Michelle Bates: Toying with Creativity

By Dan McComb

Posted Monday, January 2nd, 2006

Michelle Bates

Over the past 14 years, Seattle photographer Michelle Bates has done more with a toy camera than most photographers have done with a real one. Her work has appeared in international magazines, including the current edition of Silvershotz, the International Journal of Fine Art Photography. From 1995 – 2000, her work appeared regularly in The Stranger and Seattle Weekly. And now, she’s working on a book, “Plastic Cameras: Toying with Creativity.” It’s scheduled for publication in September 2006 by Focal Press.

Michelle is my neighbor, and we’ve been friends for several years. She lives three blocks up the hill from me in “the center of the universe,” Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood. I caught up with her just before Christmas in her home office, which overlooks the ship canal and, on sunny days, the Olympic mountains. It looks like a place where a book is being written with snow drifts of papers, contact sheets in piles, stacks of rough prints, and magazine clippings scattered all over the place.

Q: Tell us a bit about yourself. How did you start taking pictures with toy cameras?

I started taking Holga pix in 1991, at the Maine Photographic Workshop, where they used Holgas as a teaching tool. I went there right after studying biology at Brandeis University near Boston. I just was playing with it and having fun with it. I later attended another workshop where Annie Griffiths Belt told something like: “You’ll never be a National Georgraphic photographer, but you’ve got that Holga thing down.”

Q: How did you come to live in Seattle?

I came to Seattle, sight unseen, with a job in biotech and some college friends who hooked me up immediately with people I’m still friends with. Seattle’s such an easy town to live in, I settled right in, and after working biotech for a year, then traveling for 10 months, I got more serious about my photography. I showed my work at the Photographic Center Northwest and started shooting for The Stranger (as one of their very first photographers) and Seattle Weekly. I shot for both papers for around 6 years, mostly with my Holgas!

Q: How do you find subjects to photograph? What’s your favorite subjects, and your least favorite?

The first few years, I favored all things quirky. Recently though, I’ve expanded on the themes that have been on the fringes of what I’ve found interesting over the years – more abstract patterns and close-up images. I’m enjoying taking more quiet images, but as one of my editors pointed out once, it’s all got my “quirky sensibility.”

Q: How’s the book coming?

I’m so behind on where I should be. There are so many different aspects of it to deal with – writing the text, finding out the technical info, doing tests. A lot of what I’m doing is editing photos, which I haven’t done on this scale before, and is a very fun challenge. I’m spending a lot of time cruising the web, finding cool people, interacting with them, getting permission to use their work. I’m learning so much about how to write a book that, when I’m finally done with it, then maybe I’ll know how to do it!

Q: Is there anything you need help with right now?

I need someone to clean my office! But that’s an ongoing issue. For the book, I need an intern or assistant to help with obtaining images and permissions from the contributors. This takes a lot of communication, tracking, and organizing. I put together an ad for an intern, but never published it because I was afraid I wouldn’t have time to deal with all the applicants I might get. So I really need someone like that right now. I’d like to create a good relationship with an intern; I have a lot to teach in return, and I can offer access to my darkroom.

Q: Burning Man has had a big impact on my creativity over the past five years since I discovered the community and the event. Has your participation influenced the way you think about or create art?

Hmm, it’s hard to say. As unique as Burning Man is, I’ve been involved in other groups that have some of the same aspects for over a decade. The Fremont Arts Council and its Solstice Parade (and other events) are fabulous for bringing a random group together to create an artistic and exciting whole that no one person could imagine. The Oregon Country Fair is a temporary intentional community that I live in for a week every summer – except it’s in the woods. Islewilde is a small community arts festival on Vashon Island that allows no commerce during the event, and brings people together for two weeks prior to build and rehearse. Burning Man is right in line with all of these things, which are a vital part of my life. But it’s a tough thing to prepare for and be at, so I’ve only gone in 1999, 2002 and 2005. Having said all that, I feel like Burning Man is the world’s biggest art playground. Anything can be created there, and the expansion it provides to people’s creativity and sense of possibility is unparralled anywhere. The communities that have been created back home from this energy are phenomenal – ten years ago the winter solstice feast was the only party in town where the community came together to transform a space; now there are so many you can’t keep up! I’m grateful to Burning Man for making creativity and community accessible to people who never dreamed it could be part of their lives. And for me too!

Q: You are among the core group of Seattle burners who got together in May 2005 to start Biznik (then called The Biz Group). How’s the group treated you so far? What are you getting out of it? What are you contributing to it?

I love Biznik! I’ve gotten several shoots from it, some with members, and some referrals. I’ve also started working with other members, including Colleen Lynn on my website, and Jessica Hale on my finances. I really appreciate the practice it gives me at presenting myself, both in person and on the web. I’m really enjoying learning what other people do, and ways they can help me further my goals, and vice-versa (need portraits, anyone?). I’ve always been very community oriented, and it’s great to bring that to my business as well as my other activities.


NOTE: If you’re interested in learning more about toy cameras, Michelle teaches “Toying with Creativity,” a toy camera workshop coming up in Florida in February, Seattle in early spring, and Denver in May. See www.michellebates.net for details.

Her book is scheduled for publication in September, so look for a big publication party in October (at Hengst Studios, maybe?)

View more of Michelle’s work at: