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Behind the Camera: Mike Vos

If you've seen a photograph from Mike Vos' current body of work, "Someday This Will All Be Gone", you're definitely going to remember it. Mike's work is distinctively unique. Sure other photographers have shot 4 x 5" film landscapes. Sure other photographers have made double exposures. But Mike's series, contrasting beautiful, natural landscapes with evidence of human existence and our disruption to the environment, leaves a haunting impression. And that's exactly what Mike is hoping for.

Mike is a fine art, Portland-based, large format, film photographer whose photographs revolve around the story of wildlife's reclamation of the industrial landscape. "I've been involved in environmental campaigns for most of my life. And so, my art is just an extension of who I am as a person and my perception of the world," says Mike. His photography centers on environmentalism and ecology, prompting him to create work that advocates for the preservation of wild spaces and for change. Through his photography, he strives to encourage viewers to think critically about both the choices they make as an individual and see the broader implications of their choices.

As stated at the top of this article, his most recent project is called "Someday This Will All Be Gone" and was all shot on 4 x 5" film utilizing in-camera double exposure techniques. The large format film Mike uses gives his images a smooth rich quality. "None of the blending is done in post, it is all simple, low tech, and in-the-camera," Mike shares. He chose this process because he feels it creates stronger images, connects him to what he's creating, and helps him develop a relationship with the land he's photographing. "It was really important to slow things down and really consider what I was doing. For me, it was the difference between making something with my hands and just being someone snapping a photo."

"When I photograph two separate places on a single sheet of film, I think about what the relationship is between these two places. What's the conversation that's happening between say an abandoned factory or an abandoned home that I'm photographing and the wild place that I'm photographing? What story is there to be shared? What am I trying to convey with the image that I made? And maybe even what historical contexts lies there? What ultimately can the viewer that I'm exhibiting this work to, what can they infer from the image that I'm making? It's important for me to not only make an image that is striking and enjoyable to view, but also has a deeper meaning and deeper context to it that can be uncovered and unraveled," Mike continues.

"All of my work to coincide with a lot of very relevant topics that are coming to the forefront now. Issues such as climate change, deforestation, ecological destruction, things like that. But there's also different elements to my work that deal with escapism, despair, grief, reclamation, redemption...". Mike is an avid reader, as one will quickly learn by seeing his Instagram stories. Knowing this, it will come as no surprise that a lot of Mike's work is inspired by literature and the books that he reads."I instill a lot of concepts that I read in literature into my work as well. Concepts such as magical realism and subtle horror, alternate history, and alternate timelines. There's a lot of literary themes that my work touches on," he notes. "There's influences from other photographers that I admire in my work, but there are individual photographs that I can draw a direct line to individual books or individual authors that I've read that I feel are a direct influence on the images that I've made." Cormac McCarthy, Haruki Murakami, Kōbō Abe, and Italo Calvino are some of Mike's favorite authors. Additionally, Clarice Lispector, Albert Camus, Rainer Maria Rilke, Clark Ashton Smith, and Arthur Rimbaud influence his work.

Mike didn't just start making double exposure photos with literary influence and deep sociological/ecological meaning overnight though. As he states, "I guess my story is kind of interesting in that I started in photography because I was working on environmental campaigns and someone gifted me a digital camera, a Nikon D3100, to work with on a campaign. At the time I was still a musician as well, and with that same camera, I started making some artistic photos for a music project that I had. When I decided I didn't really want to do music anymore, I just kept doing photography." Mike says that he took a Lightroom class with Mark Fitzgerald at Newspace because he needed to learn how to edit the photos he was taking. And then he found himself taking more classes at Newspace.

One class was about visual storytelling with Charles Purvis, who Mike then ended up sharing a studio with. Around the same time, he ended up getting a 4 x 5" camera thanks to a Tintype class. "It was very organic growth. I feel that the gear that I've had throughout the course of my life just come into my life at the appropriate time," says Mike. Charles was the one who suggested that maybe Mike start shooting some film with his 4 x 5" camera and that became his introduction to film photography. "Charles said, 'you know, shooting on 4 x 5" film is pretty challenging. And you might learn something if you try it.' And I did try it. And I learned a lot. It is pretty challenging and what it did for me was force me to take a step back and really understand the very fundamental elements of a camera and how it works," Mike explains. As Mike spent more time thinking and slowly making images, it changed his perception of things. "I didn't go to art school. I don't have an academic background in art at all, so I missed a lot of the steps that some people have. It also changed the way that I shoot, because it really slowed me down and it made me really consider what I was doing and think about what I was shooting."

