10 Feb A Conversation with…Mike Schreiber
Ten years ago, I had to interview Common for The Source. The interview took place at the legendary Electric Lady Studios in the Village. Mike Schreiber was the photographer assigned for the story and we ended up talking while we waited for Common. After five minutes of conversation, I decided that Mike was arrogant, cocky and annoying. Ten years later, he still is. He’s also one of my favorite photographers. He’s completely self-taught, has shot everything from dogs to prisoners to rappers for everyone from The Source to Vibe and GIANT. (Check out his website) I called Mike up this morning and asked him to tell me about his ten favorite photographs and the stories behind them. Here’s how the conversation went down.
ASK: Glad you remembered me…
MS: Please. How could I forget? You cursed out Mos Def that day at Electric Lady studios.
ASK: You remember that?! You’re the only one who can co-sign that story.
MS: You guys were talking about music or whatever. And then you just said, well I have a bone to pick with you. And you just went off. I was like, what the hell is she doing?!
ASK: HA! I’m gonna write a post about that day. And you can give me quotes.
ASK: Back to the issue at hand. When did you realize you wanted to be a photographer?
MS: I never had the epiphany. I always loved art. But there was never a moment when I just knew. I’m from Long Island. I never thought of it as something people do. My dad was an orthodontist and my mom was a teacher. I was a Jewish kid on Long Island, not surrounded by creatives. My impression of photography was that it was the guy who does the school pictures. Or a wedding photographer.
ASK: So you went to college…
MS: …And studied anthropology. I started out as an Art major. But I hated criticism. I’m a Taurus. So that wasn’t going to work. I worked for the school paper which was my training. And I had a job at a photo agency. I would look at the pictures and I thought, I can do this. I would call up record label publicists and make up assignments that I didn’t have.
ASK: I think we all have those stories of faking our way into assignments. I did the same thing. Where did you start shooting first?
MS: I started shooting the Lyricist Lounge when they were at Tramps.
ASK: Why hip-hop? Were you into it growing up?
MS: Well, on Long Island it was more hair metal with a little Young MC thrown in. [laughs] I started shooting hip-hop stuff because it was accessible and it was fun. You go to shows for free and take pictures. I’m still not a hip-hop head. But it worked for me. In hip-hop, you didn’t need to have a whole body of work before you approached those publications. So I was hustling. You gotta hustle.
ASK: Yeah. You were. Up at The Source every single day with your slides.
MS: They paid 85.00 per picture for the section called Coast to Coast with all the photos. And Vibe paid 60.
ASK: Was that good money?
MS: It was money. Period. [laughs] My job back then was hustling. I didn’t have the skill set of a photographer. All I knew was that I don’t want to have to get a job. Publicists started to know who I was. And so if De La Soul had an album release party, they might call me. And I’d have more pictures to sell. But I never really liked celeb worship and I thought it was beneath me. I didn’t care about Puff and Busta and what they were doing.
ASK: So how did you break out of shooting parties?
MS: You remember The Source had the Unsigned Hype column?
ASK: Of course.
MS: Well, people would send in pictures they took of themselves. And I asked the photo editor, Janeane Outlaw. I said let me shoot the Unsigned Hype pictures. And she said sure. No one else was doing it. I only did three of them. But the second one I did was Eminem.
ASK: No way.
MS: Yeah. He blew up like a year later. But he was in New York, shopping his deal. So when people ask me the secret to my career, there is no secret. I didn’t know anybody at first. You have to be creative. Think of assignments for yourself. There was no reason for any photo editor to give me work. So I had to find a way to practice where there was no pressure. Like taking pictures of people featured in Unsigned Hype.
ASK: Let’s talk about some of your favorite pictures. Who is this kid?
MB: This is Tristan Wilds. From The Wire.
ASK: I’m the only person on Earth who has never seen an episode of The Wire.
MB: I just got it on DVD. It’s awesome.
ASK: So tell me about the picture. Why’d you choose it as one of your ten favorites?
MB: He’s a nice kid. Really young. I just really like the way it came out. I like it because it’s for KING and it’s not like…
ASK: Not what you expect to see in KING.
ASK: In general, KING does a really good job with the TAG section. It gives me a feel of a magazine within a magazine. Now, let’s talk about my very favorite picture of yours…
MB: Yeah. I love this photo too.
ASK: Where’d you take it?
MB: We’re in Brooklyn. Outside Nkiru Books. He had just bought the bookstore with Taleb Kweli. This was one of my first aassignments for The Source. To shoot him and Kweli in front of the store. I pulled them each aside and took three pictures of them. That one of Mos is one of just two pictures I shot of him that day.
ASK: Literally, two?
MS: Literally. Two shots. The Source didn’t hire me to do a portrait. It was supposed to be a news story.
ASK: And this was one of the two shots?
ASK: When you presssed the button, did you know right away that it was a powerful shot?
MS: No. Not at all. But when I saw it, I knew it was a dope picture. Rawkus wanted to buy it from me for 400 bucks and I knew better than to sell it.
ASK: Did you ever get any feedback from Mos about the photo?
