After having taken another point of view in your photography career, publishing a book seems like a way to reconstruct your work, it’s like making a regression and perhaps a rebirth?
My photographic work has been constantly evolving since I began shooting in 2007. Though photography, in general, has been my outlet for expression and escape for over 12 years, the way I have used this outlet has changed as I have matured and journeyed through life. Over the last decade, I have been shooting instant film almost exclusively and since I began diving into my literal boxes of archives of Polaroids late last year, I can see how my perspective of the world has changed along with my vision for my work.
It’s interesting that what first began as a way for me to document my travels and adventures with friends has slowly become a visual diary that has enabled me to express my need to be alone in nature.
After pondering these changes in my outlook on life and photography I have realized that a decade of shooting instant film has been a sufficient time for me to explore the whole of the medium. During this time period, I have grown dramatically as a person (as all people do through their 20s) and I feel like now is as good as time as any for me to grow and advance into a new era of my photographic career.
Putting out Searching for Stillness Vol II is in a way both a love letter and a bittersweet goodbye. I find it comparable to leaving someone you love because your lives are no longer traveling on the same path. Though you deeply care for this person and treasure all of the memories you had together, the two of you are just no longer compatible. It’s not a lack of commitment to your partner that you are displaying but deep respect for your own personal goals and ambitions. Exploring my archives to put together this book was both scary and exciting because as I approached the end of the sequencing process, I knew it was time to say goodbye to instant film. Just as relationships go, I had become comfortable and stagnant. I knew it was time to break free to see what the future of my photographic career would bring: new experiences, further growth, and new opportunities.
Once the book was completed and published I felt an enormous sense of relief. I felt like I was finally able to break the news to my lover: that after so many years together, our relationship wasn’t going to work out. We both knew in our hearts that it wouldn’t work long term, but the time we spent together was worthwhile and meaningful.
Just like the memories you collect from past long term relationships, you collect an enormous amount of photographs when you spend that much time being monogamous with a specific format.
The result of this was long nights on my bedroom floor, combing through photographs that represented so many different areas of my life, that I found it hard to let go of any specific image. Over the course of 6 months, I lived with mountainous piles of Polaroids around my bedroom: scattered on the floor, stacked on my desk, and spread out on my nightstand. I needed this time to absorb and understand how I would be able to narrow such a large collection of memories and photographs into a concise and honest story of my journey through life and my relationship with instant film. This process helped me reconstruct why I was shooting photographs at all: because it’s the magical science that allows us to record our feelings in specific moments that grant our minds the ability to relive them over and over again.
Though I will always view instant film as my first analog love and treasure every image I captured: from the crappy overexposed first-gen impossible project black and white film to the pristinely sharp images of mountains reflected in alpine lakes using their newest stock, I have realized that these images represent my past and not my future. Though I have arguably produced the best work of my life during this time period, I believe that with time everything changes, and so should your perspective on life along with your means of expressing yourself, in my case: photographically.
We see that you have made a return to the most classic formats of photography, like a personal search, is this a more spiritual journey through your new experience?
While I was approaching the final stages of producing Searching for Stillness Vol II I knew that my relationship with instant film was ending. As I said above, the book truly is a love letter to the medium and my past self. It was during that time that I began investigating what type of camera would fit “the new me”. I pondered about which camera system I could dedicate myself to for an extended period of time that would allow me to grow with it and hopefully be my forever partner.
I knew I wanted a system with a solid reputation, modern technology, and one that still had a type of traditional values that I could relate too.
In addition, I wanted a camera that would not weigh me down, be nimble, and capture things with great resolution. In a way, I was searching for a camera that was the opposite of a Polaroid camera. What I once valued in a camera through my 20s: the instant gratification of instant film, the excitement of the rollers winding and pushing a new creation out with every click of a button; I now appreciate machines that resonate with my outlook of patience, discipline and focus. The end result was a Mamiya 7ii. It is a sharp and capable camera that will allow me to further explore the world around me and hopefully last the next decade of my photographic career. I feel like this machine in my hands “feels right” and that we were made for one another. We are enough alike, yet it being new and different will present challenges which will allow me to grow as an individual and artist.
