Artist Spotlight: Michael Spencer

Michael D. Spencer, is a freelance photographer based in Somerville, MA, specializing in music documentary projects and album art, editorial assignments and studio portraiture. He is the recipient of the Massachusetts Cultural Council & Somerville Arts Council's 2013 Cultural Heritage Fellowship. Michael works closely with local social advocacy and non-profit organizations to advance their grassroots efforts. He also creates exhibitions and hosts fundraisers at his studio and gallery near Somerville's Union Square. Recent projects include a documentary series titled, "Homes for Hope," produced in partnership with the Massachusetts Housing & Shelter Alliance.

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How did you become interested in photography? Was it something you grew up with?

MS: As is the case in a lot of families, I had an adoring aunt who was constantly taking Polaroids -- capturing holiday gatherings, vacations, and birthdays, and to be honest, it kind of annoyed me as a kid. Little did I know then what sort of weight her images would carry a few decades later for my family. As time moves forward and generations pass on, Aunt Mary's images now provide an amazing visual documentation of the people, places and things that make up the fabric of our family's story, and we're fortunate to have them.

I didn't connect with photography myself until late in high school, and even that was casual at best. I was the kid who had five art classes senior year and became photo editor for the year book -- not because I was necessarily qualified for the role, but more so because I never left the art room. After that, it fell off as a hobby for years and then it wasn't until my mid-thirties that it resurfaced with a vengeance after a career change. Since moving to Somerville in 2006, I've had the honor of calling many talented musicians and artists friends, and it was seeing them live their passions full time that gave me the inspiration to leave a 12 year corporate career and pursue my own path as a photographer. That was 8 years ago and it's been a great ride so far.

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What first drew you to photographing people? How do you make the clients feel relaxed in front of your camera?

MS: Photographing people is difficult to do well; I enjoy that challenge. Whether I'm backstage with a band, in a boardroom with an executive, or walking backwards looking out at thousands of protesters in the street, the impetus is the same. Regardless of circumstances, as photographers we need to capture the best images possible of those people in those places at that time, and I work well under that type of pressure.

Formal photo shoots are often high stress events for people and photographers. For every seasoned lead singer or CEO that loves the camera, there are two others who would rather be doing anything else that day. For those people, it's important to provide direction and not leave them feeling awkward or unsure. I try to remove pressure and expectation from them and put it all on myself. I don't enjoy being the subject either, so I empathize.

Recently, you started a documentary series called “Home for Hope”. How did you get involved with the Massachusetts Housing & Shelter Alliance (MHSA)?

MS: I had been searching for the right organization to start a long term documentary project with for a couple of years up until I was introduced to MHSA by a couple of good friends in 2016. My goal was to develop a series that dealt with a serious local issue, such as homelessness, but to approach it in a positive manner with a focus on the depth of human experience, rather than exploiting the desperation of the circumstances that we so commonly see in imagery. MHSA advocates for the transition from short term emergency based systems to longer term solutions as a means for ending homelessness. For example, the "Housing First" philosophy prioritizes moving people back into housing and providing access to appropriate supportive services, rather than leaving people to live on the street while extending minimum, short term aid. I'm drawn to organizations that take a larger picture into consideration, especially when it comes to facilitating real change in the lives of real people.

When I met with Joe Finn, President & Executive Director of MHSA and his fantastic team, we hit it off right away and decided to give it a go. The goal was to create a two-part series: a photo documentary of people in the homes provided to them through MHSA programs, and a second photo series conducted at my studio for a more formal portrait session. It's been a fantastic experience being invited into people's homes, listening to their stories, and being allowed to photograph them in their spaces. We then invited each person along with their case workers to my studio where we took the context of a physical home out of the images, and aimed to capture the individual in their essence. If I capture even a portion of the pride that exudes from my new friends as to what having a home has meant for their journeys, then I consider this project a success. I really love how these images have turned out so far, and I look forward to working with MHSA on an ongoing basis, meeting more amazing people, and helping to share their stories with the world.

The exhibition will be launched publicly at MHSA's upcoming annual meeting in Boston on May 17th at the MHSA and take a look at the excellent work they're involved in here in Massachusetts.

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What are some tips/advice you would give to someone just starting out in photography?

MS: Worry more about your craft than your equipment. You can always buy the Hasselblad when you start booking the 5-figure commercial gigs down the road. Until then, keep yourself in control of finances and equipment upgrades, and focus on developing your skills and your voice as a photographer first. It's an ultra competitive market out there, and rising to the top will have much less to do with what's in your bag than what's in your head.