MS: Yeah, he told me it’s his favorite picture of himself. I think it captures his essence and a time period. The way he’s dressed. That’s all him. I wasn’t a portrait photographer. So I wasn’t telling people what to do. He’s really restless. I was just lucky I got him to stand still for ten seconds.
ASK: Were you really close up? Or did you zoom in?
MS: I was really close. I don’t use zoom lenses. I don’t think it looks as good. There’s something about being really close. You get something more. It’s not about pretty pictures. It’s about personality.
ASK: Okay, tell me about this guy…I don’t know him.
MS: That’s Chad Johnson. He plays for the Bengals. I took this for GIANT. And I really love this picture. I shot him at a boxing gym, which is kind of weird, for a football player. We were all done, packing up and leaving. We go outside and he’s just standing there, leaning against the wall. I said hold on. Let me get a roll of you standing there. And that turned out to be the best of the pictures.
ASK: I wrote recently about how I wish I could sing. And one of my dear readers commented about how she’s dabbling in photography. But she said that all her photos just look like…photos. Nothing special. How can you take photos that leap off the page like some of yours do?
MS: I don’t know. Photography is the one creative endeavor that everyone thinks they can do.
ASK: Um, the same could be said for writing.
MS: No. I don’t think I can write.
ASK: You don’t. But many people do.
MS: True. But I truly feel like photography is not for everyone. There’s no secret. Its just that some people are gifted.
ASK: And you’re gifted?
MS: Yeah. I am. Hell yeah.
ASK: I forgot how cocky you are.
MS: Look, photography is difficult if you’re not good at it. Everybody is not cut out for it.
ASK: So it can’t be taught?
MS: Anything can be taught. But there are people who take pretty pictures that are not memorable. There are pictures everywhere. Some are background noise.
People can be skilled musicians and not be memorable. Someone else can be not the greatest technically but people respond.
ASK: Tell me about this shot of DMX…
MS: I shot DMX for Rap Pages. It was one of the first real assignments I had. What was memorable was what happened after I took this shot. This was inside at the offices of Def Jam, back when they were on Broadway. We went ouside to finish the shoot. And this was when “Where My Dogs At” had just come out. He was HUGE.
So I go outside, there are fifteen guys out there. The Lox are there. DMX is talking to them. I can’t get my shot. They’re all ignoring me. The publicist said I had fifteen minutes to make it happen before he was leaving. This is my first real shoot for a magazine. I can’t mess this up. Finally, I said: I NEED EVEYRBODY except for DMX to be on THAT side of the street. NOW.
They all looked at me like what the fuck.
Finally, DMX says, aiight y’all. Let him do his thing.
ASK: Sometimes, I think it’s actually easier for the white boy from Long Island to get access to certain people. You’re non-threatening. And for some celebrities, you seem more “official.” The Black guy (or girl) from around their way sometimes has it tougher, I think.
MS: I could see that. But I think, I don’t know. Maybe it helps. But for me, I know how people respond to me. I’ve heard of white photographers running up and putting up a front and rappers don’t respond to that. I’m truthful. I think some Black photographers might put on that front themselves too sometimes.
ASL: Yeah. That can happen.
MS: Some artists might have said, fuck this white boy. So it can work for me or against me. People are cool or they’re not. The way you act makes you official.
ASK: Okay, this guy I know. But I can’t think of his name.
MS: This is Dikembe Mutombo. That was for SLAM. I had 15 minutes to get the shot and it’s one of of my favorites. He’s really interesting. What he does for his family and where he is from. He transcends being an athlete. They all make a ton of money in the NBA. But they are not all building hospitals with twenty million dollars of their own money.
ASK: You shot Voletta Wallace for XXL…
MS: It was a strange moment. The only reason why I was taking the picture was because her son was murdered. Y’know? That just feels weird. This was for XXL. She was really sweet. She’s a mom. I took this at her house in Pennsylvania. Out in the Poconos. She was real nice and genune and it made me sad. And I love the picture.
ASK: You also shot every one’s favorite pregnant lady, MIA…
MS: Yeah. I shot her for the cover of Urb. This was 2005. I didn’t know who she was. URb said do you want to shoot this girl for the cover. I said I don’t know her. But for the cover, yeah. The pictures came out amazing. She was signed to XL at the time and they asked me if I would do publicity photos of her. She’s great. And I love her.
ASK: This picture of ODB makes me want to cry…
MS: This was after he got out of jail. A year before he died. At the time, the photo editor for XXL wanted every thing I shot to have a concept. But I’m not a concept person. I wanted to do something like that picture of John Lennon in front of the Statue of Liberty. So we got on the ferry to go out to the island to take a shot like that. But I ended up getting this one. Which was just a great pciture. Now, I don’t light my shots…
ASK: Really? The light is really beautiful here…
MS: I can see when there is good light. We were right near the bathroom on the ferry. And I just had him stand there and he smiled. And it was really strange. People don’t smile in hip-hop. And when they have teeth like that, they usually don’t smile either. He was out of it. Really catatonic.
ASK: So did XXL run this picture?
