NYLMA Member Spotlight: Michael Meyer

by Sander Coxe on September 29, 2015

Meyer Michael (1) 2015Maine native and Brooklyn photographer Michael Meyer of Picture More Business balances art, business, concern for the environment and international cultural exchange while serving the New York legal community through his corporate photography firm. Here’s a snapshot of his life story. 

Thanks Michael for taking the time to be interviewed for our Member Spotlight. Where are you from and what brought you to New York?

First, thanks for giving me the opportunity to share my story. I grew up in Auburn, Maine and graduated from NYU’s Tisch School of Arts with a BFA in Photography in 2002. At the time I had a vague plan of making a living through exhibiting and selling my fine-art photography. But the vagueness of my plans and economic reality did not quite take me in the direction I’d planned. The need to pay the bills landed me a position as studio manager for another photographer’s studio who balanced his own creative endeavors with a diversified commercial practice that spanned editorial, corporate, music and advertising projects. The position was really a kind of apprenticeship that allowed me to learn the ins and outs of production, marketing and day to day management of a creative business. It was terrific experience and I owe a great deal to his generosity.

That sounds pretty terrific indeed. I have a few other professional photographer friends who have talked about the disruption of digital photography. From the timing that sounds like that must have been something you experienced as a new grad.

Yes it absolutely was. I was fortunate to experience the digital disruption and be shielded in many ways from its downsides. Everyone was on the same learning curve but some had far more to lose than others. It truly was a revolution. Just about everything in our business was altered. The most visible was the shift from film to digital but that is really the smallest part of the disruption. The new tools are certainly easier to use and more flexible, which has brought far more people into the industry and given them the ability to make work of very high quality, but it is the structural changes in not only photography but also related industries that have been most important.

Photography has become ubiquitous. Distribution has become simple. The standalone photograph has been pushed aside by the flow. What was once an easily replicated but limited physical object has become an infinitely shareable digital string. All of this has led to changes in the way that commercial buyers use images, how they buy or license those images and the value they place on them. In this sense, the revolution isn’t over. That isn’t a complaint; digital has certainly created as many opportunities for creatives as it has destroyed.

What do you shoot for yourself?

I make pictures that nobody wants to see or buy. [laughter] Just kidding. I am working right now on the layout for an artist book of photographs that I’ve been making in Seoul over the past decade or so. My wife, Ji Young, grew up in Seoul. We go every year or so to visit her family. During these visits I photograph. The photographs are of Seoul, but the book is about how still photography (within a book form) can be used to describe a city that is constantly reinventing itself. How does one freeze momentary physical facts without losing a sense of the frenetic pace of the city?

I am collaborating with a friend who prints for museum exhibitions on the printing. Once we have a few technical issues sorted then I’ll print and hand bind an edition of about 30 books which I’ll then give away to friends and various art world connections. And I’ll move on to the next project.

That project is one that is already in progress and is close to my heart – photos from my home state of Maine. It’s a study of the pine tree as a cultural symbol. Maine is the “Pine Tree State” and the physical and cultural landscapes are rife with pine trees. I haven’t lived in Maine for almost 20 years, but the pine tree remains a touchstone. The photographs aren’t pristine vistas of unbroken forest; rather, they are of pine trees as social artifacts. For instance: I’ve photographed numerous signs for campgrounds, nursing homes, business parks and shops that use the pine tree in their name or logo. When the trees themselves appear, they are more likely to be within a landscaped vista rather than a natural one. It’s a project that is still in progress; we’ll see where it goes.

That’s how I generally work when shooting for myself “loosely”. I have an idea in mind that I shoot around, often for years. At a certain point it is apparent that I cannot push the idea further and I pull the photographs together into a finished form–sometimes as an artist book as I described above and sometimes as an exhibit. I don’t talk about this work much at the LMA, but anyone interested can see these projects on my personal site: michaelmeyerphoto.com.

Good man. I will go visit – thanks. What else do you do for fun?

Eat! My wife and I love to cook and to eat. We love going out to explore new restaurants but also love to make meals together at home.

Korean BBQ? (A personal favorite of mine.)

Not so much. Don’t get me wrong; we love Korean BBQ. However, we don’t fancy waiting in line for the good ones. Well, if you go at the right time one can avoid the lines at Kang Ho Dong Baekjeong in Queens (the Manhattan location always seems mobbed), but it’s a trek out to Queens. We’re more likely to head out for American BBQ. There are so many options for BBQ in the City that it’s almost hard to choose where to go. That makes it sound like we’re meat fiends, but when we go out for Korean I actually prefer Cho Dang Gol, a tofu spot in Koreatown on 35th and my usual take-out order from the neighborhood Thai place is green curry with tofu. We are always ready to experiment and try different things.

Meyer Michael (2) 2015What is craziest thing you have eaten?

