Breaking the Fourth Wall: A Look at the Photography of Michael Otley

by | Jun 16, 2009 | PHOTOGRAPHY

The city of Richmond has a history all of it’s own. It grows in so many different directions. These directions can be musically, politically, socially or artistically. What really can make or break an image capturing any of these moments is the humanity of it all. If you witness a memory that invokes something in you but the picture doesn’t maintain the poignancy of that instance, the point or purpose may be lost on us all. Michael Otley’s photography allows these moments to be truly captured with their hearts still intact.

Whether it’s an image from Best Friend’s Day, a Gallery5 show, a party on Parkwood Avenue, or anything that might occur in this city, Otley finds a way to personify the moment with the click of a button. His works have been featured in gallery showings at Harrison Street Coffee Shop as well as this very magazine. What may still remain as a casual hobby for Otley is a truly promising talent that deserves to be recognized.

What was your introduction to photography?

Michael Otley: I feel like I started off with a 35mm at some point. I’m not even sure what happened to that. I didn’t keep up with it at all. I think I got interested in capturing moments much later. Then I would just pick up disposable cameras at gas stations. Then just shoot and click it whenever I felt I should. It was a very slow process of trial and error, because you didn’t get your feedback until much later. I was pretty frugal as well. I wouldn’t do as many as I probably should have. Eventually, as far as more serious photography, it was Michelle Dosson that introduced me to that world. She introduced to me a lot of photographic ideas. Then Liza Kate introduced me to Flickr, and the combination of those things made me take it more seriously. I picked up a point and click digital camera and got more immediate feedback. I learned to use that until finally I figured out I could go further with a SLR.

When you speak of traveling, is that more based around your traveling with music or with vacations?

Around the time I was inspired to start picking up those disposable cameras, it tended to be around band stuff. I would do it whenever though; it wasn’t restricted to that by any means.

This in no way describes your entire collection of photos, but there is a good portion that focuses on musical performance. Whether it’s local or national, you seem very capable in capturing a particular presence there. I mean it could be an image of the Mermaid Skeletons playing in a basement or David Shultz and the Skyline playing at Gallery5. Is there something that fuels your curiosity in capturing images of those moments?

One of the reasons I’m interested in that is because when someone is performing music or performing in general, they tend to dig deeper and that comes out. I want to try and grab that if possible. Also, there can be an interesting mix of everything going on. You have this one person interacting with other members in a band or the audience or both or someone who is all by them self, separated from the audience. It’s kind of a weird concept and there’s just one person who is isolated from everything, and all of the attention is on them to see what they do. They dig deep and give you their prepared performance – well, it’s usually prepared. You see what you can see, and I want to see what I can see. I want to grab what I can grab from that, especially of my friends.

As far as pictures taken of yourself in the midst of a performance, are you able to look at those comfortably?

Yeah, I mean I have seen pictures of myself playing. I guess it’s true of any pictures taken of friends, strangers, or pictures of myself performing. You can take the shots and some moments just look more poignant than others. At times it may even look awkward, and that’s cool sometimes. Maybe that depends on who’s looking at the picture. Like if I’m looking at a picture of me looking awkward, I might be embarrassed, but someone else might see it and think that it’s cool.

One of my favorite aspects of your photography is how you are able to capture a natural side of the people around you. It’s almost as if you can break the barrier and make the images seem more like you are looking at them with your own eyes, not through a lens. That may be what draws me to your photos, whether it’s from a live show or Slaughterama or Best Friend’s Day or what have you. Do you think a lot of this has to do with the personal relationships you have with these people, or maybe you are just capturing these perfect moments?

I appreciate your vote of confidence in my abilities to capture those moments. I think it can be a combination of some of those things – just being friends with those folks, and them knowing that I will be taking pictures at some point. The more you have it out and the more of you taking pictures, the more comfortable it gets. There can be a balance, and it all really depends on the person. Some people grow more comfortable with the camera around and they let their guard down. They don’t feel like they have to pose. Some people are more intimidated the more you have it out. So you just have to find the right balance for each individual. Some people just don’t want to have their picture taken. I respect that. Although I think people are interested in letting that happen; that we are getting more documents of that. There are instances where you take someone’s picture and it’s really obvious that’s about to happen. They might pose or something for that first picture. Then you can just wait and let them do their own thing and just take more shots. Once they have moved on from the posing point of the picture, you get to see maybe a more natural moment. I do want to capture people being themselves, whether that’s performing or not. I don’t mind posing pictures to an extent. They can be extra fun.

One of my favorite photos of yours is Nathan Joyce clinging to a telephone pole. What draws me to it is that we both had our own friendships with Nathan, and he always presented himself as somewhat calm and reserved. Yet in that moment, there was almost something animalistic or frenzied in his actions. It seemed like it was being released in a really funny way.

There was something else I wanted to touch on. There is a really cool ability that you have to take images of inanimate objects, such as city landscapes in particular, and give them human qualities, nonetheless. It can be a scene from Richmond or another state or even a country for that fact. I mean you are somewhat of a wayfarer in the sense that you’re departing to Buenos Aires soon. and you have probably traveled to more places than several of us can speak of candidly. I wonder what your fascination behind things like that might be.

I wish I did that more. There are times when I see things and I wish I had my camera with me, but I don’t. A lot of my friends have drawing skills and have painting skills, and I’m not very comfortable with either of those things. I don’t have the practice or patience for a skill. Taking a picture seems easy to me. You just look at it and hit the button. I guess it’s my way of trying to catalog my ideas and experiences through at least one medium.

Is there anything else you wanted to mention or talk about in regards to photography?

Well you asked me about traveling; this is the first time I am leaving the continent. Last year, I had not left the states before. I went to Mexico – I went twice. I traveled to the Yucatan Peninsula and Mexico City. I loved it. It was a whole new world. I want to see that, and I want to grab those moments. When you are walking down the streets of this foreign place, and you wonder how did I end up in this weird place? Not weird necessarily, but weird compared to my already existing experiences. I want to look at that again. I want to share that with my friends. Ultimately, all of this is about sharing with my friends – potential or existing friends. Just the moment of what I can be, and I just want them to see that. Whether it’s Nathan on a pole, the only people that got to see that were the people that were there on tour. The pictures I took on that tour in particular involved all of us including Nathan. It’s like you were saying that picture in particular interests you because it captures a moment of him that you appreciate; something that you don’t see very often and one that you weren’t there for, but you still were able to experience it. I’m not sure even with band photos that if you can’t hear the music, what it might mean. Some of my favorite band shots are of Aimee of Des Ark. You can really feel the music in the images of her performance, and the interactions with the other band members. I just enjoy sharing those moments with others.

To see more of Michael’s photos check out his Flickr Page

Shannon Cleary

Shannon Cleary

Radio/Words/Stories/Jokes/Bass Booking Agent at Flora, Bassist at Clair Morgan and Music director at WRIR 97.3 fm Richmond Independent Radio

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