"So my 4 x 5" is a Linhof Master Technika, " says Mike. "It's a field camera, it's one of the 'little' 4 x 5" cameras. My early work was all shot on a Graflex 4 x 5", just a Crown Graphic that I had for a number of years. Then I bought the Linhof a couple of years ago. This guy was selling it for super cheap. He was a professional studio photographer, and he had bought it in the nineties, around the time when digital was starting to catch up with film in terms of quality, so he transitioned over to digital and he never really used the Linhof." The Linhof he bought had everything to go with it. It was a collector's dream, with the official Linhof case, four lenses, the body and all the extra Linhof bells and whistles. "I'm not a collector, so it's not things that I would necessarily use or collect, but all the functional stuff that came with it is awesome. And it's really awesome to have different lenses. The problem that I have with the Graflex I had, is that it only had one lens. So I was stuck shooting from the same distance every time," says Mike about scoring his Linhof.

In addition to his Linhof Master Technika, Mike often has other cameras in his bags, the Chrome Niko Camera bag and an RTIC 12 can softpak cooler that he uses as a waterproof light-tight carrying case for his 4 x 5" film holders. He has a Nikon D600, mostly because it can record high resolution video. On his travels, he also carries a 35mm Kodak Retina IIa, a Mamiya RB 67 medium format film camera, and a couple of Polaroid cameras. The Polaroid Now+ that Mike brings with him allows him to do double exposures instantly on his travels.

And while Charles may have given Mike the push to take a chance on a challenging medium and process to create visual stories, Mike cites quite a few photographers who have had an impact on his work as well. "Historically I really like the Bechers (Hilla & Bernd) a lot. I find a lot of the repetition and uniformity in their images really intriguing," says Mike.

He also admits that their work being black and white might have helped with his initial draw to them. "Funny enough, I'm partially colorblind, I have a color vision deficiency. So when I first started photographing seriously, I was only shooting in black and white and color was a little bit challenging for me," divulges Mike about his early influences. "I had to figure out a way to navigate around some issues that I was having. So originally, I was more drawn to black and white, which is one of the reasons why I was so taken with the work of the Bechers very early on. Once I cracked the code a little bit, and was able to figure out some workarounds, I started to enjoy color work a little bit more."

Edward Burtynsky was one of the first large format, film photographers Mike was introduced to, even back before he was really introduced to photography as a medium. Specifically Burtynsky's photographs of quarries had a big impact on Mike. The way he captures manufactured landscapes coincided with Mike's feelings about them from his years of environmentalist work. John Chiara is another photohrapher Mike admires. "I'm a big fan of John Chiara. I really like both the images he makes, but also his process. I find it really interesting. I'm very fortunate in that I get to do a workshop with him up in British Columbia later this year." Mike participated in another workshop last year with Simon Norfolk that had a big impact on him. "[Simon's] done a lot of work with National Geographic, and he's also done a lot of fine art work. He's done some really amazing work for some environmental groups as well, which have both a very powerful message, but also are just really beautiful images as well."

Mike cites Joel Sternfeld's American Prospects as having a major influence on the feel he tries to create in his own images. "That book is really awesome, I have that one in my studio. I look at that one quite a bit. I'm really taken by work, that is simple, but very haunting. Something about it just feels like there's this undercurrent in the image, something almost sinister about it - something that makes it feel a little off," Mike describes. "Sternfeld's work feels that way. There's something about having very little context to the image and something about the image itself that feels almost a little dark, even though it's just these portraits of so-called typical American life." Similarly, Mike says that Desert Cantos by Richard Misrach gives him the same type of feelings.

"I definitely have a big admiration for black and white work. And when I look back at my black and white work, I feel very proud of it and I still really enjoy making black and white images," Mike says. However, Mike chose color film for his series "Someday This Will All Be Gone". "The double exposures don't always lend themselves very well to black and white. A lot of the shapes become a little too chaotic and it's a little difficult to understand what's happening in the image. So color seems to work better for that."

Mike admits that very early on, the first six or seven images he made in the style of "Someday This Will All Be Gone" were in black and white which he was primarily shooting in at the time. When the Regional Arts and Culture Council here in Portland gave him a grant to fully develop the body of work, Mike had to display some of the images for the first time in a public space. Roughly 20 of Mike's first images were put on display at Push Dot Studios. Lincoln, the owner of Push Dot, looked at the work which contained maybe one or two color images at the time and suggested that Mike continue the series in color.

