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Why you should never wait for a client to come along and challenge you | #MemberSpotlight

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It may sound counterintuitive, even crazy to some; but a client isn't the only kind of creative constraint that you can find out there. Photographer and filmmaker Michael Winokur proves that much.

Michael's art and photography are quite unique, incredible in their own distinctiveness. A visionary artist in the most positive meaning possible, Michael isn't afraid of letting his ideas drive his art, even the most unusual and unusable; in a way, Michael's clients bend to his art, not the other way around. So much so that every time his art evolved and changed, he would always look to find a new home for it – regardless of how much effort it would take.

In this Member Spotlight, we are learning more about Michael Winokur - Photographer at Winokur Photography and Director / Cinematographer at Union Movie Works, and an incredibly inspiring and talented professional from the Creativepool community.

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How did you get into the industry?

I’ve been a professional photographer since I was a teenager working for a daily newspaper. I don’t know that I ever really got into the industry so much as my work evolved and each time it evolved I had to find a new home for it. I’ve worked as a photojournalist, editorial photographer, commercial photographer and film director. Always the goals are the same. I want to work with creative people on interesting ideas, brainstorm until we’ve pushed all the boundaries and then execute with all the tools available.

Where are you based now and who do you work for?

My home and studio are in San Francisco, but I’m open to working anywhere. My clients are ad agencies, design studios and corporations. I've done a fair amount of health and pharma-based work. I’m interested in talking with anyone who wants to use still or moving imagery to connect their brand, product or team with their audience.

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If you weren’t in your current industry, what would you be doing?

If I wasn’t doing commercial work, I would focus fully on narrative filmmaking. When I was a journalist there was always this challenge of telling a story in words and pictures on a printed page. When technology meant that I could experiment with filmmaking I realized this was the natural medium for storytelling as it lets you tell a story in words, pictures, sound and time all at once. 

Can you explain your creative process?

My process is pretty intuitive. I don’t have any set rules. But the road map is usually learning, questioning, brainstorming, daydreaming and interrating. I’m a big believer in life-long education, so curiosity comes first. Usually if I learn about something new and let it bounce around in my head for a while, some kind of project idea will emerge. At this stage, I like to give myself wide parameters. Sometimes the wild and unusable ideas get me excited and lead to an insight that fits the client’s requirements. 

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How would you describe your style?

The one key to my work is the portrait. I always come back to the face. I’m happy to consider nothing else. To me, portraiture is a big category that includes everything from a headshot to a character driven movie--fashion and beauty are portraiture with a dose of product. My parents were really focused artists. You see their work change over decades, the  ideas come back repeatedly. It’s been harder for me because I’m interested in so many things and I want to make work related to all of them.  Sometimes I have to force myself to say no, that’s not me.

Which individuals do you gain inspiration from? Do you have any heroes in the industry?

As a photographer, my early influences were all photojournalists, Doisneau, Smith, Webb, Eisenstadt, Cartier-Bresson, all masters of telling a whole story in one image. Later I became more interested in portraiture and the works of Avedon and Penn. Influenced by their work, I started stripping away. As my images had less in them, I liked them better. As a filmmaker my style is more flexible and led by character and story.  Erol Morris is very inspiring as a documentary filmmaker.  He’s very creative with imagery and structure, but always in the service of the story. The list of inspiring narrative directors would be a long one, including Alfonso Cuarón, Reed Morano, Stanley Kubrik, Wes Anderson, Joel and Ethan Coen, Alfred Hitchcock, Francis Ford Coppola, David Lynch, Martin Scorsese, Bong Joon Ho to name a few.

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If you had to pick one ideal client/employer, who would that be and why?

I’m into beauty photography and I see it as a unique kind of portraiture, so I’d love to work with a great beauty brand, especially if they are interested in diverse and unusual casting. 

How has technology affected the way you work?

I embrace technology. It’s made my work better and given me access to tools, like a world-class movie camera, which individuals just didn’t have at their disposal when I started my career. I’m open to  any tool that helps me make the work I have in my mind. Sometimes new tools don’t come fast enough and I find myself building what we’ve nicknamed a camtraption (camera + contraption) in my gear room. Right now I’m dying to find the right client so we can use robotic arms in a shoot. 

The good news is there has never been more interest in film and photography from the art world, the marketplace and the general public. That said, platforms like Instagram have not so much democratized what we do as turned it into a free commodity. The challenge is real, but not new - find the market and connect to the buyers.

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What’s your secret to staying inspired and motivated?

Personal work. I always have something in my mind to make, something to teach myself, or a problem to solve. I’m not ever waiting for a client to come along and challenge me. One of the worst parts of Covid were the long periods of time that I couldn’t collaborate with anyone on or make any new work. The thing I most learned from my artist parents is that creativity requires a work ethic, so get into the studio and make something.

What’s the work achievement you’re most proud of?

The project I’m most proud of was a collaboration with my wife Iana. We wrote and directed a film called Selling Rosario that went on to win many film festival awards.  As proud as I am of that film and of my newest stills project, On A Pedestal, which was selected for the Creativepool Annual, I’m always focused on the next challenge.

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How do you recharge away from the office?

When I’m trying to come up with an idea or get some writing done, anything that moves my body and lets my brain do it’s own thing works well. My wife and I find hiking to be perfect for brainstorming sessions. We actually considered naming our film production company for our favorite hiking trail. When I need to work out a creative problem, the monotony and sound of our water rowing machine let’s my brain drift and make new connections.

What is one tip for other aspiring creatives looking for work?

Early in your career it’s easy to focus on money, more important are the opportunities you have to work with interesting peers. Those relationships will pay off later as you find new ways to work together. Remember, it’s a marathon not a sprint. 

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What is the one thing that you would change about the industry?

I think ageism is costing the creative marketplace an enormous amount of talent and the focus on youth culture misses a broad and vital part of the audience. 

Any websites, books or resources you would recommend?

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