Looking for stillness Vol II seems even more personal than your previous work, do you think there was a before and an after in the career of Michael Behlen?
S for S II is definitely more personal. During the sequencing of the images for the book, I was able to really concentrate on what made these images mine. In the past, I shot wonderful images of the scenes around me, and though I may have written philosophical artist statements about those images, it was usually complete bullshit. Did I mean most of the things I wrote about them? Absolutely. But I never felt as connected to those bodies of works as I do S for S II. In the past I spent an insane amount of time trying to justify the reasons for why I practiced photography in general, trying to reconcile my views on my surroundings with my art. With this body of work, I didn’t need to think, reason, and argue with myself over the why. I was able to write the introduction to my book in under an hour because the images contained in the book already told the story I was trying to write. All I had to do was take them in and let them do the writing for me.
With this experience, I have realized that you can’t force bodies of work.
They are formed naturally over time and constantly evolve whether you like it or not. As with relationships, you have to make a commitment to what you are trying to achieve, put your whole being into it, and cross your fingers that it all works out.
No one can predict the future and life has a way of getting the best of you; but with patience, dedication, and allowing yourself to grow with it, you can produce something that is truly meaningful.
With these thoughts, I am moving into a new era of my photographic life that will allow me to be patient in my project undertakings. I used to believe if you weren’t putting out new work all the time and getting Instagram likes that you would fade from the artistic world. I now know that the opposite is true: if you only produce one great body of work every 5 years that sticks with just one person, you have made a bigger impact on the world than any amount of social media shares or website metrics can tell you.
We have always admired your landscapes and your great scenarios in each of your photos. How is that moment when you decide it’s the right time?
I have become a patient man as I have traversed through life. I used to shoot images like I was eating popcorn, handfuls at a time. I now have the discipline to carry my camera with me over the course of days and not take a single image. I have strived to achieve a lifestyle of quality over quantity. With this in mind, I have also been able to put in the proper planning and effort to achieve images I am truly proud of. I do research of the areas I will be traveling in and try my best to be at certain locations at specific times to ensure I am able to capture the moment I envisioned.
I learned a hard lesson that day because as I traveled down the mountain, wallowing in disappointment, I saw an explosion of color in the sky. This taught me that sometimes, you just need to wait it out. Overall what I am trying to say is that there is no specific moment that is the “right time” but that you will know it when you see it if you have the patience to see it through until the end.
However, as I said above, life has a way of throwing curveballs at your plans. As my dad says, “a lot can change in 90 days”. In a way, this is true with photography, but I would say, “a lot can change in 30 minutes”. Years ago I hiked through the cold of winter at 4:00 am to Eagle Peak in Yosemite National Park with a headlamp on to reach the top for the “perfect photograph” at sunrise, only to find severe disappointment at the top. The clouds were heavy and there wasn’t going to be any action that sunrise. I decided to turn around and hike back down the switchbacks as the rest of the crowd was heading up to the peak to see the magnificent view of Yosemite Valley. I learned a hard lesson that day because as I traveled down the mountain, wallowing in disappointment, I saw an explosion of color in the sky. This taught me that sometimes, you just need to wait it out. Overall what I am trying to say is that there is no specific moment that is the “right time” but that you will know it when you see it if you have the patience to see it through until the end. All you have to do is persevere through the hardships of life to see what is on the other side of your immediate future. It may just be bright.
Your book is published by Static Age in the United Kingdom, why did you choose so, and not in the United States?
I am a HUGE fan of what Pete Falkous is doing with Static Age. After seeing Lisa Toboz’s Long Way Home and Noah Zyla’s The Rest is Delusion (both zines of Polaroids) I knew I wanted to work with him. I had already had a minor relationship with him and he came straight out and asked me if I wanted to work with him on Searching for Stillness Vol II. I, of course, said YES! It didn’t really matter to me where he was located, as I would have worked with him even if he was on an uninhabited island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
I can’t express my gratitude for him enough. He was so incredibly kind, supportive, and encouraging during this whole process. Every time I said “one more week” while I was sequencing the images for the book he was patient and understanding. He didn’t rush me but at the same time motivated me to create a book that I would truly be proud of. I highly recommend working with him and I hope when my next project comes to fruition I will get to work with him again.
