Creative Lives — From music teacher to exhibiting at the National Portrait Gallery: Meet photographer Max Miechowski

Posted 23 May 2019 Interview by Indi Davies

Five years ago, working as a musician and music teacher in Lincoln, Max Miechowski decided it was time to switch things up. Quitting his job and setting off on a backpacking trip, he committed himself to capturing the trip to the best of his ability – brushing up on photography tutorials and guides before he left. The result was his first portfolio of images, followed closely by his first photography commissions. Encouraged to pursue it more seriously, in the years that followed, Max completed the first year of a photography degree, moved to London, and amassed a series of achievements that even long-serving photographers only dream of. In the past year he’s been awarded a Palm Photo Prize, had portraits featured in the Portrait of Britain exhibition, and was selected for the Taylor Wessing Portrait Prize. He tells us how it all unfolded.

Max Miechowski

Job title

Photographer

Based

London (Originally from Lincoln)

Previous employment

Musician and Music Teacher

Place of study

BA Photography, Leeds College of Art (2015 – Max left after the first year)

Website
Social Media

Max

Day-to-day

How do you describe what you do?
I’ve been working as a freelance photographer for the past four years. The main bulk of what I do is centred around real people doing real things, rather than constructing scenarios – from telling a personal story to advertising something. It could be portrait-based, shooting events, bits of editorial or even commercial commissions.

What does a typical day for you look like for you?
At the moment I work from home, but I’m about to get a desk space in Dalston, which is quite a big step up! Right now, I wake up early, make a to-do list and then I’m quite regimented with my time.

I would say 80% of my day is spent at home, working behind the computer. I could be doing research, making mood boards, going through emails, doing accounting, refining my website, going through Instagram, looking at photography books or bouncing around project ideas. The other 20% is going out and taking pictures, and in the summer that increases as it gets warmer. On top of that, I’ll be trying to set up meetings and build my network.

“As a freelancer, it can sometimes feel like you’re not getting anywhere... Maybe because your perspective and perception shifts as you develop.”

Personal work

What are the best and worst parts of your job?
The best part is definitely being able to do what I want, when I want, and meeting lots of people. In terms of the worst bits, there are two things that annoy me: Keeping on top of accounts, and the fact that as a freelancer, it can sometimes feel like you’re not getting anywhere.

You have to set goals for yourself, but that can only help so much. I think it’s easy to feel like you’re treading water, or that it’s one step forward and two steps back – maybe because your perspective and perception of your place within the industry shifts as you develop.

Personal work

What have you been most excited by in your work over the past 12 months?
Last year was a really exciting year for me, as I started to get some recognition for my documentary work, which led to some exciting opportunities. Before that, I was shooting a lot of music and event stuff, which still forms a large part of my income.

I ended up winning the People’s Choice Award for the Palm Photo Prize, which resulted in getting some press on It’s Nice That. Then one of my portraits got into the Portrait of Britain, as one of 100 final winning images, which was published in a Hoxton Mini Press book, as well as being part of a national exhibition.

‘Shantelle’, the image selected for the Taylor Wessing Prize, from the Burgess Park series

Images from Max’s Burgess Park series

Images from Max’s Burgess Park series

Images from Max’s Burgess Park series

Images from Max’s Burgess Park series

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Last summer I also worked on a project capturing Burgess Park, just around the corner from my house. It was so nice to spend a lot of time there, meet people and take portraits. It was just easy, and I think when that’s the case, you’re able to get into a bit of a groove with it. I felt there was something in the portraits I hadn't achieved before. Then an image from that series got selected for the Taylor Wessing Portrait Prize and was later exhibited in the National Portrait Gallery, which was amazing. That's been a massive goal of mine since starting photography.

All of that happened between June and December – it was a short space of time. It was also the first time I had submitted work for awards, because I felt happy with the work. Since then, a lot of those prizes and competitions have led to more opportunities and paid work; it’s definitely created a domino effect.

Exhibiting the Burgess Park series

How I Got Here

How did you get into photography?
I started out in music; since I was a teenager I’ve been really into playing guitar in bands and was also a music teacher. I hadn’t really thought about photography as an opportunity for creative output, but I came to it through wanting to make videos and take pictures related to music.

At some point I decided to quit my teaching job and go backpacking. Since it was a great opportunity to take pictures, I read up on how to use the camera properly, started watching YouTube tutorials and looking at books about composition. Very quickly the trip became about photography. With some of the money I had left over from the trip I decided to become a photographer, buy a camera and get a website together – to have a go at something new.

I ended up getting a few bits of work from those travelling images, and decided I needed to learn more, as there was a huge gap in my knowledge. So I moved to Leeds to do a photography degree and just worked my ass off.

During my studies I shot a load of promotional material for the music college I used to go to, photographed random music stuff, as well as doing style assisting, and even did some headshots for a lawyer's firm. It was all random work, but I was just open to doing anything and everything – pushing myself out there, even if it was barely paying anything.

I got to the end of the first year of the degree, and decided to quit the course early. A while after that I moved to London, which was about two and a half years ago now.

Personal work

Did you feel it’s necessary to have a formal education in photography?
I don’t think it’s essential. Photography education is definitely not enough in itself to become successful at photography. But if you do a dedicated documentary or fashion course, for example, that will push your practice in that direction; it's something you can use to guide you. But at the core of it, whether you go to university or go it alone, it has to be about self-motivation.

You can use university facilities to your advantage, but the benefit of not studying is that, if you are disciplined, you can tailor your own development around exactly what you want to achieve. For example, at uni there’s a focus on academic writing, which can help you with certain types of photography, but I don't think you need it to be a good photographer.

Personal work

Words of Wisdom

What advice do you have for someone wanting to get into a similar line of work?
I would honestly say the most important thing, more so than shooting all the time, is just looking at a lot of good work. Really develop your eye. Find a way to access photo books, whether from a university, local library, charity bookshop, in galleries, on Instagram, or people's websites.

Find people who really inspire you, making work that resonates with you in a strong way – people who make you want to become a photographer. Look at their work and consider: what is good about it? Spending that time will naturally develop your eye. Then, when you go out and shoot – which is good to do all the time – you should just follow your instincts with what you want to capture, be it fashion, still life or people. Between gathering inspiration and shooting, you can let these things guide each other.

When you have a clearer idea of the sort of photographer you want to be, you can also start thinking about how you bridge that gap between your own photography and those you admire. What are they doing better? How are they getting the jobs? How are they making images with that level of impact?

That initial comparison is something you will naturally continue to do all the time. Every day I’m looking at photographers who are far better, doing far more interesting projects. I’ll think to myself: How can I get there?


Posted 23 May 2019 Interview by Indi Davies
Collection: Creative Lives
Disciplines: Photography
Mentions: Max Miechowski

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