"He looked at it and said, 'yeah, you know, I kind of liked the color images. Maybe you should try more of those." So Mike said okay and tried more color images. Consequently, the more people saw the color images, people just seem to react a lot more strongly to them. "It was partially because of feedback from other people that I started doing more color images. I think a lot of my hesitancy to focus on the color images had to do with me being partially colorblind, so I don't react to color as strongly as other people do." So since it seemed people were enjoying them and finding something more out of the images, Mike followed that thread and his work evolved a little bit.

With Large Format film, there aren't as many options for color film stocks. Ultimately, after trying some positive films like Fujifilm Provia and Velvia and the 160 speed and 800 speed variations of Portra, Mike chose Kodak Portra 400 specifically to work with. Since Mike was doing double-exposures, and he hadn't seen much of a difference with the other Portra films, and it seemed as though Portra 400 was the most common in camera shops, he settled on it. That way he could easily restock film if he ran out while he was traveling to make his images and keep an uniformity to his images.

"I'm glad to see that 4 x 5" film and film photography in general seems to be making a comeback. It seems to be more popular in recent years," says Mike of the medium. "Hopefully some new equipment will start coming out. I'm really hoping that it will, but I scan [his negatives] myself," Mike explains about his post processing routine. "I used to pay a lab to do the scans for me, but if you're paying for a high-res scan of every single one of your negatives, it stacks up pretty quick. If you're shooting a lot of film, and you're working on a big series, it makes sense to learn how to do it yourself. So I asked a friend who knew how to do it, and he showed me how to do it." Mike now scans his 4 x 5" negatives on the Epson Perfection V800 Photo Color Scanner, a flatbed scanner. "I find, that aside from a drum scan, I think this is the second best thing that could be done in terms of quality."

"I do prints from the scans," Mike divulges. "If I'm just doing test prints, I have a printer in my studio in Northwest Portland and I'll just do some small test prints in my studio. Occasionally, if someone buys my work, if it's a smaller print, I'll make that print in my studio. I took a digital printing class also from Mark Fitzgerald at Newspace. I learned a good amount from him there, so I can make a good quality print in my studio, but if I have to make a large print I'll have Pro Photo Supply's lab or Push Dot do it."

"It's interesting talking about film because sometimes you'll just buy every kind of film that's in the shop and try everything. And then sometimes the inspiration comes from the film itself and there's something unique about that film. You might think, 'oh, there's something to this, there's a series here.' And you can try to develop and draw that quality out of that film," says Mike about his experimentation with 4 x 5" film stocks. "I've actually started work on a smaller project that involves the direct positive paper. I had a residency at Sitka out in Otis, Oregon just a few months ago. And I started to develop a series out there that involves the Harman Direct Positive paper. And that paper is pretty challenging to shoot with! It's not film, it's just basically light sensitive paper, so it's really slow. The ISO's between one and six if I remember correctly. And so shooting it in broad daylight, I would still have to expose it for roughly 30 seconds sometimes depending on what my f-stop was. But it makes really amazing high contrast black and white images. I've shot it for a while and never really had an idea of what I wanted to use it for. And then I finally kinda got this lightning bolt of inspiration at Sitka and I've been slowly developing this, what I consider a side project."

A fair amount of Mike's time the last few years was spent creating work at various artist residencies. Artist Residency programs are an opportunity, through various organizations and foundations, for artists to live and work outside of their usual environments. This freedom from their normal surroundings and routines provides them with time to reflect, research, explore new locations, different cultures, experiment with different materials, and artists can produce work. These residencies sometimes offer the artists stipends or grants or an opportunity to teach others to pay for the artist's time there.

"I randomly started applying for residencies through someone I met in Portland. They recommended one in Wyoming called Jentel," explains Mike. "This was back in 2017 and I got approved for it. I got to go, and I think there were six of us that were accepted that year. This was back when I was still a musician and I was touring and playing shows. But I went there and I was the only photographer. And actually, in my experience, that seems to be pretty common. There's not a lot of photographers that do residencies. It's a lot of painters and writers and people who really would benefit from having quiet, alone time and a secluded place. I mean, I benefited from that because of the nature of my work. I always benefit from going to remote places and photographing landscapes and abandoned places. So I got to go, and I got to be among other creative people, published authors and even a playwright who had a play that was coming out in New York that year."

Mike acknowledges that his time at this first residency was amazing and life-changing. It was here at that residency that he decided he was a photographer and no longer just someone that takes photos. It was here that he decided that photography would officially be his art form to tell stories through pictures and be a storyteller. "I started applying for more workshops and opportunities and it just grew from there. Residencies are a great opportunity to go and learn from not only the people that work at the residency, but also other artists. It's a really great thing to learn, especially from people from different mediums such as painters, textile artists, illustrators, writers, just seeing how people make the work that they make and just get the full scope of the art world."

