Michael Northrup

Michael Northrup

I have to admit, I was really intimidated at the prospect of writing a feature for Michael Northrup. It’s not everyday that you get to pick the brain of a tried and true artist. In a way I’d say he is one of the founding fathers of “cool”. 

He takes pictures and makes images that give even the hottest, youngest, newest photographer on the scene a run for their money. Tricks or trends used by current hipster-kid photographers pale in comparison - in fact, Northrup’s work makes some of today’s kids’ work look like hogwash. 

As it turns out, on top of being established and talented, Michael is super down to earth and friendly. So, younger generation of creatives, we have a lot to answer for because there is a 70 year old guy out there making way cooler images than us and with out all the angst or attitude.

You are originally from Baltimore, got an MFA in Chicago, taught at Northwestern in Virginia...now were do you reside and where is your studio? What does it sound like, look like, smell like?
Some of my interviews got that screwed up. I was born in Marietta Ohio in 1948, got my MFA at the Chicago Art Institute (officially The School of the Art Institute of Chicago) in 1980, and taught a  class at Northwestern University in Chicago. I also taught at several other schools from the 70s-90s…. Maryland Institute College of Art, Baltimore School for the Arts, University of Virginia, and Shepherd University for the most part.

I moved to Baltimore in 1990 to leave full-time teaching and go commercial and I’ve stayed here ever since. I have loved it here but it’s not without it’s problems. Baltimore has a contrast between lots of money and lots of poverty. My house is a great old 1890 townhouse still in original and great shape. We are 6 blocks from the Baltimore Museum and 6 blocks from the train station with a major bike lane right outside our front door that goes from the museum all the way down to the harbour. We use that bike lane a lot. Baltimore is right on the Chesapeake Bay and we had a 30ft sailboat for a few years. Life is good.  

My studio has always been small and used a room in my house or apartment. Very small, very simple, but very functional. You can do a lot with 2 soft boxes and a couple small strobes. I once made a diffuser using a white umbrella I got at a dept. store. And if you can’t afford lights there’s always natural light which is free and beautiful.

You've been in the photography and fine art fields for over 40 years. Is it easier or harder to "make it" now? How have things changed since you started? Is it better? Worse? The same?
It’s better and it’s worse at the same time. It’s better because of the computer, internet, social media, digital, and the development in offset printing techniques. All of this makes getting work out there exponentially greater than before the 90s. Your work is seen around the world in a second and you can manipulate an image unlike anything you could do with film. 

The down side is you are now competing with exponentially more people and the commercial industry is relying on stock photo most of the time anymore. That cheapens photo and makes your average amateur photographer as competitive as a photographer with 40 years of experience. In the 90s a day shoot was around $2000. Now it’s around $700 for general magazine work, and you can buy a good usable commercial stock image for $200 or less.

Do you consider yourself an organized person? What does your computer desktop look like? What does your real life desk top look like?
Yes I’m pretty organized. I admit, I don’t always pay attention to detail as I think I’m a little A.D.D. And I’ve always heard that a clean desk is the sign of a sick mind. But the energy in my brain can sometimes feel a little chaotic so I rely on keeping my external world organized so I’m not completely nuts. I make my bed every day. It’s a ritual.

“…There’s a vital element to one’s work that the artist has very little control over. And that is the response of the viewer. And without the viewer, what’s the point.”
— Michael Northrup

As an artist, do you think it is possible to be truly self aware of one's aesthetic or point of view? Is this possible? Is this crucial? Detrimental?
That’s a pretty important question and it’s a hard one for me to answer. I think there’s a vital element to one’s work that the artist has very little control over. And that is the response of the viewer.  And without the viewer, what’s the point? That response can drive the artist's aesthetic or point of view. And I am constantly surprised by peoples reactions. My view on people’s responses is all the way from “Why do people even like my work” to “What’s taken recognition so long?”.  

I’ve been putting up 2 images 2 times a day on Instagram since Jan. 2017 and am frequently amazed at which picture gets the most hits. It’s often the one I don’t think is the best. So I’ve come away thinking I have absolutely no control over my audience but others do (i.e. publishers and editors). I rely on them to do my edits and I think it is the right thing to do. I’m so focused on each image one at a time that I’m never thinking of the last one or the next one. I always work from my heart and gut. If it fails out in public at least it still works for me. I always say I can take a photo but after that I have no idea what to do with it.

“I always work from my heart and gut. If it fails out in public at least it still works for me.”

What is the meanest thing someone has ever said about your work? What is the nicest thing someone has ever said about your work?
The ABSOLUTE! meanest thing said about my work?. Nothing. That’s the worst. The next meanest thing is, “You can’t show that picture of me anywhere”. The nicest thing ever said is “Your work changed my life”. The next nicest thing said is “We absolutely love your work and want to show/publish it”.


Are you a planner or are you more spontaneous? Are you a morning person or a night person? Do you do yoga?
That depends on what I’m working on. Commercially, I’m a complete planner. In my light painting work I’m definitely a planner. But in my personal, heartfelt work I’m spontaneous. I see it, I take it. 

When something visceral combines with something visually interesting I push the button. That was true throughout all 3 of my books.  

I’m a morning person for sure. I hate having to do anything after 6pm…i.e. cocktail hour. And as for yoga, the last time I did it the instructor had us on our heads and that dislodged a kidney stone and I ended up in the ER at 4am. I don’t mind hanging in large crowds but if I’m trying to learn something I do not like to be part of a group. I prefer one on one whether it’s photo or yoga. That said, I better get back into yoga because at 70 years old if you don’t keep moving your body will freeze up. To keep that from happening we own 2 electric trail bikes (they’re fantastic) and 3 electric Trikkes (www.trikke.com).

We’re having a great time.

“When something visceral combines with something visually interesting I push the button.”

Images courtesy of MICHAEL NORTHRUP


interview ASHLEY MUNNS


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