We understand photography books are a piece of art, how do you see the future of printed publications from your experience as a photographer?
As a photographer, I think that if you are not printing your work, creating zines, or producing books you are missing out on 90% of the fun of photography. As Ansel Adams put it: “The negative is the equivalent of the composer’s score, and the print the performance.”
There is something about holding your work in your hands that grants you a fresh perspective of what you have created. I wouldn’t equate the position of fatherhood (or motherhood) with this feeling but the analogy fits.
You spend close to a year taking care of an individual that you have never met before.
You feed them, feel them kick, and they sometimes keep you (or your partner) up all night. You are worried and constantly think about what your future child will be like.
Once you meet that baby for the first time all of your past thoughts, worries, and fears are washed away and you are taken over with pure love. It’s similar with photography. You spend an enormous amount of time planning, traveling, shooting, and developing but you stop at that final most important phase of interacting with your images: actually holding them in your hands, feeling them. If we as a community started acknowledging that the “complete” photographic process ends at printing instead of ending on Instagram, I feel like we would all have a much greater appreciation for what photography offers to ourselves and to our community as a whole.
Your role in contemporary photography is quite important, how do you see the role of editors and their work of promoting photographers with less impact in the world of art business?
Those are some kind words and I appreciate your confidence in me. Before I answer your question, I just want to point out that I am just one individual who loves analog photography. That’s it. The only difference that sets me apart from any other person trying to run a website, blog, or publication is one simple thing: I just do it. There you have it, that’s the big secret. I didn’t wait until I knew the community, I didn’t wait until I learned how to use InDesign, and I didn’t wait for someone to tell me it was ok. I just went for it.
I want to push every single person reading this to simply pursue your passion.
You will stumble, fail, embarrass yourself, and feel like you can’t possibly take on any more than you have on your plate right now. Well, I promise that you can. You just have to want it so badly it keeps you up at night. On both the good days and the bad.
On that note, my role as an editor, curator, and all-around supporter of all things analog is focused on one simple thing: showing work that I (and my team at Analog Forever Magazine) believe in. Because our goal isn’t to make a profit (though it would be nice to break even) we put in an enormous amount of work to simply show the world analog photography that speaks to us on an individual level. It’s quite liberating to not be bound to any business reasoning for publishing (or not publishing) a specific artist.
We don’t care if an artist has had 100s of gallery shows across the world or just has a zine for sale at their local coffee shop. We value the work itself, not the individual connected to.
Don’t get me wrong, we have published internationally acclaimed artists with work that we deeply respect and admire, but we would have published them anyway, regardless of their standing in the art world. If I had to put it into a short amount of words it would be this: we just care. We care about our medium and want to make sure it truly lasts forever.
If more editors and curators took this stance the art world would be a completely different place. However, I don’t want to paint with too broad a brush, as I do think the culture of the art world is changing. There are so many great outlets showing all types of art across the world and in print that is run by people just like myself that are worth reading. I would suggest checking out: Unvael Journal, Catalyst Interviews, Analog Talk Podcast, 100 Zine, Shots, and Diffusion, to name a few.
How do you see the future of analog photography from your perspective?
I think the future is bright! My theory is that three things are cyclical: technology, convenience, and human interaction. Society moves in waves from becoming excited about future technology, adopting it for its convenience, and then slowly asking ourselves “is this what I really want”?
We find that as technology invades our lives with promises of freeing up time all it really does is take up our time with humanless interactions. I believe this is why there has been a resurgence in all types of analog technology: be it vinyl records, tape releases, lo-fi records, instant film, or film photography.
