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Interview with Miles Storey of MUTE


Miles Storey is the photographer behind MUTE, an award-winning photoblog.


PetaPixel: Could you tell me a little about yourself?

Miles Storey: I was born in England and spent a few years growing up abroad which was an eye opening experience for a kid. After leaving school I spent the next decade or so avoiding 9-5 and traveling as much as possible. At the time I was running a backpackers’ hostel in Brighton, England which allowed me to take months off work at a time, and even when I wasn’t traveling I was surrounded by travelers. Towards the end of the 90s I started doing some design work and a few years later I made an attempt to settle down and focus on work. Now I do web development and miss traveling.

PP: How did you first get into photography?

MS: I’ve always loved photography. Some of my earliest memories are of gathering on the beach every night with my family to watch the sun set over the ocean. My dad had a Praktica SLR and captured lots of beautiful sunsets on slide film. I remember the magic of sitting around a projector watching a slide show, enhanced no doubt by living in a country where the only media entertainment was the BBC World Service! But for whatever reasons I didn’t pick up a camera with any intent until after I started designing in earnest, about six years ago, and then only to build a digital library of everyday elements (like phone boxes, sign posts) I could use in graphic design. It was only when I discovered photoblogs that the light above my head clicked on and I realised I could do something creative that I knew I loved.


PP: What was your first camera?

MS: The first camera I really tried to figure out how to use was my Dad’s Pentax Super ME. I had borrowed it on a few occasions and could never get my head around how exposures worked, so ended up shooting in auto all the time. At that point I was taking photos as reference for a school art class and thought of the photographs as nothing more than a step between reality and painted canvas. Years later I bought an SLR of my own before a trip to Italy with friends. It was a Canon EOS, the 500 model I think. I was in full auto mode then too but started trying to take pictures that actually looked nice.

It was the ease and accessibility of digital photography that eventually got me thinking about photography in a different way, that I could take pictures just for the sake of taking pictures. I bought a Canon G1 compact digital when I moved on from my hostel job and into design. The idea, as I mentioned above, was to use it to snap away at everyday elements and build up a digital directory of things, cut out from their background, that I could use in graphic design. That was the camera that really got me into photography. I wish it had been an old rangefinder or TLR that I found in the garage but there’s nothing so romantic about my story!

PP: What equipment do you use now?

MS: Now I have a Canon 5d and a 40d along with a variety of lenses, all primes except for a wide angle zoom. I do have some film cameras, a Yashica rangefinder, a Rolleicord TLR, a broken lomo LCA, a Holga, and that Canon 500. I wish I could say I used them more.


PP: What’s on your wishlist in terms of gear?

MS: I’m pretty happy with the gear I have. My 50mm lens just broke so I need to replace that. I absolutely love fast primes and would love to try Canon’s top of the range 35mm, 50mm and 85mm. I would also like to get my hands on a medium format SLR, a Bronica Sqi for example.

One camera I would love to see is a rangefinder style DSLR-quality digital camera. Several companies have tried, notably Sigma with the DP1 and DP2, but there have always been serious drawbacks. Leica’s M8 is supposed to be a good effort, but at $4,500 I can’t even bring myself to think about it.

PP: How would you describe your photography to someone who has never seen it?

MS: Hmm, that’s pretty tricky. I have yet to settle on a particular style and more than once someone has mistaken my photoblog for the output of several different people. A photography agent once told me that I was “all over the place.” I shoot just about anything, people, landscapes, urban, country, event, etc and, although I’ve gotten better recently, there’s not a lot of consistency on view. 

I do know what I want to shoot and how I want to shoot it, I’m just not there yet.


PP: Where are some of the places you’ve traveled to?

MS: I’ve traveled through Europe and North America, spent quite a bit of time in New York and San Francisco over the years, and visited Australia several times, once living for almost a year in Sydney, which is a great city. But the places that really interest me are ones that provide a big contrast from my normal life. When I was 18 years old I headed to Africa, traveling down from Egypt to east Africa. My original idea was that I could get down to Mombasa in Kenya and find a ship heading to the Seychelles, which is where I spent several years as a kid. That didn’t happen of course, and I ran into more than one dangerous situation, but I was hooked. Throughout my 20s I was lucky enough to be able to travel pretty widely but India has to be my favourite place, I’ve spent almost a year there over three different trips. It’s an amazing country of contrasts and colour, never the same twice. 

Almost all of this traveling was done before I picked up a camera in earnest and there are so many places I would love to visit again with camera in hand. India is top of that list of course, every time I think about being there with a camera I get giddy!

PP: What kind of dangerous situations did you run into during your trip to Africa?

