Michael McCraw is one of those photographers who just seems to know what’s going on. I have probably spent a little too much time looking through his Flickr and webpage throughout the years then I’d like to admit but to be honest, it’s been time well spent.
Empty Stretch: Let’s start this out easy, Age/Current Location/Things you enjoy?
Michael McCraw: 27 year olds, I currently live in Atlanta, GA. Born outside of Pensacola, FL. This is the tenth house I’ve lived in 9 years and the fourth state. Never out of the south. Florida, then Alabama, then Georgia, then back to Alabama, then Tennessee, now Georgia again. I enjoy spending time with my girlfriend and our daughter, making work, traveling, and music. Whiskey & apple juice.
ES: What got you into photography? Who/What would you say influences your work?
MM: I got into photography when I was younger. I’d take photos at shows with disposable and Polaroid cameras. I turned from taking pictures of bands to pictures of my friends. Nothing interesting, nothing special. I took the only photography class my high school offered. It was basically just learning the process, not the history. I knew I liked photography, but nothing about it. The first time I saw photos that made me change the way I thought about photography as an art was when my friend from high school started dating Mike Brodie.
His work is the first thing that made me realize what I wanted to do. Not that my work is anything like his, just that I wanted to do this. It became my obsession. So Brodie was my first influence. When I first moved to Atlanta in 2007, I went with a friend to see an artist lecture. It turned out to be Alec Soth. I remember only having one contact lens in because I was poor, didn’t have insurance, and had broken my glasses climbing a tree. Even though I could only half see the work, it was an awakening for me. He was talking about his work and showed a tiny glimpse to what would eventually become “Broken Manual.” I think after that I really started trying to figure myself out. Trying to find what I was interested in shooting.
ES: What motivates you to take pictures? Does all your traveling and moving around play an influence in that?
MM: I’ve been in bands since I was about 13. Music and photography are all I’ve been into for most of my life. They go hand in hand together. I need both of them. I don’t play music much anymore, so I use photography. This is my punk rock. I need this in my life. I make work because I have to. Because it’s a part of who I am. Some of my traveling has definitely been influenced by wanting to make work and feeling like I’ve exhausted what was around me at the time. But moving has just been out of necessity. I can only live in a certain place for a period of time before I start feeling uneasy. I need change. I need freshness. I’ll probably be in Atlanta for a while though. Having a new daughter, we want to be close enough for our parents to visit, and my parents refuse to fly. As much as I hate to admit it, I’ll probably spend most of my life in the south.
ES: How do you view your work? Is it more of a personal diary and timeline of events or a larger body of work that is continually growing?
MM: I think it’s a mix of both. A diary in the way I generally just shoot what is around me, or just drive around looking for things that interest me. Usually I find a body of water and drive towards it. Stopping if something looks interesting. I’ve never really set out with the intention of taking a photograph of a certain subject. Just looking up a place I want to go and driving there.
But it’s all over a period of time. A body of work usually feels complete when I can move on and leave the place I was living behind. I have three complete bodies of work. One from touring in 2003/2004, one from the time I lived/spent in Alabama, and another for the year I lived in Chattanooga, TN. The first two I’m still piecing together with words and some video, but the Chattanooga one is nearly finished. The working title for it is “Chattanooga/Fuckt in Appalachia/You’ll Never Be Well No More.” Even though that’s the most recent, I feel like it needs to be finished first. It feels like the most complete story. It has a definite beginning and ending. There’s always room for them to grow though. I still want to make more work in Alabama. I don’t think I’m anywhere near done with that yet. Though, I never want to go back to Chattanooga.
ES: What do you look for in a place to go exploring?
MM: In the past I’d usually look for a body of water on a map, and just drive towards it. Or just take back roads and hope to find my way back home eventually. You drive enough back roads and you realize they all lead to the same places. Most of my process has been finding a destination driving towards it, and then turning off before I ever get there. It’s been the best way. For me at least. Some days you find things, others you drive around for hours and get nothing. I always drive towards water though. Maybe it’s a comfort. I grew up near water. Close enough to the beach. Close enough to rivers. It makes me feel at ease.
ES: The text that accompanies your images is always a real treat. It creates a nice personal perspective and narrative which for me was what brought me to your work in the first place. What’s your process behind applying text? When you’re photographing do you already have the text in your head or do you apply it after you have photographed?
