Introducing Michael Scandling and his minimal seascape series

I would like to introduce you to an artist who’s work I greatly inspires me. Michael and I became acquainted last year. Unbeknown to me, he had been following my blog for a while. After seeing some images from his current seascape series, I felt compelled to share them here.

Michael is a very talented artist with a unique vision and I do not want to pigeonhole him by calling him a seascape photographer. Simply take a moment to have a look at his stunning floral images HERE as well.

His current minimal seascape series is beautiful. I am often drawn to black and white but this series stand out although all images are in colour. Each image is just as powerful and expressive as the next. I decided to pin Michael down to share his process.

What led you to pick up a camera for the first time? Your earliest interest interest in photography. What triggered it and when did you start?
My earliest interest in photography was admiring the work of others. The exact route, at age 13 in the mid-1960s, was through editorial photography in — of all things — two car magazines: Car and Driver and Road & Track. Both magazines employed top photographers whose work I immediately admired. What appealed to me the most was the occasional close-up photography of the body design of both contemporary and classic cars, often focusing on details of form: the way compound curves and creases combined to reflect light and create subtile variations in colour and tone. I would look at these photographs and in my mind I would crop away everything except the essence of the form. These details in pure form, tone, light and shadow — devoid of context — are the beginnings of my love of minimalism. I borrowed a friend’s 35 mm slr and took it to car shows, trying to imitate what I saw in the magazines. Not deathless art, but a start.

What is photography to you?
It’s a way of sharing a personal vision with others. This personal vision is rarely literal: The raw image out of the camera is just a starting point and is often only vaguely what I end up with after post processing.
In my teens I painted. Oil, acrylic and watercolor. I fell out of practice when I went to college, but the painterly sensibility is still there — that’s undoubtedly why some of my photography seems painterly.

Your recent works have been seascapes. What draws you to that particular subject and why?

I’ve been drawn to seascapes since my mid-20s but only in the past decade have they really been a focus for me. Over the years it became more and more apparent to me that the real draw of the sea is the horizon itself. It’s a natural point of focus. I went to the coast as often as possible. It became a ritual after a stressful week to sit and look at the horizon. After a sitting for little while the stress melted away. I found that others have similar experiences. That melting stress is what I like to share with others in my seascape horizons. It’s a tumultuous world. I like to bring some calm.

What made you start this particular series of work?

This crystallised into a series when I began to see the infinite variety of tone, colour, contrast, texture and detail that exists in what is apparently such a simple subject. Sometimes subtle, sometimes stark. Always interesting.

How much thought and planning do you put into your images? While taking the image and after during post processing.
That varies. Sometimes I see the final image when I see the natural scene and click the shutter, even if I know it will take extensive post-processing to achieve the final result. On the other hand, sometimes I’ll shoot something that I think might have potential, even if I can’t see it at the time. In either case, much of what comes out of the camera is just a starting point for what happens after the shoot. No mater the approach, I’m trying to find and isolate the essence of the scene — and from there, find and develop the essence of that. The essence of the essence. The process, therefore, is largely subtractive. I remove elements from the picture until all I have left is enough of the essence to engage and hold interest. It’s an extremely delicate balance.

If you can choose two favourite images, which two would it be and why?

I couldn’t pick just two. I’ll give you three, one high-key, one mid-tone, and one low-key.

High-key: Through a Glass Very Lightly. I chose this because of the all the details hidden in this bright scene. Keep looking — you’ll see them.

Through a glass lightly © Michael Scandling

Mid-tone: Soft Stepping Stones. This sits at the intersection of literal, impressionist, and abstract. Along with the leading lines, the balance of tone and texture is intended to pull the viewer toward the horizon.

Soft Stepping Stones © Michael Scandling

Low-key: Smile. An abstraction of what was really there — except that the original shot was made on a bright mid-afternoon. There’s just enough texture way out there just below the wisp of the fog bank to make sure you know it’s the ocean.

Smile © Michael Scandling

What is your favourite photography book and why?
That’s a moving target. My current favourite is Bruce Percy’s The Sound of Snow.

What’s your favourite photography quote?
“When words become unclear, I shall focus with photographs. When images become inadequate, I shall be content with silence.”
— Ansel Adams

What is your worst photographic habit?

Shooting something that I’m absolutely certain will never amount to anything. The habit, and the error, is failing to be content with silence.

