Michael Schley


I'm not exactly sure why I became drawn to images or got into photography in the first place. I wasn't brought up around art as a child. I was maybe 7 or 8 when I took my first pictures. They were Polaroids, made around the house with my parent's camera. The fact that these were instant pictures coming right out of the camera was kind of magic to me. I think I just wanted more and more of them. When I was about 10 years old my father purchased a video camera. Fortunately he didn't mind me using it, (I think he knew it was keeping me occupied) because I became fascinated with it. Recording, then watching. I used to make short stop motion movies with what ever I could find laying around. It was like an endless entertainment to me. For one reason or another, the camera was something I just naturally gravitated towards. It seemed instinctual, I never had to over think it. Photography...that was what I wanted to do. In what form though, was the question I had to ask myself as I got older.

Entering my sophomore year in high school I enrolled myself into the photography class and continued with it through my senior year. I learned to developed my first roll of film here and ended up spending most of my free periods in the darkroom. I had a very supportive teacher through those years and upon my graduation I was given an award honoring my achievements in photography at Darien High School.

After a year working as a photographer's assistant and darkroom printer at a local studio, I went to the New England School of Photography in Boston and I spent the next 2 years studying all facets of photography. It was 1993 when I started there, film was still dominant at the time and it was all we used. Although on the cusp of changing the world of photography only a few years later, digital wasn't even enough of a blip on the radar to be thought about or taught to us. In hindsight I am happy for this fact. It gave me the opportunity to learn and immerse myself in the practice of photography the way it had essentially been done since it's invention over 150 years earlier. The large format camera was introduced to me here. A 4x5 inch view camera, which became practically the only format I used while I was there and is still my format of choice now. Developing and printing techniques were regiment. Exposure to photography as art and the encouragement to create it, were fostered in this environment. It was an important time for me, because it was my realization that this is where my passion for photography was driven. In artistic endeavors rather than commercial. It was to put me on my path. An uncertain and unsteady one, but the only one for me to go. 

When I was younger, I used to think I only wanted the landscapes, vast landscapes, to be in front of me to photograph. My impressions being that these were the places where true beauty was to be sought. Although I had already developed an eye for, and was shooting, industrial forms and the abstract. All of nature, pristine and majestic, I believed to be the accepted forms of beauty. It is easier to identify beauty in those places. It is beauty that has always been, in some form, an underling current through all of my work. The yearning for it is constant.                           So after finishing school, and still In my early 20's, I traveled alone cross country in my Dodge Ram on two occasions. Spending months at a time on the road, traveling West in search of the West. The places where, WestonStrandGilpin and of course Adams, had all set the stage before me. The land, a large open sky, and all that came between, I camped, explored and photographed. With room to breath and inspiration to work, it was my ultimate freedom. I was finding myself and finding my vision. They are days I will never forget. 

They were also days fundamental in my development as an artist. I understood that, what if one isn't always faced with such places? I live in Connecticut after all, not exactly known for it's topographical wonders and a long way from the shores of the pacific. I needed to rethink how it was I looked for beauty...

In the midst of that thought and without warning, it was beauty that stepped into my life. Her name was Irena. A young Czech girl, and she was about to change my life. We met in early December of 1998. She was working at the coffee shop next door to the photo lab where I was. I was struck the moment I saw her. Gorgeous, and stunningly so without effort. She had nothing to prove. I think I liked this about her. I was mystified by her. One look into her eyes and there was no looking back. I had to know her....and I did. We ended up falling in love. 

It was she who introduced me to Prague, a place I had not imagined before. A place layered in age and history with a darkness deep below, then shinning bright as if illuminated by two suns. A Place I saw shaped in her image and by the feelings I held for her. It was also the place we would come to part and I was to leave this love behind. Six months I spent in the grasp of this city knowing this and photographing it during the spring and summer of 2000. Amidst Irena, the light and all the beauty that surrounded me, my inner heart suffered in anguish. I felt at the juxtaposition between heaven and hell. I've come to believe I actually was between heaven and hell. For those open enough to listen, Prague will whisper in your ear and have her way with you. Letting you know that not only does such a place exists, but that you have walked straight into its clutches. I think the story of Prague was a story within myself. I felt it was shared in some way, as if there was an opening up to one another. So I confided in her and into those photographs I poured everything of myself. I was 27 years old. My heart, my love, would never quite be the same. A purity had been wiped away. My book 'The Heart of Prague' was the result of these photographs.

The ensuing years would find me back in Europe on subsequent visits. Exploring what cities I could, I managed a few of the classics; London, Paris, Venice later would come Vienna. From my earlier days out west under endless night skies, to the lamp lit cobble stone streets that I walked, themes had come together; architecture and nature. Seeing one as the other and blending the two together. A combination I have carried with me ever since.

As I have changed and evolved through experiences and years in my life. So too have my ideas and thoughts of beauty and where I find inspiration. I can still fall in love with a great landscape and in the historical structures of Europe. But to find the rich beauty in that which is underwhelming...the simple or understated. Among the broken, forgotten and fatigued. The worn and weathered. Within the hard lines of steel or in the quite unassuming softness of nature. Places and objects which have no intent on beauty. It is in those places, and those things, I often find the most wonder, intrigue and eventually beauty. They can be the most pleasing images to uncover.          

It is In this way, my eye can be led more toward the abstract and to what is constructed of light and form. My eye is more free and unrestrained.

The act of making contact prints has also influenced my creative approch in how l see an image. Contact prints are a very pure way to make a photographic print. The sharpness and fine gradation of these prints are rendered beautifully. Since there is no enlarging of the image (as their name suggest) the negative is laid in direct contact with the printing paper. The negative size will also become the print size. In my case, 4x5 inches. They are small, intimate works that beg the compositions to be simplified and structured.

The photographs I make are in essences a reflection of this life I hold...or that holds me. A life recognized and lived with desire, passion and appreciation. They are a search for poetry within it all. What I look for through my lens are things I look for in life. Rhythm and balance. Light and to be enlightened. Things as pleasing to the soul as is to the eye.  A search for perspective...

Whether photographing in a grassy field, an architectural wonder or a concrete sidewalk, I remain in that search for beauty and it is always the forms of nature that come back through it all. Nature prevailing, fighting like grass through cracks in the pavement in tireless persistence.  

So too then, I am reminded, should come love, sprouting back into one's heart...in tireless persistence.

I still strive for truth and beauty. I believe it is still valid in art...just as in life.