Hailing from Maryland but now residing in California, self-taught photographer Michael Wriston (boyghost on Flickr) shows us an amazing United States through his inspiring pictures. Armed with a variety of analogue camera’s (many of which are mid-format) and a positive spirit, Michael captures a United States I immediately want to go to. The striking photos from the streets and people of Baltimore make me think of ‘the Wire’. It also made me think of another Maryland photographer who is a constant inspiration for us: Patrick Joust. This isn’t surprising as Patrick and Michael have been roaming the streets together for quite some time!
“…when you spend even a few moments chatting with a stranger on the street, you get the impression that maybe we’re not all that much different, after all.”
Tell us a little bit about yourself: Where are you from and why did you pick up a camera?
I’m a twenty-five years old, and originally from Maryland. I picked up a camera in 2005 to take family photos, vacation pictures, that sort of thing. I never thought of pursuing photography very seriously at that time. I just liked the sound of the shutter. When I started working night shifts in 2006, I practiced taking long exposure photos as a way of killing time. That’s when it sort of clicked for me. I liked the way things looked at night, the sort of other-worldly characteristic they took on. We lived near Baltimore, and the city always fascinated me. So I started pursuing night photography, taking photos of everything: landmarks, storefronts, quiet streets at night. It just kind of grew from there.
Eventually, I got up the courage and started photographing people. I think that people are my favourite photographic subjects. For me personally, a photograph of a person is about what’s not in the photograph. It’s about the things they said, or their gestures, or their surroundings. You can never capture a person in their entirety with a single picture, but it’s fun and challenging and a little mysterious to try to tell a story about that person with a portrait. It’s a subjective process, both for me and for the viewer. We all see something different when we look at a picture of a person. I’m very much inspired by a lyrical idea from the Paul Simon song “The Myth of Fingerprints,” which says:
“He says there’s no doubt about it, It was the myth of fingerprints
I’ve seen them all and man, They’re all the same“
On the surface, people seem very different from one another. But when you spend even a few moments chatting with a stranger on the street, you get the impression that maybe we’re not all that much different, after all.
Photography since then has been a means of reconciling my understanding things. Getting out onto the streets and experiencing different aspects of people of different cultures, backgrounds, social groups has broadened what was a very singular understanding of things. I want to document those encounters and share them with people. I don’t really want to tell people what to think. I want them to draw their own conclusions, and maybe inspire them to take that journey for themselves.
We noticed that you are friends with Patrick Joust! What is your relationship with him?
I met up with Patrick in the winter of 2008, and he and I trekked around the city a bit photographing the more run-down neighborhoods in East Baltimore. He and I hit it off right away, and found that our photographic tastes and pursuits are quite similar. He also taught me how to develop my own black and white film, and his work persuaded me to make the switch from digital to medium format. We’d watch each other’s backs in the dicier neighborhoods, and he got a really great crew of photographers together once a month for a Film in Baltimore meet-up. People like Chuck Patch (chuckp), Tim Castlen (tjcastl), Paul Gilbert (tonydoodle) would come out to some pub, and we’d sit around and drink beers and trade cameras and show off prints.
“But the reality is, those neighborhoods are home to a lot of people who aren’t involved in the activities that go on around them”
What can you tell us about Baltimore?
Baltimore is really a misunderstood city. A lot of the portrayals in the media are kind of exaggerated, but I think that “The Wire” did a very accurate portrayal of the city. Sure, there’s a lot of gun violence, and the drug trade is pretty entrenched, but in between that was a lot of really great stuff happening. One of the best things Patrick showed me was that these neighborhoods could be pretty intimidating to people like us, who lived in areas that weren’t as hard hit economically and weren’t constantly exposed to crime. But the reality is, those neighborhoods are home to a lot of people who aren’t involved in the activities that go on around them, and they’re trying to make a living out of a bad situation. I truly respect the people I met in those hard-hit places.
On top of all that, Baltimore is really arts-friendly. There are more art and music festivals than I can count. It’s a city that really embraces its working class roots, and everyone is really down to earth and authentic. You’d woke by some broke college kids on their stoop in Remington or Hampden, and they’d invite you up for a beer and small talk even if they had no clue who you were.