Do you have any openings or special event coming up?


Flying with Film

Mr Whiskey Photo assistant and packing consultant extrodinaire 

Mr Whiskey Photo assistant and packing consultant extrodinaire 

So with my upcoming trip out to Anderson Ranch I realized I was going to be flying with a bunch of film. Normally I prefer to drive places so I can make photos along the way. The Journey being as important as The Destination. This go around I’m a bit time bankrupt and the distance is great enough to warrant a flight. This brings into play a whole set of variables.You see with a 2002 Crown Victoria I can fit an amazing amount of stuff. But right now I’m limited to a carry on in the overhead and one that will fit under the seat of the plane….

So some choices have to be made.

First off I’m bringing the Canon 5dmk3 for ease of use and instant feedback during the workshop. 3 lenses 3 batteries 4 sets of cards and a flash round out that kit. I know a zoom takes up less room than 3 primes. It’s just that I don’t work that way. Primes just fit my way of working. My second choice is the tried and true Mamiya 7II with a 65mm and a 80mm.

I chose this camera because it makes roughly the same aspect ratio as my 4x5.It has a leaf shutter for faster flash sync speeds and it has a much smaller profile.That and a few odds and ends round out my back pack bag..

Why the added expense and hassle of working with film? That’s a much longer post for a different time.

So now that I’m mostly packed I need to worry about 2 other essential items.

A tripod and some film. The tripod is the easy one, I’m going to use a smaller one with a ball head and stuff it in my suitcase.I won’t have as much room for underwear and socks but there is laundry available where I’m going so that should be fine.If I wanted one of the bigger ones for use with a bigger camera I could always ship it to my destination and ship it back when done but that’s just not practical right now.

Now onto the 2nd and biggest essential.

FILM. In particular Kodak Portra 400 120.

Freezer bag with label and some emulsion choices.

Freezer bag with label and some emulsion choices.

After some online research, to see if anything has changed in the last few years. Not much has. Kodak tells us that film rated at 800iso is fine for one pass through the current X-ray machines. That means 400iso is good for 2, 160iso for 3.Maybe. That information only applies to the personal screening machines, checked bags get a WAY BIGGER dose of X-rays. Never and I mean NEVER put film in a checked bag. As an aside,never travel with film loaded in a camera, remember the camera is going to be X-rayed, also there is a chance that the film back might be opened by a screener, and there goes your film…

There are no direct flights from Boston to Aspen I’m going to be making a couple of hops. If worse comes to worst my film will get the Zap two times. Not the end of the world but not ideal and I’m not cool with that. I’m going through all the trouble to work with film I don't want it damaged. Fortune favors the prepared!

What I need to do is put all my unexposed rolls in a clear plastic freezer bag that is marked “unexposed film” and ask to have it hand checked. Nicely and with the confidence that this is how it’s done. Because this is how we travel by air with film. I shouldn’t have to tell you that you should be nice,like me Ma always said, “be nice on purpose.”

Do not use the old shielded bags they used to use for film. If an X-ray screener can't see through them they just turn up the power until they can, effectively rendering them useless.The reason I like the freezer bag is they are tougher then sandwich bags, they have a hardier zipper and they also usually have a little panel you can write on with a sharpie.I label almost everything, it makes finding things in a hurry easier. A well labeled bag that is easily accessible saves the screener time. I don’t know about you but when I run into an organized and prepared person at work I’m more then willing to go out of my way to help them out. They took the time to think about my time and its value. Be that person

Everything you need plus somethings you don't! but you'll need it if you don't bring it.

Everything you need plus somethings you don't! but you'll need it if you don't bring it.

That brings me to getting to the airport early. Being respectful of other people’s time and allowing yourself enough time to deal with being a special case is important. Worse case you just make your flight, best case you have extra time to buy an overpriced beer while waiting for that flight.

Lastly mark your exposed rolls and keep them in a separate freezer bag. Still easily accessible along with the unexposed rolls just separate. I had to compromise with a screener once where they hand inspected my exposed film and xrayed the unexposed. Yup it came down to that. Exposed film is more sensitive so it was more important to me,the unexposed got marked and then used in the holga because that’s my happy accident camera, I’m already throwing the dice so why not a little more chance?

So clear plastic bag, labeled and readily accessible. Smile, be polite and GET THERE EARLY. Make sense? I hope so,here is a handy link to the tech Support articles from Kodak.

One from Fujifilmusa

And one from Ilford.