Toronto photographer Michael Morissette is equally at home photographing in the solitude of nature, or in a busy urban environment. His use of colour, light, and graphic elements make his images memorable. A middle school art teacher, he finds time for creative projects with his students as well as those he does in his own time. I have known Michael since 1980 when we started studying photography at Ryerson in Toronto. His amiable and contemplative nature has always been visible in his work.
I asked him eight questions about his work and his current projects. (Our on-line conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.) Check out more of his wonderful work on Flickr, Facebook, and Instagram!
Elliot Erwitt sums up my thoughts on verbalizing my photography: “The whole point of taking pictures is so that you don’t have to explain things with words.”
Tell us a little about yourself. Where are you from, and where do you live now?
I was born and raised on the West Coast, until the call of photography study took me to Ryerson, in Toronto, in my early 20s. After a brief stint in the oil fields of Alberta to help pay for school, I loaded up my Chevy van and headed east. And aside from a five-year period of work and travel away, I’m still calling Toronto home after more than 30 years. It’s a city rich in culture, and a wellspring of photographic material. There is much I still miss about Vancouver, especially the natural beauty, but my roots have gone deep in Toronto.
What subject matter attracts you, and why?
It’s not easy to define myself as a photographer, as I’m attracted to such a wide range of subject matter, but I would say that I’m a documentarian more than a creator. Virtually all my work is as I saw it, with little manipulation. However, I do shoot RAW, and really enjoy the process of bringing my images to fruition in Lightroom. Like you, I cut my photographic teeth in black and white, hand processed and printed. The computer is a way of returning to the craft of image making.
Can you tell us about the projects you are working on these days?
I’ve recently self-published a book titled Water & Colour, which consists of a series of photographs documenting the effects of rust and decay on well-aged automobiles from a wrecking yard near Toronto. Reflecting the Japanese concept of wabi-sabi, the beauty in decay, the photographs display a varied palette, degrading from the original vivid vehicle colours to the oranges and yellows of years of corrosion.
And presently I’m working on a series titled “Dia y Noche,” from a carnival ground in Baja, Mexico, taken in the early morning light, and in the darkness of evening. The intense colours of the shrouds covering each booth at a time void of human activity contrasts interestingly with the artificial light of nighttime. The human presence also adds another important visual element.
How has your background in graphic arts shaped your vision?
Studying graphic design prior to photography instilled in me an instinctive recognition of elemental line, shape and form, which lends itself well to photography. It’s been a valuable aid in the growth of my photographic composition. And, interestingly, I’m still using the same tools and techniques from that experience in my art classroom today.
What’s your state of mind when you’re taking good photos? Do you think there’s any connection between your mood or mindset and the results you get?
I believe my mood is clearly enhanced as I photograph. Time passes quickly and I find, at certain times when everything’s right, that I’m immersed in a zone of creative pleasure. It can occur deep in a forest, in the urban grunge of a back alley, or on a busy downtown street. There’s really nothing else quite like it. Creativity, in any aspect, is very important to me. This is a belief that I try to instill in my students.
Your photos sometimes contain funny twists. Tell me about the role of humour in your photography.
Humour for me is both a defense mechanism and a survival tool, particularly in my day job, attempting to nurture creativity in overactive adolescents. Without humour, life, at times, can be pretty grim. Thus, if I can find something out there that brings a smile to my mind, or my face, I try to capture it.
Who, or what inspires you?
Contrasts, oddities, contradictions, but most of all, light. Light is so important to my work. And beauty, in whatever forms that takes.
One final question: Can you tell me briefly about a couple of photographers I may not be familiar with yet but you would recommend checking out?
There are a few people I’ve been following on Instagram that are well worth mentioning. Mustafa Seven does some remarkable street photography in Turkey. Sefa Yamak, also working in that region, does some compelling street portraits; and finally, Paul Brouns does some really great graphic architectural work in Northern Europe.
I’ll close with another quote from Elliot Erwitt: “To me, photography is an art of observation. It’s about finding something interesting in an ordinary place… I’ve found it has little to do with the things you see and everything to do with the way you see them.”
Many thanks to Michael for doing this interview. I’m so appreciative of his thoughtful answers that provide insight into his work. His images are always a source of inspiration.