Interview by Courtney Simchak.
The city is a complicated composition of architecture, people, nature; it moves, changes, vibrates. Photographer Michael Mira captures the city’s elusive beauty, stillness, and contradictions in his work, “If You Find Love In This City, Tattoo It On Your Chest” and “Houston Noir.” In our recent conversation with Mira, he discusses life in Houston, what drives him as an artist, and what to expect from him next
Q: While not exclusively urban, your photography predominantly depicts the city. Your work is like a bittersweet love letter to the urban landscape. Can you talk some about your relationship to the city and what it means to you? Is your relationship to Houston specifically?
MIRA: I spent a good portion of my life in cities. I was born in Manila—one of the largest metropolitan areas in the world—although I moved to a provincial town before I could walk. When I left the Philippines at age 5, I moved straight to New York City, where my mom was already working as a nurse in the early 90s. When I was 10, my family moved to Houston. Though I spent most of my life in a suburb outside of Houston, I began exploring downtown Houston at night in 2007.
The city is full of interesting contrasts. You see the different socioeconomic levels and the thin line that divides them. For instance, you will see homeless people and drifters sleeping on the sidewalks directly in front of the tall, glitzy skyscrapers of Fortune 500 companies. I wanted to capture that juxtaposition photographically.
In projects like “If You Find Love in This City, Tattoo It on Your Chest,” I wanted to explore people’s relationship with the urban landscape. In Houston, most of the people live in the suburbs outside of the downtown area. I was fascinated by the people who chose to live in the core of the city when everyone else drove back to the suburbs. But many of the downtown dwellers have no choice but to live there. I’ve talked to countless men, women and runaways from various parts of the country who somehow ended up in Houston, and were stuck on the streets because they had no money for a bus ticket.
In a way, a handful of my photography projects are love letters to the city, whether it’s Houston, New York, or elsewhere.
My favorite thing about H-Town is that it has the diversity of New York without the self-segregated ethnic enclaves that you find in other cities. Everyone goes to school and work together and everyone gets along. It smashes the outdated stereotype that Houston is a backwater town teeming with southern racism.
Q: How long have you lived in Houston? What would you say is you favorite and least favorite thing about it?
MIRA: My family and I moved to Houston in 1997. My favorite thing about H-Town is that it has the diversity of New York without the self-segregated ethnic enclaves that you find in other cities. Everyone goes to school and work together and everyone gets along. It smashes the outdated stereotype that Houston is a backwater town teeming with southern racism. While there are still social issues that need to be addressed, as with any other major city, it’s a place with a lot of great people and overall has a very relaxed vibe.
My least favorite thing about Houston is the urban sprawl. I can stand the humidity, the relentless mosquitoes, the yearly flooding, and even the psychotic drivers who think the freeway is a racetrack in the Indy 500, but I hate the fact that a drive across town feels like a road trip.
Q: What inspires you to make a photograph?
MIRA: It’s probably noticeable that a handful of my photography projects have to do with places, memories, or both. I was influenced by a lot of the architecture and sociology books I read as a teenager. Naturally, you tend to photograph your surroundings, so many of my projects are about places and spaces by default.
While I also try to do abstract, conceptual projects, photographing “places” inside my mind, I quickly realized that I’m more of a photojournalist or street documentarian—I would rather tell the stories of a physical place and the stories of real people.
I’m sure my answer will change in 5 or 10 years, and I will have a different focus or vision, but these are the things that inspire me at the moment.
A lot of my experiences externally and internally have a major influence on my photography work. For instance, external experiences such as traveling or urban exploration have led to projects like “American Geography X” and “Houston Noir.” My internal experiences such as memories and depression became the basis for projects like “Everything is Fine” and “B-Theory.”
As with any artistic medium, I think you can’t help but take pieces of your surroundings or even pieces of yourself to express ideas.
Q: A majority of your work is shot in black and white. What do you like most about black and white photography and why did you decide to shoot in black and white as often as you do?
MIRA: Without being conscious of it, I gradually took a minimalist approach to my work. I would come up with complex ideas and strip them down to their bare bones. To me, in photography, black and white is the result of that process. While I also do color photography and started out with color film photography, I eventually gravitated towards monochrome as my preferred aesthetic.
Sometimes vibrant colors will make you look at different parts of a photograph, in the same way that different elements in a large mural painting will fight for your attention. By stripping a photo of its bright colors, you can direct the focus of the viewer to a particular subject or area in the photograph.
Q: How did you get started in photography?
MIRA: I didn’t actually touch a camera until I was 16. I became interested in photography at the beginning of high school, buying books by Stephen Shore, Jeff Wall, and contemporary photographers who were making a name for themselves in the art scene during the early-2000s. I also became a huge fan of Michael Kenna and James Nachtwey. Perhaps their influence on me are obvious: black and white; landscape (Kenna) and photojournalism (Nachtwey); a dichotomy of dreamy surreal visions (Kenna) and raw reportage (Nachtwey).
Due to the fact that I couldn’t afford a digital SLR at the time, I used a Canon Rebel film SLR that my uncle gave me as a present. I just went around and photographed every inch of my town. I experimented with aperture, different lighting, and weird angles. It was just something that I did for fun. I never thought I’d make a career out of it.
Q: Your reading life definitely shows through in your work. In series like “B-Theory” you look into theoretical physics and philosophy and in “The Poetics of Space” you allude to French philosopher, Gaston Bachelard. As a writer—and a reader by extension—it seems inevitable that your written world might influence your photography.
As my writing evolved, so did my photography. In a way, they grew up together. You can see the influence of poetry in some of my photography projects, because they both revolve around the art of storytelling.
MIRA: I was a poet before anything else. I began writing on composition books when I was 13, partly inspired by hip-hop music, particularly by the lyricism of Nas and Tupac Shakur. As my writing evolved, so did my photography. In a way, they grew up together. You can see the influence of poetry in some of my photography projects, because they both revolve around the art of storytelling. For example, “Everything is Fine” is almost like a visual representation of a poem about an existential crisis. Just like poetry, you can use metaphors to convey a message visually.
Many of my photography ideas come from things that I’ve read across various subjects, like theoretical physics or sociology. That’s why I try to read as much as possible, despite my hectic schedule and lifestyle.
Q: Do you have a favorite writer and/or artist that you look to for inspiration?
MIRA: Honestly, I don’t really seek inspiration from writers and artists. I find some of my inspiration from academic papers written by graduate students. I like well-crafted dissertations with unique perspectives, especially those in the humanities.
However, I do have enormous respect for photographers like Sebastião Salgado, who takes his time to construct ambitious projects and execute them well. There isn’t anyone in particular whose work I look at frequently though.
Q: What are you working on now?
MIRA: I’m currently trying to finish up a couple of photography projects: “Vignettes of an Empire” and “Island of Forgotten Dreams.”
“Vignettes of an Empire” is a series of ultra-manipulated black and white photographs taken in different cities in the United States. The images are printed on a 20-foot roll of Moab matte photo paper. In a way, they resemble visions of cityscapes and architecture from a dream. There are places that are familiar, like buildings in Boston and New York City, but these concrete structures—monuments symbolizing American industrial and economic progress throughout the centuries—are reduced to hazy images on a piece of paper that can easily disintegrate in a fire or hurricane. The idea is that even entire civilizations and empires are as impermanent as organic things. Also, it provokes the question: Is the American society actually real just because we have monuments and other architectural artifacts pointing to our significance in the greater historical context, or is it all just an illusion, an ideal?
“Island of Forgotten Dreams” isn’t as conceptual as “Vignettes.” In fact, I don’t even have an artist’s statement for it. It’s simply a series of seascape photos taken from various islands around the world. Unlike other projects, this one is in color. All of the shots are taken with a La Sardina camera, which is a fun camera to work with, by the way.
Is the American society actually real just because we have monuments and other architectural artifacts pointing to our significance in the greater historical context, or is it all just an illusion, an ideal?
Q: Anyone taking a quick look at your CV can tell that you are definitely a jack-of-all-trades: photographer, writer, graphic designer, programmer. Your ability for time management must be impeccable! How have you culminated such a broad and impressive skill set?
MIRA: Time management is right. I’m still terrible at it most of the time though and lots of coffee helps. I simply set the time to concentrate on doing one particular thing. It may seem like my priorities are scattered throughout the day, but I actually do focus on certain things one at a time. Also, I’m just a naturally curious person. I love reading, whether it’s books or web articles. It also helps that I’m a freelancer, so I kind of have to be a jack-of-all-trades, because my work necessitates that I learn different subjects.
One trick that I do is alternating my tasks in a way that they compliment each other. For instance, I would do programming work for a few hours and then take a break by writing poetry. I would go from the logical world of numbers and algorithms to a Dali-eque world of abstract language.