All images by Michael Comeau. Used with permission.
Photographer Michael Comeau is a lifelong Brooklyn resident with a serious photography obsession. It started when he was really young and very much into stuff like National Geographic Magazine. Now an adult, he’s had quite a long time to hone and mold his creative vision–and that’s clearly evident in his work.
According to Mr. Comeau, his work blends traditional street photography with elements of portraiture, still life, abstracts, and landscapes. But to me, it’s all about the moment.
You can follow his adventures around the streets of New York on Instagram: @michaelcomeau
Talk to us about how you got into photography.
In 2008, I was depressed, unemployed, and bored out of my mind. I played guitar and bass when I was younger. But I was sick of music, and I wanted some kind of new creative outlet.
I can’t remember if there was a specific catalyst for choosing photography. But one day, I spontaneously came to the conclusion that I should get a camera and start taking pictures.
So I started reading online about what camera I should buy, and I started looking for a Nikon D40.
Why? Because that’s the advice I got from Ken Rockwell! However, I ended up with a Canon Rebel XT that I picked up on closeout at the PC Richard’s on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn. I knew nothing about photography, but I always liked the visual arts, even when I was a kid.
I loved going to the library to read magazines like National Geographic. Later on, my college girlfriend majored in Art History, so I spent a lot of time in museums, art galleries, and book stores.
What made you want to get into street photography?
When I got started, I was mostly interested in portraiture because I loved the work of photographers like Richard Avedon and Steve McCurry. But I was doing street photography without knowing what it was. I’ve always taken really long walks. So I started bringing my camera with me to take pictures along the way. Eventually, I realized that I was doing street photography. I just didn’t have a name for it at first.
Talk to us about the way your creative mind works. Does it mostly focus on lines in a scene, contrast, moments?
I consider myself a street photographer, but mostly because it’s the least worst way to describe what I do. I’m a visual omnivore. I love capturing interesting movements, but a tremendous amount of my work is strictly concerned with form, color, and texture.
I love photographing interesting moments, but in the meantime, I shoot every damn thing that catches my eye. That can be a cloud, a car, or a dead rat. I admire street/documentary photographers like Robert Doisneau, Mary Ellen Mark, and Danny Lyon. But I also love Irving Penn, Albert Watson, Paul Outerbridge, and Edward Weston, all of whom are famous for very structured, rigidly composed images.
If I really boil it down, I want to combine Mary Ellen Mark’s gentleness with Albert Watson’s intensity.
What attracts you to the people that you take pictures of?
If I’m doing traditional street photography, I shoot first and ask questions later. If you’re in my point of view and I see something the least bit interesting, I’m going to try to get a shot. I’m pretty subject neutral in that regard. But I don’t do poverty porn, and I try to avoid embarrassing people.
Street photography can be very cruel, and it doesn’t need to be. If I’m looking for portrait subjects, I seek out people who have some kind of charisma, or who are just plain interesting looking. But sometimes, I’ll ask someone just because I know they’ll say yes.
I’m a very introverted person by nature, and there is something incredibly thrilling about making a connection and getting the yes. So sometimes, I’ll shoot a street portrait just because I know it will put me on cloud nine.
Lots of street photographers are really afraid of photographing kids, but you’re pretty fearless about it. We always say that you should check your intentions. So did you ever feel any hangups about photographing them?
I’m not fearless about ANYTHING in street photography. But fear is a good thing. It lets you know that you’re pushing yourself and putting something on the line. So I don’t ever want to be fearless, because I’ll have stopped growing as an artist and as a man.
It’s vital for photographers to understand that you don’t have to overcome fear to get good pictures. You just have to be willing to push the fucking button at the moment of truth!
Now, as far as children go, I treat them like any other subject. If a kid looks interesting, I’m gonna photograph them. However, there are some caveats. I live in New York City, where photography is generally accepted by most people. I’m also very street smart and I respect boundaries. If I get the tiniest sense that I’m making someone uncomfortable, I back right off.
What makes you choose black and white over color in certain images?
I am 100% digital, so I always make the decision after the fact. 99% of the time, I don’t think about black and white vs. color at the moment of exposure. Generally speaking, if color is integral to an image’s character, it stays in color. If color is distracting from a moment, expression, or graphic element, I’ll go to black and white. But I try not to get too cerebral about it.
Sometimes it comes down to converting something to black and white and thinking “oh that’s cool.”
What was the toughest thing that you’ve had to learn and overcome as a street photographer?
I used to have a really hard time just enjoying the journey. When I started, I had excellent taste but no skill. I knew exactly how much I sucked. I’d shoot 300-400 pictures in a day, and 99% of them would be total dog shit. That was very frustrating and I nearly quit many times.
I understand today that photography should be an adventure, not a race to perfection. But I was putting pressure on myself to create magic every time I left the house. To progress as a photographer, it’s important to study the work of the masters. But it’s easy to start comparing your own work to the 10-20 best images of a legend like Henri Cartier-Bresson, who shot millions of frames throughout his career. That’s exactly what I was doing.
I only started progressing when I stopped worrying about the pictures and started focusing on enjoying the act of shooting. Most photographers would be way better if they didn’t take the photos so seriously!