illex
Michael R. Dunham



illex welcomes American photographer Michael R. Dunham. As an architectural engineer by profession, Michael’s explorations with photography naturally involve those structures found all around us, from buildings and bridges to the structure of the human face. Michael’s photography does not stop, however, at the tangible physical expressions of buildings, bridges, and faces, but ventures into the much more obscure and vague metaphysical world of time, perception, and identity. In so doing, Michael’s work explores themes that lie at the very core of our shared human experience: the frustrating and beautiful condition of living a life that is impermanent and unpredictable.

Please enjoy his work and his interview.




from the series “ Paris, 1949 "


from the series “ Paris, 1949 "


from the series “ Paris, 1949 "


from the series “ New Years Eve, 1946 "


from the series “ New Years Eve, 1946 "


from the series “ New Years Eve, 1946 "



In looking at your series “ Paris, 1949 ”, we are struck by its intense visual presentation. The faraway and otherworldly aesthetic effect of the film leaves a remarkable and memorable impression on the viewer. In creating these photographs, we understand that you used expired film from the year 1949. This powerful concept underlying the series is equally remarkable and memorable. We’re interested in knowing your perspective on the interaction between this project’s concept and its aesthetics.

Conceptually this began as somewhat of an experimental reclamation. I’m interested in the classic aesthetics of both people and objects, which led me to procure several old cameras for which film is no longer made. This isn’t a novel concept, as proven by the bustling trade of old cameras on eBay and flea markets, but I was intent to use the cameras and not just put them on a shelf. This led me of course to the film, which, no longer produced, was only available as expired keepsakes. The beginnings of this project were therefore a sort of proof of life for both the camera and the film; beautiful as objects, but capable of producing even greater beauty when utilized.

Technically this presented a challenge and an opportunity. The camera is old and has limited capabilities but the film was the real wild card since there was very little clue as to how it had been treated the past 60+ years. It was therefore not at all possible to know the film’s speed (not that the camera would have been capable of much correction anyhow). These limitations were actually quite freeing in that they allowed me to focus solely on the composition and subject of the photos. The project’s concept and its aesthetics are therefore tightly connected. The unpredictability of the film required something monumental and powerful as the subject in order to ground it. Something recognizable even when heavily distorted. The architecture of Paris is just such a subject.



Your portrait series, “ New Years Eve, 1946 ”, operates on similar grounds, again using film expired in the year 1946, but this series also possesses a great degree of complexity and nuance. We notice the following themes apparent in this series: identity, duality, structure, constancy, tradition, and a strong sense of artistic discipline. Please comment on these or other themes and please also tell us about your motivation in creating not only this series in general but also its precise presentation.

You identified identity and duality and for me those are the main themes of this series. Two photographs were taken of each sitter. One is a full bust with the subject’s eyes open and one is only the face with their eyes closed. The first is a representation of the subject’s outward appearance and the identity that they wish to project for others to see. We’re of course farther away from them in a physical sense, but also emotionally. We see their clothing (facade) and their pose. The second shot is much more intimate and strips away some of the facade, but interestingly, only as much as the subject will allow. In some cases that is none. We don’t learn anything more about the person because they choose to stay closed. In most cases however, one gets an entirely new sense of the person. Their guard goes down with their eyelids and new traits appear. Nobility, pain, ease, comfort, coyness, happiness, eagerness. All that and more is present in their faces when they allow us to see it. 

The idea to take the portraits with the subjects’ eyes closed occurred to me during a lecture by the photographer John Dugdale, who said that we are more apt to study someone’s face in a photograph if their eyes are closed. The thought being that they’re not staring back at you. The idea of a photograph looking back at you seems silly at first but I think that after viewing the portraits of people with eyes closed you begin to get a sense of what he meant. There is a certain calm when looking at the photos that isn’t there with the traditional busts. It’s voyeuristic, but with what seems like the subject’s eager approval. I think it’s an extremely powerful style and I’m thankful to Mr. Dugdale for the idea.



In both of these series, you have exhibited a certain level of risk-taking, in that the film you use may have in fact expired beyond the point of usability. The dedication you have given to both of these series without prior assurance of any degree of success is impressive. Were you concerned that the fruits of these labors may have been unrealized and how did that concern factor into your overall process of creation?  

Every step you take away from digital photography is a step towards unpredictability. This was an extremely difficult thing for me to do at first (my chosen profession requires a high level of precision and predictability) but after seeing the results of the Paris pictures I embraced unpredictability as a feature, not a bug. In some rare cases there are things you can do to ensure results. For example with the portraits, I developed three test shots to be sure that I had the correct exposure. This was only possible because I had four rolls of 35mm film from exactly the same batch of 1946 stock, which had been stored together for its entire life. Not exactly a common occurrence! The bulk of this project uses medium format film where test shots are not possible. I therefore have to take the good with the bad. I recently traveled back to Paris in the winter with the intention of recreating a couple of the photographs but with bare trees instead of full foliage. The film was actually “newer” (1955) but after developing it all I had was a black sheet of cellulose with no visible images. At first it was heartbreaking but upon reflection it made the images that I have managed to realize all the more special.





please visit Michael’s website for more.

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