MS: It never ran in XXL. I did the shot they asked for. They were so intent on having a concept that they missed this great picture.
ASK: What did you think when you saw this photo?
MS: I said this dude is going back to jail or he will be dead. He was just gone that day. But for a split second, in that picture, he was there.
ASK: I’m guessing this must be…C-Murder.
MS: What gave it away? The big C-murder tattoo? Yeah. This was my first feature in XXL. They sent me down there and I was shooting in the Calliope Projects. It was just so…I’d never been in a situation like that before. I knew if I wasn’t with him, it would be a wrap. I would be lucky to get out alive. The atmosphere was so charged. This is 2001. It’s hot and sticky and people are drinking and girls are wearing next to nothing. It’s the poorest part of the coutry. Kids with no shoes. Stained clothes. A lot of heavy hard stares. It was crazy.
ASK: At the same time that you were down there, I was in the Magnolia projects with The Hot Boyz. And I was sitting there thinking the exact same thing. What the hell am I doing here? And what happens if they leave without me?
ASK: You shot Pimp C before he passed away.
MS: Okay. Crazy story. He was from this poor town in Texas. I had directions to the town but not to the house. He was staying with his mom. This was like, five days after getting out of jail. I roll up in Texas in my beige Honda Civic rental. And I start asking people if they know the street.
ASK: What are you crazy?
MS: And I’d lost my cell phone on the flight so I had no cell. I see a barbershop. And I’m thinking, I’m sure they know where he lives!
ASK: Oh God…
MS: I roll down the window and ask this guy walking in to the barberhshop. Excuse me? Do you know where Pimp C lives? And he looks me up and down and then he says, “Nah, I don’t.” And I’m like, okay thanks! So I go to the liquor store. And it’s like a movie. Everything stops when I walk in. And I ask to use the pay phone. And the guy points to the back of the store. And then I’m like, can I have change for a dollar?
MS: Mike, are you serious?
MS: [laughs]. So I call the publicist, who is in Los Angeles. And he can’t help me. So he calls Pimp C’s mom. And she gets on the phone and says, where are you? I told her I was at 5th and Austin. She’s like, you are where?! 5th and Austin?! No baby. You can’t be over there. Listen to me. Get in the car. And lock the doors. I’ll be there in a minute.
ASK: I love it!!
MS: So I get in the car. Lock the doors. And people start coming outside to check me out. She gets there in like five minutes. Didn’t even get out of the car. She just waved at me to follow her to her house. It wasn’t far. Just a whole different neighborhood. So I meet up with Pimp C. And we end up at that same barbershop. I said, hey, I came by here earlier today! He said, I know. My phone started ringing off the hook as soon as you got here. My peoples said there was some white boy asking where I lived. Wanted to know what they should do with you.
ASK: Oh man…I can just imagine that scene, you wandering around asking about Pimp C like an idiot!
MS: Yeah. And you know what I look like. So you can just imagine…
ASk: What are you up to now?
MS: I just started shooting for Esquire. I’ve been dreaming about it for years. And it took twelve years. It’s not like I’m shooting covers. But it’s a start. It’s exciting. And you know how hard it is to transition when you have done urban stuff for a long time.
ASK: I don’t know much about photography. But I feel like I should ask you what kind of camera you use. For all my readers who may want to know that kind of thing.
MS: I use a Contract 645. And I have a Leica. All film. No digital. But I don’t like to get into what I use…
ASK: Why not?
MS: Because some of my best photos were taken with a Pentax K-1000. Which is a beginniner camera. It’s not about the equipment. It’s what you do with it. I was at lecture one time and this photographer was asked what kind of camera he used. He said it was like asking Hemmingway what kind of typewriter he used. It doesn’t matter. Don’t get caught up in that. I don’t know anything about equipment.
MS: Well, you know more than I do about cameras.
MS: Maybe. But really, what do you know about code and the inner workings of a blog?
ASK: Absolutely nothing.
MS: You just care about getting the words down.
ASK: True. So any advice for aspiring photographers?
MS: Don’t run out and get a digital camera with a zoom lens and think you’re straight. Play around with different hings. People are too quick. They are not patient. Esquire was always one of my dream magazines. It took me 12 years. And I’m not shooting the cover. It’s like Tupac said. Be true to the game and the game will be true to you.
ASK: Does it annoy you when people ask you to do head shots and weddings?
MS: Nah. I’m good about just saying no, I don’t do that.
ASK: So you won’t shoot my kid?
MS: You had a kid?
ASK: Yeah. She’s two.
MS: Is she cute?
ASK: No. Not really.
MS: What do you mean?! Everyone thinks their kid should be a model.
ASK: Nah, not mine.
MS: Scale of 1-10.
ASK: A solid three. Like me.
ASK: Hey, she’s a funny looking kid! I’m okay with that. I was a funny looking kid too.
MS: Okay, now I have to shoot her. When are you bringing her into the City?
ASK: When the weather gets warm, we’ll be there. Thanks for doing this interview Mike. You’re awesome.
MS: Yeah, I am awesome.*
*I made this last quote up. But trust me. It’s totally something he would say.