Michael Hintlian: Negotiating with Reality

Michael Hintlian is a full-time documentary photographer based in Boston and conducts workshops in Central America and India. He currently directs the Documentary Photography department at the New England School of Photography and is a Graduate Mentor at the Art Institute of Boston. Introduced to photography and Leica cameras through his father at a young age, Michael describes, in the interview below, how important it is for him to shoot every day.

Q: As a whole, the images in this portfolio come across to me as conveying “the texture of daily life” in New England. They are dispassionate and non-judgmental, but full of emotion even when the images are devoid of people. Do you agree, and can you say something about what you think these images achieve, and communicate to the viewer?

A: Maybe, I can’t say. It is true the pictures are about daily life seen through a bus or train window. And they are about the photographer working with that fabric to make an interesting picture; it is a very cool problem at 30 or 40 miles per hour. I also think the viewer is responsible for whatever he or she takes away, I don’t concern myself.

Q: Can you say something about why you decided to shoot pictures from, buses and trains, and tell us about your shooting techniques?

A: Yes, the entire body of work was shot from the window of a bus or train. There are always reasons, the best I can offer is that it’s something I had always done but not in any directed way. Once finishing my Big Dig project and getting a book published, I returned to shooting on the streets – where I had begun many years before. Along the way I discovered there were things happening in the photographs I was making from buses and trains that I liked. But it wasn’t until I started shooting in color that things began to move in a new direction. I had always worked in black-and-white for anything I cared about, this venture into color was new but I found I did not shoot too much differently than I had with monochrome … except when the picture was about color. I have since slowly brought black-and-white back into this work. Once the project was taking some shape I allowed the pictures to guide where it would go next.

Q: What Leica Camera equipment do you use for your work?

A: I use Leica cameras exclusively for my 35 mm work. I have several M6s, an M7 (for color only) and an M9. I favor the 35 mm lens for the bus and train work but I’ve used the 24, 28 and 50 quite a bit as well.

Q: What are some of the characteristics of Leica cameras, and rangefinder cameras in general, that you find especially conducive to your type of work? Do you have any preference for film or digital capture, and when are you likely to employ one medium or the other?

A: The Leica is a camera with a soul. I’ve used them since art school and haven’t looked back. Their quiet presence, small size, and image quality added to how quickly I could work with them makes it an ideal tool. Most people don’t take these small cameras seriously so I am able to work a lot more intimately than with a larger camera.

About film versus digital. Though I have a big commitment to digital, I am still very much a film photographer. It’s not a matter of better or worse; it’s just different. There are things digital will do that film will not and vice versa. And I’m shooting film about 98 percent of the time or more.

Q: How would you describe your photographic approach and your photography?

A: I am an opportunist, everything is interesting. Some might call me a street photographer, others a documentarian — I take pictures. For me, photography is a way of life. I don’t have an approach other than to shoot every day. I always have a camera with me … always.

Q: Why is your practice of always having a camera with you important for any serious documentary or street photographer?

A: Carrying the camera is basic, if the idea behind what you do with a camera is a negotiation with reality – the real world – then you want to be available to respond to whatever catches the eye. As far as I am concerned not always having the camera with me isn’t an option.

Q: Can you tell us a little bit about your educational background? Who are some of the photographer’s who have influenced or inspired you?

A: I attended the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and studied photography, though I am really self-taught. My first real teacher was Bill Burke at the Museum School who introduced me to Walker Evans, Robert Frank, Bill Brandt and others – and I was hugely influenced by Bill Burke’s work. About the same time I discovered Garry Winogrand and Lee Friedlander (who I took a workshop with before art school). While all of these photographers had their influence, it is their work ethic, their day-to-day negotiation with the problem and game of photography that I carry with me daily. Mark Cohen is another mentor.

Q: Can you enlarge upon your eloquent statement above, “it is their work ethic, their day-to-day negotiation with the problem and game of photography that I carry with me daily” and give us some idea of how that process of “negotiation” takes place in your day-to-day experience?

A: My mentors both past and present all live(d) out of a certain intention. Photography doesn’t live in a box on a shelf to be opened when the time is right; it’s an ongoing inquiry into the moment … a meditation maybe, a lifestyle certainly. With that commitment the world becomes an incredibly interesting place. And when practiced long enough it shifts your awareness where you begin to see and play with this world with the thing a camera can do, its availability to the moment. Joel Meyerowitz said every camera has a clock, and it’s kind of like that only better. The game of course is how photographing something changes it.

Q: This poignant image of a roadside memorial under an overspreading tree in fall foliage with a small Massachusetts town in the background seems to embody the continuity of life and death, and encompass specificity and eternity at the same time. Am I reading too much into this, and what were your thoughts when you pressed the shutter release?

A: I don’t think you’re reading too much into the picture. The bus passed the memorial very quickly and as I looked through the camera, I was interested in the memorial itself.  It was only later when I was struck by the idea the memorial was somehow related to the neighborhood in the background. It connected the memorial to the loss of someone from the streets and houses behind. I sensed there was deep sentiment and grief around it all.  So yes, life, death, our place in the world and I am glad you connected with the picture.

Q: There is also a duality to this “MBTA Bus 111″ image. On first impression it is pure suburban American kitsch, but when you let it sink in, it is about carefully and lovingly creating a place of refuge and beauty that transcends any tastelessness in the execution. Do you concur, and what do you think this image says to the viewer?

A: Bill Burke, my teacher at the Museum School, gave me an appreciation for human arrangement. This picture is all about as you say “… a place of refuge and beauty …” and the whole thing is incredibly carefully controlled and assembled. An interesting problem from the window of the 111 Bus, the foggy part of the frame is courtesy of hair gel left by the previous rider who fell asleep against the window. Sometimes these kinds of gifts are useful.

Q: There is a kind of retro, timeless feel to the above image. Although it was evidently taken in 2011 it looks like it could have been shot 50 years ago, and this is emphasized by its flarey, misty quality and desaturated color. Can you tell us something about how you shot this image and what it means to you?

A: The picture was made on the 4th of July from the train. The picture seems to have all the pieces of the American dream fully in place and its own dreamy look to it, a memory of a summer day maybe. It was shot into the late day light simply because there wasn’t anything interesting happening on the other side of the train, the window glass was filthy which helped.

Q: How do you think your work as a Mentor at the Art Institute of Boston impacts your own evolution as a photographer, and can you give us a couple of the tips and suggestions you typically give your mentees?

A: I don’t think I’m even close to using up the genre I’m working in now (street photography), nowhere near it.  And there’s little chance of a change, but then there’s always tomorrow. That said, I’ll go through a period where I’ll try something different but generally won’t stray too far from the direction my energy is going.

I don’t see a connection between my evolution and teaching, I’ve always taught part-time and it’s been in the mix of things that support my world, but my work is always in front. It’s better for me and my students.

When I teach I bring students into my world, show exactly how I do everything – work prints, editing, finished work, etc. – and work at directing their interest by way of the critique and recommending great work that might support it. And it’s always about what they are doing with their pictures; photographers who don’t produce get little from me.

Q: How do you see your work evolving over, say, the next few years, and do you plan on exploring any other genres in the foreseeable future?

A: I am very busy following the direction my pictures are asking me to take; it’s at the heart of it all. I work daily, review the images and run with it. If it feels right, I go that way. The pictures tell me what’s happening in my work. Evolution seems to be an assessment available only in hindsight rather than as I work so this is tough to answer fully.

Thank you for your time, Michael!

- Leica Internet Team

Connect with Michael via his website and Twitter.