Remaining Relevant Michelle Ciarlo-Hayes of MKC Photography

My February Ladies who Launch profile is Michelle Ciarlo-Hayes of MKC Photography. MKC Photography is an “eco-friendly, hand-made home décor company” that creates its wares by combining original photography with salvaged wood and paper.

Although Michelle didn’t major in photography in college – she was an English Lit major at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, VA – she has always had an interest in photography and enjoyed taking photographs as a hobbyist. Her father, a Vietnam veteran and an amateur photographer, took his 35 mm camera to war with him. However, instead of photographing the gritty scenes typical of war, he was drawn to more contemplative subjects – like ducklings swimming in a soldier’s helmet. One can see his interest in the poetic reflected in the themes of Michelle’s work. 

It was in grad school, that Michelle’s interest in photography grew from hobby to vocation. She was completing her Masters Degree in Women’s Studies at Oxford University when she began working with a cancer researcher, developing slides of cancer cells. It was there that she first worked in a darkroom and learned the technique of “burning and dodging”.  

When she graduated from university, she came back to the US and began working in Swarthmore College’s Peace Collection – a research library whose mission is to “gather, preserve and make accessible material that documents non-governmental efforts for nonviolent social change, disarmament, and conflict resolution…” 

Michelle worked in their technology and photography department. There, she studied the black and white photographs that comprised the collection and her love for the dreamy quality of early imperfect black and white photography blossomed. These images became imprinted on her brain and her own photos began to reflect the feel of these antique prints when she retrofitted her digital camera with a vintage 2 ¼” camera lens. The technical limitations of this vintage lens allowed her to create images that had the look and feel of early 20th century photography, with their square format and vignette edges.  

At the start of her photography career, Michelle considered herself primarily a fine artist – solely creating fine art prints. But as she began to show her work more and more at local craft shows and exhibitions, she heard the same objections over and over: “I don’t have room”, “I’m not sure if so and so would like it”, “How would I frame it?” Like any good entrepreneur, Michelle listened to the market and pivoted. She began producing her prints in smaller sizes which lowered their price point and she mounted them on reclaimed-wood so they no longer required framing.  She also began using pages from old, damaged library books that she had collected over the years as a backdrop for her photos – accentuating the vintage feel of her prints and appealing to the nostalgia that people in the age of Kindles and Nooks feel for the printed word.  The library book pages and the physicality of the salvaged wood made her work more tangible. Potential buyers could pick it up and hold it in their hands – feel its weight and imagine themselves wrapping and giving it as a gift. 

This new strategy increased the commercial viability of Michelle’s work (and her sales) and today, her work is sold in 60+ retail outlets across the United States and is also available online.  

I can’t talk about Michelle’s work without addressing the elephant in the room – Instagram! 

I heard a segment, recently, of the podcast “How I Built This”. The moderator, Guy Raz, was interviewing the founders of Instagram – Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger. Systrom was telling Guy about the “aha” moment that catapulted Instagram into the mainstream. The story goes that he asked his future wife why she wasn’t posting her photos on his new photo-sharing app.  She replied that they weren’t good enough to post. Now, if they were as good as their professional photographer friend so and so, she would post all the time! Aha! Instagram added a menu of digital filters which allowed even the most-inept amateur to create share-worthy photographs. 

This story was driven home yesterday as I was commuting on the train. Two college-age girls were sitting across the aisle from me. I could clearly see one of the girls as she scrolled through the pictures on her cell phone. She had what seemed like hundreds (I am not exaggerating) of selfies of her and her friend, each edited differently using Instagram filters. From where I sat, her photos looked like they were taken by a professional photographer. But no professional photographer was necessary! Just a cell phone, selfie stick and Instagram. (I wasn’t going to mention how judgmental I was in that moment, but really! How many self-gratuitous selfies does one need?)  

I had to ask Michelle: did the advent of Instagram and the ease with which literally anyone can create share-worthy photos cause prospective buyers to devalue her work? Her reply:   

“Instagram has taught everyone that any photograph that seems dreamy or creative must be the result of just slapping a filter on that baby and calling it done. I love it when buyers ask me to answer their most typical question: ‘What kind of filters do you use on your photographs?’ I love being able to explain how my work isn’t the result of filters at all…I adore seeing the look of surprise/genuine interest that invariably comes over someone when we talk about digital photography, collage, and the antique lenses I’ve adapted and continue to use – it’s tremendously gratifying.” 

When Michelle first began shooting photos, Instagram wasn’t invented.  But the world is ever-evolving; new technologies are constantly being invented that make almost anything seem impossibly easy and make us question the relevancy of artists and craftspeople.  Michelle’s ability to look objectively and dispassionately at Instagram’s effect on photography and to listen to the needs of the market is what will allow MKC Photography to remain relevant.  

Michelle’s work will be included in the MamaCita Biennial Exhibition “Process”, opening this Sunday, February 10th with a reception from 2 – 4 at the Cheltenham Center for the Arts, 439 Ashbourne Road, in Cheltenham. The exhibition runs until March 6. (www.cheltenhamarts.org). 

For more information about Michelle’s work, visit https://mkcphotography.com/

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