Michael T. Sullivan, Photographer
Nathan Dell (ND): Tell me a little bit about yourself and a few of the steps you’ve taken as a professional to get where you are in your practice right now.
Michael T. Sullivan (MS): Professional is a scary word. I’ve always had an interest in photography. There was nobody in the family who was a photographer. I didn’t get handed down a camera from somebody or anything like that. I remember growing up, there were Polaroid cameras, the little Instamatics with the cartridge films. We always had boxes of photos and lots of photo albums. You’d open them, page one was baby pictures, and it would go all the way through until whenever. I didn’t think about photography then like I do now, but here was this documentation of life growing up.
In the ’80s, I had a couple film cameras. Using these cameras then for myself and starting to have fun with it. Then there was developing. There was nobody around to show me how and I had no clue how to develop and didn’t have patience, really. No problem taking the pictures, but the expense of bringing them into the lab and having them developed…. photography fell by the wayside until digital in the late ’90s came into the mainstream.
With a digital camera and a laptop, it was kind of like, “Wow! I can do all of this myself.” Digital allowed me the freedom to explore photography. About six or seven years later I really started to take it seriously. I started paying attention and actually learned how aperture and shutter speed and some of those technical things really influenced what your picture would look like beyond composition. With that, I started using manual lenses with my DSLR. All of this technical stuff started to come together with the ‘eye.’ It sounds, I don’t know, pompous, but I felt I always had an eye for composing, but I didn’t know some of the other things that could help me on the technical side. Then in December 2010, I got a digital rangefinder, which led me to where I’m at today. As I developed the technical side with the rangefinder, it seriously slowed me down. With a DSLR you can just push on the button and capture ten/twenty frames in an instant—but then you have to sort through them and see which one is the best. The rangefinder really slowed me down, and I was making one or two frames. From the time I got my rangefinder, I didn’t pick up the DSLR again until that April when I sold it. Even though the rangefinder paled in comparison in terms of technical abilities, what I could do with it… how it allowed me to create what I wanted and capture what I wanted, was just awesome.
So, it was that combination of things. My educational background is not in art at all. I have an undergrad in psychology and humanities, and a master’s in counseling. I became an academic advisor—this is my eighteenth year of advising. I’m very interested in people and their stories. In my advising I only get a snapshot of a person. I don’t know how much you see your advisor—you should see your advisor a lot—because they only get whatever you give them. There’s more to your story, but it’s only whatever you put out there on the surface they have to work with. I think with photography it’s similar and you just get what’s presented on the surface, one moment in time. You can make up your own story if you want. There’s more to whatever you see there. But all I can do is get that one glimpse. I don’t know if that makes sense…. I guess, with my interest in psychology and counseling, and in what I do as an advisor, I get whatever you’ll give me. That’s what I have to go on. This all somehow influences how I think as I go out to photograph.
ND: That’s interesting because, when I was looking at your website and saw your background was in psychology, I was already going to ask how that informed your photography practice. Thank you for making that connection with your advising position. The other thing I thought about after looking at your website was: How do you go about finding the places you want to shoot, like inside a bus, for instance? How do you go about selecting a location?
MS: The People on the Bus started shortly after moving down to Madison, Wisconsin. Prior to that, I had never taken public transportation, but in Madison parking is next to impossible and expensive, and so everybody rides the bus. It was a whole new experience. Right around that time the iPhone had been out for a year or so. With my interest in people, but also out of boredom, I began taking pictures of people on the bus to and from campus. After a while I started to get more selective. In the morning, knowing the route that I’d be on and when the sunlight would be hitting and coming in, I would try to position myself as best I could.
