Embark on a visual journey spanning five decades with renowned photographer Michael Eastman as he unveils the secrets behind his captivating images in an exclusive interview with Holden. From the iconic Cuban series to the vast American landscapes, and even the mesmerizing cyanotypes created during COVID-19 lockdowns, delve into the mind of a master craftsman who seamlessly weaves narratives through his lens.

Discover how Michael’s work transcends mere photography, capturing the essence of humanity and inviting viewers to immerse themselves in the stories untold within each frame. Explore the interplay of light, color, and form as Michael shares insights into his creative process, from the meticulous craftsmanship of his darkroom techniques to the serendipitous moments that define his artistry.

Join Holden and Michael as they unravel the complexities of composition, delve into the emotional resonance of architectural spaces, and witness the evolution of a photographer whose relentless pursuit of beauty has left an indelible mark on the world of visual storytelling.

Holden Luntz & Michael Eastman’s conversation celebrating Eastman’s 50th year as a photographer


Luntz: This is an incredibly beautiful show. We are so honored to do this for Michael. Michael has been shooting photographs for half a century, for over 50 years. He never had a retrospective show and, not that this is a huge show because there are so many different bodies of work that we could show, but I think it’s wonderful to be able to give his work the audience and the space and we’ve included large images so that people can get a real, truer understanding of just what a remarkable photographer he really is.

I’d like to start with a quote by a different photographer because I think it will give you some sense of how to look at Michael’s work. Dorothea Lange, at the end of her life, emerged as one of the greatest humanists. She captured people suffering during the Dust Bowl and for the WPA, played a significant role in the FSA to improve conditions in the rural South. She was deeply empathetic, having endured childhood polio and illness. Her empathy extended to anyone who was suffering, longing, or needed anything. She once said, “To live a visual life is an enormous undertaking, practically unattainable. I’ve only touched it.”

The reason that I mention this is that when I look at Michael’s work, I see that he has lead this truly incredibly visual life. He never stops looking he never stops shooting, he never stops wondering what the expressive powers of photography can be and as we go through the slideshow, we’ll have Michael talk about his work, why he shot what he shot, and what we think makes the work special. And it’s not chronological–we begin with the Cuban pictures, which Michael is very famous for. Before that, there were the horse pictures. Then there were the  American landscape pictures. Then during Covid there were all these beautiful cyanotypes which are of leaves and flora and fauna.

Michael never stops looking. He wears so many different hats and he shoots so much interesting material, but there is a constant that runs through it. I was trying to figure out what that constant was and we were having dinner last night and Michael said to me, “Holden, when you think about it and you think about my career, it really is all about beauty.” But not necessarily in the traditional sense, but it’s about a kind of beauty that somebody very skilled, someone very resolved with a camera can quest for. Michael has not only quested for it, but he’s truly found it.

What I want to do is start with the work that people know the best: the Havana series. Let’s have a look at talk about how it came about.

Michael Eastman, Isabellas Two Chairs, Havana, 1999, Chromogenic Color Photograph
Michael Eastman, Isabellas Two Chairs, Havana, 1999, Chromogenic Color Photograph


Eastman: Thanks. When I went to Cuba it was 1999. I’d been shooting for about 17 years. I didn’t know what I was going to do when I went there. I was doing a lot of people and things for commercial work. I started there on the street, photographing women smoking cigars, photographing 50s cars.

I was driving down the main Embassy Row, and there was a beautiful, beautiful mansion with a gaping hole in it. And I stopped the driver, got out, went to the front door and knocked on it and said, “Can I photograph in here? Can I take a look and photograph?” And the woman was Isabella, and she said, “Come on in.” And that photograph of the laundry was done that time.

Michael Eastman, Green Interior, 1999, Havana, Chromogenic Color Photograph
Michael Eastman, Green Interior, 1999, Havana, Chromogenic Color Photograph

Eastman: So that was the beginning of me thinking about interiors and the power of them and the vehicle to tell a story about the residence, about the country, about the time. That changed my world and the way I visualized things and the way I saw things, and also the color. The architecture which I was photographing inn my home city of St. Louis, which is a beautiful old city decaying but not, not decaying with this kind of beauty. In 99, I had been doing color for about half of my career, mostly been a black and white, but this was like a wild rainbow color. So that really, the green of this interior, another really good example because it’s about the color but it’s about the story.


