Today I'm interviewing a very talented New York based photographer who picked up his camera at the age of 17. Specializing in portrait/editorial photography, Ryan Mikail engages in conversations, listens, and pays close attention to the smallest of details. We discussed portraiture, self-criticism, and up-do-date trends of the digital age.
Your career path started back in Miami where you grew up. Has it always been photography centered?
I've always enjoyed creating. Growing up I took every visual art class. Painting, sculpture, graphic design, wood working. I was better at some than others. I picked up a camera in high school. I took Photography 101 when I was 17 and decided that I wanted to pursue it as a career. I took to it much more quickly than other creative crafts. I enjoyed the process of it. From conceiving an idea to processing images in the dark room. It was different from the other classes I took because you had to go out into the world to create, versus sitting in front of the same canvas or work table. I still find myself trying to take on other creative endeavors, but photography has always been my main goal.
When working in portraiture, it's extremely important to have an eye for detail and an emotional bond with a model because the focus of the photograph is the mood of the subject and its personality. How do you achieve that and what do you appreciate about this particular genre the most?
I think the thing that attracts me to portraits is the same thing that makes a great portrait image. It's understanding who a person is. Even if it's just a small part of what makes them who they are. I find people interesting. I like to know what makes them tick and why they think and feel the things they do. My best or favorite photos always come from the shoots where we spend more time talking than shooting. I always allow a bit of time before we start the shoot to talk with the model. Sometimes it's while grabbing a coffee or sometime just by taking my time while setting up.
To me personally, portraiture is one of the most fascinating yet difficult genres to work in. It's very honest and pure as there are no unnecessary distractions. Therefore, picking a model to shoot with is crucial – there should be something else there except a beautiful face. Otherwise, the connection between that portrait and the audience will never happen. How do you usually pick a model for a shoot?
I sometimes shoot test on my days off. A lot of the time I just reach out to agencies last minute to see who catches my eye. If I find someone beautiful or interesting physically I don't always have time to cast them. But you can tell a lot from a model's portfolio. You can see how many expressions they show and how willing they are to work towards getting the shot. Also, because we live in a digital age most agencies will link to a model's social media channel which can give you a pretty good idea of someone's personality. But other times it's just luck.
Artists are usually too self-critical which is completely understandable – you have to question your work in order to get out of your comfort zone and grow. When it comes to photography, what do you criticize yourself for?
My mom has always told me since I was little to "just finish", and not to concern myself with so much detail that I get stuck and never complete anything. So clearly criticizing my own work has always been an issue for me. I often need time to reflect on an image to know if it's good and if it feels like "me" and my work. And that time reflecting can often lead to stalling. So I guess I am most critical about how critical I am.
Let's say a client approaches you and offers to work on a very profitable commercial project. What could make you reject the offer and what are your thoughts on commercial photography in general?
I don't have an issue with commercial photography in general. I personally don't find it exciting, but I feel like it's just a separate genre that requires its own set of skills to shoot. I guess I would only ever turn down a commercial project if I felt I couldn't accomplish what the client wanted. If it was outside of my abilities I wouldn't take the job. And, of course, if it was a job for some evil super villain like Darth Vader. Actually shooting Darth Vader would be pretty cool!
Living in New York can be stressful but this city can get away with almost anything because at the end of the day it fills you with inspiration. What do you like about living in New York and where do you feel at home?
It's exactly that. It's inspirational but also the access to resources to accomplish ideas. Before I moved to NYC, I came up from Miami for a summer to work on my portfolio. At the very beginning of my trip I had most of my money stolen and had no place to live. I ended up living in five different apartments and only shooting three times in three months. It was a disaster. But when I went home to Miami I felt I needed to get back to NY as fast as possible. I needed to be able realize my ideas and Miami didn't have the resources. It's hard to say where I feel most at home. I really love NY and am proud of the home I've made here. But my family is very important to me and I feel most comfortable around them. They're all in Florida. I am torn between the two. They both fulfill something for me.
What trends do you like/dislike in contemporary photography and what do you think it's missing right now?
I really like that there are photographers who still use film. Harley Weir and Matteo Montanari are amazing. I don't know if that's a trend, but it makes me happy when I see modern images taken on film. There is a warmth and character to it that can't be done with digital. Even in post. It's nice to see artists embracing a slower process in a world of immediate satisfaction. I've had a couple rolls of film sitting on my desk for a year now. That's why I don't shoot film. I embrace the slowness a little too much. What I don't like is how common it has become for artists' work to be reproduced without credit. The way we consume media now a days supports posting and re-posting content without crediting the people who created it. I find it's often a losing battle to make sure a creator is credited on Tumblr posts, Instagram accounts, etc.