I don’t go out looking for projects. That’s been a struggle. It’s been an area of insecurity because I feel that as a photographer, as an artist, I should be doing that. I don’t necessarily see myself as a photojournalist, although one could maybe think that from looking at my work. But in some ways, as I’m going out, I’m looking for how I can be telling a story or creating one, and how can I do it in a way that doesn’t look like I’m just taking a snapshot. The current project I’m doing with the theater and drama department is the most involved and organized (I use the word “organized” loosely) thing that I’ve done. I had been thinking about working behind the scenes with a play and asked a professor I knew if it would be possible. Everybody has been very excited about it, but I felt I was going in blind. It’s been a little overwhelming for me because this isn’t like photographing the protests. With those, I can go and know that they’re going to run from noon till two o’clock. I have a sense of what something like a protest is going to entail. I know where to position myself, and when it’s done, I go home and edit them and the project is done. Doing this theater project, that’s stretched out over the course of almost two months, is a lot different.
ND: I think you partially answered this in your last response, but I want to give you a chance to expand on this if you’d like to. I saw on your website that you describe your genre as street photography?
MS: Yes. It’s an easy description because everybody knows or has a sense of what that is.
ND: Having your work called street photography—is there anything else you want to add to that definition of a street photo?
MS: I’m trying to downplay the “street” aspect of it. I think there are some, perhaps, that would discount People on the Bus as street photography because it’s not on the street. It’s a different setting. I think if you’re not familiar with public transportation or riding the bus or something like it, then it’s also something that is a little more removed as well. I think street photographer or street photography is a simple catchall, and it’s easier, perhaps, to describe to somebody who maybe doesn’t understand the finer points of it, I guess. I prefer humanistic photography or photographer.
Because also, I think, using such specific terms to describe myself as a photographer is limiting and potentially minimizes who someone is as an artist. For example, I haven’t done any in a while, and I don’t even know if I have any up on my website right now, I also love making landscape photos, for instance. Then there’s the photojournalism stuff. I guess though, I’d say I’m not a photojournalist, because to be that I feel like that’s got to be your job. It’s got to be your primary thing. I will say that, way back in the day, I didn’t go to school till I was 25. And actually applied to a photojournalism program.
ND: For undergrad?
MS: Yes. I had a friend who was looking to transfer here, to UW Madison, who said, “Just go ahead and apply.” Yeah right, I thought, “My academics suck. I don’t know what I would even do,” but it was right around that time that I had gotten that SLR camera—the film camera—and I thought, “OK, I’ll apply to UW Madison for their photojournalism program,” when they had one. Of course I wasn’t accepted to the university. But the 2011 protests here were a learning experience and an opportunity to fulfill that desire to be a photojournalist. Since then I have photographed a goodly number of marches, rallies and protests. But now I don’t know that I could go out and do photojournalism fulltime. For me I feel that you lose some control, because then you’re really needing to get a specific thing. And with what I do on that side of things now, I still have the control of capturing whatever I want.
ND: Yes. It’s very people- and human-oriented work.
MS: Yes. And then for me there’s the fine art piece. I attended the 2014 Filter Photo festival in Chicago, Illinois. I hadn’t had anybody look at my work except for people on Flickr. Social media is great on the one hand, because it gives you a little bit of encouragement, but then there’s also the people who are just clicking favorites and likes and stuff. At Filter Photo I had eight portfolio reviews and received good feedback. There was this whole experience and exposure to the fine art photography world… I saw how broad ‘fine art’ could be.
I think probably, depending on who you talk to, it can be a very narrow sense of what somebody would consider fine art. Maybe you might want to lump some of my work under fine art, but I use that term loosely and lump it under there just because of how I know I’m approaching things. Like I said earlier, I’m looking for that creative angle in as much as what I would consider creative in my mind. I think photography is something I’m not in for the short term—it’s a long-term process. It’s going to be a lifetime of work, so to speak, in the end.
ND: As I was looking through the prints tab on your website, I noticed that some of them seemed difficult, for me at least, to place in a specific time period. I took note of the boy listening to the man reflected in the window. It just was difficult for me to think that it was taken this year. Would you agree that some of your photos are difficult to place in a specific time period, and is that something you do intentionally with your photos?
