Nov. '93 issue.
Finding His Niche in
the Fine Arts World
By Manuel J. Rodriguez
Note: Updated facts (thru 2.2014) and comments
by Seewald are
indicated by the
[info in brackets].
It was raining
with the sky a slate gray. In the Italian port
city of Genoa, Michael Seewald had boarded a bus heading out of town. Looking out the
window he spied it: three pastel walled buildings perched on a cliff hovering over
the Mediterranean Sea. He realized the photographic possibility. Quickly, he exited the
Setting up his Mamiya RB67, Seewald determined his basic
composition. Then he started making adjustments. Move a bit to the left. Move a bit to the
right. Come closer. Pull back. Yet after about 30 minutes of fine-tuning, Seewald realized
the image still was missing something. The far left appeared empty. A compositional
element was needed to balance out the buildings at right.
Genoa, Italy, '89
Sponsored by Marc Slott, Encinitas, Ca.
photo to enlarge.
Seewald, a spiritual man who believes
in the power of prayer, petitioned God to assist him out of this quandary.
'I asked God to supply me with something ... a bird flying into the frame,
or a sailboat cruising by,' Seewald recalls. Shortly after, along the
heard someone say once that you can see a million images per day,' he
explains. 'That's what I feel is happening to me.
horizon, an oil tanker emerged from behind the buildings. His request
answered, Seewald made the picture, with the one-second exposure blurring
the wave movement at cliff's edge.
Since 1986, San Diego-based Seewald, 41
, has traveled the world
creating his fine arts images. He sells these from Encinitas
gallery in Del Mar].
And while many photographers, including professionals, see fine arts photography as
something one does for the love of it - with little thought given to selling the images -
Seewald actually makes a living from his fine arts work.
His secret? Before he leaves on
a photographic expedition, Seewald pre-sells the photographs he will
create to a group of expedition "sponsors." Of course, this means he's
built a reputation for producing photographs that his sponsors will like.
The success of this approach speaks for itself each year Seewald's
audience keeps expanding. From a handful of sponsors just a few years ago,
Seewald's patrons today number more than 125
Seewald immerses himself completely in his work. When he photographs, the world comes
at him as a barrage of images.
"I heard someone say once that you can see a million images per day,' he explains.
'That's what I feel is happening to me. I have this motion picture camera running in my
head. I'm constantly looking at and editing picture possibilities. People sometimes ask
what I'm looking for. I answer that it could be something as common as a toilet. The
subject is not important... line, light and form are important. I'm looking for something
that's artistically interesting as a union of a few different things. I'm not looking for
any one thing.
'When I'm photographing I'm constantly on the prowl, from the start of the day to the
end. If a particular place seems to be working as far as producing images ... and if it
feels good...l might stay an extra day or two.
"I don't work from a prearranged plan when I go on a trip. I play it all
by ear. I don't carry a map. I don't research the place. I don't want to
be influenced by what someone else has done. I like to be as creative and
fluid as possible when I work.'
Sebastian, Spain '94
(And here he uses a
Hasselblad, a 2 1/4 inch square negative- makes for GREAT enlargements, up
copyright Valerie Seewald '94
Seewald walks onto a street in Milan, Italy, turns left, and through a
darkened portal views a dynamic scene. People are rushing about; streetcars
and busses are making their way through the portal. Soft light and the
portal's framing effect produce a sense of flattened perspective. Muted
splashes of green and red highlight the otherwise monochromatic composition.
In the mid-'70s he knew of no
one who produced that type of photography for a living. Then he saw an
exhibition of Ansel Adams' work.
Over three hours Seewald takes picture
after picture of the scene,
[taking one shot every 5 to 15 minutes]
employing a two-second exposure so that pedestrian and vehicle movement
blurs. But as with the Genoa seascape, Seewald senses something missing in
the photograph. Finally, after the thirtieth exposure, the composition locks
into place. Two men in silhouette start conversing at the image's lower
left. Seewald makes the picture, with an iron-red streetcar, its motion
ghosted, plowing into the center of the frame.
Sponsored by Grace Fang of
San Francisco, Ca.
Milan, Italy '89
Seewald's photographs frequently convey a painterly feeling. That's no surprise. At
around five years old he already dabbled with paint-by-number kits. Then, he started
creating original paintings (even today, Seewald periodically picks up a brush).
At 12, Seewald received his first camera, a box Brownie. Almost immediately be became
the family photographer, taking snapshots of vacations and holidays. He remembers the
early thrill of photographing.
"There was an excitement about the imagery the camera could produce. It could
capture the moment.'
After high school, Seewald enrolled at Southwestern College near San Diego. Utilizing
the school's photo labs, he taught himself darkroom procedure, including color printing.
He enjoyed experimenting in the darkroom, and found the work came naturally.
Upon receiving an associate degree from Southwestern College in
the mid-1970s, Seewald moved to San Diego State University, enrolling in the university's
photojournalism program. For two years he served as a staff photographer for the Daily
Aztec, S.D.S.U.'s newspaper. He enjoyed the news work; still, deep down, Seewald knew
photojournalism wasn't what he wanted to do over the long haul. For one thing, something
he heard on his first day at S.D.S.U.
startled him. A journalism professor told Seewald and his fellow students
that journalists, because of deadline pressure and other stress,
suffer a high heart attack rate. "It wasn't too enticing to hear that,"
This friend said he had tripled
his business since finishing the course. Seewald thought it wouldn't hurt to
take the class.
