Photographer Spotlight: Michael Young

Michael Young

New York City

When did you first pick up a camera and start taking photos that were beyond family or vacation photos?

I was working in the audio-visual department of the college I attended, circa 1985. They had a beautiful Canon 35mm film camera with a simple 50mm lens. It was there for students and teachers to use. I basically borrowed it on weekends. I am not a book or manual reader. I am better ‘hands on’ or having someone explain things to me. My friend Jennifer always had her Pentax 35mm film camera with her. So she taught me the basics of working a camera in manual settings and out of ‘auto’. The rest was me just taking pictures as much as I could of anyone and anything. Keep in mind, this was still the days of film. Every roll of film was $4.00 and processing at Rite-Aid or Target was about $10.00. So, photography was an expensive pursuit. And unlike digital, you can’t just look at the back of the camera to see ‘how it came out’. You would have to write down or remember your settings as you learned how the camera worked and reacted.

I had always loved looking at magazines, even as a child. ‘Look’ magazine and ‘Life’ magazine were staples in my house as a kid in the 1960’s. When I was a little older, I grew to love TV news. Almost obsessed with it. I became such a fan of New York anchorman Jim Jensen, of WCBS, Channel 2, in New York. So much so, I wrote him a fan letter. He responded with a full color autographed photo (that I have to this day). I was enchanted by the portrait of him. It wasn’t a head shot. It was a portrait. And it was beautiful. It was celebrity and photography and New York City all rolled up in one. And I knew photography was something strong and magical all at once.

What is your favorite subject to shoot?

I am all about portraits. I love shooting faces. I started out shooting people really close up. I felt (and still feel) in day-to-day life we are not allowed to look at people straight in the eye without getting them nervous and uncomfortable. You can look a person right in the eye via a photograph. So my earliest work was very close up shots.10683708_10203137953192815_7979973067832480897_o

But for the past couple of years I love finding and shooting in interesting or unique settings and including it in the frame. It adds one more component to a photograph. One more aspect to make it good or interesting or special. I started showing so much of the setting that I was making the people in the shot look very small and losing them in the frame. – So, this year I have been shooting a little closer and finding a happy medium.

As creative professionals, you have to be adaptable to what may happen during the shoot. Give us an example of a shoot that didn’t exactly go as planned and how you made it work.

I hate this story. It is one of the few times I let my temper internally get the best of me. This was a ‘project’ shoot. I try to check out shoot locations ahead of time, usually a week or two in advance. I wanted to shoot on Fire Island. I had been there before. 17 years before. (Hey, it’s a beach. What could be different?). I asked a girl from work named Elena that I had a really successful shoot with a few weeks earlier if she would be interested in a beach shoot. She loved the idea. She asked a friend of hers to come along to do her makeup and hair, and asked a guy friend to join us as a male counterpart to the photos with her.

We picked a day and all four of us head out to Fire Island. Long story short(ish), it is so windy and too sunny. Sand blowing. My reflectors flapping uncontrollably. And a lot of the charming buildings I remember were no longer there. I got so mad at myself. I was so embarrassed. I dragged these folks all the way out there for, basically, nothing. I didn’t know how to make this work. So…I cancelled the shoot right there and then. I packed up, got the others in the car, and headed home. I was so mad at me. If my camera was in my hand while driving I would have thrown it out of the window on to the Long Island Expressway.

Elena and the others talked during the ride back and kept a conversation going while I fumed at myself quietly. As we traveled west the sun was going down. As we got near where I was dropping them off, Elena simply asked me a question. “What do you want to do now?”. My very first thought was to say “I want to go home”. But the sunset was actually so beautiful. I asked her, “Can you see Manhattan near the water?”. She said ‘yes!’. So I drove closer to the river and there was Manhattan with the sun going down in a glow of red and orange. I was inspired again. I found a parking space and we all jumped out of the car and we shot some of my favorite pictures I have ever taken. Elena in a red dress as the sun sets over Manhattan. I never saw that coming while getting mad at myself earlier in the day as I got hit in the face with blowing sand. – Thank goodness I didn’t throw my camera out onto the LIE.

With all of the self-professed photographers with digital cameras, how do you continue to hone your skill and your eye to keep what you’re doing special and professional?

I started taking photography seriously fairly late in life. I am 53 now. I am two years away from being eligible for senior housing! I meet and photograph a lot of very young, new to New York City and show business actors and actresses. I have more in common with them than you would believe. Much like them, I am looking to make a name for myself. I am looking to network. I am seeking opportunities to be seen or noticed. When I am not working, I am practicing and learning. I am just like them! I am working in hopes of finding success on several levels. Mostly, (and I mean this), I want to be very good at being a photographer. I mean I really want to be good at this. I don’t compare myself to people on my level. I compare myself to the masters I admire. So, I am a long way from feeling I have accomplished much. Yes, I see improvement in my work, and that keeps me going. But I am so behind the curve. I am decades late. So being okay with the journey is enough. And being proud of the strides I have made and being thrilled to meet and work with the people I get to spend a few hours face to face with shooting is the currency that keeps me energized and moving forward.

I work very hard at photography. I fail. I screw up. I make mistakes. But I experience some wonderful moments of success and accomplishment. I do allow myself that from time to time. – I am constantly working on something. Either producing a shoot, booking models or clients, networking with people, buying props, shooting, editing shots late into the night and early in the morning… I spent every last cent I have on photography. And that is the truth.

There is nothing as incredible as creating a spectacular image that didn’t exist when I woke up that morning. That is a wonderful feeling that is earned by doing. It doesn’t happen laying in bed or sitting on the couch watching TV. And it doesn’t happen by not trying new things or working with different people or taking on the responsibility of a great opportunity that someone believes in you enough to offer you. It makes my life special.

How does social media, specifically Instagram, affect how you get your work to people? 

Isn’t Instagram remarkable? I have followers who I don’t know and who don’t know me! They just like my work! I find it interesting that there are people out there who will take a moment to double tap something I shot. I have made a couple of model connections on Instagram.

Instagram and Facebook have been God sends to what my goals are. Without them, I don’t know how I would get my work out there. But at the same time, that means everyone else is out there, too. There are a lot of really good photographers out there. They make me jealous and mad…in a good way.

Describe the style of your photography in five words. 

Portraiture. Muted. Sexy. Serious. Seductive.


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Check out Michael’s work in BLEEP here!

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