Behind The Canvas: Saatchi Online Interview With Michael Northrup

Pete’s Chicago by Michael Northrup


MR: As noted in your About section, your selected work on Saatchi Online spans a period of nearly forty years, and is representative of varied ideologies and influences; although it does appear you have a reoccurring interest in creating new forms (Train Pong, Gert in Chicago, Jump Tent all come to mind here) – can you comment on this?
MN: Although my greatest influence was the movement “The Snapshot Aesthetic” which took place in the ‘60’s, I was also heavily influenced by those west and east coast large format, formalist, conceptual photographers from the ‘40’s/’50’s. Once when Frederick Sommer was critiquing a student’s image of a cat in a room he discuses the structure of the image and the relationship of forms to such a degree that the student finally asks “What about the Cat?” Fred responded “What Cat?”.

And the varied ideologies come from ongoing and unending influences. I think some of my strengths are born from my weaknesses. I’m basically lazy. And because of that I’m steered to situations that present themselves at the moment… situations that I had no or little influence in creating. Take for example the image “Jump Tent”. To have conceptualized that and to then have brought all the elements together I would have had to rent the tent and hire the kids/subjects through a talent agency to do a night shoot. The budget would have been about $3000 at least. As it was, all I had to do was stand there and push the shutter release. Aside from ease, I think the main draw to the “snapshot” for me is its narrative qualities. And at the same time I’m drawn to the old big camera artists from mid century for their emphasis on “structure” and composition. I love it when both are strong.

Early in the undergrad photo program I was using a view camera while most others were using a 35mm. Each camera can have a way of affecting the aesthetic. Just putting a camera on a tripod has a dramatic way of affecting the image It slows you way down and images are more thought out. But I felt I was missing something. I was also seeing things that were immediate and more hearfelt/gutfelt than intellectual. And in time I felt my gut had greater clarity. So by the time I graduated from undergrad I picked up a medium format camera and using an on camera flash I began to respond much more to my gut and the moment and loved the results. And the more I used the flash the more it became an important element of my work. It not only gave me light 24/7 and I no longer was a slave to natural light. But I began to appreciate the quality and properties of the flash light, the hard circle of illumination, things in the background sinking quickly into the shadows, the quickness of the light freezing moving objects, and the hard drop shadows that worked with the subject and environment.


The subjects in your work often have varied objects obstructing their faces, is this intended to be an abstraction tool, a mode for analyzing identity or something else altogether?

I think the overlap of objects works in a few ways. For me it can be a substitute for the object in the background and whatever emphasis is put on those relationships (surreal, etc.). It also emphasizes one of the strategies of the 2 dimensional photograph, that compression of space. And then there’s an element of mystery.

Jump Tent by Michael Northrup

What are you primarily investigating through your work? What are you interested in accomplishing through art and how do you want it to be acknowledged?

I’m kind of led by my life. The images are not quite but almost a chronicle. And sometimes even a catalogue of those things, people, spaces, narratives that happen around me every day. And I often find some kind of beauty in that. I rarely have shows but have published a ton through my commercial work. So I realized then that compared to gallery shows, if you want a big audience that publishing is the best way. I’ll be doing a second book this year with my last publisher J&L Books so that’s my focus.



Some of the absurdity in your images resonate elements of humor to me, is this something your aiming to achieve?
Sorry to give you my canned statement but it best describes what motivates me. Here it is:

“I love irony… not exclusively, but I have a special appreciation for it. And it underlies a lot of my work. I must have gotten it from my mother, as she would laugh at news stories like, “Santa looses fingers while stepping off helicopter to wave at kids”. And my dad, being a doctor, surgeon, and corner, would bring humor to the dinner table on things like bowel obstructions and suicides. Both my parents were great at extracting humor out of tragedy and that has given me a way of seeing life. For me creating images is only an arms length away. It’s all about my daily life, those meaningful pictures I’m able to extract from it, and the personal photographic vision I bring to those images”



Mecca Thumb Sandwich by Michael Northrup



Does the term Juxtaposition have any particular significance in your images and/or process?
Absolutely. That’s ‘the narrative’.



As an artist with such an extensive career, what can you tell us about how the art world has changed over time, and how your work has responded to that change?
Probably the biggest change is that we’re now digital. That relates to the computers, the net, the software, the cameras, the process, and most of all, how we now do business with our images. Though sensibility wise I think I first noticed advertising incorporating a lot more of fine art work around the mid 80’s and continues to be influenced more than ever. Another way the trend towards fine art in advertising has continued is the dramatic growth of “stock photography”. I think that advent put a lot of commercial studio photographers out of work and on the other hand gave amateurs and fine artists a much larger market for their images. The problem though still is that you’re thrown in a pool of thousands of other photographers. My response to this situation has been to ignore the drop in work and carry on.



Do any of the images currently posted on Saatchi Online reflect your current direction? And if so, what can we look for in the future?

The images that were made within the past 5 years are “Head Fog”, “Hello Kitty”, and “Stubbs”. I uploaded work in a chronological order and lost momentum by the time I got to the digital. I’ve lots more of that to put up and will do so soon. I’ve got 40 years of work that’s hardly been seen. I’m probably more motivated on getting past work out than I am at making new work. But there’s rarely a lull in my taking pictures. My approach to my work will continue as a kind of eclectic journal of people, things, situations, and environments that grab my attention as I go through life. I’m more reactionary than conceptual.