The human species is a social one and without the smile of a stranger handing over your developed negatives it just doesn’t feel the same. Adobe Lightroom sure as hell doesn’t smile at you while it grinds your computer down to dust processing digital RAW images. These interactions feel honest and sincere and it’s something that only this type of technology is able to balance correctly. We get the joys of interacting with our community with the bonus of producing tangible work that you can hold in your hands.
With that in mind, analog will never die. Though we went through a lot of scares in the ’90s and early 2000s: Polaroid Corporation declaring bankruptcy and selling off its brand and assets and Ilford going into receivership, these companies ultimately transformed and survived in one way or another. I would argue that these companies are in a better place than they were due to the wonderful people that are now at the head of each of these businesses. These individuals care about our medium and that passion is what will keep analog film in the market for the foreseeable future.
In the coming months you will participate in several photography festivals worldwide, can you tell us a bit about it?
I am thrilled to be exhibiting my work again! From September 6th-8th I will have 9 images from Searching for Stillness II on display at Polaroid Festival in Barcelona. This festival is organized every year by instant film lover and book producer Clement Grosjean, a man of great ambition and vision. The last time I had images on display was in 2018, so it feels exciting to have my work in the public’s eye again. My only other note on this exhibition is that I rarely, if ever, print reproductions of my Polaroids. This exhibition will be one of your only chances to grab 20cm-20cm reproduction Polaroid from Searching for Stillness Vol II. If you have wanted to own a one of a kind print that will never be printed again, this will be your opportunity!
Please visit www.polaroidfestival.com for all the details and make sure you attend the show that will feature other great artists like Thomas Zamolo, Raul Diaz, and of course POTD’s very own Andrés Aguilar Caro, among many others.
In addition, I will be speaking on a panel at The International Festival on Experimental Photography in Barcelona January 17th-19th, 2020. Though details have not been published yet, I am proud to say the panel discussion will be lively and entertaining and will feature three very different individuals discussing topics that are important to analog photography artists. What is so great about this festival is that it will be intimate and will be limited to just 80 participants, making for a rich community-building experience. I am most excited to meet all the wonderful friends I have made via the internet publishing PRYME and running Analog Forever Magazine. It will be an unforgettable weekend! If you haven’t already: make sure you grab your seat for this event as they will go fast!
Visit their website here: https://experimentalphotofestival.com See you in Barcelona in January!
What is your advice to new generations who want to start in the world of photography?
My advice would be simple. Don’t take images, create bodies of work. This may take months, years, or even a decade of producing images to create a coherent set of images that tell the story you are trying to tell, but it will be well worth it. Curators and editors have an eye for images that have been thrown into a “collection” for the sake of relating images to one another.
My advice would be simple. Don’t take images, create bodies of work.
However, when a body of work is formed correctly and honestly, it shines through all other submissions so brightly it is hard not to publish. The only way to do this is by making a commitment to your project’s goal and pushing through until the end. It will be frustrating and you may fail, but the ultimate reward is producing a series so stunning that you look at it and wonder if you were the photographer at all. It’s that unique.
If I were just starting out I would simply give this kindness and support out and learn from the photographers around you. This will pay back over time 10 fold with the relationships you form with other artists.
My other piece of advice is to become apart of the community. There are a lot of photographers who are lone wolves and that is perfectly acceptable; however, the richness of our medium is displayed through the vibrancy of our community. In every other passion of my life, I have never seen complete strangers go out of their way to compliment, give advice, or support artists they know nothing about. It’s a strange thing the analog photography community has and it’s something I wouldn’t give up for the world. If I were just starting out I would simply give this kindness and support out and learn from the photographers around you. This will pay back over time 10 fold with the relationships you form with other artists.
Lastly, shoot what you love.
Not what is popular, trending, or “in”. If you don’t love it, absolutely crave it, no one else will either. You have to be your number one fan and if aren’t, you may not be shooting what you love. Every time you print an image or see your instant film develop before your eyes you should be bursting with excitement. This excitement is contagious even when you are not around, viewers can see it through the images you create.
You can purchase the Book Searching for Stillness Vol II here.