A Conversation with Michael Eastman
Q: I gather you are self-taught. Who were your inspirations in the photography world and why?
A: Yes, I am self-taught. Edward Weston was my first and foremost inspiration. When I began photography in 1972, there were very few people making art photographs and even fewer photographers writing about it. Weston’s daybooks were my bible. At the beginning of my career I read from them every day, and I continue to be influenced by Weston today. His work was significant to me because he believed in presenting things as they are, rather than stylizing them or misleading the viewer. His photographs were of volumetric sculptural forms such as peppers, shells, and nudes; my forms are horses. If there are similarities in our work, I am pleased.
Q: What made you want to photograph horses? Isn’t that a rather difficult subject since they’re moving targets, as it were?
A: Difficult subject, definitely. Many artists have been attracted to horses as a subject matter. Horse imagery has been prevalent throughout the history of art so it was a challenge to make imagery that is not only new, but also in some small way better than what came before.
I began this series while on a commission to photograph landscapes near Santa Fe in 1998. At dusk of the last afternoon of the trip, I noticed a horse bathed in a beautiful golden light as he stood near the road. As I approached, the horse seemed very aware of me and my camera. As I began to photograph him, he seemed to reveal more. He turned, he stretched, he stared at the camera. He seemed to be posing. And that golden light was beautiful beyond description.
When I began to edit the film from the trip, the photographs that seemed to be the most moving were the ones of the horse. These early portraits haunted me and I soon began a journey of exploration that led to this body of work and to this book.
Q: Your photographs have a painterly quality about them, and often a sepia tone. How did you choose to do this and what is the process you do to create them?
A: I photograph the horses using a conventional medium-format camera, and then I scan the film digitally in high resolution. With Adobe Photoshop as my digital darkroom, I “print” the image with the computer and use my thirty years of experience to create fine art prints far beyond what is capable in a conventional darkroom. Ansel Adams manipulated his negatives to produce amazingly beautiful prints. With my Macintosh, I have tools that Adams could only have dreamed about.
The color palette I used for the horses was inspired by Edward Curtis’s nineteenth-century Indian portraits, but I produced them with a twentieth-century technology.
Q: What kind of cameras do you use?
A: I use a medium-format camera that gives me a large enough negative that can be scanned high resolution to enable me to make very large prints. Also, the medium-format is small enough to enable me to hand hold and follow these horses as they move.
Q: How large and small do you make your prints—aren’t some as large as seven feet tall? And what determines size?
A: I love large scale prints. Their impact is cannot be match in smaller sized prints. With some of the horses, I tried to make them larger than life size. These are reproduced as six feet tall, digital output on watercolor paper. The texture of the paper heightens the taciturn nature of the horse prints, and the scale creates the illusion that the viewer is actually standing in front of these magnificent animals.
Q: Was there a favorite “model” among your many subjects?
A: My favorite models live at a ranch near my home in Saint Louis. There are hundreds of these horses who are outside in paddocks for most of the day, displaying intricate equine interactions of social groups and social relations. This ranch provided endless opportunities for me to watch horses being horses without them taking too much notice of me. It is a perfect place.
Q: Do you ride horses?
A: I have ridden only a couple of times, but I have always loved horses. My father was quite a horseman and I remember watching him ride when I was a child. Even after he
underwent a surgery that left him paralyzed, he continued to show his horses in events where he could ride in a buggy. I was so proud.
I can remember my father loving two things: riding horses and taking family photographs.
This book of horse photographs is both ironic and poignant for me as it incorporates both of my father’s passions. This is why I dedicated the book to him.
Q: What are some of the other subjects you’ve been captivated by?
A: I am currently captivated by Cuba. I have been there three times in the last four years and look forward to returning. It has always been my fantasy to go back in time and photograph Atget’s Paris at the turn of the century or Walker Evans’ South of the 30’s and 40’s. With Cuba frozen in time for the past fifty years, going there is almost like returning to the past. The architecture is beautiful and I have been fascinated that people still live in these magnificently decaying buildings with incredible dignity and pride.
Q: What do you think people respond to in your work?
A: I think there is an honesty and directness in my work that people are not used to seeing in contemporary art. Also, I strive to make my work beautiful. Beauty has fallen out of favor with the art establishment of late, but I have found that people’s instinctual reactions are not governed by fashion.
Q: Do you have a favorite photograph?
A: I always believe that the next photograph will be my best. I have to believe this or it would seem pointless to continue with my work. The older I become, the more I appreciate every opportunity to make a photograph.
Q: What is your next project?
A: I have been working on a series of photographs called America’s Vanishing Landscape for the past twenty years. I am looking for interiors and exteriors that reflect our country’s past, before urban sprawl and new Wal-Marts erase all that is left of our history.