MS: Hmm, well, some things I’d rather not talk about! Let’s just say that the docks in Mombasa might not be the best place to walk around looking for a “ride”. And, if your friend gets ill make sure the doctor you take him to is not the one that services the local prostitutes. And, if the manager of a game park tells you there’s a killer buffalo on the loose it’s best to listen and not keep hiking only to end up running for your life through thorn trees. And, if you’re camping in a game reserve you shouldn’t placate the Maasai warriors, who are keeping elephants and lions at bay during the night, by giving them a crate of beer after bursting their football during a friendly game, only for them to fall asleep after consuming said beverages, leaving you and your friends to rather uselessly stand around all night peering into the pitch darkness for things that might eat you. And so on.


PP: How did you finance your travels?

MS: After leaving school I took a year off and worked in a factory that produced picture frames. After working many overtime shifts and saving up money for several months I drove a car under the back of a truck, slicing half the roof off and forcing the gearbox upwards and the engine backwards into the passenger compartment. After several weeks spent recuperating and feeling sorry for myself I found that I was back at square one. Desperate not to waste my year off I ended up putting a classified ad in the back of the London magazine Time Out asking for someone to fund my travels. Surprisingly someone, who wanted to remain anonymous, did. So off I went.

PP: What advice do you have for someone who is just starting to post their photos online? 

MS: Don’t be discouraged if people aren’t visiting, the internet is nothing if not fickle and it has nothing to do with how good your photographs are. Keep at it, focus on what you want to do with your images, and embrace the on- and off- line community. I’ve seen so many photoblogs where the images seem to take second place to how popular the photographer wants to be.

I think I was lucky to start when I did, in 2004. There was already an established photoblogging community.  photoblogs.org had been around for a couple of years, but it was friendly and relatively small. My first posts were my first attempts at ‘serious’ photography but I was getting visitors from day one. These days, with so many photoblogs out there and Flickr and the like dominating the online photo world, I’m not sure I would be noticed.


PP: What would you do differently if you could start your photoblog over?

MS: Nothing, as a personal site I’ve always done just what I wanted with it. It’s a blog, not a portfolio, it’s meant to be somewhat messy and contradictory.

PP: How does one get involved in the online and offline photoblogging communities? How did you?

MS: There’s no barrier to entry, if you want to be a part of the community you simply step in, start commenting on other photoblogs (not spamming and self-promoting!), join the available communities on sites like photoblogs.org and photos.vfxy.com, and take part in the various challenges and memes out there. Flickr provides you with numerous opportunities to join local groups where you can get to know like-minded people and attend the meetups, whether it’s for a photo-walk or a few drinks. Photographers are such a varied group that  anyone fits in. I was lucky enough to get to know the founding father of photoblogs.org, Brandon Stone, who made it very easy to become a part of the community that he did so much to build up. In Toronto there are more photobloggers and Flickrites than you can shake a stick at. It’s rare that I walk through downtown or the lakeside without bumping into one and many of the cool and interesting special events that go on in the city are marked by a surfeit of photographers, sometimes outnumbering participants! Events like these are a great place to meet photogs.


PP: Is there any one thing you learned that caused the biggest improvement in your work?

MS: I think the one thing that helped me more than anything was realising that it wasn’t enough to simply take a photograph, that there has to be more to an image than the sum of a photograph’s parts. In practical terms that means always being aware of what you’re looking at. Not just thinking in terms of the mechanics of taking using the camera to capture a scene, but also understanding why you’re taking that photograph, realising that you had a reaction to what you saw through the viewfinder that made you want to click the shutter.

With regard to post-processing an image, I think the biggest improvement came when I realised that I can create adjustment layers and use layer masks to build up changes and selectively apply them, all without effecting the original image layer. As an example, I use the channel mixer adjustment layer for converting an image to black and white. I used to spend ages playing with the sliders to get the best tones. I’m sure film purists will hate me for saying this but It was always a little frustrating only having one pass at a conversion. So I started stacking up different channel mixer adjustment layers, each with a layer mask applying that particular balance of tones to a selected area of the original image. This means that if you have people in your image you can retain skin detail by using a blue/green bias on one layer targeting the skin tones while having another layer with a red bias that brings out the contrast in your blue sky in the background. Once you start doing this the possible variations are endless. Combining various adjustment layers with layer masks, opacity variation and blending modes allows you to do almost anything. Another quick example; a lot of people use the levels or curves adjustment layer with an “auto” adjustment. This adjusts the contrast and colour in your image. However, I find that while the auto contrast adjustment can be quite useful the resulting colour shift rarely is. To fix that use a “luminosity” blend on the adjustment layer, this will remove any effect the layer has on the colour of the underlying layers while retaining the tonal changes. This is why I think it’s important to always have an image in your head of how you want the finished image to look, without that as a guide you will be stumbling around in the dark.


PP: What is your goal with photography?

MS: Shortly after starting my photoblog I realised what it was I was missing in my photographs, they were dishonest. I was playing at being a photographer; thinking that because I knew how to take a photograph, the basics of exposure and composition, because I was making decisions about the process, picking an aperture, kneeling down to change the angle, that I knew what I was doing. But I didn’t. I was just going through the motions. It’s all too easy to convince yourself things are going swimmingly, especially when other people are being positive about what you’re putting up. But you have to take photographs for yourself, photographing scenes that you have a genuine reaction to, even if you don’t understand that reaction, you just have to be able to feel it, there’s a purity to this that I think is what elevates a photograph to something so much more.

