Michael W. Hicks was born and raised in Middletown, New Jersey, and grew up a few minutes from the beach. He did his undergrad at Rutgers University where he studied Political Science. "Since then I've lived in many places, including Philadelphia, Washington, DC, San Francisco, Maine, New York, Alaska, and Berlin." Hicks is currently living in Syracuse, NY, where he's finishing up his MFA in photography at Syracuse University. "It's great, but I have some moments where I miss the ocean." Hicks was chosen by juror Sam Barzilay as one of six artists to be included in our annual Portfolio exhibition.
When did you first become interested in photography?
I never really thought I would be an artist. I never had any clue of what I wanted to do. I've had about 15 different jobs in the last 10 years, everything from a house painter to a systems analyst.
Growing up I never tried to draw, paint or do anything visual. I liked to write and I played sports. I remember borrowing a friend's camera when I was going on a road trip with my father about 10 years ago. I was 25 at the time. I just had the impulse to do something creative but I didn't know what to do with it. I remember walking around the St. Louis Zoo alone on a rainy day and photographing with no particular purpose. I just remember loving the idea of engaging the world with a camera. It opened up a universe of possibilities for everyday life.
After that summer I moved to DC and bought my first digital camera. I took thousands of really terrible images, but I was obsessed. By chance I happened to meet an amazing community of artists in DC who introduced me to photographers like Robert Frank, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Diane Arbus. It felt like these photographers were able to conjure magic from ordinary life. I got some Tri-X and a film camera and carried it with me everywhere. I made loads of bad pictures. I made a couple good ones. I kept going.
What role do shadows play in your work?
I think shadows can reveal something about a person. I think there's an interesting contradiction because a shadow is a concealing element. But by throwing light onto something from a particular direction in a particular way you can create psychological tension. That's something I like to play with. Most of my images feature a strong, direction light source that hints at the mindset of the subject without revealing it outright. The shadows do something similar. There are a lot of ways to interpret it. I think of it as being a metaphor for the repressed parts of ourselves, the things we're afraid of and can feel but can't see or describe. It's also an allegory for death - it's both unknown and familiar, trailing just behind us no matter where we go. I think photography is so good at implying something but not showing it, at conveying mystery. Shadows are a good tool for that.
The photos selected by juror Sam Barzilay for Portfolio are from a series called High Noon –or is it No Man’s Land? How does the title apply to the work?
I'm kind of between titles right now. Let's say for the moment I have two titles and they're different sides of the same coin. I wanted to use a fairly common, recognizable phrase because my work plays with the idea of taking the commonplace and making it strange. High Noon is taken from the title of a 1952 film starring Gary Cooper, so it's a reference to cinema as well as the performance of a masculine ideal that Cooper embodied. In a lot of ways I'm trying to deconstruct this ideal with my images of businessmen and people in suits. It also implies that moment of tension where everything is coming together and something momentous is about to take place. Though in my pictures you can't really see the action - it's happening outside the frame, so the title is ironic, too.
No Man's Land references a constructed world where people feel lost, adrift and without purpose. It's about a psychological place. A lot of what drives my work is about the search for purpose, about finding meaning in the different roles we play.
How much do you plan your images/projects before you create? Do you sketch or storyboard?
It depends, but it's almost purely intuitive. I don't storyboard. Sometimes, if I have a location already picked out I'll make a list of shots in my head. But initially, when I go out into the world I just respond to it based on my curiosities. I make pictures and I don't think too much about what it is supposed to mean. The meaning of the work comes out later, in the editing.
I get ideas from a variety of sources. Sometimes they come from movies, television, news stories, or weird pieces of cultural detritus that I come across. Sometimes I'm out in the world and I meet a person who looks like a character, or I encounter a place that feels like a film set. If that's the case I'll either make the photograph on the spot or, if I have time, go back and work out some ideas with an actor or model. My shoots can take either 5 minutes or 5 hours, it really just depends on the situation. I like to keep the process loose and spontaneous and work in a bunch of different modes. In any case, I'm looking for something that has the perfect balance of totally normal and incredibly odd.
There is a darkness and a sense of mystery to your work. What draws you to these themes?
I've always thought a lot about death and the idea of finding a purpose in life. Most of the time, death remains hovering in the background. We know it's there and can feel it in some undetermined far-off future, but we try our best to keep our minds off of it. We have to push it to the back of our minds so we can live our lives. But sometimes, death comes to the foreground and lingers there. It's both a totally natural part of life and it's also completely mysterious.
So this combination of mystery and banality that we find in everyday life is really captivating to me. I think our very human impulse is to seek resolution. We want answers to questions, we want things to make sense, and sometimes life provides no answers. Sometimes things don't make sense, or the logic is hard to access.
What I wanted to do with this work is create a heightened, theatrical version of the world. I want it to resemble the world we live in, and to make it feel familiar but somehow alienating at the same time, both real and manufactured. I wanted it to be reflective of the world as I think about it.
Who are some artists that inspire you?
Are you more interested in b&w or color photography?
I love both! Lately, I love mixing them. There are some people who would have you believe they don't belong together. I am not one of those people.
What's the last good movie you saw?
Probably Brian DePalma's Blow Out from 1981, which is weird because it stars John Travolta. But it's really good. It's about a B-movie sound tech who records a murder while out collecting audio. It was also set in Philly, and watching it made me miss living there.
Where can people see more of your work?
A bunch of places right now! Besides the APG exhibition, I have a piece in a show called B/W Now in Molena, GA at the South x Southeast Gallery. If anyone's in New York the weekend of March 9 I'll have work in Syracuse University's thesis exhibition at ArtHelix in Brooklyn. I also just had a feature published in Aint-Bad, which you can read here. And of course there's my website.