Photographer Michelle Engberg says that "all art, in a way, no matter what it is, helps people unite and evokes emotion. It helps the artist and the viewer connect; even if you're not physically connecting with somebody you're connecting through your art." The images she creates exude an incredible warmth and sense of magic, as well as playfulness. There is mystery but there is also emotion, (isn't all emotion mysterious?) "I think memories, feelings, smells, places all bring you back to when you were a child and help you tell your story" Michelle says, of her younger days growing up in New York and being awed by the "cobble stone streets, victorian brownstones and vines." Like the poet Charles Simic, Michelle Engberg combines the surreal and the childlike, her sense of place and memory, in essence; magically deep and abiding story telling, who could ask for more?
AHC: What first drew you to photography? Was there a specific moment in your life or turning point where it became clear to you that you were being called to create?
Michelle: At first I was always very creative growing up, but I didn't know what medium I had the most passion for yet. I've tried all different kinds from drawing, to singing in a band, to acting but none of those fit me the best. In college I took my first photography 101 class. First time I've ever picked up a digital camera and I had the funnest time going out exploring and taking pictures of what my perspective was, I became instantly hooked.
AHC: Could you talk some about your overall process, themes & inspirations? Where do your deepest Muses lay?
Michelle: I would classify my self as a conceptual surrealist photographer / digital artist. I find surrealism and usually create topics based on inspiration and empowerment. I'm inspired by surreal fairy tale and very colorful types of ideas and I like to tell a story with my work. For my personal pieces, I usually use the my own stories to create a series. For my clients; they tell me their story and I create images based on their stories, ideas and inspirations.
AHC: Who are some of your artistic influences? Is there anyone outside of the art world whose work has impacted your own, or who just generally inspire you, writers, filmmakers, musicians etc?
Michelle: Yes there are a lot of artists who inspire me. Brooke Shaden, I think you've interviewed her before. She inspires me with her art and her creative mind. Khristy Mitchell, she's another artist I really like. She makes whole sets and it takes her a very long time and the process and detail that go into it is amazing. Then there are many of my close friends who are filmmakers and artists here in Phoenix, they inspire me everyday. As far as in my community and in my life, My family and friends with humbleness, kindness to others and the stories we share together give me inspiration and fuel a lot of my artwork.
AHC: When did you get your first camera and what were some of the first shots that you took?
Michelle: I got my first camera probably in 2011 it was an Nikon D80, you know with the kit lens. I used for a whole year youtubing tons of videos on how to do this, and how to do that. Learning how to problem solve and all the technical buttons there on the camera. Then after a year or so I upgraded to a Canon 7D. I really didn't have any models. I would ask my friends from work or would put an ad out on Craigslist. I needed some models to practice on and I would give them in exchange all the pictures edited that I've done. I've done a lot of trade until I built up my experience level enough to start taking it towards making a profit from it. If I could compare a picture from when I first shot my camera till the present you can see how far I've grown. hen I first started, I kind of over seasoned, over saturated and over everything my images; just like learning how to cook for the first time and over seasoning your food! But I was full of drive and I loved all of those experiences. I'm going to continue to learn and compare my pictures from now to 5 years from now it's the art it's self that I have the passion for.
AHC: What was the most difficult piece for you to create, shoot, technically and conceptually? Have you ever had to abandon a piece because the elements just weren't coming together in the right way?
Michelle: I've had lots of difficult shoots, sometimes there are problems that can be avoided or mistakes of my own but I never give up! It's all about problem solving in taking your time and looking at your pictures. Just double checking to make sure they come out right while you're shooting. To be honest I really liked photos that challenge me and push my limits because then I can start getting even better. I haven't really had an issue where I completely messed up all the photos and couldn't go back to fix them. I feel there's always a solution especially when you're working with clients. The situation can always be fixed it's better to have to re-shoot then to not complete the shoot at all.
AHC: You've written that growing up in New York has inspired so much of your work, what is it about that time in your life and the explorations of that city that feed your art so deeply? Do you consider a sense of place and memory of place to be paramount for an artist's life telling?
Michelle: I grew up moving a lot in New York City between the boroughs from Queens to the Bronx to Brooklyn. New York has so many different people, different personalities and different cultures. Every day just walking home from school I would have another story to tell; something different something new I think it has played a big role in my nature to use storytelling in my work. I love architecture, older looking buildings, the feeling of history. The idea of looking down an alley and being immersed in another time. Cobble stone streets, victorian brownstones and vines. That's what magic feels like to me. I think memories, feelings, smells, places all bring you back to when you were a child and help you tell your story.
AHC: What do you think photography is capable of showing us that perhaps other arts cannot in quite the same way? What do you find unique to the camera's eye, its singular, haunting power?
Michelle: I feel that it captures each person's individual perception, the way they view the world. I do feel that all art in a way no matter what it is helps people unite and it evokes emotion. It helps the artist and the viewer connect; even if you're not physically connecting with somebody you're connecting through your art.
AHC: What is the first work of art you encountered that took your breath away, that showed you that art and image making was something that you could add your own unique translations to?
Michelle: I was Googling photography because I didn't know where to start at first and I came across Rus Anson/ she is a female portrait lifestyle photographer but she photographs in such a unique way everything looks like a fairy tale. I wanted to create things like that with colors then surrealism and creativity.
AHC: Are there times when you become blocked creatively? What do you do to rekindle inspiration?
Michelle: Yes sometimes, I have my Cycles. I try not to stay too long not creating something. I feel like I need to keep the ball rolling and keep the momentum going, so even if it's not the best idea in the world, I get a few small ideas and create them. Music helps too.
AHC: Do you have any words of advice for young photographers-artists who are rooting around in themselves trying to find their own internal artistic vision, their truth, their poetry?
Michelle: Yes! Understand that you're going to be scared to take the next step and put yourself out there. Face your fears and just keep doing it if you love it. Give it a hundred percent and then let fate handle the rest. Believe in yourself and stick to the type of art that makes you happy the most. Don't make your judgments based on money, what's popular or compare yourself to others. Once you focus you will find your own style different from everybody else, then everything else will fall into place.
AHC: Do you have any upcoming exhibits or new projects you'd like to tell people about?
Michelle: I'm going to be putting out some Photoshop editing tutorials this summer on my website. Right now I'm taking it easy working on a series to submit to a few galleries and working with Clients/collaborators on a few projects.
All images © Michelle Engberg (provided courtesy of the artist)
For more visit michelleengberg.com/
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