When it comes to photography, we never truly talk about our failures. But without failures, there would be no success. What is the worst photography mistake you’ve ever made?
Following closely on my last answer, continuing to do post-processing past the point where I know it’s going nowhere. To put it another way, trying force myself to love a picture that I don’t love. 

As much as I am a fan of technology, I honestly do not believe equipment plays the greatest role in photography. But we have to talk about it. So here we go…Which piece of kit could you not be without?
A mid-range zoom: 24-120 or 24-70. Although my Nikon 24-120 f/4 is not the best optically, I use it anyway because I often prefer to go a bit long. The 24-70 is tack-sharp, but sometimes isn’t long enough.

What was the last piece of photography kit you purchased?
I consider my 2019 16-inch MacBook Pro to be an integral part of my kit because of how much post-processing I do. That’s my most recent purchase.

If you were to create your ultimate camera club, who would want to join you (dead or alive)? 

Edward Weston, Alfred Stieglitz, Annie Leibovitz, Jim Marshall, Bruce Percy, Rachael Talibart, Oliver Klink, and my wife. Quite a variety. It would be interesting to see the cross pollination that might occur. 

What is your greatest personal photographic achievement to date?
I’m just starting to get my work out into the world. So far, being juried into three gallery exhibitions at the PhotoPlace Gallery in Vermont.

With your current work, I see a heavy minimalism influence. Why does minimalism appeal to you?
As I said earlier, minimalism has appealed to me since my teen years. For me, there’s an innate aesthetic appeal in seeking the essence in anything I see and I enjoy the challenge of distilling it for others to experience. Much of my work is minimalist, but it often contains a great deal of subtle detail that you might not see until the third or fourth or 10th or 20th time you look at it. I try to create work that will keep the viewer returning to look at it again. And again.

What single thing would you want to improve in your photography?
My printing skill. Creating a printable image. There is often a considerable difference between an image that looks good on the screen and one that prints well, especially with very delicate tonal and colour gradients. Bridging that gap between looking good on the screen and looking good on paper is a challenge.

Describe your artistic style in 3 words.

After many attempts to be clever, I’ve decided to just keep it to simple one simple word: Minimalism.

If you could assist one living and one dead photographer, who would it be?
I assume you mean work as an assistant. Ansel Adams and Bruce Percy.

Which is more important , good technique or a natural eye?
A natural eye, by far. It’s far easier to teach technique. You can’t teach someone to have a natural eye, by definition. With some people you can help bring out a natural eye if it exists below the surface, but you can’t teach it if it’s not there. 

Can you name three photographers’ work that affected the approach to your own work?
Ocean horizons appealed to me long before I saw the work of Hiroshi Sugimoto, but his work was a major inspiration in my turning horizons into a body of work. Seeing Edward Weston’s isolated nudes and vegetable and floral still life photographs was like turning on a light switch for me: an immediate inspiration to see beyond the obvious. Bruce Percy’s subtle minimalism with exquisitely delicate tonal balance and simple forms is a constant inspiration to me.

What artistic influences outside of photography have had a significant influence on how you approach your photography?
Some of my most profound inspiration comes from artists who worked in pigments rather than photons. Some of the influences are more obvious than others, but at least one of them is always in the back of my mind. John Constable, JMW Turner, Claude Monet, Georgia O’Keeffe and Mark Rothko are at the top of my list.

I personally love museums and I’ve seen quite a few exhibitions. A current favourite being the Rodin exhibit in London. What’s your favourite exhibition to date?
I’ll give you three. Sitting in a room full of Rothkos at the Tate Modern in London. Sitting in a gallery of unfinished Turners at the Tate Britain. And an absolutely mind-blowing exhibition of Turners at the Palace of the Legion of Honour in San Francisco.

If you had to come up with one very important lesson that you think every photographer needs to learn, what would it be?
At this stage I don’t think I can answer that. I’m more inclined to learn what the best can teach me.

What direction do you see your photography taking in the future?

I will continue to dance around the intersection of literal, impressionistic and abstract. I have two nascent bodies of work — floral and ICM — on my website that are calling on me to more fully explore. That exploration will undoubtedly be in the direction of drawing out and presenting the essence of what I see.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Drew Johnston says:

    Thanks for the aesthetics!

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