New York photographer Michael Mundy speaks to Effect Magazine for our Pro Q&A series
There are some exceptionally talented photographers currently active in the design sphere, but few produce work as riveting as New Yorker Michael Mundy. A regular cover artist for AD and World of Interiors, he’s also a photographer of legends like John Updike – and he’s the man Barack Obama sent for when looking to chronicle his tenure at the White House. He brings a sweeping cinematic vision to static interiors, elevating them to artworks; and he brings a design photographer’s precision to his portraits, somehow capturing whole life stories in these frozen moments.
We first encountered Mundy’s images at the Winter Show in New York; this led to the discovery of a hinterland of work that made him a must-have for our Pro Q&A series. Here’s what he had to say:
How would you describe your photographic style?
My style is simple. I like things to be natural in their feeling. I think images should be strong and simple – images that stand alone and speak for themselves.
What is the key to capturing the essence of an interior?
It depends on the interior. Often, I am shooting a new space just done by a designer. The soul is not there yet, so you focus on what the result of the designer’s work is – be it colour, texture or juxtaposition. How things interact and how they feel in the space. In circumstances like these, I aim to slice into the decor and pull out what is important. What makes it interesting.
If I am shooting a space that has been lived in for some time, I am looking for clues as to who lived there. I am looking to create a portrait of the occupant.Michael Mundy
If I am shooting a space that has been lived in for some time, I am looking for clues as to who lived there. I am looking to create a portrait of the occupant.
Your use of colour to evoke mood is striking. How much is in the composition, and how much in post-production?
I am old-school in my approach, so I try to avoid postproduction tricks. I am constantly seeking an honest interpretation of the space – though, occasionally since we now have the technology, I’ll play in postproduction to see if I can more accurately convey the feeling I had while capturing that image. Certain spaces speak to me in ways that are not apparent to the camera. So, I will sometimes lean on the technology to push an image into the realm of my imagination.
Where I like highly composed images of interiors, I prefer looser, more intimate images of people.Michael Mundy
You seem equally at ease photographing people as you are with design and interiors. How do you approach these different disciplines?
It’s really like using different sides of my brain. Where I like highly composed images of interiors, I prefer looser, more intimate images of people. They are both discoveries in their own way, but one is more studied, the other more serendipitous. In interiors, I am often more in command of what’s happening. With portraits, it’s almost the opposite. I am patiently asking questions and paying attention to the often-subtle answers my subjects are offering.
On your fashion reel, you have a series of photos beautifully reminiscent of the film In the Mood for Love. Styling aside, how did you achieve that mood?
I was shooting like Wong Kar-wai before I knew who he was. I think it was my growing up in an urban environment where artificial light is dominant, and the interplay of colours resulting from of all this manmade light. Once I discovered his work (and, of course, the work of his DP Christopher Doyle), I paid homage to his vision in several fashion shoots.
The mood is not just achieved by the light but by the embracement of shadows. Tanikaki’s essay In Praise of Shadows definitely creeps into my work. After that, it’s about building a relationship between the models, so they have a plot and they’re not just standing there, posing. Deep down, I am just a very impatient filmmaker. My best shoots are small films in their own way.
What is your go-to camera?
I always shoot with two cameras. One on a tripod and one in my hand. The tripod is for what I have decided on and the handheld is for those chance encounters that have led to some of my favourite images.
You shot the Oval Office. What was that experience like, and how do you top that?
When I shot Bill Blass’s Sutton Place apartment for W Magazine, Michael Smith said: “You just shot the coolest apartment in New York – how will you ever top that?” Well, it took quite a few years but thanks to Michael, I did top that. It was the shoot of a lifetime. Going to the most prestigious address in America with the A team of Michael Smith, Margaret Russell and Carolina Irving was something I never imagined. Being asked to come back by the president to shoot what he didn’t want to share with the public was even cooler.
Are there other photographers that have inspired or influenced your work?
Clearly my mentor Oberto Gili was a huge influence on me. I met him when I was nineteen. His work is so poetic. I would never have gotten into this field if I hadn’t met him. Oberto never seemed interested in documenting rooms per se. His goal always seemed to be to create beautiful pictures – he simply used rooms to achieve this. At least, that’s what I took away from my time with him.
Is there one photograph you would save above all others – and why?
That was always a difficult question for me. It’s like asking which is your favourite child. Though, there is an image that has risen to the top in my mind.
It’s a shot I did for a fashion shoot that was inspired by the work of Edward Hopper. I’ve lived with it on my wall for years now and I never tire of looking at it. Thanks to you asking, I just posted it on Instagram.
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