MS: That’s the only one that I’ve thought of that way. You’ve got to look really close over on I think it’s on the right side, you can see the car in the background that looks very modern. It’s another instance of happenstance. I was passing through Dubuque, Iowa, and it was the only coffee shop I was aware of. I knew how to get in and out. It was 8:30 in the morning. I was sitting there drinking coffee and eating a cookie. I had my camera with, naturally. I looked up, saw the scene and I think I took two shots, that was it. I got back in the car and continued on my trip for the day and didn’t fully realize what I had till I got home. In fact, I got an iPhone shot of my cookie and coffee on the table and in the background you can see the people sitting there, which is how I remembered the time.
Again, I wasn’t out wandering around hoping to find something. The father—the man’s reflection in the window—I didn’t even notice that. I wish I could say that I was always that observant. Man, would that be wonderful. But that was something that I didn’t notice until I got it on the computer and looked at it, and then I was like, “Wow, there’s the guy’s face in there.”
Interestingly enough, I didn’t gain any momentum for almost a year with that photo. I had entered it in a couple of things, but nothing happened until I submitted it to the Black+White Photography magazine out of the UK. I had two photos shortlisted, which I was excited about. Then a couple of weeks after that, they let me know that I had won Black+White Photographer of the Year in the ‘People’ category with that photo.
ND: Well, congrats.
MS: Thank you. That was like, wow, crickets with that photo for almost a year, and then all of a sudden it got this bigger viewing. That was quite exciting. And because of that win and posting it on social media I actually met the person who’s in the picture—something very rare—and gave him a print. When you see somebody post under the picture saying, “Hey, that’s me.” I was like, “OK, this could go all horribly wrong,” but he was very happy. I also gave a framed copy of the photo to the coffee shop.
ND: That’s awesome. I didn’t realize there was a man in the reflection until I read the title. Then I looked for him. Very interesting photo—I’m glad we were able to talk about it.
MS: That’s the thing with titles, right? You’ve got to be careful not to go too far and not let the viewer interpret the photo, but you want to give the photo something meaningful for a title.
ND: To close, do you have any artists to look to for inspiration or tips for people who want to get involved in the same type of work—in street photography? Is there anything that you would recommend people do?
MS: There are certainly plenty of great contemporary photographers out there making excellent work. I feel like I’m always playing catch-up. I didn’t come to all of this until so late in life, I feel like I came late to the party. I think having an understanding of who and what came before is very helpful.
Then I think it’s good to have an understanding of whatever camera you use and its abilities and limitations, so that when you are going out, you know what you can capture and what you can’t. Then you won’t worry about what you can’t. This is a terrible example but, if you’re going out with a 35 mm lens, for instance, you’re not going to be able to capture the top of a building, much less the bird sitting on it.
It’s being realistic about what you’re going to be able to do as opposed to going out with a huge zoom lens and trying to capture everything with it. I think that, for me anyway, it’s been a very good move to finally understand that I’m not going to be able to capture every awesome thing that I come across. I need to—no pun intended—focus on the things that I can capture and start narrowing them down to what are really the most interesting.
ND: I think, at least for me not being a photographer, understanding equipment is one of the biggest push factors to doing it, so that’s helpful advice.
MS: Well, it would be like with anything, though. It would be understanding your brushes, your paints, whatever medium you’re drawing on or painting on, what you can do and what you can’t do, what your level of saturation may be or not, things like that. As far as influences, did you ask that as well?
ND: Yes, you mentioned how helpful it is to understand who and what came before you.
MS: Yes. I’m still discovering photographers from the ’20s, ’30s, and ’40s—all the way back. I’m thinking of Walker Evans, definitely, and Robert Frank—those are a couple of them. One that I had heard about but hadn’t really looked at much of his work before was W. Eugene Smith. I’ve kind of delved into him a lot more, recently. And William Eggleston for color is just amazing. These are some that I’ve only just heard about but hadn’t explored much. Now I’m really delving more into their work and just looking at their compositions and thinking, even if they clip somebody’s arm, who cares, they are great photos overall.
To see more of Michael’s work visit his website at New Normal Photography
Interview conducted by Nathan Dell