Artist Profile: Michael James Slattery
By Ron James
Michael James Slattery makes magic out of the ordinary. He does that by seeing the world in a different light — one that eludes most of us. In his mind’s eye, he sees a scene though a span of hours, into the future under changing light. Slattery lets his camera capture that series of images, then uses his remarkable digital skills to create vibrant works of art.
More than 30 years ago, Slattery’s mother handed her 9-year-old son her new Polaroid Land Camera. He snapped a shot and was both amazed and little dismayed with the results. “I thought it was great that you could take a picture and get it almost instantly, but the picture didn’t really capture the total reality of the scene,” Slattery explained in a recent interview with Uptown News.
Over the years, that simple observation has had a dramatic impact on Slattery’s thinking and career. In fact, it wasn’t until a few years ago that the Golden Hill resident felt he had come close to merging his perceived vision of the world with his artistically enhanced photographic images. He calls them light-painted landscapes.
Slattery explained his artistic method by asking an almost rhetorical question: “Have you ever taken a picture that was too dark or too light? Our eyes see about 100 tones from black to white while a camera’s ability to capture what we can see is within four consecutive tones of those 100 tones. Now imagine moving camera exposures through all these tones of light. Now imagine moving camera exposures through all of these tones and colors of light before, during and after dusk or dawn. Then selectively paint everything that was captured during that period into one image. That’s how I paint and tell the story of the landscape.”
In short, Slattery takes a number of timed photos before and after dawn or dusk and then uses state-of-the-art digital techniques to layer and manipulate the images to create his luminous urban landscapes. The final product is a single image that reflects time and light — a wholly unique image that could only be seen though one of Slattery’s creations.
At age 13, Slattery, who was raised in Del Mar, used his own 35mm camera to shoot for his junior high and high school yearbooks. One of his subjects was a 12-year-old skateboarder named Tony Hawk. Slattery went to City College in 1989, where he learned the technical and artistic aspects of photography. He spent many hours in the darkroom learning dodging and burning techniques that he would eventually translate into the digital arts realm.
Since college, Slattery has made his living as a commercial photographer capturing countless images of people and places. He ran his own commercial studio called Photo-Synthesis and then started Michael James Image, where he offers over 80,000 stock images. In 2003 he started I like What I See, a wedding and portrait service.
After a decade of running his own business, Slattery wrote on his Web site bio that he hit a wall, hard. “I guess you could say I lost sight of where I needed to be going. I took a long look, asked a bunch of questions and learned to breathe.”
He started to breathe when he began using digital cameras in his wedding and portrait business. While working to develop his digital skills, he stumbled on his light-painted landscape technique of image creation, only possible in the digital world. He evolved the technique and by April 2008 was showing the first works that he calls Luminous Views.
Trying to leverage the Internet to sell his new works, Slattery took a crash course in Web development and created a robust multimedia Web site, www.Luminous-views.com. Sales were marginal, so he began to show his work at local farmers’ markets, and then at street fairs and art events.
“You just can’t understand the work seeing it on the Internet or even in print,” said Slattery, explaining why it much more effective to sell his work face to face with the client. “But when someone sees it in person, it’s a whole different matter. Then it’s ‘Wow, how did you do that?’ ”
Slattery believes any good photographer could use the technique, although he or she may not have the perceptive eye he has. Any two individuals attempting to create the same scene would create an entirely different result. “They could learn the techniques, but this isn’t a software algorithm that just automatically transforms a photo into a work of art,” he said.
Most of Slattery’s subject matter is local urban landscapes, including such Uptown landmarks as the community signs. The North Park sign photo is one of his most popular works. “I want to have man-made objects in my work,” he explained. “I want to show icons of a community and how they fit into the landscape in a light that no one has seen before.”
In August Slattery won Best of Show at the La Jolla Festival of the Arts. To date, he has sold more than 600 limited edition prints. His works sell for as little as $40 for a print, to more than $2,000 for a limited edition large giclee canvas print.
The 42-year-old journeyman photographer and digital artist has come a long way from that little boy taking his first photograph with his mother’s camera. “I will try to perfect my techniques in all my years to come. The path has been quite an education,” he said, “and it has only begun.”
To contact Michael James Slattery, call (619) 231-9061 or visit www.luminous-views.com
Ron James is a wine and food columnist and radio host whose columns and features have appeared in newspapers and magazines across the country.