A photographer and filmmaker, Michael Winokur thinks like an artist and works like a craftsman, tying distinctive ideas to skillful execution. Early on, as a photojournalist for national newspapers, he developed a documentarian’s eye, telling stories through direct, beautiful images. That remains a common thread and driving purpose in his career. Michael views his body of work—from beauty to conceptual imagery to narrative film—as forms of portraiture, all with the aim of expressing individual identity while capturing our common humanity. Join us as we uncover his journey in a segment of the Graphis Journal magazine Q&A below and be inspired by the artistic vision of this exceptional talent.
Read a snippet of his interview here:
What inspired or motivated you to have a career in photography? My parents were both fantastic artists. I didn’t originally see myself as an artist; my initial interest was in reportage. Art was all about interpretation, and I saw myself as an observer. I thought I’d be a writer until I saw the Contact Press Images 10 Anniversary Show at I.C.P. in Manhattan. I saw the work of David Burnette, Annie Leibowitz, Frank Fournier, Kenneth Jarecke, and Alon Reninger. What they were doing was so exciting; the work was powerful and deeply interested in humanity. That’s when I embraced photojournalism. I was concerned with observing and capturing, as Cartier-Bresson said, “the decisive moment.” Ultimately, I left journalism for commercial photography and then discovered filmmaking. It was at that time that I really began thinking and working like an artist. In my photography, I’m no longer an observer. I’m working out ideas and turning them into images. As a filmmaker, I’m closer to my roots in journalism, finding and telling stories.
What is your work philosophy? How do you define success? It’s easy to keep score based on money. I’ve made money doing work that bored me, and I’ve done great work with no budget. It’s not the right metric for me. Success is executing ideas I’m interested in and the collaborations that make those executions better. I’m looking for great creative partners.
Is there a particular type of photography that you like to shoot? I see everything I do as portraiture. I consider that to include most of my film work as well as most of my photography. Designers talk about design in a way that goes well beyond organizing elements on a page or in space. They talk about it as a way of seeing and thinking. That’s the way I feel about portraiture. I see it as a big idea that has its roots in the very beginning of art and includes any work that intends to create a human connection or introduction. It’s one of the questions I have about the AI images we’re now seeing. Many are visually satisfying, but I wonder how long we’ll be interested in looking at faces with no stories to tell, no life, and no back story. If I imagine an AI creating a perfect body of work comparable to Avedon’s American West, I find it hard to see how that work could be moving. When you see Avedon’s portraits, you feel you’ve met a fascinating person you didn’t know existed. Now you want to know them better, to have a beer and listen to them talk. How can a meta-human inspire that connection?
Where do you seek inspiration? I have a huge appetite to see photography and film, and I’m a believer in lifelong education. For example, I just had a project where I wanted to photograph some 3D shapes for use as background elements. There were a few ways to accomplish this, but I always wanted to learn about computer-aided manufacturing. In a couple of weeks, I learned how to design in CAD and print with CAM on a three-axis router. It’s not deep knowledge, but it’s always satisfying to learn something new. Talent isn’t really what people imagine. Being a good artist is like being a good athlete, or like being good at anything hard. If you don’t go to the gym, you won’t build muscles; if you don’t study, you won’t learn law or medicine. My dad showed me this—he went to the studio every day. The best creatives go to the studio and work, work, and work, and when their brain is in shape, the inspiration that’s all around them turns into ideas, and ideas turn into execution. Without the habit of work, the best inspiration in the world will pass you by.