Water Diviner: Michael Seif

April 08, 2011

"I know that the camera long ago acted as a shield between me and the outside world."

If creative folks need an outlet to carry on, are we attempting to hide behind or step forth? I'm driven to write and paint to express what I can't otherwise seem to relay.

Does that mean something is wrong with me? 

Maybe.

Or could it mean I have something to express that goes beyond what the average person needs to relay?  Perhaps I'm uniquely wired, and without the right outlet, my inter workings will implode in a jumbled up mess of despair, frustration, and loneliness. 

That could be it.

Late, I have come to a parched land
doubting my gift, if gift I have,
the inspiration of water
spilt, swallowed in the sand.

To hear once more water trickle,
to stand in a stretch of silence
the divining pen twisting in the hand:
sign of depths alluvial.

From Dannie Abse's The Water Diviner

Sometimes I want to explode into some kind of bizarre animal state. I long to strip off my clothes, jump in a lake, and swim like a fish until my skin shrivels up. I want to wildly race off a cliff down into a giant pool of weightless water, and struggle until I drown in a flurry of rich life. I want to be alive in a way that doesn't seem easily accessible for me.  I want to feel the wind against my skin during that zooming fall, and feel the pain of my body slapping that cold sheet of water.

Do other people need that?  Do you?

Are these peculiar desires the very thing I'm hiding from, or what I'm trying to push forth?  I've come to the conclusion that the best I can do is try to understand myself.  If I can define who I am and how I feel, then maybe I can look over and see much more than just your interesting face glancing my way.  Maybe I can break through the mystery and feel another human being as deeply as I feel myself.  And maybe you'll find and feel me, and that will be enough of a fall for both of us.

Am I too self centered?  Probably. Sometimes I think that if I were a better person, I would spend all my time feeding the poor and figuring out how to achieve world peace.  I might be the woman my mother wanted me to be, and spend all my energy sharing God's word.  But I am not that woman.  Although I'm quite willing to engage in some of those activities, my place is with words, colors, sentences, and shapes.  I am somewhere in that churning mix.  That's where I am best when all else fails.  That's where I feel at home in my own skin. In other places, I'm a fish out of water.  I get by, but I'm always dreaming of the next chance I'll have to suck in a deep satisfying gulp.

My guest today, photographer Michael Seif, photographs nudes in water. Like fish, they swim beneath the water's surface in various formations.  The images he captures demonstrate that life is a flowing, sensual experience that somehow goes beyond flesh and blood, hiding, stepping forth, world peace, and self-centeredness.  He aims to capture the basic core of life we all share, especially when swimming in waters we call our very own. 

I recently met Michael at an art opening in New York.  His long-time commitment to this creative idea was inspiring.  He told me a story about how taking a gross anatomy course in graduate school influenced his thinking about the essence of life, and how it animates the inanimate body.  His thoughts on this led him to the concept of visualizing how our bodies move in water.  How that ebb and flow can demonstrate the spirit that is apart from the body.

My goal is to find that place in my life where I'm swirling, floating, moving naked and comfortable in my own skin.  It is there that I will discover the kernel that makes me tick.  I feel myself moving closer.  My feet are in the water.  Similar creatures are circling.  There it is!  A flick against my ankle, a brush against the toe.  My skin is tingling.  I think I'm nearly there.

What's your story? How long did it take to establish yourself as an artist? Was the journey on a straight or twisted path? Are you surprised by your success?

I've always enjoyed doing creative things - making silver and gold jewelry, writing fiction, woodworking, and photography. Over almost 50 years, I've gradually dropped the other things, but photography has remained as my creative drug of choice. In the 1960s I photographed on the streets and in the subways of NYC. Since then, I've photographed trips to Mexico, Europe, India, my daughter, my grandchildren, and for the past eight years, I have been working on photographing the human figure in nature.

I photograph for two main reasons. One is to save the past, to have something to remember in the future. The other is to see better. Photography makes me get up early when the light is best, makes me do things that might be uncomfortable so I can see what I would otherwise miss.  It causes me to look harder and more carefully at the world around me.

It was only about 10 years ago that people started referring to me as an artist, something I found hard to accept because I didn't think of myself that way. And it was a series of fortuitous events that led me to have even the modest success I have today--my work being accepted in juried shows throughout the country, some sales, and praise by those whose opinions I respect. So, yes, I am surprised by what success I have been able to achieve.

With regard to your current creative focus, was there an "ah-ha" moment you can tell us about?

