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Mike Rebholz: Beauty and Splendor in the Midwest

Mike Rebholz is a professional photographer from Madison, Wisconsin. A life-long photographer, Mike studied at the Milwaukee Center for Photography and has been an instructor at the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design. One of the seeds that may have sown Mike’s passion for photography is when, during this youth, he used his lawn mowing money to buy a roll of film for his camera and an old apron developing tank from the local store. He makes photographs across various genres with significant time spent in architecture and advertising. Mike’s work has been published in numerous architecture, advertising, and design journals and has been exhibited in galleries in Palm Springs and Chicago.  This week Mike speaks to atlas about how he turned photography into a full-time career and how he captures the quiet and beauty of the gorgeous landscape around Wisconsin, Michigan and the Midwest. (Editor’s Note: Enjoy one of our favorite features this week from Mike Rebholz!)

How did you first become interested in photography?

Mike Rebholz: My parent had an ancient Kodak twin lens camera when I was a kid (age 9-10) and I was fascinated by the device and that you could look down at the thing and see in front of you. My connection to photography as a process was pretty tangential at that point, I was more interested in the change in view point and the condensing of the world into the little square of the viewfinder. The following year my folks bought me a little 127 Brownie camera I think so I would leave their camera alone. I fooled around with it and took a rolls worth of pictures and left it alone. It was definitely not as cool as the twin lens as a device. The following year I was in junior high school. At the end of the spring semester, my general science teacher did a section on photography. There were thirty kids in a class and we all went to the front of the room and took a picture of our lab partners on the same 36 exposure roll of 35mm film. The teacher put up blackout curtains and doused the light and developed the film on the teachers’ lab bench with all thirty of us sitting there in the dark.

In the next class, the film was dry and we all went to the front of the class. Under my teacher’s supervision, we made a contact print of the image we had made of our partner. Like many others before me, I saw that image come up in the tray of developer and I was hooked. School let out for the summer and I traded in my lawn mowing money for a roll of 127 film for my camera, a Tri-Chem pack from Kodak and an old apron developing tank from the local discount store. I shot and followed the developing instructions in my folks’ bathroom and that is how I became interested in photography.

Are you self-taught or do you have a formal education in photography?

Both, which is my idea of the best way to be educated. I taught myself, I went to school and I went to work for a couple of professional photographers — all of which leads to a fuller understanding of photography than following only one path.

Your landscape images, particularly the black and white images, are beautiful and striking. Can you tell us a little bit more about each of these images?

The photograph at the very top is of a large series from a place I go to every year (funny how it seems many of my landscape photographs seem to involve a ritual). On the last weekend of October, we rent a cabin that sits on the southern shore of Lake Superior in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. I never know what I will be presented with when I get there. The weather can be fine and mild or a roaring gale; the only constant is the lake though even the shore is in a constant state of flux. It was made right outside the back door of the cabin during a gale where the winds were steady at about 40 mph. The light was grim and unforgiving as the lake itself. I chose this spot because the trees implied the shelter of being just inland of the beach but still showed the unrepentant fury of the lake and the sky. The darkness of the photograph is a reflection of the conditions and my mood on that morning just at the break of day.

This image is one I made on a late fall day long after corn harvest was over. I was driving home from shooting a job and went by this field and recognized it from my youth. I am speaking of a metaphorical memory not an actual memory. The field and the light reminded me of my grandfather’s fields that I would see when we made the journey back to the farm around the holidays. His farm was the first place where I recognized how rooted people can become in their place and how the land reflects the person and vice versa. He and I would walk the field and my nose would fill with the smell of mold and dirt and cold rain and it was an entire transformation from the lush waving rustle of summer corn. It surprised me that one place could be two things.

I wanted to make a photograph that invoked a sense of tension, an awareness of temporary as a condition. The dark of the foreground and the roiling of the clouds and the mystery of the band of trees broken by the long view up the middle worked for me. I deliberately made a very formal photograph knowing the structure would heighten the sense of tension and foreboding that I was looking to describe.

This photo is one of my New Year’s Day photographs. Every year on New Year’s Day for the past thirty-five years I have gotten up and gone photographing to make sure I start the year right. I have almost always gone out into the country around Madison and made a landscape photograph. I like having images that mark the changes in where I live and how my photography has changed over the years. It was made on one of those mid-winter mornings where looks can be deceiving. Beautiful sky that had the look of early spring and a bitter wind that spoke of winter through my jacket. This was one of two photographs I made that day and both were about the meeting of the frozen land and the beauty of the sky. As I think about it, all of the New Year’s photographs are about beauty and I think they are all a reflection of how beautiful I think being alive to see another year is.

This is one of the few images I have made that expressly reflects my complicated relationship with religion and because at the time I made it I was thinking of that and of my childhood. We were driving cross country so I could attend Review Santa Fe. We were going the long way around on a series of class B highways so I could be exposed to whatever came along. In western Nebraska, the sky lowered and it looked like tornado weather when we went past this isolated church. The combination of the object, the light and the fearful conditions meant I had to get out of the car and wade through the long grass in the ditch to make a photograph that at the time I thought talked about the potent and what I perceive to be not altogether benign influence of organized religion. It was also about memories of violent weather in rural southern Illinois where I went as a child and experienced big storm sweeping across the corn fields, storms that imprinted themselves on me and that I carry around with me to this day.

This image is another of the series from Lake Superior though this was made from the visits we make to the same place in late summer. I woke this morning after a big rain storm and went down to the beach to see that it had been entirely reconfigured over night. I knew as the trees thrashed in the night that that would be the case when I got up at dawn so I was ready to take my camera and my cup of coffee down to the water.

You shoot across many genres (i.e., architectural, landscape, people, etc.). Which genre is your favorite and why?

I have no particular favorite genre. I photograph what is close to me and what means the most to me at the time. Sometimes I am passing through a place and the architecture is what tells the story I perceive about that place, at other times it is the shape of the place and work in landscape mode, and at other times a portrait is the only way to express what I know.

You photograph in both color and black & white. Do you prefer one over the other?

I have no preference which comes of having grown up with black and white and at a certain point consciously deciding that I wanted to understand how color works. At this point, I choose the rendition that I feel most accurately reflects what I am trying to express in the individual photograph.

How did you turn photography into a full-time career?

While I was in art college, I was approached by a graphic design firm about doing photography for one of their clients that needed some signs photographed. Eventually, the design firm hired me as a staff photographer. Time passed and I grew tired of photographing three ring binders full of graphic standards manuals for insurance companies and I decided to go out on my own. That is pretty much the course of my life. I spent the early years as an architectural photographer, segued into advertising, and eventually came back to architecture.

How do you see your work evolving over the next three to five years?

A tough question, how does one know where one will go with their art? Exploration is the process and that implies navigating without a chart.

Thanks for being our featured photographer of the week, Mike!

For more information about Mike, visit his website.  All images © Mike Rebholz.

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