Eastman: I was looking at the photograph a second ago and I noticed that one of the pillows was all crumpled up and I thought, “That’s the story! Somebody sits there, it’s not a set. It’s real. It’s a real story about people who live in these spaces and about them.”

Luntz: I always find, when I look at the work, something that separates… There’s other architectural photographers, certainly. Polidori comes to mind. There’s Candida Höfer that comes to mind. There’s Struth. There’s Gursky. There’s a whole sort of a German school that was specifically about architecture. But for Michael, when we call this the textures and colors of time, for Michael, the architecture has to be very, very human. The scale, you can sense not just what a picture looks like, but if it’s a great picture, you can get a sense of what it must feel like to be there. And I think Michael does that better than anyone else I know.

Eastman: Part of that is using available light in very dim, this is actually pretty bright for some of these rooms out there. Usually, it’s like a two or three or four-minute exposure because they’re so dim. But the truth of the light and the way it defines the space, the way it articulates the shapes, that’s what these are about.

I think that I’ve always wanted the work to be intimate. These are very small spaces compared to most architectural images. They’re much more intimate in terms of human presence. You know, it’s funny. I feel when I enter a space that somebody had just got out of that chair, that’s why it’s wrinkled. Or somebody was about to enter like a stage.

Michael Eastman, Isabella's Mirror, Havana
Michael Eastman, Isabella’s Mirror, Havana, 1999, Chromogenic Color Photograph

Luntz: There is a term that you use in literary criticism if you went to a PHD program for any of those things. And one of the terms they give you is something called “metonymy.” And metonymy is, in literature, in art, in photography, it’s suggesting somebody’s there by them not being there, their presence as being there can be almost stronger when you see the sort of the ghost of the person sitting on the couch. Or you see someone’s bed and the mattress is rumpled or you see chairs facing each other where somebody obviously spent hours and hours, an old couple sitting. And Michael’s a master of that. The pictures are very human and have a very human presence. But I can’t recall any of the Cuban pictures that you actually see a person there.

I think if a person is there, in a way, you read it in a much more literal way. You don’t occupy the spaces the same. When you occupy Michael’s space, and Michael’s always looking for that narrative, the potential of anybody being there is not limited. So I think it has a much stronger emotive response.

Eastman: I also think it gives the viewer a chance to add to the story, to interpret the space according to who they are, which I like. That’s what you really want out of art–to be able to reach somebody, to reach them in their own world.

Michael Eastman, Class Room, Havana, 2010, Chromogenic color photograph
Michael Eastman, Class Room, Havana, 2010, Chromogenic color photograph

A Colorist Who’s a Print Maker

Luntz: Can you tell them a little bit about how the pictures were made? Obviously, you know, in order to be mural size pictures, the negative has to be big. Michael was carrying around very heavy, clumsy, difficult equipment to use. Last night, we were talking and he said, “You know, the film wasn’t meant to be able to record this. This was an eighth of a second film that I pushed, and then, in order in the dark room to get the colors to look exactly like they were looking..” All of that is a really difficult feat that very few photographers engage in.

Eastman: I would say I’m a colorist who’s a print maker. I’ve always been a print maker. I think, even though photography is mechanical, your hand is still involved and I’ve loved that part of it. I mean, I used to love to print and digital was terrific. When it came, everybody was running away from it and saying “No, that’s got to be pure.” But the only pure thing about it is I get a better print and I have more control and I’m able to render things that I wouldn’t have been able to render.

I remember when I did black and white, I would to spend hours and hours making one print and at the end, I’d had 10 or 12 or 15 prints on my table in the dark room. I’d look at them, there’d be one that was perfect and there would be 20 that were just about there, And then, if I had another print order, it was the same thing over because you just didn’t go and pull switch one 5 Seconds at f8. It was a when digital came, when you got the file where you wanted it, you hit command S to save and then when you wanted to print again you hit command P or you send it to the lab to get a print made. And it was always exactly the same. So digital gave me more tools and gave me repeatability, which is important because you want an edition to be the same, you don’t want it to be all over the place.