Mary and Bubbles by Michael Northrup



In some of your more colorful images you seem to describe the work through their technical merit (i.e. Merriam’s Mirror), but supply little information on your conceptual intent. In regards to your work, which do you find to be more important for your audience: the technical, the conceptual, both, or neither?

Certainly the concept is the more important aspect, i.e. the reason for making the image. But in some cases an image begs the question, “How did you do that?”. My cubistic looking lightpainting is one of those bodies that I can’t help but marvel at the process. As for the concept, I feel if I have to explain it than I’ve failed. The image is like a punchline. And like any joke, if you have to explain the punchline then the joke is ruined.


If you were to recommend one piece of literature and/or film to our readers, what would it be?

One of my weaknesses, and I don’t think this one serves me well, is I don’t read books. The last book I read was Tales of Power/Carlos Castaneda when it first came out. It had a huge positive effect on me. I think I have a clinical disorder with reading that was missed growing up. Reading itself is difficult. I’ll read 3 pages and then realize I was daydreaming for 2 of them. But film/movies is totally different. I remember everything! I don’t think I could recommend any one film but here are a couple that come to mind that had an effect on me (in no particular order):


“On the Beach”

“Jason and the Argonauts”

“2001 Space Odyssey”

“Dr. Strangelove”



Tire Fire by Michael Northrup



Your images oscillate between capturing the accidental and photographing the contrived, do you prefer one method when compared to the other?

I want both things working in each image. Sometimes one dominates over the other but I enjoy my images most when both are working. I like the narrative qualities I find in the snapshot but I like to organize that narrative through composition so there’s a tension between the formal and informal. I think that comes from all the early work I did with the 4×5 and influences from the work of large format photographers in the first half of the 20th century. And I combine those influences with the snapshot influences that came about in the latter half of the 20th century. I think that’s a major reason I moved away from the lightpainting body of work (mid 80’s -mid 90’s). It was so completely contrived (not my strong suit) that I felt my spirit was kind of restricted. I was also being dragged down by being exhausted with the photo chemical process….. setting all the stuff up and having to find some dank dark room to create in. It was tedious and slow. Once the digital camera came out I embraced it and got back to shooting from my gut.



Do you still work as an arts professor, and what do(did) you find most challenge about teaching the subject? Has the teaching experience affected your personal work at all?

I left teaching for the most part around 1989. I burned out. I was in a great program during the mid 80’s, where I was the head of the photo area and just about the only teacher in the 4 year program at Shepherd College, WVA. I was even given free reign to create the curriculum so basically it was ideal. My greatest challenge was trying to teach people who didn’t care, or who only cared about grades, or who were at school to party, or who were unwilling to work hard, or who were perpetually late at turning in work, or who were bored with themselves, or whose work was completely void of anything interesting and yet I had to talk about it, etc…. That was the burnout. As for the subject I find some of the things still taught are pointless. I give you “loading a reel and tank”, a huge and pointless hurdle for a beginning photographer. I’m completely wowed over by the way I work with digital images as compared to the photo chemistry process. To me photography is all about the image and little if nothing about the processing. So with that I think programs should abandon film and all the necessary supportive stuff like enlargers, easels, processing trays and tanks, drying cabinets, dodging and burning tools, etc.. and go digital where you have so much control that you can affect an individual pixel and work in a nicely lit room letting the printer do it all. It just seems like a no brainer to me.



Hello Kitty by Michael Northrup



Before you begin shooting do you have any interesting rituals you carry out before hand?

You know I asked Fred Sommer about that once. In an effort to learn about his process I asked what does he do when he feels like he’s getting excited at an image he’s about to make. He said he puts the camera down and has a martini. I don’t even have that as a ritual. My only ritual is to hold on to my camera.



At one point you said you thought a particular series of yours was “too personal for an audience” but finally released it through the support of your friend – can you tell us a little bit about these personal images, and what its like to make work that’s not initially intended for others?

Well I got to admit, I wouldn’t make an image unless I thought I was going to show it to someone so I’m always conscious of an audience. But I’m more conscious of an audience after the taking of the image than before. As for personal images, I think some of my work has a wider appeal than other work and that the “personal” images I was referring to might be very inaccessible to a large audience. I see so many gallery images that seem to be made for “the gallery” environment, for a larger audience. Bigger is better kind of mindset, work that’s “pretty”, more accessible. I don’t make images to see how well they will perform in a gallery setting. I make images that drive me. Then I try and find an audience. I’ve often said to friends, “I know how to make a picture but after that I have no idea what to do with it”.



Blue Elsie by Michael Northrup


And lastly, would you describe your relationship with photography as a love affair, or one of those cheap dates you just can’t seem to shake?

I think it’s more like a marriage (to myself). It hasn’t been easy but it’s given my life purpose, balance, and profound meaning. It’s kept me grounded through the hardest times. It’s a conduit to my life and my everyday experiences It’s what keeps me going when all else has failed.



Learn more about Michael Northrup, his upcoming book and his photography practice at




  1. alex sweetman says:

    The images are fabulous! MORE!

  2. bob gillette says:

    Great Article Nordy. Loved it. But you didn’t get the Reddy Teddies in it.

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