At first you feel at mercy to the elements and then, over a period of time, the expanse of the ocean brings a certain feeling of comfort.
New Zealand Media Artist Joe Michael defines himself as an explorer, visual artist and photographer who is always trying to push the boundaries of the technology. His practice involves the magic balance of technology and fine artistry. "I have a passion for philosophy, and seek to capture the rare and sublime in the natural world." We met the man who has worked with motion control techniques on some of the biggest films of our generation building 3D time-lapse rings, and creating 360-degree cinema experience on Peter Jackson's "The Hobbit". "What drives me is usually just a simple idea, I try not to limit that idea by what may be available technology-wise, which usually leads to a little experimentation and learning." We spoke about his recent expedition to Antarctica where he photographically mapped icebergs.
When you were a young kid, what did you dream of?
I dreamt of explorers and adventures - for some reason I was obsessed with books on the continent of Africa. I grew up in a rural area in the southern part of New Zealand and that place still stays with me when I travel. Growing up in a rural area, the world around you seems so huge, you don't feel limited to the confines of a house or apartment as you sometimes do in the city. In the country, it was safe for me to roam the hills late into the evening. I think this feeling has stayed with me into my adult years as I seek new adventures and spend time with nature.
How have you been introduced to photography?
I was introduced to photography at quite a young age by my uncle. He was an interesting guy who travelled a lot and I was inspired by the pictures I saw of his trips to India and other parts of Asia. But it wasn't till my late 20's that I really started committing time to learning the art of photography. These days I’m pretty addicted. I love the quiet moments I experience when I'm in the zone photographing something. I’m also really excited about the progression in photographic technology that we are experiencing right now. It is an exciting time.
How would you describe your style of photography?
I love balance and symmetry. I also love colour. Photography helps me describe the world I live in, when no words are available. It helps me to get up for sunrise, go out at night to experience the stars and travel in the endless ocean. I tend to get a little obsessed when I see an image or series that might be interesting and will go to great lengths to capture that.
You recently spent few weeks in Antarctica. How did you get the idea of exploring such a wild immensity?
I grew up in the Southern Alps of New Zealand and became hooked on photographing the remote scenic landscapes there. I love how small I feel when I’m out in the wilderness with my photography or digital artworks. A friend of mine spoke about the remote environment of Antarctica. I became fixated on its beauty and how to translate this huge, largely untouched environment into an urban setting. So I decided I would go there, photograph and film the icebergs, then map them onto buildings that were as big and majestic as them, creating an immersive art experience, a cinematic collision of nature and architecture.
What was it like to find yourself in, I quote your words, "an environment where humans feel totally out of place and out of context"?
Humans have an interesting relationship with the planet which we live on. In the last century the population has exploded. We’re just not treating the place as we should. It's nice to experience places on the planet where humans are not the dominant species, and this is very evident in Antarctica. It's beautiful and humbling to experience the wildlife in Antarctica. The whales in particular are so in tune and at one with the place.
Tell us more about this unique relationship you built with the ocean while you were there
New Zealand is an island nation, so the ocean is a familiar place to play and spend time, particularly in summer, but before sailing to Antarctica I had not been at sea for any extended period of time. I’d have to say the experience was quite enlightening. Experiencing the deep blue of the ocean for the first time was incredible. At first you feel at mercy to the elements and then, over a period of time the expanse of the ocean brings a certain feeling of comfort. Your senses really heighten. The simplicity of seeing the occasional bird fly through the air or a pod of dolphins becomes quite exciting and the whales… wow.. I find it hard to put into words. They have to be some of the most amazing creatures that exist on this planet.
You gave names to icebergs and giant blocks of ice: "Valentine", "Nelson", "Winston", "Lincoln", "Ernest". Why?
Initially, it was just a way to remember the icebergs we were photographically mapping. The names are mostly christian names of people I admire. It's been a surprisingly good method of categorisation. As we gathered the audio recordings and motion pictures of the different icebergs we began to see their personalities. The audio recordings we gathered were especially interesting. We used a variety of different microphones, hydrophones and contact microphones to capture their personalities. Some totally unexpected and interesting audio was captured and will become part of the installation. It's nice to reference them as friends because they have become dear to me.
Do you have a specific story you want to share with us?
One of my favourite moments was travelling across the bay at Skontorp Cove. We were travelling in a small inflatable across the bay ready to explore the glacier above. One of the whales in the area had a bit of a curiosity for us. It would twist on its side with its fin in the air so it could put its eye just out of the water to see us as it circled around the boat. As we were admiring this, the whale turned sharply and headed directly for our small boat and swam just a meter or so underneath us. The way in which this enormous whale travelled with such silence and grace was insane. It was one of the most exciting things I have ever witnessed.
One of your major works is with motion control techniques on Peter Jackson's "The Hobbit". Of what are you the most proud so far?
Working on some of the biggest films of our generation was an exciting experience, I was lucky to share that with some incredible people but I’m most proud of the projects I’ve done since then. The 24 hour time-lapse project dark cloud / white light was more challenging than anything I had done previously, and I learn't a lot in the process. As long as I have a camera in my hand I'm happy - I feel blessed that I’m able to able to earn a living doing what I love.
What are your next plans?
This Antarctica project will take me a few years to complete but there's quite a few other projects to keep me busy in the mean time. I believe you may have seen a few articles on the Luminosity project I did recently. They have been quite popular. More of that to come! There's also another gallery on my website which has a series of long exposures from the drake passage "ocean is stillness"
All photos ©Joe Michael