Welcome back to Doin' Work: Flash Interviews with Contemporary Photographers. Here, I celebrate the photographers who inspire me every day and offer an easily digestible bite of their personalities and work.
This week, we have Darin Mickey. He lives in New York City, where he's a photographer and teaches at the International Center of Photography and the Cooper Union. He's had a bunch of solo and group exhibitions all over the world, he's been published in the New York Times Magazine and the Washington Post Magazine, and his work is housed permanently in places like the Brooklyn Museum and the Museet for Fotokunst in Denmark. His most recent book, Death Takes a Holiday, focuses on old record shops spread across the Northeast.
Mickey's photos capture ordinary stuff in strange ways. He says he tries to look "intensely at things we take for granted" until he sees "something else."
VICE: Where do you live and work, and how does it impact your photography?
Darin Mickey: I'm originally from Kansas City, but I've been living in New York City for the past 24 years. Living here, and interacting with people in an urban environment, definitely shapes my perspective as a human being. It might not be so obvious in my pictures, in their content and context. I like to take pictures in different states and in different countries. When I do take pictures in New York, they often don't reveal too much of a specific sense of place. Financially, though, being in New York impacts my work, since the cost of living here has gotten out of control. I can't afford a studio space, so I print my pictures smaller than I did in the past.
How did you get your start in photography?
When I was in high school, I was really into skateboarding and punk rock. So the pictures I saw in Thrasher and Maximumrocknroll got me wanting to see things through a camera. My photo teacher also had great taste. She would bring in books by Diane Arbus, Birney Imes, Helen Levitt... Seeing that kind of work in the relative isolation of Kansas opened up my world.
What compels you to pick up your camera? Curiosity, doubt, and the search for questions with impossible answers
What are you working on now? I recently finished my second book, Death Takes a Holiday, which focuses on a few older, somewhat obscure record shops mainly in the Northeast and the community of people connected to them. I've also been photographing a fair amount in Japan. My wife is from there and we go back as often as possible. I've been traveling there for over a decade now, but it's only more recently that I've been able to make photographs there that I feel are getting beyond surface impressions. I also take pictures of things I think are puzzling that are not necessarily connected to specific projects. Those go into boxes and are left to ferment for who knows how long until I might be able to see them in a clearer light.
If you had to explain your work to a child, how would you describe it?
It's like staring at your thumb for a really long time until it starts to seem a little strange. Looking intensely at things we take for granted and seeing something else.
Do you make a living as a photographer?
For the past 20 years, I've been fortunate to make a living (though somewhat meager at times) that has somehow always been connected to photography. In the late 90s and early-to-mid 2000s, I worked as a freelance analog color printer. I was making exhibition prints for people whose work I admired, like P.L. DiCorcia, Roni Horn, Justine Kurland, and a handful of other artists. I learned a lot from having to interpret other photographers work in the darkroom, examining their varied approaches. I also did editorial shooting for magazines for a few years, which I enjoyed. I have been teaching photography as well since 2001. Teaching keeps me on my toes and forces me to reevaluate and cultivate my viewpoints on seeing and life. It definitely informs my own artistic practice. If I'm telling students to take chances with their work and learn from failure, it reminds me to continue to do the same.
Show me the image you feel you're best known for. What are your thoughts on it? I don't think I have one. If I do, nobody has brought it to my attention. I think it's pretty safe to say that none of my pictures could really be considered iconic.
Wha frustrates you about photography?
A lot of what can be frustrating about photography is also what makes it a compelling medium to work in. The way photography can communicate information, often in disjointed fragments, has always been incredible to me.
Describe your working process.
It's pretty varied. It could be walking down a street I've been down a hundred times or going to a place I've never been to before. It could be meeting people briefly and asking them if I can take their picture, or returning to photograph them several times. I do make a point to force myself to go out and make work, though. I can't just sit around and wait for inspiration to strike me. It's too easy for me to get distracted by other things.
Describe the approach you take when establishing a relationship with a subject. Again, it varies. With Death Takes a Holiday, I enjoyed hanging out and talking with people—some of the veteran shop owners who had been at it since the 60s, and the collectors who were obsessed with their things. I liked asking questions, listening to people's stories. Their stories put me at ease when I was taking pictures of them. At least I hope they did.
What do you think of the vast sea of online photography? I like Instagram as a place to share some of the random pictures I take with my phone. It's nice to communicate with people in little image bursts that don't have to be too invested or sacred. I don't want to waste time with too many social media distractions, so I keep it limited to that outlet—and also limit my time there, too. I've recently taken a lot of work off my website and replaced it with links to my completed books and music projects. I don't care anymore about having a bunch of pictures up online just for the sake of appearing prolific, especially if the work's still evolving. Having said all that, I guess I don't have much of an approach toward standing out online.
What are you most proud of in terms of your work?
When I gave my father a copy of my first book, Stuff I Gotta Remember Not to Forget, and after looking through it, he said, "Yeah, I get it now."
What are you doing when you're not making pictures? Besides photography, I make music. I've been playing guitar since I was ten and I still love it. I play in a band called Soft Gang. We released our debut record this past June on Sophomore Lounge Records, a great little artist-run label out of Louisville.
What do you think the future of photography might look like? I have no idea, and given the current situation, with that orange creep in the White House, right now I'm more concerned with the future of humanity than the future of photography.
The most important question of all: dogs or cats?
Both! I love my cat, but I also think dogs are great. At the moment, I'm into chocolate labs for some reason. I love that animals don't worry about things like money, class, or politics. Maybe they have a better angle on things than us humans?
See more of Mickey's work below.