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FOCUS: Michael Wharley

10 June 2020

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© Michael Wharley

Michael Wharley responded to our projects call out with an honest account of how life became all about the daily walk and being confined to four walls. We chatted further with Michael to find out how photography became his passion, what has been his most exciting portrait commission to date and how he found a new path of creativity during lockdown.

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© Michael Wharley

Can you talk about the defining moment when you knew a career as a photographer was for you?

On a budget Greek Islands holiday in 2000, my friend had a new SLR and - much to his annoyance - I ended up using it most of the time. When the film was developed, seeing a connection between what I'd imagined in my mind's eye and what came out was electric. That was the seed, really. It just took 10 years and one and a half other careers for it to germinate.


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© Michael Wharley


Did you have formal training? and if so how do you feel you gained from it?

I'd been a stage actor for 6 years after an English degree at University and drama school MA, and was in training to be a criminal barrister, so photography was not on the cards. I indulged my 'hobby' by taking a film and darkroom course at Photofusion in Brixton, and that was that. I went full time in May 2010 and I've learned mostly on the job.

You only really know the route you've taken. Speaking to assistants who have trained, I don't regret not having a formal technical training, but I wish I'd had the circle of connections you clearly make, and I think the grounding in art history, photo history and a non-commercial aesthetic imagination would have helped me develop visually more quickly. At least you can work on that yourself. I've been trying to do a mini 'MA' in visual history throughout lockdown - thoughTiger King did slightly interfere.


Michael Wharley 2020

© Michael Wharley


Your recent project, These Four Walls: A Corona Lockdown Journal demonstrates your reaction of the lockdown. We’d love to hear more about the project and how shooting daily has aided you through these difficult times.

It was just such a strange time at the start of lockdown - it's already quite hard to remember exactly the feeling. On the one hand it was sunny and we were 'on holiday', on the other, there was a background of intensity, uncertainty and worry. A very odd mix: extraordinary and mundane. Like most of us, all my work evaporated, but I didn't have the energy or focus to shoot, even though lots of photographers seemed to be doing amazing lockdown work.

The second week, I picked up the camera and shot idly with a vague idea of a journal, but it was only after about 5 days I put them on the computer and thought there might be some shape to it.

The square format then became a deliberate choice to echo the title that popped into my head, and the heavy, almost solarized B&W was to try and capture something of that draining underpinning to routine life. I'd watched both Robert Eggers' The Lighthouse and Mark Jenkins' Bait the last few months, and they were definitely both on my mind. B&W and confinement...

After that, I left the camera lying around and just tried to be open to seeing moments and visuals that spoke of the time, or the mood. So it was a solace and a creative outlet. I'm aware it is local, domestic and small scale - it doesn't touch on the extremes lots of people experienced. But it's been a re-education in observation and thinking instinctively – it made me see and shoot in ways I don't for work. Letting humour be a part of it felt 'me', but putting our life into work that other people might see is definitely alien.

It's changed my plans too. One of the projects I want to start shooting over the summer is about how we seek out nature, from the smallest domestic garden to the grandest rewilding projects – it won't be like these photos, but the idea wouldn't have been generated without this time, or looking to home so closely, I don't think.


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© Michael Wharley


Can you tell us about your most exciting portrait commission?

I love environmental portraiture, getting out in nature and working in a big team, so I had a pretty prefect commission last year for a new British feature film called 'Summerland' starring Gemma Arteton, Tom Courtenay and Penelope Wilton. Full disclosure, it was written and directed by my partner Jess Swale - who is in the Corona shots - though I did still have a daunting pitch for the clients Lionsgate and Embankment to get the job.

I've done a little bit of Unit Stills, which I don't like so much, and some On-Set Gallery work, which tends to be so snatched it's about what you can scrape out, but for this job we took a blended approach. I had an advertising brief from The Posterhouse with concept designs for the campaign, and free license from production to grab actors between takes or work with the gaffer to set up shots on location. Plus, we made a studio next to set for three days and shot the actors a number of times with different lighting set ups to match the light we'd had on set.

The UK poster isn't out yet and is a wee bit more stylish, whereas the US poster is a classic take tailored for that market. I'm proud of the fact that each of the eight shots that make it up are a result of that blended approach and are mine – 5 portraits, two special location set-ups and a landscape shot.

Beautiful location, beautiful weather, amazing cast, organic work, high-profile campaign. What's not to like...


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© Michael Wharley


What does the AOP mean to you? and what value do you personally place on being a member?

I am a Unions man. I was a member of Equity as an actor, and helped found The APHP to represent headshot photographer when that was my practice. So it was a no-brainer to join the AOP as my work evolved.


View more imagery from Michael in Find


Head to Spotlight to view These Four Walls: A Corona Journal 


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