Success Stories: Michael Kirchoff
Sometimes you meet someone whose person and work is filled with grace and dignity. Michael Kirchoff is one of those people–kind, enthusiastic, talented, capable, and shows up prepared. And more importantly, just plain shows up. On the eve of his first solo exhibition, An Enduring Grace: Exploring the Cultural Landscape of Russia, I thought that this was indeed, a success story.
The exhibition opens this Friday, March 18th and runs through April 30th, at the Wildfire Gallery in Los Angeles. The opening is March 18th from 6-9 pm.
The series is a fulfillment of distant childhood curiosities of Russia, then the Soviet Union, as a place very few people seemed to know much about. Michael now approachs these dramatic scenes with the same feeling of wonderment he had felt as a child, and captures them in these images.
This is quite a year from you! Congratulations on your first solo show (and another this fall)! What are you feeling right about now?
Thank you so much! Yes, both shows cropped up within a month of one another, so…yea, uh…wow, didn’t see that coming! I’m definitely feeling excited, but then there is a bit of trepidation along with it. As soon as the show is hung I’m sure I’ll be feeling like no one is going to show up and I’ll be seen as a complete embarrassment. It’s that dream about going to school and realizing I didn’t put on any pants. I know of course this all comes from the same insecurity that most artists deal with all the time. There’s also some stress. Most people don’t seem to realize how much work goes into putting together an exhibit, with so many details to attend to. I’ve really been working hard on getting the word out; it’s a big opportunity to get your name in the limelight for a little while. I’m hoping the exhaustion from getting it all ready will numb me a bit and keep me centered at the opening reception. I’ll also be making sure I double check and wear pants….
I know that you have been a photographer for a long time, working in the commercial world, while making personal work on the side. What propelled you to start pushing your personal projects forward and into the spotlight?
I’d realized long ago that it was the personal work that actually kept me going as a photographer. A great many of the commercial assignments are quite non-creative and can get you down on your chosen career at times. I’ve always had a deep connection with photography as an art form, but a need for an income has always been there too. When this recent recession hit I found that I had more time to do my own thing, and thought…well, why not go for it and see what going back to my roots would do for me. This is where I’m most passionate about photography, so why not work hard at it? A nice next step for me would be to apply this creativity to more commercial assignments that would benefit from my own personal vision, and take it all full circle. Either way, I’m far happier now.
You are an incredibly gracious and social person, involved in photo organizations like APA and always connected to everything that is happening, but your personal work is created when you are traveling alone, far away from outside influences. Do you need that solitude to make work?
Most of the time, yes. Frankly, you’d be crazy to want to be with me while I’m out in the field shooting. Commercial photography often has a team aspect to it, so this work is my chance to make it all about what I can do. I’m usually deep into my own head while I’m out there and would be a complete bore to anyone around. I get extremely focused on what I’m doing and all else simply falls away. I forget about where I am, how far I’ve walked, when my last meal was…all of it. That said, I’m actually not always alone, but then, like I said, there’s were you will find some unhappy people. There is just something about my process of shooting that creates a ritual of sorts that no one else can really participate in. I need that freedom of movement without having to explain myself every step of the way. It has to be photography 24/7 or I’m not going to feel like my time was well spent. This can be difficult for me when I’m on more of a vacation, because I want to shoot all the time, but I’m trying to get better at it. Maybe this would explain my desire for the social aspects of photography when the work is finished…the yin and yang of it all. This is starting to get very therapeutic. Thank you!
I’ve seen your work and words on a number of sites–there are terrific interviews on Two Way Lens, Photopol.us blog, and BW Gallerist blogs, plus your roster of exhibitions and publications is getting longer and longer. How have you garnered this attention and what tips for self-promotion can you pass on to other emerging photographers?
A lot of it started when I was featured on a blog called, uh…Lenscratch, or something to that effect. Have you heard of it? It’s quite good, and I highly recommend it! Actually that’s a big part of it right there, engaging others in your field with whom you draw inspiration and admire. I’ve found that keeping an open mind and reaching out to those around you in similar circumstances helps you build an inner circle that cultivates your growth as a photographer and an individual. Share your work with other like-minded people, and never give up. There are an infinite number of possibilities for self-promotion within the arts; you simply need to start with those closest to you. Your audience is out there, but it’s up to you to find them and engage them with your imagery. If someone ignores you or passes on what you have to offer, move on. For every line on my CV there are ten rejection letters just next to it. Failure is part of the process, and so is building a thick skin.
Get in on the social networking sites, but don’t let it take over your life. Your time out there shooting is the best use of your time there is. Thankfully smartphones and iPads have enabled shooters to be able to do a lot of this on the fly. Use the technology that has become accessible to all.
