From The Mundane To The Unexpected

Michael Crichton Photography is a Toronto-based duo of still life photographer Michael Crichton and his wife Leigh MacMillan, artist and stylist. The creative couple is distinguished for their graphic and dynamic, sometimes surreal still lifes and intriguing conceptual photography. They transform everyday, mundane objects into the unexpected, and the sublime!

Michael studied design and art history and then switched to photography. Leigh has a fine arts degree and studied art history and printmaking with a photography minor. The duo works on various subjects but food is their main subject partly because they appreciate its emotional, and socio-cultural significance, as well as its narrative potential.

Michael and Leigh shoot still life and conceptual food photography of advanced technical skill, beauty and sophistication. They are in creative dialogue with previous masters of still life bringing their own viewpoint to the genre with graphic, dynamic, sometimes surreal, compositions. Their conceptual shots include some very intriguing concepts, like the Rorschach-esque floor mop and squid and the egg i-pad, stories of spilled coffee and leftovers, surreal takes of flying wine or food captured mid-air.

Michael and Leigh make art out of simple objects and complex concepts. Their work is sought after by topnotch commercial and editorial clients, such as Capital One, Con Agra Foods, GQ Magazine, Kellogg’s, Leo Burnett, McDonald’s, Nutella, The Globe And Mail, and many others. The creative duo merges art photography with the demands of commercial photography beautifully. Besides, art does not necessarily have to be made for art’s sake. If, as Michael says, “inspiration is omnipresent”, so can be art.


S.J.: How did you become interested in food as a subject? 

We enjoy shooting food as a subject because food today encompasses so much. It is ever evolving. It has evolved from sustenance, to becoming a pillar of our culture. To eat and share food is a social, and emotional event.  How we eat and where our food comes from is ever more political. As a photographer I enjoy the aspect of being able to convey some of that in my work. 

SJ: How do you balance the demands of commercial photography with art photography?

More and more the lines between commercial photography and art photography are being blurred. The audiences for commercial photography are very sophisticated. Because of technology, people are used to seeing hundreds of images a day and so the role of a commercial image has changed. Art and commercial work are evermore interchangeable.

S.J.: What attracted you to still life? Can you describe your approach to the genre? Can you name an artist or school that has impacted your work on still life and how?

M.C.: Our biggest major influence has to be Irving Penn. He was a master of still life, composition, and the concept of less is more. He could take something as ubiquitous as a cigarette butt and make it into something oddly beautiful and compelling to look at. He shot frozen peas, a foot with corn pads and made them art. Both Leigh and I enjoy the hands-on aspect of still life. You are literally building your shot. We consider light, shadow, shape, and colour all part of our subject matter. Still life, in its essence, is very contrived so we try to bring an element of surprise, whimsy or the unexpected to the image. We try to transform everyday objects into something more extraordinary. We are also fascinated by the possibility of a narrative in our imagery.

 S.J.: This brings us to conceptual art. How would you describe your ties and approach to conceptual art? Can you name a notable conceptual artist that has influenced your work?

M.C.: For us, shooting conceptual art is wonderful. It allows us the freedom to play with perception, metaphor, and narrative. We have always been drawn to the work of conceptual artists, starting with Man Ray and Magritte, 60’s POP artists like Claus Oldenberg, David Hockney, and current artists like the beautiful images of Viviane Sassen and the use of colour by Brad Carlile. Although hugely controversial, Jeff Koons inspires us. He made something so familiar as a balloon dog into art, -outrageous and brilliant! Takashi Murakam is an artist we like for his playful humour.

S.J.: What do you consider to be the innovative twist in your work, including your aesthetics and technique?

M.C.: Having an idea in your head about where you want to go and what your image will look like is where we start. We work with what we are attracted to: colour, shape, light, shadow. Form and composition are at the forefront of our process but, then, during that initial approach we'll step back and figure out when to break those rules. That’s when the fun begins for us.

S.J.: When is a photograph a work of art?

M.C.: Ha! Whenever the viewer deems it so, right?

S.J.: What makes a photograph good? And what makes a photograph unattractive?

M.C.: A good photograph is one that has engaged the viewer on some level. Whether it is admiration or revulsion is irrelevant. It must illicit a response to be successful, it must command the attention of the viewer. Conversely, a bad photograph would do none of that, and then we could go on about formal principles ignored such as composition, good lighting, technical failures etc. Knowing when a shot is good, that's where your intuitive gifts come into play, you just know when a shot works and when it doesn't. When it doesn't, hopefully your experience and craft will help you work through that to get one that does.

S.J.: Do you have any particular motto or maxim on novelty?

M.C.: Striving for novelty is always a good idea.

Egg and I-pad

S.J.: Do you have any particular motto or maxim on creativity? From what or where do you get inspiration? 

M.C.: I think that creativity comes from living, from being alive, from seeing and feeling. Inspiration is absolutely everywhere. It is so omnipresent, that the task of an artist is to process what he sees, feels and experiences, and to edit that to yield an image. We are very fortunate to live in the age of the internet. It is an endless source of inspiration.

S.J.: What is the hardest thing you often face in styling and shooting or post-production? How many shoots can it take for a ‘perfect’ photograph?

M.C.: This entirely depends on what we are shooting. As one of my college professors once said, "One of the hardest things in still photography is making things stand up." I find that challenge still confronts me every day! A good toolkit of blocks, glue, sticky tack, tape and fishing line helps a lot. Flying liquids and food can take numerous takes, with much painstaking cleanup in between. If the shot requires a lot of post compositing, then it can be quite tedious.

S.J.: Can you tell our readers about your future plans? Do you have any new projects under way? 

M.C.: Ha! Future plans would be to stay relevant and employed in this business. That is an epic project in itself.


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