Coming from a family of Greek diplomats, Margarita Mavromichalis has had the opportunity to travel to and live in many different places all over the world. In more recent years, Margarita lived in Los Angeles and currently she resides in New York.
One thing we love about Margarita is that despite having gotten to know much of the world and so many people (Did we mention she speaks several languages?), she remains attracted mainly to street photography where she captures the elements that evoke emotions and surprise in the everyday lives of ordinary people.
A second thing we love about Margarita – her work. Not only is it amazing quality work, it is so very unique. Her shots of the wreckage Hurricane Sandy left behind are powerfully emotional and technically speaking, perfect. She captures places and people from places a bit farther from her current home as well, like Greece and India in a way that makes you feel as though you were there, exploring the city streets for yourself. We also loved her one of a kind self portraits. Bottom line, this is one talented street photographer.
We asked Margarita a few questions about herself and her work. Here are her answers.
Can you tell us a little about yourself?
I come from a family of diplomats, my father was a diplomat and my husband is in the Greek Foreign Service as well. So I grew up moving from one country to another, every three or four years. It is challenging on many levels but very enriching at the same time. My father was an avid photographer and always took pictures everywhere we went. I guess that sparked my early interest in photography. When he realized how passionate I was, he decided to hand me all his equipment, which led me to become a Nikon user since all his lenses and cameras were Nikons from the 70’s and all the old lenses still fit today’s models. My husband and I moved to NY in 2009 as our girls were getting ready to go to college. It was the perfect time for me to dedicate myself to what I loved so much, and what a place New York was to do that! I took classes at the International Center of Photography, later became a teaching assistant there, met incredible people and certainly got all the inspiration I needed. There were not enough hours in a day.
We currently live in Greece, after an 8 yearlong stay in the US.
My interest in street photography came very naturally since I always look for a human presence in my pictures. People add a very strong energy. Furthermore, I find street photography to be the most challenging genre. And I love the challenge. There is nothing much that one can control out there, not the light nor the people. It’s all about training oneself to see, to anticipate and to be ready when the right moment comes along. I just love that, it energizes me. You could go to the same place every day at the same time and yet get totally different images every time. Nothing is ever the same out on the streets and that is the magic of it all. What you can do is endless, the whole world becomes your stage.
How would you describe your style of street photography?
I would say that my style is mainly non confrontational, although I enjoy engaging my subjects in conversations if I am interested in a particular aspect of their personality or in their appearance. On the other hand, if I see a scene developing, I will try to get as close as possible but will try not to be seen, to prevent people from reacting to my presence and allow them to be natural.
Where do you typically shoot on the street?
I usually shoot wherever the streets take me… I walk everywhere and for hours and I take turns according to what I see or follow my instinct. I love crowds but I also like empty spaces and areas that look abandoned. I do follow my instinct a lot and I am usually not disappointed.
If someone were to visit your city where would you tell them are your favorite street photography locations and why?
I am still in the process of discovering my own city, Athens. Greece has gone through a lot of changes during the years that I was away and a lot has been said about this country, some truths but also some serious inaccuracies. I am very compelled to rediscover this country with the use of my camera. It’s very different to be a visitor/ regular citizen and very different to look at a place through a lens.
I would certainly urge people to visit the old city of Athens, around the Acropolis, it’s a beautiful area that has been maintained well and offers many photographic opportunities, ranging from a beautiful historic past to a more dark and challenging present depicted by all the graffiti and the interesting characters that roam those streets.
Where do you get your inspiration and what drives you each day?
I get my inspiration from all the amazing photographers that have created meaningful work that continues to give direction to most of us who are still trying to find a place in this very challenging world of photography. The environment that I live in certainly drives me but what drives me the most is my love for what I do and my deep appreciation to those people who have believed in me and have supported me from my very first steps.
What do you do when you get the feeling that there’s nothing new to shoot?
As all artists, I guess, I go through ups and downs, doubting myself a lot and feeling very insecure at times. I don’t ever think that there is nothing new to shoot, that is the magic of the street, It’s always there and always different. If I have bad days, I only have myself to blame and will try to work through them. Working on various themes at the same time is also very helpful in that it will allow you to change your focus from one theme to another whenever you may feel that your inspiration is low.
Who is your biggest influence in terms of your photography?
I love the work of Henri Cartier Bresson, Elliott Erwitt, Constantine Manos, Nikos Economopoulos, Garry Winogrand, the list could be endless. But I could not pass this question without mentioning Harvey Stein, who was one of my very first teachers and quickly became a friend and a mentor to me. He taught me everything I know about photography in general but more specifically about street photography.