MM: I never take a photograph with text in mind. Ever. It always comes much later after I initially take it.It’s something I have to live with and have time to think about. I enjoy writing. I think it gives much more to my work than if I just had the pictures arranged. It gives more depth to them. Makes them more cohesive. I can make a better narrative if the words guide you through them. It’s something I feel makes the work more interesting. More personable. My work is about my place in the world, and I want it to be more than just some pictures that are nice to look at. I want it to be more of an experience. Something that makes you think. I usually do all the writing as a one take kind of thing. I look at
the picture. Remember the context I took it in, where I was, the weather, what I was listening to, if i was alone. It’s stream of thought. Just written and it’s done. I rarely ever go back and change something. Very rarely.
ES: You also seem to shoot in various mediums. Does the subject matter of your work change the format that you chose to work in? What have you lately been shooting with and working on?
MM: I use different mediums because I don’t want to be stuck doing one thing. I don’t like when things get static or feel stale. I like to constantly be moving. I prefer shooting 6×7, but I always have something else on hand. It keeps me from making the same pictures over and over. Different cameras have different limitations. I love shooting instant film. It’s very finite. It’s the single object. I can always look at it and think this 3.25 x 4.25 piece of paper was with me when I took this photo. It’s part of the relationship. It’s just as real as the subject. Right now I am shooting 6×7, a 35mm SLR, and a rangefinder Polaroid camera with a handheld flash I have to manually set off. This is my usual set up.
ES: Do you consider your self a ‘southern’ photographer? The work you produced during the 50 State Project for Alabama was really interesting, I felt it showed Alabama in a very different light then I expected but still drew heavily on southern roots. Being from the ‘north,’ I’m probably not at liberty to speak that much about southern culture but I feel I get a sense of it through your work whether you intend for that to happen or not.
MM: I don’t consider myself a southern photographer more than the fact that I happen to live in the south. I’m from Florida, which I’ve been told time and time again is not a part of the south. I think living here has shaped a lot of the ways I see things. There’s something about the light here. The summers. The weather. Growing up with hurricanes and now dealing with tornadoes. It all shapes the way I see the world, which reflects in my work. But I’m not going out trying to make work about the south. Just my place in it. Maybe the work on 50 States Project was different because I’m not actually from Alabama? I don’t know. I guess it’s funny though, because the last picture, the portrait, was taken in Florida. It’s a picture of my uncle. I sent text with it, but it was never posted. He lives about 10 miles away from the state line, so I figured I could bend the truth a little.
ES: Have you ever found a certain place that keeps providing inspiration for you?
MM: I rarely go back to places more than once. The two exceptions are Lands End on the Black Warrior River and Section, AL. Lands End isn’t really a city. Just a group of houses at the end of a road near the river. There’s a bar on the end. I found it driving around once. Walked around a bit. Then came back another day. We were walking around and a man came out of the bar and invited us in. We had been hesitant because there was a sign that said “Members Only” hanging above the door. His name was Don. We sat with him while people came in and out. Drank cheap beer. Watched people play cards. Talk about politics. Watch a man drink Schlitz with salt in it. Watch a man drink a “Red Beer,” which was a Bud Light mixed with tomato juice. Be accused of being affiliated with A.C.O.R.N by one man. As the night went on, Don and I talked about taking trips to document the “hill people” that lived in the Appalachians. At the end of the night, he got in a gold cart and drove home. We left and drove the hour back to Birmingham. I couldn’t tell you how to get there. I’d have to show you. It’s mostly trial and error until you get back.
ES: Favorite album for driving all night to?
MM: I usually make mixes for when I drive around. The last one I made is about 4 hours long, so it wouldn’t really work sharing it. These are albums I have specific memories of long night drives listening to though:
Frodus – And We Washed Our Weapons in the Sea
Isis – Panopticon,
Earth – HEX: Or Printing In The Infernal Method
Townes Van Zandt – My Mother the Mountain
City Of Caterpillar – S/T
Ampere – All Our Tomorrow’s End Today
Tulsa Drone – Songs for a Mean Season
Stop It!! - Self Made Maps
Envy – A Dead Sinking Story
Grails – Doomsdayers Holiday
Thou – Summit
Pygmy Lush – Mount Hope
Grouper – A I A
Slowdive – Souvlaki
I could go on and on, but I think I’ll stop there…