Interview by Andrew Pulver, 2011
by Lucia Davies, 2011
review by Oran Blackwood, 2011
German born Michael Hess hadn't always planned on becoming a photographer.
Starting out in Civil Engineering in Weimar, he began using his
father's Praktica camera and became interested in unexplored social
groups. He spent two years capturing the UK hip-hop scene. After
a visit to a Southampton bingo club, he began a four-year project,
capturing the characters and the atmosphere within over 60 bingo
halls across the country. The project resulted in his first published
book, 'Bingo and Social Club' and exhibitions at the Host and Outside
World Gallery last year. Michael has also documented the lives of
women in Iran in his series, Women Shaped Shadows and has exhibited
around the UK. IDOL has a chat to the London based photographer
about his work, inspirations and how he captures the right moment.
HOW DID YOU GET INTO PHOTOGRAPHY IN THE FIRST PLACE, WAS THERE
A PARTICULAR MOMENT THAT SPARKED YOUR INTEREST?
I actually studied as a civil engineer. I'd always had a love for
photography but had never really considered it as an option until
I saw a student exhibition in Weimar of a friend of mine, Stefan
Syrowatka - of children playing at the seaside in Holland. He showed
me how much more you can get from the world when you explore it
with a camera, and also that it was possible to do this as a career.
I bought those pictures and still have them hanging on my wall.
ARTISTS WOULD YOU SAY HAVE INFLUENCED YOUR STYLE?
mean artists in the more traditional sense of the word? If so, then
I'm a big fan of Gerhard Richter. I love the way he makes simplicity
look easy, and conveys a great sense of beauty from ordinary things.
As for photographers, I'd say Eugene Smith and Jim Goldberg have
had a big influence on me. I was blown away when I first saw Raised
By Wolves and Rich and Poor remains one of my favourite photo books.
It's Goldberg's ability to tell a story with his work that excites
me - to go beyond the single shot to the heart of the people you're
portraying, and to add more depth with text.
OF YOUR CONTEMPORARY PHOTOGRAPHERS DO YOU ADMIRE THE MOST, AND WHY?
admire Paolo Pellegrin for his intimate shots and almost biblical
style. And the thing is, you know they're often taken under very,
very difficult circumstances yet his pictures retain a lot of grace.
On the more artistic side I love the perfection of Erwin Olaf's
photography, and his ability to tell stories and create moods
FIRST STARTED PHOTOGRAPHING THE HIP-HOP SCENE WHAT DREW YOU TOWARDS
THAT AND WHY DID YOU MOVE TO BINGO?
got into hip hop when I was exploring dance in the UK. I was fascinated
by the pure energy and the buzz that goes through a room during
a bboy battle; how you can communicate so powerfully with just your
body. It was extremely rewarding to freeze those moments. Actually
I was photographing bingo at the same time and enjoyed the balance
between the quietness and concentration of bingo and the fast-moving,
energetic bboy battles. What eventually drew me to focus entirely
on bingo was what I found beyond the game. This was a world where
you could really tell life stories. There was much richer material,
more depth. Maybe it's something to do with the age of the people.
There seemed to be a neverending source to explore.
YOU EVER HAD SUBSTANTIAL KNOCKBACKS, OR MOMENTS OF DOUBT IN YOUR
think you'd have difficulty finding a photographer that hasn't!
It's difficult to get recognition, and even more so these days.
My moments of doubt have invariably come from the realisation that
the golden age of photography and photojournalism is over. I'm lucky
in that the love of photography always gives me the motivation I
need to keep taking pictures.
YOU HADN'T CHOSEN PHOTOGRAPHY WHAT COULD YOU SEE YOURSELF DOING
something musical. A few years ago I started to learn the piano
because I had visions of myself playing as a jazz pianist in smoky
clubs (pre-smoking ban). Sadly I gave up after just a few lessons
when I realised I wasn't really any good.
ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE TO ASPIRING PHOTOGRAPHERS?
be careful about being too influenced by people who say what you
should and shouldn't do. Listen to it, take it in and then draw
your own conclusions. I've found it's better to focus on what it
is that drives you to take pictures, to concentrate on your personal
relationship with the medium. This is where you'll get all the energy
you need for making work you're proud of and that's true to you.
IS PHOTOGRAPHY IMPORTANT TO YOU?
a way of gaining access to worlds you would never otherwise see.
Or maybe it's more than that, it gives you a reason to be somewhere
you don't belong. Having a camera in your hands tells someone that
you're interested in what they do, and who they are.
