Michael Hensley

Michael Hensley is a photographer from California living in Brooklyn, New York, who has an extensive history of travels throughout North, South and Central America. His unique use of colours, shapes, perspective and composition all aid in his overall minimalistic style which ranges from tightly cropped pops of colour and shape to wide angled scenes with emphatic contrasts. Not one to shy away from the oft unseen crevices of a city, Michael aims to shine a light on them to show that beauty is more than what is
directly in front of you, instead it is the overlooked subtlety of a place that gives it its beauty.
We sat down with Michael in order to delve into his world and to momentarily see through his eyes, or perhaps more correctly, lens.

So Michael, how long have you been a photographer for now?

I suppose that I've been taking photography seriously for the last few years. I began by studying documentary film and journalism and taking motsly travel photographs. I could see parts of my future minimalistic style in what I shot back then but I didn’t really have much focus and it wasn’t really until I bought a better camera, and then another one, and then another, and then became inspired by a few of my more artistic friends that I began to see photography in a more interesting and serious way. Up until that point photography was simple in that you would just take a photograph and like it or dislike it, it took this study and travel to open it up to me, to show me that it was so much more.

As you have said you photograph New York nut not in the way that most people would. Has being from California influenced your style more than anything else?

I have been told that my style can be quite Californian but I primarily spent my time in Northern and Central California so my style can’t really be attributed to the Los Angeles aesthetic or anything like that. I’ve really spent a lot of time travelling through South and Central America and I think that that has been far more influential on me as far as photography goes. I've travelled fairly extensively throughout Mexico as well as Peru, Chile, etc, and these places were so different to what I was used to that I had no choice but to be inspired by them. It was forced inspiration in the best possible way! I would have to say that Mexico is possibly my favourite country for this, I can just keep going back to that place and finding new things, it’s an amazing country.

What are you trying to say with your photography?

With minimalism there can sometimes not be a whole lot to say, you're just trying to explore the relationships between colours and composition and at times I like to be a little more abstract and focus on only shapes and colours while at other times I like to take a step back and focus on an entire scene like a building or a street or whatever it may be. I also used to travel and take less photographs and now I travel almost exclusively to photograph. What I normally do is heavily research a place on google maps that I want to go to before I even go so that I know which neighbourhoods and even what streets I need to be in when I’m there. It’s really the only way of getting the most, as far as photography goes, out of a vacation, and sure I’ll see some of the big tourist hotspots but I’m really only there for those weird urban streets to capture them before I move on. Also I really like to focus on those things that most others would find mundane because when viewed on their own they can be incredibly beautiful; with my photographs a lot of them might be mundane scenes but the composition of the shot makes it seem amazing. To do this I generally only shoot on the brightest and sunniest days, and obviously most photographers will say that photography in the middle of the day is by far the worst time to go because you get harsh shadows and can lose a lot of detail but for me that is specifically when I go because that’s exactly what I’m looking for.

As far as the technical aspects go what equipment do you use?

I used to work a lot with my iPhone 6 until I bought a Sony RX100, and with the RX100 I wasn’t really sure what I was getting other than that it was compact and had good reviews online but it takes some great photographs, can fit into my jacket pocket and the battery seems to last all day; it’s definitely still one of my go-to cameras. I also use an old Ricoh GR1S for film photography which is great when I want to photograph at wider angles because of the fixed 28mm lens, but it’s also extremely fast and can stop down to f/22 which is handy when I’m out in the middle of a bright sunny day or just want everything in focus. What I love most about the GR1S is that the film loading mechanism is reversed which means that when you load film into the camera it unspools the entire roll, and what this means is that every photograph you take will be saved in the film canister so if you accidentally open the back of the camera and expose the rest of your roll to the light then all of your previously taken photographs will still be safe. On top of that I’ve also been using a Contax TVS ii which I like because it has a small inbuilt zoom which means I can get close up to those small architectural details that I love, it’s also built like a tank which is a big plus. 

As far as film goes the only film that I really use is Kodak Ektar 100 because of its nice bright colours and contrast, but it is quite a slow film which means that I have to photograph at f/16 or f/22 which as I said I prefer, but it can make it a difficult film to use at times. When you get used to Ektar though and you nail a shot the images you do get are just amazing. The saturation is high and the colours really seem to pop out quite a lot, I’ve found this especially with reds and greens and so if your usual photography is heavily colour based then I’d definitely recommend it.

The digital camera that I’ve been using the most lately is probably my Nikon D5300 and I’ve been using this with a 50mm lens, though due to the cropped APS-C sensor it’s more close to 80mm and so I might still invest in a few wider prime lenses like a 20mm or 24mm because I want the sharpest and most clear images that I can get whilst also having a physically light setup.

You undoubtedly have a unique style, did you pursue any other style of photography before you got to where you are?

