There’s something exquisite about watching someone do something really well. It could be bowling, as far as I’m concerned. When someone moves in a way they’ve trained and practiced and were born to move, it’s visual poetry.
Capturing that fusion of grace and power in a still image is another thing entirely. Michael Clark has the eye. Perhaps it’s because he’s an athlete, too, that he understands the crux moments of movement. In a single frame, he’s able to somehow show both the intensity and emotion of the human body, and the enormity of the landscape that body is moving through. That ain’t easy.
Clark’s images, while heavy in adventure, don’t discriminate: fringe to mainstream and backcountry to urban are all fair game. Lest we pigeonhole his skills to just shooting sports, his full portfolio is stuffed with character-rich portraits and jaw-dropping landscapes, too. But today we’re feeling inspired by, as Clark calls it, “the fleeting moment of passion, gusto, flair, bravado.” Enjoy.
Career-wise, you went from physicist to professional photographer. Does your understanding of physics influence your photography?
I used to work with the same materials and chips that modern digital camera sensors are made from, so that definitely gives me a deep understanding of how a digital camera works. But in reality, that doesn’t help me make better images. What physics taught me was how to problem solve pretty much anything. And since photography is 50 percent problem solving, 40 percent hard work, and 10 percent talent, that skill comes in handy.
In your bio, you talk about capturing “fleeting moments of passion, gusto, flair and bravado in the outdoors.” What’s compelling to you about the fleeting moment?
I have been an artist since I was three years old. I started out drawing, then painting. Through high school and into college, I tried out just about every art form there is, including oil and watercolors, scratchboard, pastels, colored pencils and inks, glass blowing, sculpture, collage, woodworking, lithography, and finally photography. I have always been drawn to the impact an image or a piece of art could have on a person, and how that can continue to inspire or remind them of something important.
As an athlete myself, that fleeting moment is the height of the action, or the depth of the commitment the athlete had to give to get where they are at that exact moment. It takes serious commitment to launch up a remote, alpine big wall, leap off a 3,000-foot cliff and push the envelope in any adventure sport. I love capturing that moment and helping the athletes to tell their story in a powerful way that helps to convey to the viewer what it is like when they launch into the void.
What’s the hardest sport to capture in still images?
I’d have to say BASE jumping or its cousin, wingsuit flying. Unless you are a BASE jumper, you only have a second or more before the athletes are gone – just a dot on the landscape below. With all of the other adventure sports, it is much easier to get close to the athletes, though it may involve a lot of hard work. With BASE jumping and wingsuit flying that is very difficult.
What are professional athletes like as models?
Professional athletes who are pushing the limits of their sports are essential for the images I create. Their input, as to what is possible, helps to hone and craft the final images. They are part of the process, and they are for the most part friends as well, who need the images to continue working as a professional athletes.
Amazingly, with the advent of digital, it has become more apparent that athletes view themselves as artists as well. I have had a lot of shoots where the athlete checks out his style or body position, isn’t happy with how it is looking, and works with me until we get it just right. They want to express themselves through their sports and I am not sure the public is aware of that.
So I caught you on an afternoon when your computer crashed. First of all, bummer. Sorry. Had I not pinned you down to answer these questions, what would a perfect spring afternoon look like for you, when you’re unexpectedly free from responsibilities?
Yeah, computer crashes happen. This isn’t the first time I have had this happen. The old computer is getting repaired and a new computer is on the way, while I work on my backup.
A perfect spring Santa Fe afternoon would be rock climbing with friends under the high desert sun, on a crisp 64°F day out at Diablo Canyon or the Overlook, followed by a wicked hot bowl of green chile stew, and a Negra Modelo beer at La Choza, here in town.
Any last thoughts before you take advantage of a computer-less afternoon?
I have been a pro photographer for 20 years. I never could have dreamed that I would have a career this fulfilling and varied or that I would get to witness and document such incredible adventure sports. Yesterday, I shot climbing, tomorrow I have a BMX shoot. Next week it is another assignment. I am grateful for this lifestyle, and the opportunities I get to share the crazy, wild landscapes, and the athletes who play in them with a large audience.
Photos by Michael Clark.