicker. And of course I have no interest in processing film on that scale. Been there done that! I believe I could do good work on any camera but the Leica is just a joy to use. A Leica M is just a simple and high-quality tool. It lets me be unobtrusive, is super easy to carry and provides a consistent experience. But I can’t imagine ever shooting with a DSLR for what I do.
Do you do any postproduction to the images? What do you use or like to apply to the pictures?
Well postproduction of course is a necessary step with digital. Outsider Inside was the first time in a decade or so that I shot in color. The series needed to grounded in the reality and descriptiveness that color brings. But I was also enamored with the ability to treat the file from the M-E like something I might have gotten from large format film. A subtle pastel-like palette and a very open and consistent look between light and shadows. I think the high quality of the image is important to the idea. I printed the images 44” wide for a show this past spring and they really held up well. I tend to shoot when it is overcast so no matter where I am in the world shooting I get a fairly consistent look.
Processing in Adobe Lightroom also helped me with that consistency. I don’t do any image manipulation beyond a bit of desaturation, slight sharpening, and a bit of contrast reduction by opening up the shadows. I tend to not like a perfect color balance and tend to add a bit of warmth at times. To me this preference is a tie back to the days when I would shoot on different film stocks to get different results. I treat the digital image no differently than if I had shot film and am printing in the darkroom. Minimal manipulation. The world is interesting enough!
Lastly, is there anything else you’d like to mention to the readers or share other projects you might be working on?
Last September I went to Iceland. It is obviously a beautiful place and I met many wonderful people. I am looking forward to returning again this year. This and a recent visit to Cuba has shown me that using my camera as a way to get immersed and interact with people can be a powerful life changing experience. It is a very different approach than my street photography and I look forward to where it all goes: http://www.michaeltittel.com/#/iceland-2015/.
Thank you Michael!