Nowhere Newsletter 07: Michael McCluskey

From John Erskine to filmic photography

What is your backstory?

I grew up in a rural area of Michigan and started playing and making music while in highschool. Mostly guitar, synths and drum machines. Then in college I took a sound design class taught by John Erskine, who worked on Sonic Youth’s first album. He eventually hired my friend and I to work in the recording studio that he was running. We recorded and mixed classical and jazz recitals for the school, along with visiting artists.

Erskine showed us a lot of music we had never heard before. He introduced us to the work of Detroit based artist and hip-hop producer, "J-Dilla" (RIP). He's a big inspiration to me. Whenever one of his beats comes on you know it's him. His music is very atmospheric. You could listen to it with or without lyrics and it just always has such a vibe that's specific to him.

Brian Eno is another artist he introduced us to that really stuck with me. Specifically his ambient work. So my creative beginnings are in music. My first experience with photography was an intro to photography course that I took about five years ago. I was able to apply a lot of what I learned about creativity to making images. 

What camera gear / editing setup do you use? 

I only own one body right now. A Nikon D750. I have a few lenses but I really only ever shoot with my Nikkor 24-70mm & Sigma 35mm. The rest of my load out depends on where I am and what I'm doing. If I'm driving around at night it's going to be a stable tripod and shudder release and if I'm walking or hiking it's just my camera and lens. I use Lightroom Classic to edit. Sometimes I use Photoshop too but not a lot.

How do you achieve the look of your photographs and could you take us through the process?

The look of my photos is mostly determined by feel. I don't always know exactly what it is that's interesting or compelling about an image. In the end it just has to feel right. It almost never works to try and force anything. It has to be authentic and natural. Which is hard sometimes but what I aim for. 

Could you provide 3 before and after shots? 

Malevolence (below)

My dad and I were driving down an old country road in Northern Michigan. It was nighttime and there were patches of dense fog. We drove past this old farmhouse that sat on a hill, silhouetted by a large outdoor light. My dad dropped me off in a field that was across the street. My camera was mounted on a stable tripod and I used a shudder release. For this photo the camera and lens settings were.. ISO: 100, Lens focal length: 55mm, Aperture: f/8.0, Shutter speed: 30 seconds. In Lightroom, I cropped the photo and made adjustments to the tone. It's a pretty contrasty image. I mostly just brought the shadows up and highlights down a little. I made quite a few different versions of different edits before deciding that less was better. That's usually where I end up. But every image is different. So every image needs different treatment. 

(Unedited photograph, left)

The Encounter (below)

I was taking photos of an old van that was under a streetlight when I noticed some deer feeding in a lot behind a church across the street. I crept up as close as I could without spooking the deer and started shooting. My camera was mounted on a tripod and I used a remote trigger to open the shudder. I didn't want to push my ISO too much and the amount of available light was limited. It was a landscape type of scene so I used a fairly small aperture. I had to use longer exposures but still wanted the silhouette of the deer to be sharp. That was the challenge. I ended up having to take quite a few shots and during one of them a car drove through the scene. I ended up liking that frame the most. The camera settings were.; ISO: 640, Lens focal length: 70mm, Aperture: f/7.1, Shutter speed: 2 seconds. In Lightroom I cropped the photo and adjusted both the tone and color. By adjusting the tone curve in Lightroom I brought the highlights down and raised the shadows. Then I used the split-tone tool to tweak the colors.

(Unedited photograph, left)

Cycle (below)

A few winters ago I started building little sets in the house I was living in. I wanted to create a noir, small town vibe. I staged the furniture and props and then added light. At the time mostly ambient light sources like lamps. Then I would put some haze in the room with a cheap smoke machine I had picked up from guitar center. My roommate at the time, Tomasz would be in some of the scenes. He had a good look for the part. Sometimes he would improvise the poses himself. At the time I was using a Nikon D3300 with a sigma 35mm. The settings were; ISO: 100, Aperture: f/9.0, Shutter speed: 1.3 seconds. This was taken a long time ago and for this scene I would use different settings now. As far as editing, I cropped the image to a 1x1 ratio and then adjusted the tone by bringing the contrast down a bit. I then used the split tone tool to give the image a warm, yellow hue. 

(Unedited photograph, left)