One other thing that has been fairly helpful is entering some photography competitions. The juried ones are the best because there are real people from the industry looking at your work. You have to do your research though, and find out who the key people are and what kind of work they like. Even if your work doesn’t get chosen, they’ve seen the image and hopefully your name. When people start recognizing these names and images over time, good things begin to happen. It’s a long process, and thankfully I’ve had some success in this regard. Definitely don’t just throw your hard earned money at every competition though; it can be a huge drain on your wallet.
What portfolio reviews have you attended and have you found them valuable?
I’ve attended Review LA twice, put on by the fine people at CENTER, and am scheduled to do Photolucida in April. They are extremely valuable as far as I’m concerned. Where else could you possibly have direct personal contact with the people who can help take your career to the next level? There is a pay to play aspect of it, but the value is more than worth it. Even without the possible opportunities they present, getting feedback and advice from these people can play a big role in developing and shaping your art. It’s also my chance to let the key names in the field know that I’m serious about what I do, and in it for the big haul. Beyond all of this, participating with others who are in the same boat as you gives you the chance to find out what others are doing and whether taking certain steps are working for them or not. Plus you get to see some outstanding work from some immensely talented people. It always blows me away at some of the ideas people come up with. The preparation you must do in order to be ready for these events forces you to concentrate on putting yourself together in a nice tidy package for presentation too. Cross your t’s and dot your i’s. You need to be as professional as possible, or why else would any of these people take a chance on you?
Are you involved in social networking outlets, and if so, how active are you?
Absolutely. I think you have to these days, both for the feedback and the self-promotion. I try to keep a fairly steady presence there through Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/kirchoffphoto) and Twitter (https://twitter.com/#!/michaelkirchoff), but, like I mentioned before, it can get out of hand if you’re not paying attention. I’ve made some great relationships with many people in the industry that way. Some I’ve even gone on to meet and cultivate the relationship in person. I don’t usually post my most important work there, but instead send people to my website. That’s where the work is presented best, so that’s where I want people to see it. There are some issues about copyright and posting your images there that couldn’t be contained in a single book, so I often don’t do it, or watermark the images I do care about that get do posted. There are some grey areas that just haven’t been figured out yet. I also read a lot of photo and art blogs. There is an amazing wealth of information out there about some incredible artists that you can discover almost every day. Participating and engaging the bloggers with comments let’s them know that people are interested and listening, and is an important aspect of it. When I finally get off my butt and start my own, I’d want feedback from people too. Pay it forward, right?
What advice can you give emerging photographers, especially on presentation and on consistently producing excellent work?
Creating the best possible print is one thing for sure. That’s the finished piece of work, not an image on your computer display. A well crafted print is essential as your finished product, and this is really where you need to put your best foot forward. Your finished work is what you will be remembered by, your legacy.
Consistency is a measure of practice. You simply get better at your work the more you practice it, just the same as any field. I almost always have a camera close at hand (sometimes one as simple as a camera phone) and feel the urge to photograph all the time. The more you shoot, the more you will define your vision, even beyond the tools and materials you use. At some point people will start to recognize you through your imagery, and that is a very satisfying place to be, at least for me. Don’t be afraid to try something new either. The technology is changing daily and affords creative types the chance to expand with it.
Do you ever have periods of self-doubt, or lapses in feeling creative?
Oh sure, but I think that’s pretty normal. Doing this is an incredible amount of work, and I think it’s easy to let it overwhelm you at times. I put a lot of heart into what I’m working on, so putting yourself out there like that can create a lot of insecurity. I want to please myself with the images I create, but positive feedback and support from others is usually needed to drive me further. Artists need affirmation and seek out attention with their work. We all want to be proud of our creative accomplishments. You can’t wait around for inspiration though; you really have to seek it out to keep the creative juices flowing.
Is there an artist or photographer that has influenced your work?
I’ve always been a huge fan of Michael Kenna’s work. I have nearly every book he has ever put out and quite often take the time to carefully re-examine them from time to time. Not only are the images themselves beautiful, but he is a master craftsman when it comes to making prints. Everyone needs to see Kenna’s work up close and personal as far as I’m concerned.
Matt Mahurin is another that I think people should be getting inspiration from. He has really brought so much creativity and inspiration to all facets of photography, and been able to do very well in the commercial world as well. Also his music video work is equally as beautiful as his still work.
And finally, what would be your perfect day?
Exercising my creativity and passion, and sharing it with others.
Thankfully I’ve had many of these perfect days, and we touched on them a little earlier. A backpack chock full of film and cameras, comfortable shoes, and taking my time to wander and follow my instincts while out in the field shooting the imagery that makes me happy. Preferably somewhere I’ve never been before, though I certainly have favorites I could return to again and again. Ending my day with a glass of Guinness, surrounded by loved ones, and reviewing the days work would certainly cap it off nicely as well.
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