Michael Eastman, Yellow Room, Havana, 2010, Chromogenic color photograph
Michael Eastman, Yellow Room, Havana, 2010, Chromogenic color photograph

Luntz: Okay, so again, this is an example of chairs and suggesting that someone was there. You don’t know precisely who’s there, but it makes you more comfortable, I think, spending time in front of the picture. I think the scale of the pictures are really important because the space they show is really expansive. You kind of relate to it in a sort of big, all-together way.

With a lot of photographers, there’s a central focus and then whatever else happens in the picture doesn’t seem to be very important. You just notice the kind of the snap. As you look closely, you notice the subject, and you don’t notice the rest. But with Michael, there’s an all-over consistency that the entire photograph is interesting, from top to bottom. They don’t just have one basic focal point and that’s the picture.

So can you talk about this picture? Because the beautiful thing is that not only do you get the furniture that someone has just lived in, but you get the sort of trope that you love to use mirrors and doorways and spaces that open up so that the focal plane of the picture becomes much larger, and the picture becomes more dynamic.

Michael Eastman, Isabella's Mirror, Havana
Michael Eastman, Isabella’s Mirror, Havana, 1999, Chromogenic Color Photograph

Never Static

Eastman:  Yeah, it’s sort of bonus areas where you’re seeing things in the picture. Like the mirror over there. You’re looking inside that mirror and there’s a whole another world in there. So what you’re trying to do is fill that rectangle with as much information so that the viewer can come back to it over and over and over again and find new things. The more you can put in, as long as you’re formally composing in a way that works, but the more information that you can offer, I think it’s important.

A friend of mine and I went photographing, he was an amateur, and I said to him, “I am so jealous of you,” and he goes, “What? What are you jealous of?” I said, “Everything you see, you want to shoot.” I said, “I’ve been doing this for so long that I go, ‘Oh, I did that. Oh, I did that. Oh, I did that.'” And I love that he did that. That he could look at the world in that way. So it was great to be able to continue to look and see new things because I kept challenging myself. I cannot make the same pictures over and over again because that’s not why I got into this. I didn’t get into this to do the same photograph. I wanted to continue to grow as an artist, and if there’s any achievement that I’ve been able to do, besides the fact that I’ve done it for 50 years which I’m very proud of, but it’s the idea that I’ve never been really static, not always successful, but never static.

Michael Eastman, Isabella's Two Chairs, Havana, 2000
Michael Eastman, Isabella’s Two Chairs, Havana, 2000, Chromogenic Color Photograph

Never Manipulated

Luntz: I think what’s interesting also about Michael’s pictures is he encounters spaces that are interesting, he finds a way to make them his own, but he feels he can never manipulate anything within that space.

That you have to find a way of working around what works or doesn’t work in a composition, but Michael said he would be so easy. When you design a room, if you want to move the chair this way, and you want to move the table this way, and the picture is slightly crooked and you want to straighten it out, all of these, for Michael, almost as a street photographer says, none of that is allowed.

Eastman: No. I was in Seville and I was photographing a renaissance interior. Beautiful, beautiful color, beautiful space, and against this like renaissance table, I don’t know, chest of drawers and on that was an old golf bag full of old golf clubs, and they were from the ’50s. It was red, sort of ugly plastic. I thought, “Oh, I have to move that. I have to move that.” To this day, I regret moving it. At the very least, I should have shot one first and then moved it, because I always think that what’s in the photograph, what’s in the room is why I was moved to shoot it, and it’s a very complicated formula. And if you pull one little element out, thinking it’s completely insignificant, everything is significant because it’s why I saw it in the first place, and it’s why the viewer, thanks to the collective consciousness, saw the same thing.

People come up to me all the time and say, “I love this photograph because XYZ,” and I go, “That’s why I photographed it.” It’s almost always the case. It’s like the rules or laws of nature of human thinking that are the same. We all see the thing very similar. So I don’t want to mess with what I saw because I don’t want the message to be lost.

Transcription in progress….