Series Interview: Michael Crichton and Leigh MacMillan

Michael Crichton Photography consists of two creative minds:  Michael, a still   life photographer and Leigh, his creative partner who contributes her own inspired vision from her background as an artist and stylist.

Michael Crichton

Are you self-taught or photography school taught?

I studied art and Graphic design initially at Sheridan College in Ontario, and then transferred to Photography.

Leigh has a fine art background and specialized in art history and printmaking, with a minor in fine art photography.

What led you to photography?

Literally my grade seven camera club in school. My Dad always loved photography so I guess I got it from him.

What professional goals do you still have for yourself? 

We would eventually like to pursue more fine art photography. More and more the lines between commercial photography and art photography are being blurred. The audiences for commercial photography are very sophisticated. Because of technology, people are used to seeing hundreds of images a day and so the role of a commercial image has changed. Art and commercial work are evermore interchangeable and so we find ourselves becoming more interested in, and moving more towards fine art photography

Breakfast in America_Crichton

Who do you admire from your profession, past or present, and why? 

Our biggest major influence has to be Irving Penn. He was a master of still life, composition, and the concept of less is more. He could take something as ubiquitous as a cigarette butt and make it into something oddly beautiful and compelling to look at. He shot frozen peas, a foot with corn pads and made them art.

If life were “as good as it gets” – what’s there?  If your career were “as good as it gets” – what’s there?

We feel very fortunate to have had the career we’ve had in photography. If this was as good as it gets, then we would feel quite fortunate to have been able to do something every day that inspires and engages us. We have collaborated with some amazing people and it is a very fun business to be in.

What’s missing from your career that you could add to make it complete? 

We would like to do more pro bono work, or work for the greater good. We are very grateful for the success we have had, but this business is, in essence all about selling stuff to people, contributing to mass consumerism. Sometimes that is a conflict for us.

What part of your work do you find most demanding? 

Definitely the business side of photography, but fortunately we have agents to help with that. We are happiest when we are behind the camera for sure.

What is your creative philosophy? 

We try to play, to take chances. When we are shooting for ourselves or working on personal work, we try to experiment a lot. That is where you can make mistakes. No one ever has to see them, but often great ideas or results come from that.

Can you tell us about your state of mind when you are shooting/creating?

Pretty serious. Pretty focused. There is usually a lot at stake when you are hired to bring a concept to life, and so you need to know what you are aiming to achieve, and what the expectations are. It is always a good thing to surprise and delight.

Could you describe how you create your images?  What do you look for? 

Having an idea in your head about where you want to go and what your image will look like is where we start. We like to start with what we are attracted to- colour, shape, light, shadow. Form and composition are at the forefront of our process, but then, during that initial approach we’ll step back and figure out when to break those rules. That’s when the fun begins for us.

How do you work best – in teams, with assistants, on location, in studio, etc…?

We love to work in  teams, with great people who can bring something special to a job. Collaboration is always great. We are inspired by working with other creative people, and often learn a lot from them.

What is the ideal relationship for you with your clients?

When a client approaches you based on an idea that they have and an image or body of work they have seen of yours. The best projects are when a client has come to you because of your style or a specific image in your portfolio. That’s the starting point. Then it becomes about ideas, what you can bring to the project and to a collaboration. The best images always happen with great collaboration.

How did you achieve your vision? 

No matter what we are shooting, form, colour and composition are at the forefront of our process, but then, during that initial approach we’ll step back and figure out how to break some rules and bring something unexpected.  That’s where your intuitive gifts come into play. You just know when a shot works and when it doesn’t. When it doesn’t, your experience and craft will help you work through that to get one that does.

What are you looking for thru the viewfinder? What thoughts go thru your mind? 

Both Leigh and I enjoy the hands-on aspect of still life. You are literally building your shot. We consider light, shadow, shape, and colour all part of our subject matter. Still life, in its essence, is very contrived so we try to bring an element of surprise, whimsy or the unexpected to the image. We try to transform everyday objects into something more extraordinary.  We are always looking for the possibility of a narrative in our imagery.

What are some obstacles you’ve faced and how have you overcome them?

This is a very competitive business so it is always challenging to stay relevant. You have to try to keep moving forward and not stagnate. You have to remember the old adage we have in this business- You are only as good as your last shot.  That will motivate you.

What’s your advice to handling rejection? 

There are always people who will respond to your work and your vision, and those that don’t. We have learned over the years that you really have to do this for yourself. When you are very passionate about your work, and you are really enjoying your process, people will see that. The ones that don’t are connecting with someone else who resonates with them. That makes total sense. We are all attracted to and compelled by different things.

Who are some of your influences?

We have always been drawn to the work of conceptual artists, starting with Man Ray and Magritte, 60’s POP artists like David Hockney, and current artists like the beautiful images of Viviane Sassen and the use of colour by Brad Carlile. Although hugely controversial, Jeff Koons inspires us. He made something so familiar as a balloon dog into art, so outrageous and brilliant!  Of course Irving Penn.

Where do you seek inspiration? 

Seriously everywhere. I think that creativity comes from living, from being alive, from seeing and feeling. Inspiration is absolutely everywhere. It is so omnipresent, that the task of an artist is to process what he sees, feels and experiences, and to edit that to yield an image. We are very fortunate to live in the age of the internet. It is an endless source of inspiration.

Would you have any advice to artists/photographers just starting out? 

Try to surround yourself with successful people. Be excellent at your craft. Your vision will emerge, but you have to be extremely detailed and professional in your work.

How do you approach your down time? 

With a beer!