In addition, he began finding
photojournalistic work confining. "With photojournalism you're given
assignments," he says, "meaning you might be told to go somewhere you don't
want to go, or asked to photograph events you don't want to shoot."
On the other hand, Seewald saw that fine arts photography allowed
him unfettered creativity. He could approach a subject any way he wanted, and not worry
about the photograph pleasing someone in a certain manner. The photographs he made for his
photojournalism classes began carrying a fine arts "signature."
while in school, Seewald didn't give thought to pursuing fine arts
photography as a career. In the mid-'70s he knew of no one who produced
that type of photography for a living. Then he saw an exhibition of Ansel
"I saw this show around my second year of college, and my
respect for fine arts photography just soared. I thought, This must be a great job,
traveling and photographing these beautiful places. I was impressed. The quality of Adams'
prints was above and beyond anything I'd seen. His work made me realize that photography
was something that could be displayed in a gallery. I'd never before seen photography in
Seewald working with his
Mamiya RB67 'studio camera'
during his second sponsored series, China, 1987. (Studio being as it's too
heavy for most photogs to 'lug' around the world)
Click photo to enlarge
Bartending. Selling newspaper and magazine advertising. Selling
furniture. These are the jobs Seewald held after graduating San Diego State University in
1976. At first glance, not the prestige positions one expected an ambitious college
graduate such as Seewald to pursue. Nonetheless, he managed to tie his photography skills
into the jobs.
For example, selling ads. He'd produce the required
commercial photographs. As a bartender he hung
his color seascapes and landscapes behind the bar, and to his surprise they sold. This
success led him to think about opening his own fine arts photography gallery. In 1983
Seewald's Photographic Gallery, located in the funky San Diego coastal community of
Leucadia, became reality.
Seewald sold his first
sponsorship, $125.00 for a 16 x 20 print, to a Seewald Gallery customer who
originally had come in to purchase a Brett Weston image.
Seewald intended the gallery as an outlet for himself and other art photographers.
Originally he planned to support the gallery and an accompanying studio through his
bartending job. But a disagreement between himself and the bar owner forced Seewald to
leave that job, and suddenly the gallery found itself without financial backing. Seewald
borrowed $500 from his grandfather to pay the gallery space first months rent. Still, money was so tight
Seewald couldn't even afford to paint the gallery walls.
For several years Seewald struggled to keep the gallery open, working almost every
day. It was impossible finding time to create new photographs, so he tried selling work he
had produced prior to the gallery's launching. Slowly, however, Seewald felt himself
sinking into a mire. He wasn't selling enough work to keep up with his rent and bills.
In 1986, despite the bleakness of his situation, Seewald decided it was time to produce
new photography. A friend asked him to accompany her on a journey through China, and
Seewald saw the photographic possibilities. But then he came up against the trip's $1,500
cost, and once again he felt stymied.
'I knew then that God was involved. I asked Him to help me come up with a
way for funding the China trip.
At around the same time, another friend told Seewald about a man who taught a
self-motivation and positive thinking seminar. This friend said he had tripled his
business since finishing the course. Seewald thought it wouldn't hurt to take the class.
'I had nothing to lose - I seemed to be going downhill rapidly at that point. So I
signed up for the [Robert J. Sturner's 'SUPERLIFE'] class. It cost $600, and since I didn't have
the money I arranged to make time payments.
"While I was taking the course, what struck me most was the concept brought out
that successful people maintain some kind of contact with God. Maybe, I thought, that was
what was missing in my life ... maybe it was time to start asking God to become part of my
"I wasn't a religious person, but I'd paid for the course,
[may as well listen to him and think positive] so I decided to ask God
for help. I asked him to show Himself. And it's funny, soon after, as I was in the
darkroom printing, right as I would slide the print into the developer, the timer arm
would be sweeping the zero. After four or five times I thought it was a coincidence.
after 30 times the same thing kept happening. Every time I put a print
in the developer, the timer arm would sweep zero.
[The odds where two in 120 it would
happen twice in a row, three in 180 three times, etc.].
'I knew then that God was involved. I asked Him to help me come up with a way for
funding the China trip. Slowly, the idea came to me to set up the sponsorship program...
to ask people to pre-purchase the work I'd be creating on the trip."
This begs the question:
Isn't it dangerous to travel this way carrying expensive camera gear?
Seewald sold his first sponsorship, $125.00 for a 16 x 20 print, to a Seewald Gallery
customer who originally had come in to purchase a Brett Weston image. This sponsor would
have first pick of any of the images Seewald produced on his trip. Soon after, Seewald
sold several more sponsorships. He now saw his dream taking new root.