"I think in lieu of not having gone to art school and just getting an opportunity to learn by doing and learning from other people and their experiences has been a really awesome thing. And I feel very grateful. People have been really generous with their time and with the things that they've gone to school for, or learned through their own experiences. They've been really generous with showing me how to do certain things. And not just with photography, but I've had people in residency show me how a litho press works or how this painting technique works, et cetera. There's people who will just take me into their studio and show me their process. So then there's all these little bits of information that I've just collected over the years from these experiences, and it's helped me to gather that and take the pieces that I think are useful and use that for my work as well," Mike continues.

And being able to make these connections with people from other walks of life has not only helped Mike shape his art at the residencies, but also when he's traveling to remote places to photograph something for his work. He's found that during his travels, he's more approchable than he expected: "On paper, I feel like I shouldn't be. I'm covered in tattoos. I wear all black. I usually have a skeleton on my shirt. But when I'm out there, and taking photographs, they'll walk right up to me, as if I'm an approachable person for some reason. So it really helps me when I travel because it gives me the opportunity to meet people," says Mike. "And a lot of the places I find to photograph are through just meeting local folks. I'll just be hanging out and people will just come up and start talking to me, asking, 'where are you from? What are you doing?' And then when I tell them, they'll say, 'yeah, okay. You like photographing abandoned stuff. You should go take photos of this old factory or whatever.' And they'll just give me directions. Or some people will even drive me places or walk me there. And it's been pretty much the majority of places that I photograph at this point, are places people have physically shown me where it is, which is pretty awesome!"

In September of 2021, Mike hopped a ferry leaving from Washington and spent a month traveling all over Alaska. He went to the Kenai Peninsula, drove all over the Alaska interior, and went as far north as the Artic, driving the Dalton Highway up to Wiseman, AK to photograph the Aurora Borealis during the middle of the night. During this trip, Mike had a few instances of making connections that helped him get shots or to places he otherwise wouldn't have. Mike admits that shooting the Northern Lights and dealing with reciprocity failure in the freezing cold was difficult. This was the first time he'd seen the Northern Lights and he wanted to capture them with that perfect exposure. But, as is always the case with double exposure photography, there was a large chance that the second exposure could ruin your first one and you're out both images. He had a perfect shot in mind from an abandoned structure he had taken a photo of earlier. And while it proved to be a difficult shot, Mike did end up with an exposure that he felt was successful in the end. Mike had met Aurora Dora  in Talkeetna, Alaska, and she helped him figure out some rough estimates for times that would make good exposures on a single image. These tips also helped Mike out when he by chance got to shoot a full moon from Denali on a different night of his trip.

Additionally, he had some friends of friends that were pilots up in Talkeetna and they were the one who flew him up to Denali. "They landed me on a glacier and I was able to photograph the Alaska mountain range from on a glacier," exclaims Mike. "Alex at Talkeetna Air took me up there. It was one of the best things I've ever done in my life. That photograph of mine that I posted has the mountain range with the igloo silhouette. That was taken up there," Mike says.

As the second half of 2022 approaches, and as Mike gets ready to head to residencies and workshops in more remote places, one might ask the question, how does the story of "Someday This Will Be Gone" end? "I've applied for an exhibition, a final exhibition for my Someday This Will Be Gone series actually here in town [Portland]. And so hopefully within the next year I'll be able to show the rest of that work but that's a challenging thing to navigate," Mike explains. "I need boundaries and parameters in the work that I make, because otherwise I'll just keep doing it and keep expanding on it and never put a period to it." So as Mike reflects on the images he's already made and thinks about the holes in the story, the images he feels are missing, he keeps in mind his intent behind creating this work in the first place.

"I want to create work that has longevity, that feels timeless. It doesn't feel as though this is an important issue for the next six months, and then once it's gone, everyone's going to forget about it. I like to create work that advocates for change and engages the viewer in a way that encourages them to take action. With my work, the intention is to mostly inspire people, to think critically about the choices they make as an individual but also see the broader implications of their choices. I aim to create ecocentric art, art that's about the environment and advocating for the environment, but one of the side-effects of creating that work is that I'm also creating work and creating experiences that enriches human lives. I want the images I make to provide the viewer with some sort of relief and alleviation from the grief or despair they feel when confronted with issues that feel beyond them or too big to process, but simultaneously give the audience a sense of 'wow, this is something worth protecting.'"

See Mike's favorite film stocks here and more of Mike's Photos here:

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