Words and Interview by Kari Hendrick
A hundred different eyes stared back at me. Their black pupils seemed to be from another time, as if they were spirits lost in the transition from our world to theirs. “Who are these characters?” I wondered, as I looked up at the steeped walls of “The Chapel” – covered in black and white photos.
Michael Garlington grew up in the presence of his mother and father’s photo lab in San Francisco. From there, he mastered the art of “photo-sculpture” – the combination of black and white photography with installations. He captures the world around in him in a luminous yet stark way. He mystifies reality, and learned at a young age in that photo lab, how to make a print emotional.
Garlington was a punk-rocker in every way. Growing up, he even fought working day after day in the photo lab, but he knew it would keep him in line. He learned not only about the actual print, but the entire journey that was involved.
I had the pleasure of chatting with Garlington on the phone, from where he resides in “not so PC” Petaluma, CA, and ask him about his incredible photographic journey.
Garlington works with film, using a 4×5 large format camera. He continues to explain then, how working with film is so different than digital.
MG: “You’re not working with a thousand pictures. You’re working with a concept. Pre-visualizing the final piece is a major part of the journey to get to the photo. Really, I take only 2-4 pictures, four at the MOST.”
His photos depict the darkness of human personality.
MG: “I like to dance with it. I like the humor and how pretentious and ridiculous it is.”
I ask, “Life? Or your photos?”
And they are. Ridiculous and whimsical, yet emotional and completely brilliant. With the theme of life and death, and because I was first introduced to his work at Burning Man, I can’t help but ask about his spirituality, or, what might be a lack there of;
MG: “Art. This is how I access it…my shop is my church. I come and….I work it out.” He’s a huge fan of classic, European art; Dalí, Gaudí, Michelangelo. “There’s a power in the Cathedrals. They are artisans, and you can feel their beliefs and tap into that beauty,” he explains, as I examine closer the intricate carvings, crosses, and a black and white photo of a naked woman on his 40′ tall Gothic Cathedral.
“And what happens when your church just doesn’t do it? When you’re really not feeling inspired?”
I expect him to respond with “I listen to music” or, “I take a hike, or go on a trip…” He surprises me and instead explains how, at this phase in his life, he really knows how to channel the art.
MG: “I know how to access it, and set up a parameter. It’s like building the frame, or the outline, and then putting your art into it.”
There’s a method to his art, and every step is very calculated. The ultimate goal? To get into a respected Museum, of course. One of his favorite museums is the de Young Museum in San Francisco. “I’m totally inspired by the whole place,” and it happens to be the home to one of his favorites, the David Hockney exhibit. He’s made attempts at getting into these museums but not in any typical way. He started a project called “Photo Car” where he would cover his vehicle with his pieces. By traveling across the U.S. and parking the vehicle in front of large exhibits, he would create a magnet and draw people to his art. People were interested, and started talking. “The people have the power to demand art,” he says. “If the gallery wouldn’t take me before that, they sure would after.”
I can’t help but wonder, amongst all of these hundreds…even thousands of characters that Mike has captured, if there is one that really stands out.
“I’m still in the revolution of finding the one,” and explains that most of these photos are stories that he puts together and curates. Something along the lines of a fairytale. And then he tells me, he actually does have a favorite, but it’s not because of a character. It’s because it is something, “absolutely real.”
He continues to describe one of the photos on his photo chapel of an old man, gently leaning over his dying spouse.
MG: “This photos is totally unpretentious, because it is true.” It’s a photo of his grandparents, during the last moment of his grandmother’s life. “To catch a moment like that in time, is absolute. Listen; life is lonely. But see, that’s it, you go through it alone, but you don’t have to.” And this photo of his grandparents together depicts that beauty, of life and death, perfectly.
Mike’s work is beyond this world. It’s unique, compassionate, beautiful and bizarre. Truly inspiring.
I have one last questions for Mike.
“Favorite album, song, or artist of 2013?
He laughs a little, “Oooh man. John Lennon!!! Still! No one is more punk rock than John Lennon.”
Photo courtesy of Fest 300