There were actually two ah-ha moments:

First, was in 1969 when I took a class with Lisette Model, a photographer of world renown, at the New School in NY. In a tough critique in front of the class, she dismissed my photographs as derivative of just about every other photographer, until she saw pictures of a friend's feet I had taken with just a desk lamp as illumination. "Flesh," she said. "You should be doing flesh." So I hired models, set up a no-seam in my Manhattan apartment and tried photographing nudes. But when I looked at the work of other photographers, I saw my work wasn't doing anything new, so I went off in other directions.

The second ah-ha was more than 30 years later, when I went for a swim in a Maine granite quarry, where everyone swam nude. The site was deep in evergreen woods, the weathered granite quarry walls were lichen covered, the people of every age swimming and sunning, all led me to say - wow, what beautiful photographs there are here! Through a few interested people I met in Maine, I was able to obtain models and work on these photographs for over eight years now.

Many artist focus on one particular subject or style. How important is this for career development? Have you ever grown tired of photographing the same types of things, and if so, can you tell us about it?

I photograph lots of subjects because I simply enjoy making photographs and I like how photography helps me see better--travel, friends, family, flowers, landscapes. But my photography of the human figure is something that has drawn me in over the years, and which I feel I am doing better and better over time. This time has been necessary to allow me to move from what other photographers have done to doing something original. This takes time, and I will keep doing it because it is so rewarding to me personally.

Do you believe some of the various attributes related to being highly creative have caused you aberrations in life, helped you deal with life's aberrations, or both?

I know that the camera long ago acted as a shield between me and the "outside world." I could see what was going on, but was occupied. I only had to interact if I felt comfortable doing so. Now I'm a bit more outgoing and sociable, and the camera helps me connect with people. Through my photography I have met wonderful people and have made many new friends.

Have you ever had to deal with people in your life failing to understand your creative personality, interests, or drive? If so, can you tell us about it and how you've dealt with it?

In fact, just the opposite has happened to me. I always photographed for myself--it was something I just enjoyed doing. During the 60s and 70s, my wife put up with a lot as I transformed the bathroom into a dark room on Sundays.  Yet she was always encouraging.  For more than 40 years I have been accumulating boxes of tri-X negatives and color slides and film--with no idea of what I would do with them. When digital printers became available, I scanned some of those old photos and printed them, and decided to try selling some at a local town fair. A representative of the town art center asked if I was a local artist (I told her I was local but not sure of the "artist" part) and she kindly found a venue for me with my first solo show at the town bank.

I received other encouragement by being juried into group shows, and one juror, a curator at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts kindly spent an hour with me critiquing my work and encouraging me to continue. Because I had little formal art training, that kind of support was crucial to me being able to feel a sense of validation, and to grow as an artist. A gallery owner in Maine was encouraging, too, and provided me with a show of my 1960s black and white photographs of New York City. She was instrumental in enabling me to find models for my most recent work, and has been nothing but encouraging.

Have you developed a specific creative process that enables you to meet your artistic goals? If so, can you tell us about it. Where do most of your ideas come from?

When I began my series of nudes in the outdoors, one woman agreed to model for me. She swam in the quarry as I photographed from a ledge, and suddenly she made a quick turn. I asked her to do that again. (It turns out she had been on her high school synchronized swimming team.) Her body and the wave she made as she turned became almost one, and I gradually realized that the motion of the water implied that the figure was moving, and this led to a way of showing the human being as not just sculpture, as so many photographs have done, but as a living, moving creature of nature. I quickly acquired more models who were themselves creative and saw that I considered my work with them as a joint effort and were eager to help me make innovative and beautiful photographs.

At first, I was concerned that I would run out of ideas, but after eight years that is not a major worry anymore. The models and I look to nature (schools of fish, swimming seals), to dance, and to art for inspiration. We talk about what we want to do. And then they get into the water and they organize themselves, and they try variations, and they keep working as I take hundreds of photographs. Finally, I look at the photographs on the computer and am thrilled if I see three or four out of each 100 that are ones I am eager to print.

What do you believe places an artist apart from his or her peers? So many are highly talented, but what makes one stand out as truly gifted?

I think that the truly gifted have, in fact, received a gift that provides an inborn potential to create new art, and perhaps even new forms of art. But, whether highly talented or truly gifted, the ability to keep working is what sets apart the creative artists from those that "dabble."

In a photographic critique class that I took in Boston, most of us in the class were middle-aged or beyond. The (younger) instructor commended us for doing art while working, raising children, volunteering in civic organizations, and doing all the other things that encompass a busy life. The instructor found that among his younger students in other classes, there were some who were dedicated to their art, but most who loved the idea of being artists (loved the coffees with friends, the talk, the paint-smeared clothing) but were less eager to do the hard, often lonely work of actually doing art. He referred to them as poseurs.

I really believe that while talent is important, lots of hard work is often what separates an artist from his or her peers.

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