I guess it depends on what you think is crazy. We went to Beijing several years ago; in one of the markets there were scorpions on a stick. Too crazy for me. In Korea there are street vendors selling beondegi, boiled silkworm. Again, too crazy for me. Put those bugs on the bottom of the ocean and I’ll eat them no problem. What’s a lobster if not a big, delicious bug underwater? Sea slugs? Love them. Raw octopus still moving? Once was enough, thank you. Oysters are pretty weird when you think about them–but don’t think because they’re delicious. Also in Beijing, at a Sichuan restaurant we ordered a fish boiled in peppercorns–that was the hottest thing I’ve ever eaten. When Ji and I travel we try whatever is local. Sometimes it is amazing and sometimes not. Why go somewhere new if you’re just going to eat and do what you could eat and do at home?

What kind of outdoors activities do you enjoy?

I love cycling. Growing up in Maine I spent a lot of time on a bike out in the woods. Here in the city there are no woods, but Ji and I love to get out on our bikes for an afternoon jaunt to Coney Island or even just around Prospect Park. And I use my bike to pick up groceries or run errands–we’ve even done an Ikea run on our bikes.

Having grown up with easy access to the outdoors I have a healthy love and respect for nature and am basically a born environmentalist. While I often pine for the Maine woods of my youth I do like living in the city. The efficient allocation of resources and the density in many ways makes cities more dynamic, creative places. The city nurtures interaction between people. NYC is particularly unique and powerful in this regard. I’m sure some might disagree.

We love to travel as well. Most of our travel is centered on family lately. As I mentioned earlier we travel to Seoul frequently to see my wife’s family. Each year we also spend numerous long weekends with my folks up in Maine–usually seeking opportunities to be outdoors hiking or camping. Whether it’s visiting family, taking a long weekend to go somewhere warm in February or taking a couple of weeks to go somewhere new, we love to get out and about in the world. We are actually leaving in a couple of days for a trip to Greece. Actually, when this comes out I’ll probably be there or just getting back.

I am jealous. Enjoy! So, when did you start PMB?

Picture More Business is actually a fairly recent (2012) rebranding of the wide ranging freelance work that I had been doing under my own name since leaving Tisch. At the time I was rebuilding my freelance business and redefining it after a brief stint shooting in-house for a jewelry wholesaler. The experience there, shooting 35,000 items in 18 months, proved that product work held no interest for me. So, I redoubled my efforts in the corporate space and discovered legal at that time. The re-branding refocused the business on corporate and legal portraiture. I find meeting people and helping firms tell their stories to be incredibly rewarding and have been lucky in finding numerous like-minded clients who have been incredibly loyal. I especially love those opportunities that allow me to help firms push the visual components of their marketing in engaging, forward thinking directions.

Working with lawyers and law firms is always an interesting challenge. I am sure you have some good “war stories.” 

My legal clients range from small solo practices to large national firms, so I’ll give you one of each.

Last winter a small design shop I shoot for frequently was redesigning a criminal defense attorney’s website. The attorney, I’ll call him Scott, because that’s his name, has built a reputation for not shying away from controversy or tough cases. The designer wanted a series of portraits that allude to that reputation. I suggested that we shoot outdoors with a film-noir look and stylized lighting to give a tough guy kind of vibe. Both the designer and the attorney gave the thumbs up and requested a shoot date the following week. The day of the shoot was a beautiful clear February day. And it was frigid. The temperature was in the single digits. We went ahead and shot the photos despite the extreme cold. On the first set-up, I told Scott, “You’ve gotta take off your winter coat.” He looked at me for a minute, sighed and took off his coat. Never mind the frigid temperatures, the breeze coming off the river or the lack of winter coat; he played his part beautifully. Mostly I think he just wanted to get what we needed as quickly as possible so he could put his coat back on. That was a fun shoot, though now I double check weather forecasts when clients suggest shoot dates. Also, I bring tissues.

Another recent project was for a large law firm with offices around the country. The portraits coming out of the New York office were starting to get a little blah. The pictures fit the style guide, but various attorneys weren’t pleased with their portraits. The firm brought me in to freshen up the portraits while maintaining consistency with what already existed. On the day of the shoot, I arrived at the appointed time only to be told that the boardroom where the portraits were usually made had been double booked so I was put in a different room–one without a background similar to that of the existing portraits. A little ingenuity on my part (how do you spell “humble brag?”) and we were ready to go with two different set-ups that echoed the existing portraits while pushing towards something more contemporary. The firm was pleased and I’ve been back twice since to the New York office and once to its DC office.

Oh, one last story. This one isn’t a legal client so I’ll keep it quick. A regular client for which I’ve shot several dozen executives over the last three years brought me in to shoot its new CEO. Time with the CEO would be limited, but they wanted multiple set-ups. On a walkthrough of the office with my contact we identified six set-ups spread across three locations over two floors. We would have ten minutes with the CEO. The first thing the CEO said to me as he walked up was “I hate having my picture taken. Let’s get this over with.” In the end, we got through all six set-ups smoothly, the CEO hung out for a few minutes to chat and left by saying, “Thanks for making that easy.”

That’s what I do: I make things easy. All the client has to do is describe the challenge.

That is great stuff Michael. Thanks – it’s been a pleasure. 

Thank you!

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