What is the creative process you go through to create your work and what tools do you use (camera, post-processing application(s), film (if you use it)?
We live in a digital world and all my images are digital and predominantly color. We are in a way very spoiled today since our digital cameras will allow us to shoot to our heart’s content without having to worry much about anything. One day, a random “professional” photographer approached a group of students that I happened to be involved with, and told them that he wanted to share some wisdom with them and said: “Next time you come here, shoot one picture and leave. You have to learn to see the moment and capture it”. I do not agree with him since there are endless moments out there, there isn’t only one, and with digital we have the luxury to try to capture many moments. Yes, initially we tend to overshoot but with experience that fades away. When I see an interesting background or interesting people, I will stand back and watch the scene develop. Backgrounds are very important to me so often I will chose a background first and then will wait there until something interesting happens. Patience is key. Furthermore, I want to work a scene that I like. When something captures my attention and the adrenalin gets going, I work the scene as much as possible. Sometimes people will tell me off, but that’s ok.
Lastly, that might sound funny, but I dream of my work. I often see my images in my dreams and analyze them… it’s a little late of course to correct the mistakes but it helps me to be better prepared next time around. I was listening to Constantine Manos recently who said that he was dreaming of certain situations and subsequently would go out looking for them… I am certainly not there yet; I wish I could do that!
I use a Nikon D800 and a Nikon Df. The only post-processing tool that I use is Lightroom and I am not a big fan of extreme editing. I believe that a picture should be taken correctly in camera. If a picture needs more than a minute or two of my time in post-processing, then it’s not a good picture to begin with and I will not bother with it. I don’t know if that is right or wrong but that is how I work.
What advice or tips can you give to someone who is new to street photography?
The first advice that I would give anyone starting out would be not to be afraid of making mistakes. Making mistakes and trying things out of our comfort zone is what makes us better at what we do. We have all made plenty of mistakes and still continue to do so. No one was ever perfect; perfection does not exist. My second advice and maybe equally important to me is to get a visual education. People starting out in photography in general should look at GOOD work. There is a lot of bad photography out there but they have to look at what the masters have done, and educate themselves. Train their eye to see what a good shot looks like compared to a bad one… that will lead them to become better. The more good work you see the more you learn to appreciate it.
I would like to quote what Neil Gaiman once said at a beautiful and very inspiring commencement speech that he made: “The urge starting out is to copy and that’s not a bad thing. Most of us only find our own voices after we’ve sounded like a lot of other people. But the one thing that you have and that nobody else has is you, your voice, your mind, your story, your vision.” I could not agree more with that.
You spent your life traveling the world and as a result you became fluent in many languages. How does this experience help you connect with your subjects? And how does it influence your style.
I certainly consider myself a citizen of the world, having moved so often ever since I was born. I am a translator/interpreter by profession and I have always loved languages. But beyond languages, I have learnt to be open to new realities, to be non judgmental and very adaptable. There is no place in the world that I would feel uncomfortable in and I believe that this comes through in my behavior. Speaking the language of a country certainly helps in breaking the ice and is vital to good communication but I feel very comfortable approaching people under any circumstances.
You recently spent several years living in the United States. How people from other countries view cars. Having spent so much time here you obviously became immersed in the US culture. I’m curious about what you like about photographing in the US and what you don’t like.
Indeed, I spent almost 9 years living in both LA and NY. I believe that I experienced two extremes in the United States but I have left my heart behind in NY. There is nothing I did not like, in all honesty. Having lived in so many different countries, I experienced for the first time in my life the feeling of being “at home” in NY. I am aware that NY is not a fair representation of what the US really is but it’s an amazing melting pot of cultures and social backgrounds, where everyone has a place and I find that incredible. Photographically, it was heaven on Earth.
In reviewing your photos from your India gallery I noticed that you get very close with many of your subjects. What have you learned from that experience?
“Get close”! I still hear it. Most valuable lesson Harvey Stein taught me. Getting close is paramount to getting more compelling and stronger images. Not all your subjects will allow you to do that but with patience and persistence you can always get there. In India, people were particularly friendly and open to be photographed, which made everything much easier. I can’t say the same about people in Greece and other countries.
I know this is not part of your street photography work, but I was really drawn to your self portrait Gallery. In many of your portraits you show yourself as partially faded out compared to the other subjects in the frame. Can you share with us what this means and why you created these images in this way?
