Michael Clinard

Being Michael Clinard: On Conceptual Photography

Today’s Lab feature is a look into the mind of the quirky, sometimes offbeat, and always talented conceptual photographer Michael Clinard.


Tell me a bit about how you gravitated towards conceptual photography?

Keeping a sketchbook throughout art school was a requirement. Working out the kinks on a really badass lightning bolt every other week was how it started, but it slowly grew to be an everyday practice into my graduate studies. Dumb rhyming, bad sketches, and ill-lit instant photos were what went in, along with an interest in taking two seemingly disparate ideas and having them fit together.

The practice of thoughtfulness hasn’t really left, and I find that exploring it photographically yields the kind of visual results that pull all those influences, both old and new, into the same fold. I like to describe my conceptual work as taking the everyday and turning it on its ear.

Where do you draw inspiration from?

In truth, everything around me, even the banal. I like reinterpreting big topics like TV, the internet, businessmen or pop culture. Because there has been a great deal of imagery already generated on those subjects, you’ve got a whole audience that can already relate to another image in that vein.


How do you record ideas for later when they come to you?

Everyday life is pretty surreal when you stop and look at everything going on around you. Besides the journals I’ve already mentioned, I catalog a lot of things photographically with a point-and-shoot I always have on me. Shapes, colors, birthday cakes, and balloons – these personal snaps aim to shine a light on the bizarre or peculiar. My rigid and polished conceptual style is informed by these everyday findings.

describe the image

What’s the most memorable conceptual piece you’ve worked on, personal or commercial?

I’ve always been fond of the project I did for AOL / The Huffington Post when I shot a live cougar. I’ve shot dogs and other pets including a little hamster intent on escaping the set, but the cougar proved to be the toughest. The first day we shot the cougar, the handler said after an hour, “You know she’s really not feeling it today.” To which I replied, “She kind of needs to feel it,” given the amount we were paying. I didn’t get the plates I needed that first day, so I made the tough call to the client and asked for an additional shoot day. They agreed and it went pretty smoothly after that. Moral of the story: never think it’s easy to shoot a cougar.

Your style is so unique – and so much of photography is dependent on the people in the frame. Do you find it difficult to impart this conceptual style and direction to your subjects?

Yes and no. That first year of shooting in 2011, yes, because I was a very “one hero shot” kind of guy. I was pretty good at getting most, if not all shots in-camera, but at points I was fighting recycling times on up to 12 lights. For that reason, I shot with more intention based on facial expressions to create a tableau vivant of the event, say for example, the board of directors of UMPQUA for Fortune (seen below). That approach can be time consuming, and while I still practice that approach, recently I’ve been exercising a looser style that mimics moreof the immediacy in my personal work, such as in a recent project for Nordstrom.

Fortune UMPQUA 270 FINAL crop web

What are some of your strategies for controlling a shoot?

Asking politely for what you need works. Then again, most of the strategy doesn’t take place the day of. I like to get all the information from emails and print them out to make sure I get every little detail. I’m a fan of touching base with contacts to find out “real scoop” stuff like how to get more than a roller bag of gear into a location effectively and on time. How much time do I really have with him/her/them? Do I need to talk to someone else about freight elevator clearance? And once I’m on location I’ll sometimes have my assistant ask, “Sorry, remind me of your name again,” in case I forget one of the 8 names I’m committing to memory.

onset of cougar

On your site you have a growing number of Vine videos, and photographers are increasingly incorporating motion into their work.Is motion the future of Michael Clinard? What’s next for you?

A move to New York is actually up next for me! I will be out there beginning of October pursuing projects. As for motion, I’ve dabbled in the past making video art that I’d describe as “elevated sophmoricism.” I’ve been looking at them again, along with old video works by Baldessari, Acconci and McCarthy, and I am really appreciating them. I kind of go dumb over that early video art stuff. Enough so that I’m going to do a little collaboration with a video production company here where we’ll be casting my nearly 2-year-old daughter, Tala Mae, as a baby photo editor.

Nick Moy

Born and raised on Long Island, New York, Nick is a 2009 graduate of Tufts University. He is currently a Marketing Coordinator for Agency Access. When he's not in the office, Nick enjoys cooking and playing in his band Three Chord Me.

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