[Note: To date,
Seewald has made 61 photographic expeditions, to countries and
regions as distinct as Russia, all of the Hawaiian Islands -twice or more each,
India, Turkey, Italy, Bali, Vietnam, Ireland, Germany, Australia, Costa
Rica, Greece, Peru, Japan, Iceland, Morocco, New Zealand, Israel and Kenya,
to name a few
...averaging 3 to 4 weeks each.]
Kauai 'False Kamani' Tree, '88
six time sponsor Jay and Heidi Short of Rancho Santa Fe, California.
Click image to enlarge.
As he's undertaken each expedition, Seewald has seen the price his work commands rise
significantly. Before leaving on his first trip, Iceland, July 1986 (Seewald ended up
postponing his China trip until 1987, converting the original China sponsorships to
Iceland) he sold 25 sponsorships, most at $175 each.
On his autumn 1992 journey to Russia and
several former Soviet bloc countries, Seewald sold a dozen sponsorships,
charging $600 for a 16 x 20 image and $900 for a 24 x 30. In a few years, he
expects these photographs to be worth several thousand dollars. For example,
one of his Iceland photographs, sponsored for under $200, later sold for
Use of color also distinguishes
a Seewald photograph - "understated" is the key word here.
Traveling for Seewald is a low budget affair
[was, thank you
Lord!]. Spending about one month in a
country, living out of a backpack and photo vest, he sleeps in parks, abandoned buildings
or under overpasses. A night in a youth hostel is a luxury, and in Russia, notes Seewald,
he slept on overnight trains. There, the equivalent of $1.75 buys first class sleeper
[Note: The Iceland images are now valued at $40k ea.,
minimum, and China $20k
and up (with two now having a $100,000 asking price, due to rarity and
it now runs $1,500 to sponsor a 16"x20", and
$2,700 for a 24"x30" photograph].
"On average, I spend $5 to $6 per day on a trip, and that includes food,"
Seewald says. "I'll get into a town or city, and the first thing I'll do is go into a
bar, order coffee, and make friends with the owner. I'll ask if I can stow my backpack
behind the bar, then go out photographing. While I'm working, I keep my eyes open for a
place to sleep that night."
This begs the question: Isn't it dangerous to travel this way carrying expensive camera
"I live with my camera equipment," answers Seewald. "I never leave it.
It's part of my body; I sleep on it. Actually, I don't sleep well on a trip - I always
have an eye open."
Fortunately, Seewald never has been robbed of anything significant while on the road.
Still, he's had some close calls.
"I've been invited to sleep in places
where, after arriving, I've had second thoughts ... did the people who
invited me actually want to steal from me?
[the guy was drunk when he asked me]
It can get nerve-wracking."
Seewald's images communicate in
a quiet, lyrical way. Speaking to the photographer, one feels that this is
an individual so in love with his art, ...
In order to produce the sharp, fine grain, large-scale photographs his sponsors and
other clients want, Seewald works in medium (120 mm- 6x6cm) format. He's accomplished most
of his work with a Mamiya RB67 and 50mm, 90mm and 180mm lenses. But recently, after the
Mamiya system "finally wore out," Seewald switched to Hasselblad. 'It's a
pleasure working with the Hasselblad," he notes. "It's so light.'
Seewald works strictly by available light, favoring early morning, late afternoon or
overcast situations. He primarily shoots Kodak professional film
[still shooting with it, T.U.L, but
purchased a 'digital back' for it in 2013, so now it's all digital]., and uses a
polarizer on exposures - 'It always seems to take the gloss off something." He prints
his own images up to 16 x 20, utilizing a paper known for its archival quality, Fuji Type
[now Fuji Crystal Archive, rated 200 year
light-fastness]. An outside
lab produces larger prints
[Chrome Digital, downtown San Diego].
Working from a tripod, Seewald can spend hours setting up a photograph, and typically
produces two images each day. He never sets a shutter speed faster than one second, thus
creating what he calls a 'Seewaldian' trademark: image motion.
Use of color also distinguishes a Seewald photograph - "understated" is the
key word here.
When I started
approaching the fine arts color work in the early '80s, I didn't create
anything I liked for two years," explains Seewald. "I was under the
impression that color had to be 'super-sunset color,' the postcard effect.
Then on an overcast day, I created a composition involving some rocks that
were almost pure gray, with just a touch of color. That's what I was looking
for, color on the subtle side."
Seewald's images communicate in a quiet, lyrical way. Speaking to the photographer, one
feels that this is an individual so in love with his art, so in love with the world, that
he'll work for as long as he's able to see, as long as his legs and arms will carry him.
Adversity does not stop Seewald. If anything, it fuels him, and we're fortunate to be able
to enjoy the results.
Reprinted with permission, Photographers Forum magazine, Nov. '93 issue. Some
numerical facts updated through 12/'09.
Find out about
current pricing and
North County Times article. "Local
photographer captures own reality".
More on Seewald's
Michael no longer needs his super high
quality, but 'smaller' digital camera,
so he is selling it .
The picture quality is exceptional.
NOTE: it DOES have a few dings,
but still works great, and thus the great low price...
View this fantastic picture
he took with it, just
being rushed to the emergency room at the hospital!
Click here to view.
Old Gallery Locations
Seewald's 2011 China museum exhibition
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