You are right; my self-portrait portfolio is very different to the rest of my work.
I believe that putting yourself in front of the camera is very important for every photographer to do as early on as possible in his or her carrier. You have to understand what it feels like to be in front of the lens in order to respect your subjects more.
I decided to use my camera to explore many feelings that I have been experiencing throughout the years, feelings of loneliness, feelings of nostalgia and often frustration, feelings that relate to the life I have been living. The camera can be very cathartic. They are mostly sad, I realize that, and it’s not how I usually am, but it’s when I feel that way that I mostly feel the need to use my camera. I did not think I would ever feel comfortable showing those images but this is one example of what an effect living in NY has had on me. I have a self-effacing personality, I have often been told that, and I believe that it comes through in this series of images.
Like many of your photos your street portraits are very close to the subject. And I can see that your subjects appear very relaxed and comfortable. What do you do to put them at such ease?
I am very happy to hear that because I do want the interaction to be a positive one with all my subjects. I will never force myself on anyone who objects being photographed; at least I have rarely done that. As I said in a previous question, I feel comfortable approaching my subjects and that probably comes through and helps them to feel comfortable too. If you approach people with a smile and a nice compliment, you can’t really lose. There is something positive to be said about every single person around us and that is usually appreciated.
In looking at your body of work as a whole I would say that you are almost part of the scene yet not in it. So many street photographers although they may be close our distant to remove from their subjects. Your work seems to be the opposite. Is this something you do on purpose or is it just a reflection of your personality?
It’s funny you would say that but yes, it definitely represents well who I am. I will always choose not to be seen and that comes through in my work. In my private life, I am a very good listener, I am usually very quiet, and love to observe. Don’t we often say that pictures say a lot and sometimes more about the photographer than about the subject being photographed?
You have several compelling photographs that juxtapose a person in a window or a reflection against something outside. For example your photograph titled “peeking” which I believe was taken in Santa Fe. What draws you to create this type of image and how is that evolved throughout your work?
Sometimes it is all about catching a moment but the truth is that I look for moments like this. I find them intriguing, there is a mystery and a story that one can imagine behind the image, it has some layers and more importantly they sometimes are humorous. I LOVE humor in photography and will not miss an opportunity to capture that.
Do you consider yourself more of a travel photographer or a street photographer, or does it matter?
To me, it does not matter at all. I mostly photograph in the places I live and since that changes frequently, I am blessed that way. That being said, wherever I am, whether on a trip or where I call home, I will focus on the people around me and their close environment, that’s what I mostly care about. So my approach does not ever change, whether I am a tourist or a temporary resident of the country.
When you seek to photograph a new place, what do you seek to capture about it?
I seek to capture the spirit of the people. That is what a place is all about. People are the soul and the energy of our environment.
What photo gear (camera body and lens(es) do you normally use on the street?
I have two bodies, a Nikon D 800 and a Nikon DF. I try not to walk around with both since they are very heavy and big cameras tend to intimidate people. However, as much as I have tried to warm up to smaller bodies (they certainly would make my life so much easier while working on the street), I have not come close to appreciating them yet. I own a few lenses, mostly wide angle. I have the 24-70 (2.8), 50 (1.4), 55 (1.2) and a 24 (2.8). I also own a 14-24 (2.8) but I rarely use it.
A Selection of Margarita’s Photos with Her Comments
“Abercrombie’: Abercrombie and Fitch is an all American iconic brand that has become popular worldwide. I am always amazed at how many tourists line up every day, rain or shine, in front of the entrance of the Fifth Avenue store and will wait there for hours before being allowed in. I loved that youngster sitting by the entrance of the store, getting his reflection in the window and his almost desperate look! I waited for him to look my way because I believe it makes for a more powerful image.
“All Eyes On You”: Those panels were all over Times Square while the Square was undergoing major work for months. I really loved the eyes and tried to come up with something that would create a dynamic and interesting image. We are always being watched…no matter what we do and where we go.
“Am I Dreaming?”: This is one of my favorite pictures. Even though I was late that day and had to walk in a different direction, I decided to take a longer route and walk through the park. This is one example where I followed my instinct and I was not disappointed. I came across a clown sitting on a bench and appeared to be sleeping. I photographed him but I knew I wanted something more in the image, so I waited and waited until that little boy came by and decided to be very brave. He was so scared yet totally mesmerized by what he was seeing. He sat next to the huge clown in total disbelief yet ready to jump at any moment the clown would move a finger. I knew I had my image.