“My fondest memory of the city is how in love everyone was with their community”
My fondest memory of the city is how in love everyone was with their community. Rich or poor, doesn’t matter. Each neighborhood was a family, and I think taking part in that family helped my photography evolve. Didn’t matter if you were in a neighborhood of broken-down, abandoned homes, someone would always come up and shake your hand and ask you how your day was going.
And actually, now that I think about it a bit more, it wasn’t always sunshine photographing in Baltimore — one time, we were out photographing a church that was in session, and some guy on the top floor of the building threw a glass bottle of fruit juice at Patrick while he was taking a shot. I remember watching it in the viewfinder of my camera, and not being able to warn him in time. Thankfully, the guy couldn’t aim at all, so he ended up hitting the street next to Patrick.
The police also didn’t like us wandering around taking pictures. They always thought we were up to something. Thankfully, they didn’t give us too much hassle! They just thought it was odd that two nerdy looking guys with box cameras were snooping around in alleyways in West Baltimore.
“It’s weird going from somewhere as unpredictable and urban as Baltimore to the relatively safe and pristine suburbs of California”
I read you switched Maryland for California! In pursuit of a better climate?
I wish! California’s nice, but it’s really just one long season over here. Work and school brought us out this way, and I’m looking forward to going back East once I’m done. I’m studying Sociology and Journalism right now, and would like to put that to work in Baltimore in a few years.
It’s weird going from somewhere as unpredictable and urban as Baltimore to the relatively safe and pristine suburbs of California. I used to look for the quirkiness that Baltimore had in places like San Francisco, San Jose, Santa Cruz, Salinas… but you can’t fake it, and each place has its own personality. I love the rural, down-and-out feel Salinas has. It reminds me a lot of Baltimore, except in a laid back West Coast way. Santa Cruz is an amazing place, and I’m working on a collection of portraits of surfers that meet up out there.
“I love surf culture. Surfing just strikes me as daring, romantic, adventures: man versus the sea.”
Even though you could never get me on a board, I love surf culture. Surfing just strikes me as daring, romantic, adventures: man versus the sea. It reminds me of a “happier” time in our history, even if it’s one I never experienced. It would be fun to take the family to the beach, watch people surf and talk to folks about their passion once they wash up on shore.
I’m trying to get my son in on photography. He’s starting to Take pictures with my wife’s iPhone. He really likes making videos of things. So it would be cool if in a few years he comes along with me on expeditions to different places and takes videos while I shoot stills!
Have you been around much in the US?
We drove through the South last year, and I really, really loved it. Louisiana, Georgia, East Texas were all highlights for me. The bayous and swamps are terrifying and beautiful. I’d love to explore them sometime just for the adventure. The people in the South are incredibly friendly and hospitable.
Other than that, I’ve not explored much of the rest of the States. I’d love to someday go through Southern California and Death Valley, the Mojave and explore the little communities that popped up down there during the gold rush and western expansion. When we drove through the Mojave, there were places outside Barstow, California that were little more than a few trailers out in the desert. Something about that way of life intrigues me, and I would want to meet and get to know the people that live that way.
Do you have any specific plans for the future with your photography?
I know this sounds really unambitious of me, but I don’t have any real concrete plans for the future! I’d love to someday be a full-time journalist, and travel around telling stories and meeting people. More realistically, I’d just like to go back to Baltimore and either be a paramedic or a social worker. I want to be in a place where I’m working with people and helping them out.
“Art, journalism, it’s all a way of making a connection, and making those connections is important for us to live a more world-conscious, empathetic life.”
Anything else you would like to add?
The only other thing I can possibly say — and this is a bit of a non sequitur — is that one of the biggest thing we’re lacking in is empathy. I would encourage people who are curious about the world around them to pick up a camera or a paintbrush or a pen and start documenting it. Start small, but go out and interact with people. Walk around neighborhoods you don’t normally, or start up a conversation with someone in the park. Try to make sense of things. Challenge yourself, you know? In this day and age, we really shut each other off to one another. Art, journalism, it’s all a way of making a connection, and making those connections is important for us to live a more world-conscious, empathetic life.