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Michael Joseph is a Boston-based photographer whose interest in documentary street photography has given rise to the project, “Close Strangers”, which is garnering attention for its unusual approach to portraiture. In stark contrast to capturing people unnoticed, Joseph engages individual strangers in public places and makes extremely close-up, raw and honest portraits of them on location. The effect is stunning. Not only is the viewer brought unnaturally close to the subject, but we are also asked to confront a level of diversity to which we may be unaccustomed. By intentionally creating both curiosity and discomfort, a contradiction aptly captured in the project’s title, Joseph entreats us to explore our notions of identity. Michael Joseph’s portraits have recently appeared in the Danforth Art Museum 2013 Biennial Exhibit (Framingham, MA), a group show at Panopticon Gallery (Boston) and in the PRC’s journal, Loupe. Michael and I recently had an opportunity to discuss his ongoing “Close Strangers” project.
Elin: I understand you are originally from the suburbs of NYC, benefitting from constant exposure to the arts: in the city, at home and in school. What first prompted you to pick up a camera?
Michael: I grew up about 30 minutes west of NYC in New Jersey. I was exposed to museum exhibits, Broadway shows and concerts at a young age and my parents always valued experiences over material possessions. During summers in high school, I worked for a print production house and was exposed to digital retouching of photography. In high school, I took art classes every year and continued in college, but only alongside classes in the sciences. I majored in behavioral communication – taking courses like “non-verbal communication” – and took art history and fine arts courses in drawing, sculpture, print-making and others. After grad school in Dental Medicine, I found myself yearning for a way to create art again. I decided to pick up a camera five years ago and found that my more mature perspective on life informed my work in different and exciting ways.
Elin: What originally attracted you to the immediacy of street photography, catching people unaware or off-guard?
Michael: I have always been intrigued by how people interact with each other and even more so how we act when alone in thought…essentially, I could watch people all day long. Street photography frees me from carrying around a lot of gear and also forces me to give up control; I have to work as the light changes throughout the day, and I can’t move objects like buildings or signs. One of the best parts is that I set off with no expectations of what I’m going to discover…if I’m lucky, I catch something or cross paths with someone of interest.
Elin: What triggered the evolution in your approach as a photographer from being an unobserved onlooker to then taking collaborative environmental shots of people, to now making these very intimate portraits in “Close Strangers”?
Michael: In many locations that I visited, I would take off for the day to explore the streets and would pass by people with the most intriguing faces. In the same way one can catch a moment unobserved, one can also catch a glimpse of a face that brings a visceral reaction… a face that makes you stop in your tracks. If I see someone and get nervous about approaching him or her, then I’m drawn in and challenged. I almost feel like there is an invisible wall of fear I have to cross.
I first started taking photographs of strangers when someone challenged me to make the type of photograph that I always wanted to make. I ended up talking to and photographing a young man who seemed detached from his surroundings. I took a close portrait because his gaze said so much. His eyes were very vacant. He also had a tattoo on his hand that read “Lost.” I knew that if I moved further away the detail would be unreadable. It all seemed to make sense and when I look at this photograph to this day, I am drawn in by the detail, immediacy and confrontation of being close. With environmental portraits, one has to relate the individual to his or her surroundings, but in a close shot devoid of environment, we are asked just to consider the soul of the person. We get to use our imagination. We also have to draw conclusions as to where this person may fit in or not fit in. We have to use scars, marks, hairstyles, dirt, makeup and expression as clues to put the pieces of the puzzle together. Often what I expect a person to be like prior to approaching him or her is far from the truth. In some ways, the project has become very personal, as these people have expanded my views of life and humanity.
Elin: Many portraitists believe that the better you know someone, the more honest and evocative the portrait you are likely to make. Do you agree?
Michael: In talking with so many strangers, I actually believe the opposite… the less you know someone, the more likely you are able to make a true portrait. I often find that strangers are more likely to make an admission or reveal personal information to someone who they don’t know and assume they will never see again. This can be liberating or cathartic; there is no judgment or shame. When “put on stage” in the company of people we know, we fix our hair, prepare clothing, and think of how we want to be portrayed. It’s the same principle behind “facebook image crafting.” Portraits of strangers caught as they are on the street are honest and unplanned. There is no mirror to fix hair and no pretending to be someone you are not.
Elin: These days, we seem to be hyper-connected. However, social media acts as both a barrier and a gateway; we can be “friends” and strangers simultaneously. Has our “new normal” way of communicating affected your attitude toward personal connections?
