Michael Floor is a documentary photographer who works in colour exploring urban story telling. He is interested in the underbelly of life (the darker side), predominantly in his home town Amsterdam and is influenced by literature and cinema. His recent work concentrates on one particular man, Peter, who he casts in various scenes, in and around his own domestic environment.
Michael started the Peter project in the summer of 2013 and continues to photograph him every couple of months, there is no planned end date for this body of work. His other work has been exhibited in various venues including the Photography Museum in The Hague and the Central Library in Amsterdam.
Michael Floor interviewed by Anna Fox
Anna Fox: How did you get into photography, what originally inspired you?
Michael Floor: Photography is the answer to my curiosity. To me, photography is the greatest excuse to get into places and situations I would never ever encounter without a camera. I get to know people from all social backgrounds that I would never meet at all. Photography is a great means to discover, to do something with my intrinsic curiosity. Peter is a very good example of that. How on earth would I ever get to know such a fascinating person without my camera?
Later, my interest in telling stories became a major force. I may not be much of a talker, and with a camera, I don’t really need to. I was already telling stories when I was working in advertising, telling brand stories. But I always missed authenticity, and the disposability of advertising was more and more starting to become a burden. I explored some journalistic options and started doing a course ‘scriptwriting non-fiction’. Writing a script for non-fiction sounded a contradiction to me at first: how can you write a script when you mainly have to register what was happening? Very ignorant of course, because it turned out to be exactly the thing where the magic sparked: the ability to play with reality and illusion, to tell your own reality. That’s when I picked up my true love: photography.
AF: You were doing other things before you became a photographer tell me about your earlier career and how it led you to photography.
MF: I have a university degree in financial economics, but for the first years after graduation, I was travelling most of the time, only returning home to earn money for my next journey. As for most people before the introduction of phone cameras, my photography was mostly limited to taking pictures on holidays. But for me, that didn’t mean taking photos 3 or 4 weeks a year. Taking pictures really became a major occupation: I spent about 2,5 years abroad, over a timespan of 5-6 years. When I settled down, I had some plans to start an education in photography, but was offered a job in advertising. I still think the time that I worked in advertising (about 7 years) served as a very good transitional period from a rational economist to a photographer from the heart.
AF: You decided to educate yourself in photography – where did you study and why and how was it?
MF: I studied at the Photo Academy in Amsterdam, a private school for photography. I had a slight preference to go to an Art Academy, but this was just more practical. There were good opportunities to study part-time, so I could continue working to earn a living. Besides, the track record of the Photo Academy was becoming better and better: quite a few graduates broke through in the last couple of years. I was a bit afraid I would miss out on the more artistic part of photography education and thought part-time might not be enough, but I hoped I could compensate that with self-education and with the working experience I had so far. Overall, I think a 3-years part-time study is not enough, but it really helps if you work with the right teachers/mentors. I put quite some effort to find that out. In my final year, I didn’t stick to one teacher but hopped between two classes to get the best of both worlds.
AF: Tell me about your first projects and a bit about why you did them
MF: I’ve always been attracted to people that live on (or over) the edge of society. I remember when I was a kid, my mom had a tough job keeping me out of reach of people who could have a bad influence on me. In a way, the darker components that are hidden in one’s deeper inside form a constant struggle, because there’s so much attraction from the dark. And although I think I’m a fairly righteous person, I am always captivated to walk to the edge and meet people who gave in to all the destructive attractions. Literature from Joseph Conrad or Dostojevski for example is a great source of inspiration for me. Both writers are great chroniclers of the deeper inner dark side. This fascination translated in photographic projects like the one I did on the Amsterdam Red Light district, early morning, the twilight hour when all the bars are closed and most people are still asleep. I also did a portrait series on retailers who were robbed. I photographed them months after they had been robbed, and you could still see unrest in their eyes. And I photographed well-known shopping streets after midnight, making them look deserted and unheimlich.
