Interview with Street Photographer Mike McCawley

Hi Mike thanks for doing this. Where do you live and how does this influence your photography?

No problem, thank you for reaching out. I currently live in Evanston, Illinois just outside of Chicago. I’d say it mostly influences my photography in that I’m located in an area that has a lot going on all the time. I would much rather shoot something interesting happening than random people on the street, so its nice living someplace with a lot of options for me.

When and how did you get into “street” photography?

I picked up my first real camera in 2013 with the idea of jumping into street photography. The genre had always interested me since I was younger, even if I didn’t know any of the big name photographers until much later. I imagine the Vivian Maier story had an impact around the time I got my camera as well.

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Tell us your creative process when you’re out on the street.

I don’t think about the creative process much but since I tend to enjoy shooting various events, the more oddball or “Americana” the better, I’ll think a lot about the kinds of shots I might want to take. Rarely do I end up with the photos I have in mind but it helps me get my head into what I want out of the work and that helps me see other scenes as I go. Tomorrow morning I’m heading to the Wisconsin State Fair so I’ve been thinking a lot about that. Which leads to your question on triggers.
When Alec Soth would drive on his trips to take photos – he kept a handwritten list on his steering wheel of various things he was looking for (attached). Some vague and some very specific. After hearing him discuss this at a talk of his I attended, I wrote up my own list that I keep in my wallet. It says things like “dinosaurs” and “covered things”. I don’t read the list very often but creating it is a great process to figure out what interests you.
Overall I do tend to draw more to quirky and humorous scenes. I would much rather make a viewer smile than feel anything too deep or moody.
I’ve also recently been working on a zine and that creative process has been very rewarding. Editing a body of work into a coherent project like this is a hard thing to learn but I’m inching forward with it. We’ll see how it turns out.

How much influence does social media have on your street photography?

Social media is fun and I enjoy looking at people’s work on various platforms like Flickr and Instagram, and I use them to try and promote my own work of course, but I wouldn’t say it influences me. One lesson I learned at some point along the way is to not pay too close attention to what shows up online. I found photo books a much better tool for learning and finding influence. Bodies of work where people spent a lot of time thinking about and editing their work before presenting it – rather than social media where people (myself included) pretty much just post never-ending streams of every passable photo they take.

If you had to explain your work to a child how would you describe it?

Interesting things are happening in everyday life all around us all of the time, if you just pay attention to the world. I try to use the camera to capture those happenings in an interesting way.

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What frustrates you about photography?

I don’t know if it’s a frustration but the idea that you’re never really satisfied and always trying to improve is something I didn’t really understand early on. That as I improved and reached various goals as I grew, my tastes would adjust upward as well. It’s what Ira Glass talks about in that piece about “The Gap.” The Gap is very real and if you don’t constantly feel and see a gap between your work and the work you aspire to, then you’ve stopped growing as a photographer. Like sharks and relationships, your photography should always be moving forward or else it will die.

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What are your thoughts on today’s street photography landscape?

I’m not sure I have any…. I feel like there was a big boom a few years ago when the Vivian doc came out, and I myself was probably a part of that. The surge of new photographers on social media seems to have waned in the last 2 to 3 years. Seems the thing nowadays is to get a certain level of recognition (re: social media following) and parlay that into selling workshops and whatnot. The growing festival scene is interesting also with new festivals popping up every year and the established fests continuing to grow in a robust way.

As far as the photos themselves, I don’t think much has changed. Street is a very big tent and there are so many various styles and philosophies on display. At the big contests, it seems that visual one-liners and trick-shots are still the style du jour but I think that’s waning a bit still. A lot of photos that are taken technically very well and look real “whiz bang” as far as how it all fits in a frame – but they lack any emotion. I take a lot of photos like that and I’m trying to do better and focus more on capturing feeling of some sort.

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What do you think of Vivian Maier? Was it her story or photographs that inspired you?

I think Maier is fascinating for all of the usual reasons people are fascinated by her story. I do think her story is inspiring but I would say that her work inspired me more than her story. I live in the same area where she lived and nannied and have met people that knew her. She just always had a camera with her, always taking photos. That seems to be what people remember about her. I wouldn’t say I think she took the most amazing photos – but I think I was maybe struck more by the way those photos aged. The way they act as a time machine to record what Vivian saw and what about that scene made her click that button.

What are you most proud of in terms of your work?

Any time a photographer I admire gives me positive feedback. Also getting to a point in my own photography where others seek out and value my opinion on what they’re doing. Those are both things that bring me a lot of pride but otherwise I just am trying to plug away at it and not get too self-satisfied with what I’m making.

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Which street photographer inspires you and why?

These days I have to say Alec Soth. Not sure he’d be labeled a “street” photographer though his photos certainly have that aesthetic. I saw him speak in Milwaukee a few months ago and everything he had to say really made sense to me.

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Name three contemporary photographers you really admire?

Alec Soth, Martin Parr, Don Hudson. For various reasons.

If you can have dinner with one street photographer past or present who would it be?

Garry Winogrand. Does anybody not answer Winogrand here?

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When you aren’t making pictures you are doing what?

Binge-watching something probably.

As street photographers, we all get that “got it” feeling when we get the shot we are after. What needs to be present in an image for you to get that feeling or know you nailed it?

I don’t know what needs to be present but it’s like that old saying “I’ll know it when I see it.” I did watch some YouTube video about street photography when I was first starting out that gave the advice to always try and get three interesting elements into each photo. If you can get three interesting elements, it’ll probably be a good photo. I’m not sure how true that is or how good I am at making photos like that but I think it’s good advice to think about.

Do you want to make money with your photography (commercial, weddings, or street, do workshops, sell prints)

I think if I had to make a living with photography I would very quickly start to hate photography. I sell prints here and there; have sold to a few magazines. I don’t’ think I’d ever be at a level where people will pay me for workshops but that’s something that could be fun in the future maybe.

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If you didn’t have to worry about earning a living, what type of work would you do?

I think I’d be a really good private detective.

Do you have other things that inspire you outside of photography (Philosophy, painting, film, etc)?

All sorts of stuff but mostly films and going to live music. I really love going to concerts and have started doing a bit of concert photography on the side just for fun. I’m also really into comedy and politics and searching for mid-century treasures at estate sales and thrift shops. I think all of those things have an influence on what type of photos I make.

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What is your dream assignment/project?

I’d love to spend an entire presidential election cycle covering it from all angles but with my street aesthetic. From the small state rallies and diner meet & greets all the way up to the conventions and inauguration.

To keep up with Mike McCawley’s work

  1. Website – http://www.mccawleyphotos.com/
  2. FlickR – www.flickr.com/people/mccawleystreet/
  3. Instagram – Follow @mikemccawley

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