YOU RESEARCH THE SOCIAL GROUPS YOU PHOTOGRAPH OR JUST GO STRAIGHT
INTO IT AND START TAKING PHOTOS?
prefer to start a project with no prejudices or preconceptions.
That way I can learn and grow as the project goes on. For me, research
is more something you do on location than at a computer. It's about
talking to people and engaging with their lives. I work a lot with
the writer, Maxine Gallagher, who spends time talking to people
and taking notes and sound recordings. That leaves me free to concentrate
on taking pictures and also means I end up with a deeper understanding
of the topic. Creating the final story is very much a joint process.
If there's any research I'd do first it would be to go somewhere
first without a camera, just to experience it. That way you can
let yourself get drawn into a subject without thinking about how
the lighting is and other technical considerations. Then you can
come back with your camera to try and capture what you experienced.
NEW EXHIBITION EXPLORES A PARTICULAR SOCIETY GROUP, WHAT ARE YOU
TRYING TO CAPTURE IN THIS SERIES AND WHY HAVE YOU FOCUSED ON THE
is a world that lives inside huge windowless buildings, and that
most people never see. I wanted to open it up to a new audience
and, as I learned more about the subject, I wanted to show that
it's about far more than gambling. There's a huge social aspect
to bingo. Despite perceptions of it being a game reserved for lonely
old ladies, it's actually a lot of fun and even a way of life for
many people (men too!). By combining pictures with overheard conversations
and snippets from interviews I hoped to bring this experience closer
Why the UK?
Because I live here I suppose! But I do think that because we don't
have this phenomenon in Germany that I probably see it with different
eyes than most.
ITEM OF EQUIPMENT WOULD YOU SAY IS THE MOST IMPORTANT TO YOU IN
anything I'd have to say an open personality. The ability to land
yourself anywhere and get on with people. It should be about your
thirst for discovering new things than lenses, films and memory
cards. Actually all my equipment got stolen a few months ago and
I seem to be doing ok right now with just one camera.
IS YOUR FAVOURITE IMAGE FROM YOUR BINGO & SOCIAL CLUB EXHIBITION
always think these photographs work better together, and that it's
hard to isolate any of them. But maybe I'd choose Lucky Seat - portrain
of a woman playing bingo in Southampton. That was taken in 2005,
in the first club I visited. I went back there over four years later
at the end of the project and found her still sitting in the same
seat. I suppose it just sums up bingo for me. Maxine's favourite
is Frank & Lily because we're privileged enough to know the story
behind the picture. They were two 70-somethings in Liverpool who
played bingo religiously, several times a week. He told us that
he was in love with her. She told us that she could only ever love
one man, who was her husband who died some years ago.
YOUR IMAGES HAVE A SENTIMENTAL OR PERSONAL SIGNIFICANCE?
These pictures were taken in a time in my life when everything seemed
possible. I was just starting out and felt free to explore, travel,
do anything I wanted. The UK felt like a blank canvas, no town was
too small or obscure. It was great being able to work with Maxine,
and to now have so many great memories of wonderful, fun-loving
people. We spent one New Year's Eve in a customer's house - and
the next on in Paradise Island in Liverpool. It was an exciting
time. Even a cup of Costa coffee at 6 in the morning in some service
station in the middle of nowhere was exciting. In terms of the photography,
obviously I spent a lot of time photographing the older generation,
who are often written off and ignored. I found them to be so young
at heart and relaxed in themselves. They have a lot to teach us.
They reminded me a lot of my granny which is why I dedicated the
book to her.
MANY ATTEMPTS DOES IT USUALLY TAKE YOU BEFORE YOU GET THE 'RIGHT'
worked on this project for over four years and visited nearly 70
bingo halls. A few bingo halls I went back to three or four times
to get the right shots. So maybe that answers that question! Having
said that, I spent a lot of time sitting, waiting for the right
shot, and there are only so many photos you can take of someone
before they start to feel uncomfortable.
DO YOU DECIDE ON WHO OR WHAT TO PHOTOGRAPH?
keeping my eyes open and listening to what feels right. I find that
it's good to be interested in everything around me, and then when
an interest becomes an obsession, I know I've found the right subject.
HAS BEEN THE GREATEST MOMENT OF YOUR CAREER?
Dewi Lewis told me he wanted to publish this story. A story I'd
been working on so long without knowing where it's going, and a
publisher whose books filled my bookshelves.
IS YOUR IDOL?
Pellegrin - not just for his photography, but for the kind of person
by Liz Foggit Words by Emma Hurwitz
by Liz Foggit, 2011
review by Suzy Prince, 2011
by Lu Orcheston-Findlay, 2011
Other Side Magazine