AF: How did you meet Peter? (The subject of some of your most recent work)
MF: I met Peter working on a project about former nuclear bunkers. There was a bunker in the Vondelpark in Amsterdam that I tried to get access to. After some time, I finally spoke to someone who said I should contact Peter, the caretaker of the bunker (now used as a musician’s rehearsal room). I gave him a call, and he immediately jumped in his car to come over. Not a problem at all. He was a very friendly guy, but I could also easily see his darker side. I liked his unconventional ideas and had a glimpse of his tattooed body. I only wanted to photograph the interior, but because he was such a photogenic character, I asked him to take his picture as well. There was no light in the room where I photographed him, so instead I used his flashlight. He had to stand motionless for ten seconds and it turned out a great picture! That was only in my first year at the Photo Academy. I sent him the picture and thought that was it. But after a year or so, he was still on my mind. So a year later I gave him a call and asked him if I could take more pictures of him. He was fine with that, but said the timing wasn’t good. So a few months later, I gave him another call. Again, bad timing. That happened a few times over the course of two or three years and I started to wonder whether I should let it rest. The more I tried, the higher the expectations. But what did I know about him? I’d only met him for twenty minutes, years before. I gave it one last shot and this time he invited me into his trailer.
AF: What made you think that Peter was an interesting subject for your photography?
MF: I started to question that myself as well. I hardly knew him. But with the first and only picture of him in my mind, I knew he would be a great subject to get powerful images. I also thought it would be very good for my development as a photographer to stick to one person for a while. I’m a bit of a shy person, but I found out photography is a great means to break social awkwardness and get the conversation going. Portraying a person over a longer period of time would mean the pictures would more and more get an intimate feel over time. I was curious to find out how far this would take me. Finally, I was intrigued by the fact that he was living in a trailer in my former hometown, a small place just north of Amsterdam, the town where my parents still live. It felt unreal to find him in this small bourgeois town.
I started photographing him and there was a click. He was very natural in front of the camera, never objected to my ideas and surprised me now and then with photographic ideas. He lets me walk around freely in his place, doesn’t mind if I pick up something. It’s his rather vicious dog that worries me sometimes.
After meeting up two or three times, he told me more and more about his turbulent past. How he used to be a bodyguard for the biggest and most legendary gangster in the Netherlands and about his addiction years before. That made him all the more interesting and I started to see some sort of a storyline.
AF: Does he remind you of anything or anyone? Or does he make you think about life in a different way?
MF: No, he doesn’t really remind me of someone and actually I’m glad. He keeps surprising me and never becomes a one-dimensional cliché. He has an impressive physique, huge hands, tattoos all over his body and I know he used to be a guy not to mess around with. But I also see a very sweet, loyal man with a big interest in music. A man that came to Amsterdam all by himself when he was only 13-14 years old. And he managed to survive. I think he truly is a survivor. Most of his former entourage have either been killed, imprisoned or have overdosed. But Peter still hangs in there at the age of sixty.
AF: Had you seen other work of this kind – ie: intimate portrayals of an individual?
MF: Of course there are many single character portrayals to be found, but most of the time, these characters serve as a way to explore a bigger theme, usually social injustice. You might even say that the subjects are exchangeable: it’s not really about them, it’s about the larger theme, brought in a personal, manageable way. The Peter project is a bit different. There is no bigger theme, at least not yet. But that’s ok, it gives me a lot more freedom to work more intuitively and there are no burdens. I can add fantasy and suggestion in my pictures. It’s great to work on a project where my own curiosity is the driving force, not a certain rational concept. I love the fantasy-reality in Alessandra Sanguinetti’s The adventures of Guille and Belinda and the enigmatic meaning of their dreams, or the non-pretentious project of Julian Germain For every minute you are angry you lose sixty seconds of happiness. Both very powerful projects.
AF: Had you seen Larry Clark’s Tulsa and if so what did you think? And Nan Goldin’s work particularly the book she made about her friend Cookie?
MF: Larry Clark’s work was on show in Amsterdam recently so I did see it, but only after I started in the Peter project. It’s timeless, but I’m more familiar with comparable work of Ryan McGinley or Mike Brody, great universal sketches of a generation that repeats itself over and over again. I know Cookie was part of the entourage of Nan Goldin, but I didn’t know she made a book about her.
I guess the great difference between my work on Peter and these portrayals you’re mentioning, is that their subjects are clear members of a subculture. In my project, there’s far less social context. Peter goes about a bit, but seems to spend a lot of time alone.
AF: For the most part work that I have seen (of this type) tends to be made by women – do you think it is a gendered approach to photography? And if yes are you breaking any particular boundaries?
MF: I’m afraid I will fool myself trying to psychoanalyse that. I think you’re right, but I don’t know where this is coming from. I wasn’t aware so far. People do tell me I’m in touch with my feminine side, so that might explain the Peter project! Come to think of it, it’s strikes me as quite interesting to think about the angle a female photographer would choose to tell Peter’s story. Although I’m not sure many women would feel at ease in his trailer. Peter doesn’t pay much attention to hygiene, there’s always a thick layer of smoke, his sleeping bag is on the couch and the big black dog is always vigilant.
(Aside) AF: (Hey Michael women can handle it!)
MF: I don’t feel the need yet to approach this project in a very different way from other close portrayals. It’s a much more personal project, so in that sense I’m looking at braking personal boundaries. I really like the less conceptual approach so far. It’s like making a new of puzzle that I haven’t seen before. Right now, I’m much more focused on capturing the right atmosphere. But every time I bring in new pictures, I reshuffle over and over again trying to find the right story. But maybe there is no bigger story in the end, no lesson in life, and I’m perfectly fine with that. For me personally, it would be a great breakthrough every time the images get a more intimate feel.
AF: What camera do you use and why?
MF: I use an analogue medium format Mamiya camera. What I like about this camera for this particular project is that the images get more timeless and more ‘epic’. Of course you give in to dynamic and spontaneity, but to be honest: I was never really good in dynamic photography anyway. For example, street photography usually is quite frustrating for me. All the time, I’m a fraction of a second too late to frame the perfect shot. Peter has some problems with his back, so he doesn’t jump around and spends most of his time at home. The curtains are closed most days, time slows down and we lock the world outside. It’s just me and him, in his cave-like trailer.
AF: How often do you photograph Peter and is it easy to organise this project with him?
MF: I try to photograph Peter about once every two months. When he is in town (he has a second house in the French countryside), it’s quite easy to meet up with him as he’s home most of the time. Sometimes Peter is fighting his own demons and likes to be alone. But he’s always friendly with me and of course I respect it when he’s not in the mood.
AF: What are you trying to achieve or say – or is this hard to say at this stage?
MF: That’s really hard to say. I never started this project with the idea of telling the world something. But there are few things that fascinate me. I never really thought about what happens to retired gangsters. You don’t see that. I mean, it’s where the movie Goodfellas stops. But what’s next? I see quite a lot of isolation. Peter still has dreams, but how do you build a second life when health keeps you down and your criminal past constantly crosses future plans? Actually, I’m really curious myself where this project is heading.
AF: In my own work, Picturing Linda, I find it hard to say when I will stop – do you know when your Peter project will end? How would you leave it if you stopped photographing him – would you be friends?
MF: I really don’t know. This far, I’m always excited to go over to his place. We get to know each other better and better, and it pays out in a more intimate quality of the images. But I sometimes ask myself the same question. There’s great mutual respect and we really like each other. I also invited him to the opening of my upcoming exhibition (of another project). And if for example he would be in a hospital, I would visit him. (without the camera, if he asked me to). But of course you can’t ignore the fact that the primary reason I see him is the fact that I’d like to photograph him. And that makes our relationship somewhat more rational. Even if we stop the project now and I would see him again, I would probably bring my camera, just to snap a few shots. I probably couldn’t resist the urge to do so.
But I don’t see why I should finish this project. Peter has some plans to move over to his house in France for good. That would probably be the end of the project. But maybe I will visit him there once in a while to continue, I don’t know. I don’t plan my life a few years ahead and I can’t see where this is heading. I still have plenty of ideas on how to photograph him and as long as they don’t dry up, I could continue this project for many years to come.
Michael Floor was born and raised in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. He studied financial economics before travelling the world for many years. After, he worked as a strategy planner at several advertisement agencies, where he further developed his conceptual and creative skills. He than studied at the Photo Academy and graduated in the summer of 2012. He now works as a documentary photographer, working on several long-term projects and for commercial clients. He still lives in Amsterdam with his soon to be wife and two children.