Having worked with the likes of the Rolling Stones, Andy Warhol, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Joel Tudor, NYC-based photographer Michael Halsband has seen it all and more.
If the Dos Equis “most interesting man in the world” guy was a photographer, he would be something like Michael Halsband. Unlike many young artists in the 90s, who at the time tended to be stationary during their early years, the New York-based photographer sought to leave the confines of ordinary life in search of adventure.
Most people don’t live the extraordinary like Halsband, who has been self-employed his entire life and never really cared about the next step. “Sometimes I envy people who just have this incredible plan, a foresight,” he admits. “I just don’t have it.” It took years for Halsband to even feel comfortable telling people that he was a photographer. Perhaps it was the envy etched on people’s faces when he would tell them that he partied with Mick Jagger, or created a movie devoted to the everlasting beauty of surfing and the people who shaped the sport.
Passions and careers don’t mix for everyone and Halsband realized this very early on, and the difficulties explaining his career might suggest uncertainty with his career path. “Over the years, I started to feel as if I was guilty of something that I wasn’t even aware of,” says Halsband. In the end, it’s safe to say Halsband has lived a life like no other and survived to talk about it.
Starting off as the tour photographer for the Rolling Stones’ 1981 tour couldn’t have been more of a rush for someone who grew up into the sex, drugs & rock ‘n’ roll of the 70s. With that gig came a thrilling story that every aspiring photographer could only dream of at twenty-five years old. He spent about five months with the Rolling Stones, which he affirms by saying “nothing is as high level” as working alongside the legendary rock band.
Working with the Stones meant living with them and doing as they did. If they were up partying, so was Halsband. And if they were performing a concert, he was working with his camera. Like a fly on the wall, he observed, documented and captured moments along the way. Not only does this gig represent a launching pad in his career, but it was also an immersive learning experience for the young photographer. “They gave me the sense of depth that I could go and then push deeper,” he explains. The trouble with that is the high eventually wears off, and Halsband had to return to ordinary life. “I had to land back on earth and be like everybody else because that’s what I am. I’m not a rockstar.”
Upon his return to New York, Halsband’s career took off. He spent the next few years of his life photographing fashion and portraits for some of the biggest names in the industry, including GQ, Vogue, Glamour, Calvin Klein and J. Crew. A defining moment of his career came together in 1985, when Halsband was invited to a dinner party by fellow photographer Paige Powell and coincidentally connected with legendary painter Jean-Michael Basquiat. Shortly after, he delivered one of the most iconic images ever of Basquiat alongside Andy Warhol posing together in boxing gloves.
Through it all, however, Halsband has remained humble, maintaining the notion that it’s always been about far more than just taking photos of famous people. As the years rolled on, he found another art form to capture: surfing. Unlike the fast-paced rock concerts he previously photographed, surfing was calm. It’s a composed environment for people to connect with themselves. Working alongside fabled surfer Joel Tudor, Halsband immersed himself, and his finances, in the creation of a film of his adoration of the sport.
He put the experience down as something that was made with a driven mindset, but also organic and free-flowing. “The project was going to happen and we were just walking the path,” Halsband explains. Surf Movie, an unedited and spliced movie of surfing spots from around the world and the people that surf them, represents years of work for Halsband, and an important part of his career.
Surfing was one of the conduits that honed Halsband’s strongest interest in the early 2000s when he committed himself to portraiture as a career and style choice. His methodology involved reading the persona of his subjects to see how he could gain their trust, allowing them to open up for a picture. “It’s a style that lets me break out of the well-grooved paths that were created by the people before me,” he explains.
Halsband considers capturing the portrait of a person to be the highest honour a photographer can receive. His mutual appreciation of the subject must “communicate through the portrait,” he says. After all, “the most vulnerable person is the most powerful person.” This is something he observed when photographing sex workers during his formative years. There’s something mesmerizing about photographing people while they’re at their most vulnerable and intimate. Halsband describes this as “driven imagery,” an honest way to see how people respond to not knowing that there’s a camera pointed towards them.
Fifteen years ago, Halsband decided to exclusively use analog cameras, realizing that digital cameras couldn’t capture the detail that analog cameras could. Today, Halsband has incorporated his smartphone and laptop into his creative processes without losing sight of what he cares about most – his portraiture. “All the artifice is very fat burning,” says Halsband “People will realize you only get so much.”
What he likes most about portraiture is gaining the trust of his subject, allowing them to lower their guard and enabling Halsband to connect and capture their soul. He calls this the flat place, “it’s the idea of giving people the opportunity to look straight into someone’s eyes, their face and all the evidence of what they’ve been through in their lives without the distraction of behaviour or action or performance of any sort,” describes Halsband.
Between travelling to Cuba with Hunter S. Thompson and Johnny Depp, working with AC/DC, one of his favourite bands, and documenting Al Pacino during the making of his film, Looking for Richard, Halsband has a lifetime’s worth of stories. Whether it’s Mick Jagger, David Bowie, Keith Richards, James Brown, Klaus Nomi or live strippers, it’s hard not to get swept up in his work. The craziest part is that his accomplishments are the perfect blend of risk, hard work and serendipity. “I started off unconsciously doing what I felt in my heart,” he explains. “I was following a passion. And it wasn’t a passion for objectivity or preset thoughts. I just went after everything.”
Halsband followed the road with an honest and patient approach to himself, and the road hasn’t run out yet.
Words by Sam Farrell – All photos by Michael Halsband.