Michael: There are two reasons why I became attached to this project. First, I was forced to establish relationships with complete strangers face to face. I had no screen to hide behind and I couldn’t simply click off a chat window and run away when the conversation became difficult, uncomfortable or awkward. I shake everyone’s hand I meet no matter how dirty. I can read non-verbal cues. I can hear tone in a voice. We are spending less and less time with people face to face. We text instead of call. We abbreviate and shorten instead of explaining and engaging. We are often multitasking with technology instead of giving undivided attention. This project reconnects me to the immediacy of one-on-one conversation and brings me away from screens and devices.
Secondly, I am meeting people I would never normally meet and learning what their lives are like. When else am I going to be able to talk to a psychic (without paying for a reading), meet a local artist, or a Pulitzer Prize winning movie critic? I think it is human to associate with people who are like us, whereas it can be uncomfortable and challenging to talk to those who are unlike us. We are conditioned not to talk to strangers from a young age because we fear they will harm us.
Elin: How would you compare your work to that of another contemporary portrait photographer, Richard Renaldi, who breaks boundaries by asking two strangers to pose in close proximity to one another?
Michael: I have met Richard and I think he is great. Richard is forced to slow down by shooting large format, whereas I shoot with a DSLR. While he relates his subject (figure) to their environment (ground), I am more focused on the topography and close expression of the face. Renaldi’s “Touching Strangers” is fantastic in that it creates tension between people who are usually of contrast, whether it be race, religion, age or sexual orientation. In some images, you can sense the unease of his subjects. I can recall an image where two male strangers have their arms around each other, yet one has his fist clenched as if not to touch too closely. For me, the tension lies in the invasion of personal space between me and my subject. Before I take a photograph, I will get close and study the face; I want to really see a scar or tattoo. This is often greeted with an uncomfortable smile or laugh. I hope that viewers feel that tension, being forced to look closely at people who may be very different from them. For both Renaldi and me, by using the street, the portrait is immediate, real and challenging.
Elin: What do you look for in a person you see on the street and how do you approach them for a photograph? Can they see you have a camera?
Michael: I usually will find strangers to photograph while out taking street photographs. Generally, I’m not looking for the busy passerby but more for the person who is likely to be found in that same environment a day or even years later… for example, the church attendant who has been standing on the church steps for 20+ years. I photograph those who I am viscerally drawn to. I need to think “who is that?” I always say hello, introduce myself, shake his or her hand and strike up a conversation. I will then mention the project and often show examples of work if necessary. I initially try to keep the camera out of the way so that I can establish rapport first.
Elin: What camera and techniques do you utilize to help shape the look of your portraiture?
Michael: Contrary to shooting with a rangefinder for my street work, I use a full-frame DSLR camera with a 50mm lens. I want to try to get as close as possible so that I feel engaged with the subject and avoid as much distortion as possible. If I’m standing half way down the block, it just isn’t as personal. One rule I have is that I can’t move a stranger very far from where he or she is found. This forces me to be more spontaneous and not create a “set” that I’m hoping a stranger will walk into. Another rule I have is that I can’t retouch dirt marks, acne, scars, hair, sweat, asymmetry, etc… Essentially this is what I want to capture.
Elin: Why did you choose to present “Close Strangers” completely in Black & White?
Michael: One of the initial portraits I took looked amazing in color because the man I photographed had aqua blue eyes and the background was a red curtain. So, I was struggling between color and B&W. I ultimately realized that his eyes were so interesting that you were likely to miss the really tiny details like the dust on his hat. In black and white, we ‘re not distracted or misled by the colors.
Elin: Can you share one of your favorite stories from the “Close Strangers” project?
Michael: Essentially the title “close strangers” is an oxymoron – how can you be close to people you don’t know??… because if you were, they would no longer be strangers. In Austin, TX I walked up to a group of travelers/train kids and singled out one in particular. His real name is Shamus, but he goes by his nickname of Shameless because he is so outgoing. He has very quick wit and is so much fun to talk to. He was a college graduate and had recently left his job as a drug and alcohol abuse counselor in Connecticut. He was new to riding freight trains and I wanted to hear about his first experiences. He allowed me to take his portrait and, although he was very much a jokey, fun-spirited guy, when the camera went up his face transformed and I could read an inner-sadness. I kept in touch with Shameless and even sent him a digital copy of the portrait. Then, just a few weeks ago, I crossed paths with him on the street in New Orleans! We both couldn’t believe that we had run into each other again. This time, he looked physically very different. I took his portrait again and the same expression surfaced. Unlike the first time we met, this time we grabbed a bench with two of his friends in Jackson Square and chatted for about an hour.
Elin: How do you think your “Close Strangers” project will evolve going forward? What are you planning next?
Michael: I will continue to find interesting people along my travels. I hope to expand the project to get as many varied types of people as I can find. I am also fascinated by the young travelers who ride freight trains around the US. There may be an offshoot project just with them.
To view more work by Michael Joseph, visit his website: