Michael Spears: On photography and blog culture

By Liz Sales Thursday, December 20th, 2012 Categories: Features, Updates

Michael Spears is a Brooklyn-based photographer, born in Bloomington, Indiana and raised in San Juan, Puerto Rico.  His work has appeared in publications such as HIGH TIMES, Thrasher, and Vice and can also be found on such sites as Wax Poetics and Tinyvices.  His current blog, Alien Eyeballer, houses the steady stream of photographs he creates, and he describes his audience as “digital strangers … introverts who exist and lurk online.”

Spears has a unpolished snapshot aesthetic, in the tradition of Glen L. Friedman, that he applies to a wide variety of subjects.  Like many Vice generation photographers, Spears sees his blog as a way of unifying otherwise disparate images and freeing himself from the expectation to create a conventionally coherent series, sequence, or projects  Alien Eyeballer acts as a log of Spears’s daily photographic practice, unfolding in real time.

Photographer Michael Spears

Liz Sales: You were born in Indiana?

Michael Spears: I’m from Bloomington, Indiana.  It’s a college town.

LS: It is a college town; I visited Bloomington when my Aunt Peggy and her family lived there.

MS: Oh, I have an Aunt Peggy too.

[Both laugh]

LS: Was this image taken in Bloomington, Indiana?

All photographs by Michael Spears

MS: No, that’s Indianapolis.  That’s my Mom’s boyfriend.  Both my mom and dad are from Indianapolis.  They met in college; they went to IU, which is in Bloomington. I’m the product of undergraduate love.  So, I was born in Bloomington.  It’s a little hipper than Indianapolis.  I went back a few times and I remember seeing Thai restaurants and record stores and stuff that Indianapolis doesn’t have.

LS: But you grew up in Puerto Rico, no? 

MS: Yea, I moved to Puerto Rico when I was eight years old. My parents got divorced when I was really young. My Dad’s an engineer and he relocated to the Caribbean.  I actually I lived in St. Croix before I moved to Puerto Rico.  I moved to Puerto Rico in the third grade, but  I went to an English-speaking school because it was a big transition moving from Indiana to Puerto Rico.

LS: I love this image! You shot this in Puerto Rico, right?

MS: Yea, that’s the kind of stuff you see in Puerto Rico, which is just on the borderline of the second and third worlds. Some places in Puerto Rico feel like the 1970s.

Everyone loves that one.  I just had a little show and everyone gravitated toward that one.  I think because of the juxtaposition of hubcaps and pineapples.  His market is like mixed media.

LS: Do you work in any other medium? You went to film school, right?

MS: Yea, I went to BU.  I gravitated toward the film department because it seemed like one of the better programs.  It had more facilities, better professors … and I wanted to watch movies in class.

But I was already shooting photographs once I became a film major.  I had my Dad’s Olympus OM-1 35mm camera with me and was taking pictures of bands and skate boarders.  There was still a good punk scene and independent music scene in Boston.  So, I took my camera to shows wanting to record the moment.  I liked Glen Friedman.   He was one of my early influences. His stuff seems really ‘90s now.  But I was really ‘90s in the ‘90s too.

LS: Do you still think about making movies?

MS: Mmm, I’ve flirted with the idea of shooting more video.  I even bought a 7D because it shoots good video.  It seems like a good asset.  There is less photo work than video work right now.  I come from a film background.  Plus, I feel like my images have a lot of motion in them, not to be cliché.

LS: You pair your work into diptychs often too.

MS: I think that’s a natural instinct, when you shoot a lot of images like I do, to find ones that work well together.  I’m working on a new Web site with a buddy.  I’m eternally working on new Web sites.  I want to show more vertical images together there and really fill the page.  A lot of my work lives on the Web, and when you show vertical images alone on the Web, they don’t work as well.  Vertical images play with each other in pairs and also use all the available real estate.  That’s why I pair images on my Web site.

LS: You have a few blogs as well.

MS: I have Alien Eyeball.  And I know that’s how ARC found me.  I used to have a blog called Clams Casin, which was popular too…

LS: Yea, I’ve seen it.  You stopped posting to that one in 2011.

MS: This music producer named Clams Casino got really big, and I didn’t want the name anymore.  I thought, ‘This guy’s blowing it up, I need a new name.’ [Laughs]

So, I let people know they could find me on Tumblr on Alien Eyeballer.  I like the interactivity of Tumblr.  Everyone’s on it.  All the Internet props I’ve gotten, I’ve gotten through Tumblr, not my Web site.  People find my Web site through Tumblr and not vice versa.  At the same time, it’s a place of photographic pillage and plunder.

LS: It is.  A friend of mine was complaining about her photographs becoming memes.  But I think it’s unavoidable. Memes use people to self-replicate.  We’re just the vehicles by which images are reposted…

MS: I don’t mind if people repost my pictures, as long as they link back to me.  Often people take my images and pretend they are their own.  I’ve had megablogs take my pictures.

Have you heard of Yimmys Yayo?  He is a blogger who posted one of my pictures. It got tons of reposts from his blog. I was pissed, so I wrote him an email saying, if those 3000 people who saw my image on your blog could at least have a link back to my blog, then they would have the option to go through the Internet wormhole and find the author of the image.

But I know the Internet is ultimately a free-for-all. When you put something on the Internet, you give it away. At the same time, people should have a sense of respect for, what is it, intellectual property.  I don’t get money from pictures I post on my blog, but I do get shows, where maybe I sell a print.  And I’d like to get my work out there, so I can do more editorial work.

LS: You have a relationship with Vice, no?

MS: I assisted Tim Barber back in the day.  He was a photo editor at Vice Magazine. And I assisted a lot of other Vice photographers.  And I was in The Photo Issue (Vice Magazine: The Photo Issue Vol. 12 Num. 6 2005).  I think Vice is all about the Internet now.  The Internet has changed the landscape of photography, don’t you think?

LS: Yea. 

MS: I’ve talked to photo reps; they don’t look at people’s books anymore, they see what we’re up to online.  And Vice is tuned in to a younger and younger audience.  So, they’re on the blog circuit. They’re always getting their stuff out there.

I think it’s most interesting that they’re doing hardcore journalism.  I watch a lot of that because it beats watching CNN.  And I’m a skateboarder, so I love Epicly Later-d (vice.com/epicly-later-d).  I can watch 20 episodes in a row.

LS: You’ve had a lot of photographs posted to Dos & Don’ts too, right? 

MS: Yea, I used to be a big partier.  I went out a lot more and shot wild stuff.  So, I had pictures in Dos & Don’ts. I’m more domestic these days.

LS: What was your criterion when shooting Dos & Don’ts?  What do you consider a Do or a Don’t?

MS: Oh, I just shot funny pictures.  There was this guy who hung out at Lit Lounge with size DD breasts.  He wasn’t trans, he just had large fake breasts he wore under a sheer shirt, like no big thing.  So, I shot people like him doing their thing.

LS: I hope that guy was a “Do”! He’s awesome!

MS: You’ve seen that guy?  He is awesome.

I get hired to shoot events sometimes.  As a consequence, I get good B-roll stuff for myself.  I was shooting a party for a promoter once; a woman pulled her pants down and started dancing provocatively for the camera, so I blasted off 4 or 5 more frames for myself.   I sent one of those pictures to Vice.  And they called it a “Don’t” with a cut line that read, “When you call your girlfriend and it goes to voicemail on the first ring, this is where she is.”

Those types of pictures would live on my hard drive otherwise. Dos & Don’ts gives them a life online, and people get to see them.

LS: What’s your relationship to the female subject?  You’ve shot a lot of images of women; there is a section of your Web site devoted to us.

MS: That’s something I battle with.  Sex is tricky in art and photography, but I think if you do it well, it’s okay.  Some of them (my subjects) have been girlfriends; some of them have been models I’ve hired.  This girl was a Columbia graduate student doing modeling on the side.  I shot her four or five times because she was so beautiful and people really love the pictures.  I self-published a book.  She’s in there too.

LS: Oh, where can I get your book?

MS: I sell them at Dashwood Books and Printed Matter. Printed Matter was hit hard by the storm ( Hurricane Sandy).  I don’t know if my books are still there or how other people’s books are doing.

LS: Yea, I saw that.  It’s all so sad.  I hope your book is all right.

MS: I have copies. I funded it though Kickstarter.  A lot of people pre-bought the books though their Kickstarter. I did them newsprint style because it’s cheap and immediate, like online work.

Liz Sales
Liz Sales

Liz Sales is an artist, writer, and educator, who earned a BA from the Evergreen State College and an MFA from the ICP-Bard Program in Advanced Photographic Studies. She is an editor at Conveyor Magazine and a faculty and staff member at the International Center of Photography. Liz lives and works in New York City.