GL: How did you meet this girl in this disco that more than anything looks like a set from a David Lynch movie?
AM: The problem with photography is that you never know what’s going to work in a picture and what’s not. I find it impossible to plan a good photograph. It’s more about getting into interesting situations and environments and then just seeing what happens. I asked this girl if I could photograph her. The location was kinda good because it was in the lobby of the disco and not too chaotic. Then I tried a few different things from photographing her standing near a wall and then near this column. When I was photographing, I can’t remember seeing all the guys in the background in leather jackets, but when I saw them on the contact sheet I thought the contrast between the girl and the them looked great.
GL: How long work you working on this series? And how did you know that you were done with DISKO?
AM: I spent about 10 years on and off working on DISKO. It was really difficult to finish the series. I wasn’t exactly chasing after individual photographs. There was something more in the mood and atmosphere of rural Lithuania on empty back roads that I wanted to come through in the book and in a series of photographs. At one point a few years ago, I decided to stop photographing and look through every roll of film and start choosing images that worked together. There were about 75 images that seemed to fit the them which I later edited down to 45 for the book.
GL: What attracted you to the disco?
AM: I like projects that have many layers. In DISKO there were the teenagers growing up in a new post-Soviet reality with more influences from western Europe and the US. But the discos took place in Soviet-era cultural centers that were basically unchanged since the days of the USSR. Past, present, and future were all mixed together in one room. Lots of material. Photographing was always a bit cumbersome. I use a studio style flash on a stand. It’s pretty easy to move around, but I was rarely out on the dance floor trying to photograph. Instead I worked around the edges.
GL: How did those young people react to you? You mention that it was a kind of time travel for you. Do you think that – although they may not have consciously realised this – your “antique” equipment, your 6×7 camera and your studio flashlight meant a similar kind of magical time travel for them?
AM: Mostly I think they were a bit confused by my presence in their local disco. Why had I traveled all the way from the USA to photograph them? But in a way my imperfect Lithuanian and foreignness that helped me make the series and even kept me safe. I think a Lithuanian photographer would have been treated with more suspicion. Sometimes there is more intimacy in being a stranger and people open up to you in ways they wouldn’t if you were a local.
GL: How do you get ready for your pictures?
AM: Photography is very intrusive and you have to work to get the shots you want. I’m not sure I like the hunting metaphor, though. It’s more just work and you have to work weather you’re in a good mood or not. And the way I work there is a lot of waiting around to see if something interesting happens. I can’t really plan anything other than deciding to be somewhere and spend several hours photographing. Many times I get nothing good. This can be extremely frustrating. The only thing to do is keep going. And there is a great feeling when things are working well, but you just can’t plan for it.
GL: How do you deal with the emotional fatigue that sets in from time to time with any long-term project? Is it discipline that helps you through? Passion? Curiosity?
AM: Yes, you are right, the process can be very exhausting and emotionally taxing. There is a lot of waiting around for something to happen. Days, weeks, years go by where I get nothing. But then when I get hooked on an idea or interesting experiences, I can’t stop until I finish. Sometimes I even fight myself not to find interesting new projects because at this point I know what a commitment it takes to see them through to the end. And it can be a really awful feeling to start a project and not finish it. And in a way it’s even worse to leave it unfinished than to go through the difficult process of finishing.
GL: Have they seen your pictures? Has the girl seen her photo? If yes, do you make a point of showing images to the people who are in it? Or do you make a point of not showing them the images?
AM: I don’t have a set rule for this. At times, it’s an interesting part of the process. But sometimes not. Mostly people imagine themselves one way, but look very different in your photographs. This can be a little complicated when your showing people your photographs along the way. In a way it might even interfere with your work before you even know exactly what you’re looking for or what your vision is. It’s not really about being secretive or hiding things from your subjects. However, I think it’s important to stay true to your vision. In the end your photographs are a subjective view of the world. I think it was Avedon who said all portraits are self-portraits anyway. Of course people will recognize something real about themselves in a photograph, but in a way it’s also a fiction. That’s the amazing thing about photography. It’s reality and fiction. In other projects, like the one I did about the Roma in Lithuania, sharing my photographs with the people I photographed was a very important.
GL: What camera did you use for the project? Film? Digital?
AM: I use 6×7 medium format film cameras, a Mamiya 7, Pentax 6×7, and a Fuji 6×7. I scan all my film with a Imacon scanner. I still like the look of film over digital. Partially it’s just a format thing. I like 6×7. Going back to 35mm or 6×4.5 would be difficult. But I have been considering switching to digital. It would really speed things up to skip film process.
GL: If you switched to digital: how would that change your photography? Could you have shot Disko on digital?
AM: I would consider using a medium format digital camera, but it would probably take some time to get used to. Sure I could have shot Disko with a digital camera, but I think it would have had a different feel. It’s kinda difficult for me to judge photographs right after I take them. I need to wait a month or sometimes more before I can really see what worked and what didn’t. And with film there is a natural delay between the time you photograph and when you finally see what you did after the film is processed and scanned. If I started using digital I would probably take some time to adjust to the immediacy and I would have to change the way I work a little.
GL: There are two kinds of images in the series: ‘landscapes’ (interiors/exteriors) and portraits. They reinforce each other, they blend into each other. Are these two different modes of thinking for you?
AM: No. It’s all the same. I want them all to have the same feel and look.
GL: What lens did you use for the project? What motivates your choice of equipment?
AM: My lenses range from 65mm to 100mm. Mostly I use flash so the shutter speed is not so important. Because I like sharp images I try to shoot at f/11 or f/16, ISO 400.
GL: How do you measure light when doing street photography / studio portraits?
AM: I have a flash meter. Sometimes I use a meter in the street or just use the meters in my cameras.
GL: How do you focus? Manually? AF?
AM: It’s all manual focus.
GL: What about lighting? What’s your relationship to daylight and artificial light?
AM: I like both daylight and artificial light. Daylight, of course, is more complicated. You have to find lighting situations that are somehow consistent and help hold the project together. Otherwise there is too much chaos. I really like grey November Lithuanian light. The sky, trees, streets and landscape are exactly the same shade of grey. No shadows. But in recent years I’ve been working on a new project and shooting in bright summer light. Usually, this is my least favorite kind of light, but somehow the blue skies, bright colors, and everything else seem to be working.
GL: And what about flashlight? How and when do you use flashlights?
AM: Anytime I’m inside I use a flash. I like to see all the details in a room.
GL: How much do you rely on post-production?
AM: I spend a lot of time trying to make my digital scans as good as they can be. However, I don’t change them too much. They’re not so different from when I used to print my own color photographs in the darkroom. But I’m not a huge purist or anything and will alter the photograph in Photoshop if I think it needs to be changed.
GL: The series is in color. When do you go for black-and-white and when for color?
AM: I always shoot color.
GL: I know it’s difficult to talk about color, but perhaps I could approach it from another angle: why don’t you shoot black-and-white?
AM: I just like the way color shows reality the way we see it with our eyes. Black-and-white is a little too abstract for me. I even like the way color can be a little garish. Bright reds and pinks are just great. Of course, you have to control what’s in the frame and the combinations of colors, but I like all the contrasts between colors. I would hate to lose that. And seems to have a stronger emotional quality than black-and-white.
(To see more of Andrew Miksys’ pictures visit his website at www.andrewmiksys.com. Andrew’s freshly published DISKO book can be ordered on his website. All images © Andrew Miksys and are reproduced with the permission of the author. This interview was first published on l1ghtb1tes.com on October 14, 2013.)