“Bill”: Bill Cunningham!!! That picture was taken during the Easter Parade, on Fifth Avenue. I often run into Bill Cunningham while walking the streets of NY. He does not like to be photographed, though. I can tell you that much.
“Rain Room”: That picture was taken at the MOMA during that incredible exhibit. I went on July 4, hoping that most people would be busy celebrating rather than queuing to see the Rain Room. The wait was 7 hours long, so I decided to take the shorter route and joined the fast lane that took you around the Rain and not through the Rain. It worked for me! I loved getting the girl enjoying the sensation of being rained on yet staying dry under the watchful eye of the silhouetted guard.
“Never Hide”: Another one of my favorites. This is an example of what I said earlier, that sometimes I will chose a background first and wait for something that I want to happen. I loved that Ray ban ad at a bus station in Athens, depicting Tom Cruise being a model in an art school, showing off his well toned naked body yet wearing sun glasses and the hand of a woman/instructor conveniently covering him at the right spot… All that while the ad says “Never Hide”. In Greece, many people object to being photographed and I knew that if I stood there long enough I would get exactly what I got, creating an image with contradiction and humor. The lady entering a cab in the background adds to the picture.
“The Look”: That picture was taken in a church in the South of Greece, during a service. Photography is usually not appreciated in the churches and especially not during service. This woman is very much an example of the older generation and portrays for me what I think of women in this country: They are strong and tough and they make themselves heard. They appear to be in the background but are very much active players in our society in general.
“Posing 1”: I love the humor in this picture. It was obviously taken at the Acropolis. A group of young girls were very much taken by one of the dogs that has made the Acropolis his home. The dog enjoyed posing for them and they, instead of shooting the Acropolis, spent their time shooting the dog.
“School Girl”: This is my favorite picture of the India portfolio. I feel very attached to this picture because I love kids so much and the sight of them being sad or unhappy disturbs me. That was a difficult and awkward moment for me, as a photographer. I entered that school and the teacher of those kids was quite inviting and allowed me to photograph all the children who started jumping around me, trying to get my attention. That little girl did not move. She was SO sad. I got down to photograph her, hoping that she would cheer up but there was nothing that I could do or say that would make her even look at me. The teacher got mad at her for not “posing” and was ready to strike her with the ruler that she is holding in her hand. As soon as I realized though the camera what was about to happen, I stopped and asked her to leave her alone. This is the only picture that I took and I think it speaks for itself. I still today wonder what was going through the mind of that child.
“Agra 5”: This image was taken right across the Taj Mahal, at around 6 AM. A group of young girls, on their way to school, would work for a few hours on the fields. I was very much attracted to this girl in particular since there was something very beautiful and gentle about her, I loved the wrap she had around her and her pose. The background looks like a painting…
“Chandelao 11”: This picture was taken in Chandelao, a very small village near Jodhpur in the center of the sate of Rajasthan. It is the home of about 1700 people where you get the real feel of rural India. Open homes, friendly people, women fetching water from the well, children playing on the street. A real treat. This was one of the many images I took there, a woman standing by the doorway of her home, having hung her laundry to dry. India is a photographer’s paradise.
“Little Cowboy”: This picture was taken at a county fair in Taos, where live stock was being auctioned off, live music was played, arts and crafts sold and pie eating contests “enjoyed”… Young and old alike dressed to the occasion and were having a great time.
“Man Under Umbrella”: I have been going to New Mexico in August for the past three years and one of the highlights of the trip is visiting the Taos Indian Pueblo. The reservation is over 1000 years old and keeps the culture of the Taos Indians of Northern New Mexico alive today. The residents of the pueblo make arts and crafts that they sell to visitors throughout the year. It is a great source of income for them. This seller in particular was not very happy to be photographed and used his umbrella to cover himself from the sun and from my camera. This is one place where you have to ask permission to photograph people. Most will be happy to be photographed but not this particular person. I think the picture works much better because of the umbrella covering his head. It would not have been successful if his head had been visible. So, in this case the situation worked to my advantage.
“Typewriter”: This image was taken at an area outside of Taos, off the grid, where one will find dozens of residences in a landscape that looks surreal. Abandoned household items are seen everywhere, cars from another era, trucks, buses… all blend in to create a very unique environment and atmosphere. This desk and typewriter are just one example.
Waiting: In this image I am exploring the feeling of loss in general. It was at a time in my life where I was not looking forward to a lot of change that was coming my way and I felt that this image expressed accurately all the emotions that I was feeling at that time.