Travel

Stunning Photos of Small-Town Pennsylvania

Mike Thompson captures the emotional highs and lows of his blue-collar community.

by Tara Wray
Dec 20 2017, 5:00am

Photos by Mike Thompson

Welcome back to "Doin' Work: Flash Interviews with Contemporary Photographers." This is a place for me to celebrate inspiring photographers and to present you with an easily digestible bite of their personalities and work.

This week's guest is Mike Thompson. He's a self-taught photographer born in Onslow County, North Carolina and based in southwestern Pennsylvania. While only active for two years, he has quickly developed a distinctive style through the simple process of keeping his camera on him at all times. He's constantly searching for an image that "makes [his] heart race." Thompson's travels have taken him to big cities, which he captures with the same intimacy he practiced among the rural communities in which he grew up. "Making photos takes me out of the blue collar mindset surrounding my area," he says. "It makes me feel less judgmental, and more empathic towards the world, and people I meet in it."

The artist as a young man, image courtesy Mike Thompson.

The interview below has been edited for length and clarity.

Where do you live and work and how does that impact your photography?
I live in a small town in southwestern Pennsylvania, about an hour south of Pittsburgh. Shooting in a small town sometimes makes it harder to produce good work. You have to be patient and constantly keep watch of your surroundings, because you don't know when you'll get another chance to make a photo. On the upside though, a lot of my pictures tend to be personal, dealing with close friends, family, and whatever fits in between.

When and how did you get your start in photography?
I started making photos two years ago. This isn't going to sound cool, but I started with an iPhone 4, taking photos with it at my waist, usually walking around work, or just hanging out with my friends while they weren't looking. About six months into it my friend Emilio told me to save up and buy a real camera. I remember I was so ignorant to how a real camera works. I would message photographers on Instagram asking about F-stops and shutter speeds. Thank goodness I asked the right people.

What compels you to pick up your camera?
Before I started making photos I was a complete shut-in. I didn't see too much of anything good around me. I was depressed and constantly negative. Now that I use a camera, it forces me to be more outgoing and gives me space from over thinking every aspect of my life. Something happened inside of my skull. It's not that I'm a much happier person, but it made me less introspective, and more empathic towards the world.

What are you working on now?
I cannot give away all my secret plans, but I will say it's so difficult to focus on one project at a time. I have a simple project shooting old school box televisions that are left around my town. I don't know why, but it just bothers me knowing that no one is going to do anything with them. The garbage man doesn't take them, so they just sit there for months at a time. I guess it just shows how this world is filled with things we don't need.

If you had to explain your work to a child, how would you describe it?
I would say to my one year old nephew, "these are the things and people I see that make me feel things."

Do you make a living as a photographer?
No. The most money I've made off of photography is selling a print to a friend for $20. I work at part-time factory job during the week. Working part-time has its ups and downs. Yeah, I get more free time than most people, which I can spend editing photos or writing articles for my blog. On the down side, I don't make a lot of money and having to throw a huge chunk of it away for rent.

Show me the image you are best known for. What are your thoughts on it?


I couldn't tell you what image I'm best known for, but maybe it's this woman crossing her legs in NYC. It's not really a personal photo, it's more street. I started off doing street photography when I got my camera, so it will always hold a special place in my heart. This is probably my favorite street photo that I've taken.

What frustrates you about photography?
Not taking photos is the only thing that frustrates me. I get anxious when I don't have my camera. I carry it everywhere I go. I've heard people say, "You miss out on a lot of things by doing that," but I don't think I'd be interested in doing things and going places if I didn't have my camera with me. Maybe someday I'll set my camera down—it'd probably be a huge weight lifted off my shoulders.

Describe your working process.
For street photography, I just look for people and things that interest me. Some days I get good shots and some days I don't. I try not to stress over it. It's not a competition. For personal work, I usually don't pull out my camera until I am comfortable with the person I want to photograph. Some people are put off by cameras so I try to learn about them by hearing stories about crazy things they see or just about their family life. It might take me a couple visits to feel comfortable with them.

You mention on your blog that you're a big fan of Hannah Wilke. Talk to me about that love.
Hannah Wilke is admirable in a lot of ways. The first time I saw her work was at the Carnegie Museum of Art when I took a photo of a man with his back turned towards me while he was staring at a piece from her S.O.S (Starification Object Series). In this series, she placed chewing gum on her models to represent the male perception of women—as if they are stars in the sky. It seems nice on the surface, but stars are objects without any feelings or needs. If one of these 'stars' were to voice their wants or needs, they would get chewed out just for being who they are. This isn't right in my opinion. Everyone has feelings, wants, and opinions; therefore, not respecting women is not right. I admire Hannah Wilke because to be an open feminist in today's day and age is not always celebrated. I cannot imagine how difficult it would have been to be one in the '60s and '70s.

Describe the approach you take when establishing a relationship with a subject?
Some of my photos are candids of strangers I see at events or out on the street. I sometimes take portraits of people I know so developing a relationship isn't usually an issue. When I want to take a portrait of someone I'm not close with, I usually try to get to know them a little more by hanging out with them for a while.

What do you think of the vast sea of online photography? What is your approach to standing out?
There are so many photos on Instagram that it's hard for me to pick something I like. I usually stick to a group of photographers I enjoy. If I stumble across an account that catches my eye, I'll follow them.

I've never been one to use hashtags. Some people do it and it surely helps them get their work out there, but whenever I check out the Instagram hashtag #streetphotography, most of the time I don't remember any of the good photos I see.

Standing out isn't something I focus on. If I compare myself to other photographers then I doubt I'd ever post. If I make a photo of something that interests me, and people seem to like it, then that's a plus.

What are you most proud of in terms of your work?
The only thing I can think of is getting past the learning curve. I'm proud of not quitting when things got frustrating in the beginning—when I would miss a shot, when I didn't know how to work the camera in manual mode, and F-stops and shutter speeds were difficult for me to understand. I could have quit and sold my camera and gotten into something else like video games or drugs, but I stuck with it.

What are you doing when you aren't making pictures?
I usually try even harder to procrastinate cleaning my house. I'll go visit friends and family, go to the laundromat, hang out at the house with the pet ferret (Gutsy), and take naps. Aside from napping, I usually have my camera with me. Sometimes I'm working on articles for my blog, and that takes forever.

What do you think the future of photography might look like?
I guess with smartphones, there are going to be a lot more selfies. I just saw an article on PetaPixel that compared a photo taken with a Leica M9-p and an iPhone 7. You can still see the Leica took the better photo… but the iPhone isn't far behind. Things cannot stay the way they are forever. Photography is very popular right now. Soon enough I think expensive digital cameras are going to die out. Google Glasses are a thing, right? I've never seen the images they make and I don't know about the quality of the photos they produce, but I'll tell you that it's only going to get better.

Name three contemporary photographers that blow you mind?
Emilse Laguna because no one does it exactly like her; Emilio Vignali inspires me to edit better; and I don't know his real name, but his instagram account is @Stanislavtroitsky. He documents life in Montreal, which is a pretty cool series.

The most important question of all: Dogs or Cats? Why?
I've just recently met a couple dogs that I enjoy, but I've always been down with cats. I think people are a lot more like cats than dogs. We only want to be noticed by people who know exactly what we want, namely, people who don't harm us. And when we want to be left alone, we just leave.