An artist that is modest, renowned, respectful, and very fucking talented without being pretentious all at the same time is rare. Mike Belleme is one of these artists. With a kickass mustache and a treehouse for a home, he is also eccentric to say the least. Belleme resides in the woods of Asheville in North Carolina, he prides himself in a self-sustaining, hands on existence out there in the wilderness with his girlfriend. His photography is varied and fascinating, and it has appeared in publications ranging from CNN to The New York Times to Wired. His projects are varied and fascinating, mostly grounded in documentary, journalistic and portrait photography.
What is in your camera bag? I’m not much of a gear head and think that any new high end camera can pretty much do an amazing job. I’ve always used Nikon, but that’s just because it’s what I got used to and never wanted to relearn on a new system. I’ve been pretty happy with my Nikon d4. I use prime lenses almost exclusively. I think there is a little bit too much emphasis on gear in photography and people get into it thinking that the gear makes the photos. I get a lot of emails from photographers starting out with all types of different questions about how to get started or take it to the next level. If they only ask about gear, then I don’t take my response very seriously, but if they have good questions about how to approach photography and storytelling, then I try to give serious thought to my answers.
Any advice for fellow photographers? It has to be personal. Too many people make images that they think other people will like or that they think are marketable. Photographers who really believe in what they are shooting and and are guided by their own sense of purpose and their own artistic sensibility are much more evocative. That being said, I don’t like photography that is 100% about the photographer either. In those cases, the content or subject matter is interchangeable. Switch out one model for another and the photo will be the same. The images need to be partly about your voice as an artist, but just as much about the people and places that you photograph. You need to be making a statement that is distinctly yours, but let it be loose enough to shift in order to properly depict a variety of subject matters.
I was given some great advice early on in my photographic development. It came at a time when i first started to see that maybe I had something, and wanted to start to make money at it. I asked my mentor, Jon Menick, how I could start making money at photography. He told me to forget about that completely for a long time. Keep being poor and working on only what you want to work on and develop your own style before you start trying to stink it up by doing it for other people. The idea is that if you don’t give yourself time to develop your own thing, you will spend your whole career without ever really having a voice to your work. It was not the advice I wanted to hear, but I took it, and I am incredibly grateful that I did. I still do lots of commercial work that is pretty removed from my personal vision, but at least I have a personal vision and know what the difference is, and can decide what when it’s appropriate to incorporate it into commissioned work.
Do you like to shoot with film? I do shoot with film on occasion. Certain projects like my “Greetings From Paradise” series about Caribbean cruise culture, have been shot on film and I still do a cruise once a year and shoot film to continue with the project. I just think the look is appropriate for what I’m trying to do with that particular project. I just started experimenting with 4×5 film and have loved it. I would say my draw to 4×5 is just as much about the process as it is about the look. I just have fun getting to play with something new and it makes me think differently. That can be very valuable. Anything that makes you rethink your approach after ten years of shooting basically the same way is going to be a good thing.
Photo editing software, love it or hate it? I wouldn’t quite say I love or hate it, but I do enjoy the toning process especially on personal projects. It’s just like wood working (a hobby of mine) and you put all this work into making something and then you put on the finish and it’s this awesome experience seeing it really come to life and see the final product of your labor. When you are shooting and seeing the photos on your LCD, you know what you have, but it’s great getting to put that final touch on it to make it exactly the way you visualized.
Can you share some tips to capture amazing photographs? Well I could answer that questions a million different ways, but I think the main thing is that you need to be able to know what you’re going for and have a clear idea of the goal before going into a shoot. That can just mean understanding thematically what you are trying to achieve or it can be more specific. The technical stuff just comes with time. Every time you get into a new scenario with different lighting conditions or whatever, you have to figure out how to make it work and then it’s easier next time. You just kind of remember, ‘oh yeah, last time I was in this scenario, this worked and this didn’t’ etc.
With the rise of smart phones and inexpensive equipment, how do you think the future of photography is going to look? I have mixed feeling about the Instagram age and all that. I hear a lot of arguments of why it’s a good or bad thing. I don’t think cheaper gear and lot of people using cell phones to take photos have effected my career very much. I’m not loosing jobs to people taking cell phone photos that I’m aware of, and cheap good gear doesn’t mean more good photos are being taken necessarily. There are just a lot more people looking at photos on a regular basis, so in a lot of ways it makes photography more interesting and relevant to people who may not have cared before. In that way it’s a positive shift, but the down side is that attention span goes down as quantity goes up. If we are now looking at hundreds of photos every day rather than just a a few and often on a tiny screen, subtlety and complexity start to become less rewarded and appreciated, while the simple poppy images are what people want. I don’t like that trend. I’m all about the subtle detail in an image that you don’t notice right away, but if you stick with it, you get that ‘aha’ moment.
What message are you hoping to convey with your photographs? That depends on the photo. There is a definite parallel between my life and what I choose to photograph. I choose to photograph something because I am curious or interested in it. As I spend years shooting a particular subject it tends to lead in different directions and shift my perceptions, and I learn an immense amount from the people that I photograph. I have had major life shifts based on things I’ve learned working on photo projects. So I guess in most cases, I just want to invite others along with me to see the things I see and learn the things I learn.
If it has anywhere near the profound effect on anyone else as it has on me, then it’s a great success. Either way, I get a whole lot out of doing this work, so I would do it even if no one else saw the images. The photography is kind of just the vehicle, or the excuse to have the experiences, and I love making photos, but it’s really just about being there and observing and learning.
Have any ideas for your next project when Wild Roots is over? I haven’t shot at Wildroots in a while and I already have three or four other new projects under way. Most new work is tangentially related to something else that I’ve done before. For example, I’ve been shooting in Cherokee, NC recently. I found Cherokee interesting for a lot of reasons, but one of the main ones was that it bridges the huge gap between two of my bodies of work that seem almost opposite. Wildroots and Greetings From Paradise.
One is about living in a primitive way off the land and the other is about taking extravagant cruises in the Caribbean. The lifestyle that they are living at Wildroots is greatly influenced by traditional Cherokee ways of life. They were the one’s that figured out how to live off of this land initially, so a lot of the systems that they figured out still work today. Cherokee is also a very popular tourist destination and the cultural tourism thing is a big part of what I’m interested in with the cruise culture. So it bridges this huge gap in my over all body of work.
What would you be doing if photography wasn’t your career? I have a lot of interests, so it’s hard to say, but right now my main passion outside of photography is wood working. I love it and hope that over the years I can put together a nice wood shop so that when I get burned out on photography, I can have a little mini career/retirement in woodworking. I also like story telling in all of its forms, so I would have enjoyed working as a writer, or a radio or TV producer, or working on films.
How are you handling the status of being a well-known photographer? Well the thing about being ambitious, is that you never really think you made it. Your goals move forward at the same pace as your progress, so you never feel like you are really going anywhere. So to even be referred to as a well known photographer feels strange, because I always feel like I’m at square one. It’s not a bad thing. I don’t get down on myself or anything, and I’m proud of where I’m at, I just always have my sights set on being better.
You can see more of Mike’s work and find out more about him here