Making A Portrait With Michael Halsband

You might recognize Michael Halsband's work without realizing it. His portraits range from the likes of Basquiat and Warhol, to The Rolling Stones, Klaus Nomi and beyond. In fact, when I met with Michael in his Flatiron apartment and studio, he had just spent the day shooting The Pixies -- no big deal. But besides being a heralded and prolific New York based photographer, Halsband has established himself as a documentarian of surfing's history, almost by chance. The release of his collaboration book with Joel Tudor, Surf Book, and his current exhibition (now on display at our Amagansett location) has openly and honestly portrayed a multitude of surfing's legends.

Here, Michael tells us about his relationship with New York surfing, his collaboration work with Joel Tudor, and how he ended up as the photographer he is today.

On New York and discovering surfing...

"I was born in Brooklyn, raised in Manhattan, and have lived here ever since -- never lived anywhere else."

"I had always seen surfing on television, and I was immediately attracted to it. My first opportunity to surf was when I was age 12 in South America in Caracas, and it came very easily. It was a fit for me, it was just so right for me. I would occasionally surf, but it was spotty for years. I dedicated myself to it in my late 30's when I got a car. I got a postal Jeep from the post office and was able to drive to the beach. I then spent a lot of time at Flying Point beach in Watermill, mostly surfing alone. I went to Montauk occasionally, but it was intimidating because there were so many people -- but not like it is today, back then 10 people was a crowd."

"Surfing became a religion for me. It became a spiritually enriching experience. And I was surfing alone, so it wasn't social, it was personal. I didn't want to combine it with my work, I never even thought of taking pictures of surfing, or surfers, or surf. It was just something I was much more deeply connected to spiritually. I was very interested in the mechanics and history of it. I was really absorbing the culture of the past."

"I would see Joel Tudor often in all that, I liked what he stood for, and I liked how he was so respectful and so into the culture and history. He seemed to be the only one that was being paid attention to that had a real unique viewpoint on surfing. I aligned with what he was talking about very strongly. And then one day Joel and I were introduced by a mutual friend, Tony Caramanico, while in Montauk."

On discovering photography...

"A schoolmate introduced me to photography when I was 10 years old. I was immediately blown away by watching an exposed photographic paper in the developer, and watching the image coming up. I fell in love with printing before I even got into making pictures. So my family made a deal with me, if in a year I was still making pictures, they would buy me a camera. So after a year of printing family negatives, I got a Pentax Spotmatic."

"I took photography classes through high school, but it wasn't something I thought of as a career ever. I was at a regular college studying psychology and wasn't happy, and I told my mother I was ready to drop out to pursue music. I thought I'd move home and get a job somewhere and form a band. Without missing a beat, my mother said, 'Imagine yourself at 50 years old doing what you're aspiring to do.' And I had this immediate, vivid image of myself in a rumpled tuxedo sitting on a chair on a stage playing Hava Nagila at a Bar Mitzvah. I asked her, 'What do you think I should do?' And she suggested art school. When I showed my portfolio to the School of Visual Arts, my drawing wasn't up to par. So the head of admissions asked if I had anything else to show. I brought her photographs I had made from age 10 to 19, and she accepted me into the photography program."

"I was so desperate to be accepted somewhere, it was almost like falling in love with photography again. I was driving a horse and carriage in Central Park to make some money, and about four months into being at school I discovered the seamless background drop paper. I found the thing I wanted to do, which was to stay on this blank backdrop, and work with composition and moment and not be hung up with the world outside. So I've been at it since then, living in this room with this big white piece of paper."

[Portrait of Mike Solomon]

On collaborating with Joel Tudor to create Surf Book...

"When meeting Joel in the parking lot at Ditch Plains, it was a very instant connection. Joel said on the second day after I met him, that if I ever wanted to work on a project with him, that he'd be into it. I immediately said yes, and I was surprised at myself for saying that. About a week later I flew to Los Angeles to Joel's house and we started talking. For three months, anytime I had a chance, I flew across the country to spend time with him."

"After three months we figured out that we wanted to do a portrait series of surfing as it is today and was back then -- and we would portray this through the portraits of the people who were really responsible for shaping it. It's a portrait of surfing, through the people who have influenced it spiritually and technologically over the past 50 years."

"I went in with no preconceived notion of how I was going to portray people; I wanted to portray them the way they wanted to be portrayed. I let people lead the way, I wanted to help them achieve what they wanted to see. They chose the place and situations, but I was able to work with that, and create photographs interesting to me. Right from the start, I knew I was going to get to know these people as best I could and let them lead."

[Posing with his camera, his signature white back drop behind him.]

About his current exhibition at our Amagansett location...

"It was a great way to let surfing take its own form, something bigger than me -- a greater ability for more people to learn something from it. All the photos are outtakes from Surf Book. There's nothing on the walls that wasn't a part of that project. It's a show of outtakes that we were frustrated we couldn't put in the book. When you make a book, you're bound to a certain number of pages, and it was a nice way to satisfy that frustration of leaving these photos out. We needed a very inexpensive way of showcasing the work, so the plastic covers and clamps worked well. It also gave us the ability to throw something together in just a few days."

[From Michael's show out east at Pilgrim Amagansett.]

[Michael and Joel chatting at the opening. See more photos here!] 

[In Michael's Manhattan studio, fresh photos of Wayne Lynch and Mark Cunningham.]

"I think about that photo of Woody Brown waving. I don't know how I got that photo; I must've snapped the picture while I was moving. He's at the bottom of the frame, almost slipping out of the frame, and he's 83, and you think, 'God, that's so crazy, he's 83 and slipping away.' And he's happy, he's like a little kid waving, all stoked. And it's all from surfing. He was the happiest guy around, that picture says it all. It's such a powerful picture."

"Sometimes you take the picture and you don't realize what's going on, and then after you learn so much from it. It's such a strange phenomenon in the picture making process. I'm never going to get sick of that -- the ability to have a second look at something."

[A collection of work in Michael's studio.]

[Portraits, including one of his most famous works of Andy Warhol and Basquiat wearing boxing gloves.]

"Making people feel comfortable in front of the camera is always my objective. I'm not interested in objectifying people. I have a lot of empathy for people, and the difficulty of being photographed, or the discomfort associated with being photographed. I think about what I can do to break that down and make it more freeing."

"People are a mystery, we're all a mystery, we're a mystery to ourselves. So if I can celebrate their identity in a dignified way, then my job is done. Everyone has a camera on them at all times now. So now it's really made a distinction between people who call themselves photographers and those who don't. But the determining factor is, what are you going to say with your photo? What are you communicating?"

"That's all you can leave behind, is our impact on others. If we all started taking care of each other, we'd be all better off. I've found some great peace and happiness in my own life, and I'd like to share that with as many people as possible. Pursue your dreams, because mine came true. And now I'm just dreaming up new dreams."

[Playing his slide guitar.]

[Studio vibes.]