What brought me to this realisation was a late night of lazily browsing photoblogs. I was looking at several popular sites and trying to think about what made them different. What hit me instead was one particular site where the images were just… different. Perhaps it was the late hour, or perhaps because I had been looking at so many sites that night, but suddenly I saw it, the connection between these images and the photographer. Not literally of course, I didn’t even know the person, but there it was, honest and pure photography, day after day. I was so taken aback with this revelation that I wrote the photographer an anonymous email trying to explain what I had realised, thanking them for making clear the real task I had ahead of me if I wanted to be a photographer. I won’t mention what that site was, partly because I don’t think it matters but also because it was my reaction, something about those images spoke to me in a whole new way and I’m not sure that’s something that can be passed on.

Of course, I have only rarely come close to seeing that same honesty and clarity of purpose in my own images, having a genuine connection with them. But just being aware that this is what is required to be a photographer helps me think more clearly about what I’m doing, allows me to see the image in front of me before I click the shutter. With enough practice I think I will be able to truly connect with the images I create but it will be a lifetime’s work. That’s the goal. Right now 99% of the images I post on my site are disposable. That’s not to say I don’t like them, I do for the most part, and at least they’re not deceiving me into thinking I know what I’m doing anymore.


PP: Can you briefly describe your workflow?

MS: I’m not the most organised person in the world to be honest. I have a two drives, one for RAW files and the other for finished files, plus backups of course.  Beyond that I don’t really have much of a structure to my filing. When I saw Sam’s video demonstrating his workflow I almost cried it was so organised.

The one thing my process has going for it is simplicity I suppose. I upload photos to my RAW drive and label the folder appropriately, with subject and date. Then I use Irfanview, which is a superb free image viewer, to browse through the images and make quick keep-or-delete decisions. Once I’ve pared the folder down I open a selected shot in Adobe Camera Raw. Now that CS4 has introduced selective tools in ACR I can usually do about 80% of the tweaks before opening an image in Photoshop itself. I’m not a big fan of batch processes using presets and filters. It seems to me that each image is pretty much a unique blend of colour and tone and deserves more than a generic process.

Since I started taking photos for a Toronto news and culture website, Torontoist, I’ve been trying to keep post-processing to a minimum. When you’re dealing with 30-40 images spending even 5 minutes a shot in Photoshop really adds up. Given more time I do have the tendency to fiddle too much, especially with landscapes, but I find that the more experience I have the less manipulation I do. It also depends on the subject of the shot. If it’s a portrait I really want the subject to speak for itself, but sometimes I want the image to reflect my vision of the scene, and then I will do whatever it takes to reach that point.


PP: Who are some of your favorite photographers?

MS: I’m a big fan of photojournalism and documentary photography, modern photographers like James Nachtwey, David Burnett – who shot the 2004 US election with a Speed Graphic, John Moore, and Bruce Haley; as well as the greats of the past like Robert Capa and Margaret Bourke-White. I love exploring and discovering interesting photographers and photographs, this series, shots by George Caddy on Beachobatics in Sydney, is a fantastic example of the kind of thing that’s out there. The New York Times series One in 8 Million contains some excellent work.

Early images that capture a time and a place when capturing a time and a place was still a rare thing, are fascinating. The Library of Congress has an amazing collection of early images online, many of which can be accessed through their Flickr account. Check out their set of Photochrom travel images. Paris has always been well served by photographers, have a look for photographers like like Brassai and Eugene Atget. There’s an amazing amount of beautiful old photography out there to discover.

My favourite ‘fine art’ photographer at the moment is Gregory Crewdson, who creates these meticulous Hopperesque images of American life using a team of people as extensive as you would find on a film set. I’m also fascinated by Alexey Titarenko’s long exposures and Greg Miller’s wonderful series, like Primo Amore.

There are so many photobloggers and Flickrers I follow it’s hard to keep up with them all. Toronto alone is bursting at the seams with talent, people like Matt O’Sullivan and Sam Javanrouh have helped define this city for me. Other highlights on my blogroll include the stunning abstracts of Andy Bell, Andy Newson‘s immaculate urban compositions, Shannon Richardson‘s wonderful b&w squares, Kathleen Connally‘s beautiful journey through her home, and of course Bob Smith‘s absolute love of cameras and all things created on film. Too many of my favourites have called it quits though, sites like Outafocus, Making Happy and Out of Contxt.

PP: Who is one person you would like to see interviewed on PetaPixel?

MS: I think it would be interesting to read what Matt of The Narrative has to say.

PP: Anything else you’d like to say to PetaPixel readers?

MS: Please don’t judge me, I can’t help myself.