As I said I used to take mainly travel photographs but I was always curious and wondering "What's over there?", and so that’s when I decided to take photography more seriously. From there I began looking at photography and art magazines a lot more and studying the concepts of what makes a photograph interesting. I eventually found a great Spanish magazine that had an aesthetic that I really liked and it also really influenced me but it was $200 to have it shipped to the US! So I just let it sit there in Spain and inspire me from the internet. From that point I began to follow more similar styles of photographers on Instagram and Tumblr etc. A lot of my photographer friends are also into fashion photography and I’ve been asked if I’d like to try that out, it’s different and most certainly "cool" and there’s definitely more money in it than most types of photography but I’m kind of doing everything that I can not to get into it because I like being outside in urban environments and in deserted areas, it suits my style and my overall vision better.

Your work is exclusively colour based, but have you ever tried black and white?

I’m really not that impressed by digital black and white to be honest, however black and white film is something that I do really admire. I saw an article recently that was about black and white film photography of people in architectural spaces and it was all about shapes and shadows and composition and I thought it was fantastic and so that is definitely something that I want to try in the future. It's difficult though because I enjoy doing what I know I do well which is namely colour photography, so if I were to change my style somewhat I would really need to focus on it for a while to get a feel for the parameters and flow of it all. I still have a separate Tumblr account for my more grayscale black and white photography and I’m thinking about loading up my Ricoh with some black and white film and focusing on that a little bit more in the future so that’s something that is definitely an attractive option to me, but right now I enjoy what I'm getting in colour.

Some people notice that when they photograph in colour they tend to search for colour more, yet when they photograph in black and white all of the colours seem to melt away and they only see architecture and shadows and
such…

Exactly, and that’s the thing because I photograph so much in colour at the moment that if I were to shoot in black and white, instead of it being limiting, which some people think it is, it would actually be more expansive for me because I would be able to focus more on things that I might otherwise miss if I
were photographing in colour; that sort of thing will only help me to change or grow my perspective in the future.

You travel a lot for your work whether it's in New York or abroad; where will you be travelling to next?

Like you wouldn't believe! I'm all over New York, it's such an amazing city for almost everything but you really have to put in a lot of work if you want to get results. My next trip is to Miami and possibly Hawaii in the not too distant future, the last time I was in Miami my mind was blown and I took a lot of great
photographs there so I can’t wait to go back. While I was there I used a few disposable cameras and the film was terrible but the photographs that I got back were so unique and so when I’m back there as well as Hawaii I might buy a few more disposable cameras and do the same thing and see what I get.

Your photography is architecturally based by nature, but do you ever interact with the people in/around the scene?

It’s funny because when I’m out sometimes and I'm taking photographs of really honestly nothing, maybe a wall with a shadow, and there’s people staring at me and then at the wall and then back at me trying to figure out what I’m taking a photograph of, it looks silly, but you have to be confident and just know that what you’re seeing isn’t what they’re seeing, and that’s why you have the camera! I’ve also been interrogated a few times but I’m usually good at turning those situations around. One time though I was taking a photograph of a peach coloured building and this man came out and said that I could take two more shots and then I had to leave, I thought that was pretty funny as I was in a public space taking photographs of anonymous buildings. I was on one occasion chased by two men in a truck somewhere in California. They followed me for a little while in their car through some streets all due to the fact that I was taking some photographs of, again, an anonymous building. I could see they were trying to get my license plate and all but I really had no idea what they were supposed to do with it. People seem to get offended fairly quickly when you’re holding a camera but there’s not a lot you can do about it, smile perhaps.

You say that you've been inspired by some of your more artistic friends, but which photographers and artists
continue to inspire you now?

As far as art history goes my influences include The Precisionists, Charles Sheeler for industrial photography, Ralston Crawford, George Ault and Georgia O’Keefe for painters, and the Australian Jeffrey Smart, Canadian Alex Colville and Cuban Emilio Sanches for more global contemporary influence. Instagram also has a ton of great photographers who influence me such as isidoreajar, heyraygun, izaac_enciso, tsbehr, 999.9, casualtimetravel, larkfoord, prplrn, _julian.f_, chilligansisland, vishalparadigm, mau_lopes_, gaamer, ianshulman, nomodestbear, 59_90, _howsannie, imaginationchristmas, _anni, lellopepper, casaruiz, and many many others.

Where does it go from here?

At the moment photography still isn’t a set career for me, I do have some of my photographs on some websites where if people like they can purchase them and then I’ll be compensated in some small way but for now it remains a time consuming hobby. My goal for the year is to get on some sort of retainer for a company, perhaps a graphic design firm, and to get some more sales that way however if I start making money doing that kind of photography then I’m going to be stuck living in that specific style and I think that that would be disappointing. It's a constant artistic struggle between wanting to make money and not wanting to betray your morals. I do want to start taking more inclusive photography though, with figures and animate objects. I’ve been trying to do this for a while now though often an image just looks better without the person in the frame, so I’m still working on that as well as experimenting a little more with black and white photography and perhaps even some landscape photography. I will always continue to travel and photograph as much as possible and see where that takes me. It’s hard to tell really but I don’t plan on stopping any time soon.


To see more of Michael's work visit

Michael Hensley

All photographs below were both developed & scanned by the amazing team at Racquet Film.