New Jersey Stage

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Interview With Mike Black


By Gary Wien

Mike Black is one of the leading photographers along the Jersey Shore.  He's been shooting the Asbury Park music scene for many, many years.  But, in addition to taking photos, Mike's a performer as well.  He's also got a background in radio and has had videos of his seen millions of times on Youtube and cable stations across the world.  In other words, he's a pretty interesting guy.  New Jersey Stage got a chance to talk to him and get to know the man behind the lens.

Anyone who has been to shows in Asbury Park within the last decade or so has undoubtedly seen you taking photos sometime. How long have you been involved in photography?
The earliest concert I brought a camera into was Kansas in 1978 when I was 14. The first Asbury Park show I shot was Ian Hunter in July 1980.

While many of your rock and roll photos have been in publications, your work with nature photos and videos has probably brought you the most fame.  How did you first get your work shown on media outlets like CNN? What was it like for you that first time you saw your work on tv?
I submitted a photo montage of a lunar eclipse to CNN in 2006 and was contacted to see if they could put it on TV. Since then CNN and I have done a lot together. I also have a good friend from college at CBS TV. Major news producer. He shows my photos on the news. It really is about who you know. It's great seeing my stuff on TV, and hearing from people who see it. After TV, you begin to get stopped when you mention your name to strangers once in a while. 'Are you...?'

Which piece of yours got the most attention? Was it the snowstorm video? 
Yes, the Blizzard timelapse. Long story short, the day after Christmas the Northeast had a blizzard and I did a time lapse of the snow burying a table. I put it online, and it took off, over 100,000 an hour were viewing it. Every station called: CBS, NBC, CNN, MSNBC, Weather Channel. The BBC called. Everyone played it. The world saw it.

So far about 6 million hits, 3.4 million total plays, and I still get weird days, last week on one day 27,000 people watched it.

Friends of yours know that you are just as interested (if not more) in science and space as you are with music. What was your dream growing up? Did you want to be a rock star? An astronaut? Or a teacher?
My life is science and teaching. The music and photography are strictly for fun. I wanted to be an astronaut since birth. And a science teacher since Carl Sagan's 'Cosmos' book and series.

Did you ever try out to be an astronaut? If not, why not?
I'm terrified of flying. Terrified! It really is bad. I'm a wimp. I don't understand myself.

Plus, at the time, six foot tall was the maximum. I'm too big to be put into orbit.

You've met a lot of astronauts and have been part of some very cool space program events, what have been some of the highlights for you?
In January I met Neil Armstrong. I've met just about every living astronaut. For me they are the true heroes of the modern era. The manned space program, for me, is vital. Sadly, it's ending. But that's for another interview. I could fill a book...

Tell me about your teaching career. What you currently are involved in?
I taught a decade of high school around New Jersey and some adjuncting at Brookdale. I'm still teaching. I work for ETS the Educational Testing Service. They make the SATs, GREs, other standardized tests. I score them. And I've filled out so many non disclosure forms that's about all I can say!



As for music, you've done some solo shows, sat in with some bands, and often took part in Joe Harvard's Long Weekend shows but I know your history goes much farther than that.  Tell me about some of the bands you've played with through the years. What were some of your favorite shows you were part of?
When I was 14 I got some electronic keyboards and joined a band. We did the high school dance and party thing. Perhaps the most fun of my life.

The biggest shaper of my music has been Guitar Craft. January 1986, Guitar Player magazine had Robert Fripp on the cover. Inside was a story about something called Guitar Craft. Fripp was giving guitar seminars in West Virginia. I applied and was accepted and 25 years ago this month I went away to a very rural estate on 400 acres and stayed in a house with Fripp and 30 others for a week. We never left the grounds for the entire week, except for a live gig at a neighborhood bar. Fripp booed us and threw peanuts at us as we played. This was in the middle of a bar with customers around us wondering who the hell we were.

I was lucky enough to continue with that for some years after, even played 4 live shows with Robert Fripp and the League of Crafty Guitarists in the late 1990s. I was insanely lucky. We all were, Fripp could have been making actual money but instead was playing with us.

He is a cult figure, but anyone who spends any time with him quickly finds he is not at all what people think.

As for local bands, Last Perfect Thing and Status Green are two bands who invited me to play with them; the young guys with the old goat. Essentially everyone has invited me to play, so any list becomes a list of exclusion. One great thing about the Asbury Park scene is the ease with which people can play with others.

I haven't been doing many live gigs lately, literally the work of hauling synthesizers, amps, mixers, to car and venue and stage and venue and car again is too much. Now I just show up and play at open mics. Easy.

You've had some of your music included in films in recent years. Tell me about those projects - how they came about and what it's like to hear your songs in a horror film.
In 2006 I put out a solo CD of electronic music. I sent a copy to a bunch of people, including Lloyd Kaufman of Troma Films. He created the Toxic Avenger and Troma is a wonderful independent studio that puts out some of the most vile horror in cinema. Having said that many in Hollywood, including Matt and Trey of South Park, got their start with Lloyd.

Lloyd wanted to use a song for his newest film about zombie chickens called "Poutrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead". The song is used several times in the film, specifically, each time you see Zombie on the march. They march to my music. I have a credit in the movie.


Has it been difficult to be treated seriously as a musician since your photography work took off?
Now thats an interesting question because it does affect it. People ask me to come to a gig to photograph it, but don't invite me to play. I don't really do photography for anything beyond the fun of taking pictures. I have never called myself a professional photographer, because I don't consider myself one.


In addition to performing, you've also been involved with radio.  Tell me about that side of your history.
I started at WMCX at Monmounth College and was General Manager of the station when they switched from 88.1 and 13 watts to 88.9 and 1,000 watts. That was huge at the time.

Then one day the phone rings and it's Rich Robinson at WHTG saying he likes my voice and would I like to be on the air? So I was a DJ on WHTG FM 106.3FM during its alternative format days with Matt Pinfield. Matt gave me his Local Licks show when he left for MTV.

I also did quick stints at WRAT and WBJB. I really do love radio, but again, I'd rather talk about science on the radio in between playing Leonard Cohen and Ministry. I don't know too many stations with that format.

My life has been based around talking. I talk so much its terrible. I interrupt, go off on tangents. As a teacher  I had to learn how to listen and not just wait to say the next thing. But I still talk too much.


Even though you've seen hundreds of artists over the years, I'm not going to ask who have been your favorites - I am going to ask who have been your favorite to shoot?
I like the surprise gig where you have no idea who the band is and they blow you away.

Tell me about the one shot you took that is your favorite.
Rick Barry and I did a shoot. Whether it was good or bad is for others, but we had a blast. I really like Rick. LPT and Status also are wonderful guys when it comes to taking pictures.   I also Love snapping the Jersey Shore Roller Girls, to the point of becoming a fan of the teams. They are a wonderful, hard working group of ladies who regularly sell out the Convention Hall and are a big draw for the city.

What about the one that got away? What shot didn't come out that you always wish had?
Hmmm... There's a great photo of me and Bruce both in tuxedoes at an event for the Ranney School. But when I contacted the school to get the photo, they won't give it to me as I am not a parent or some weird rule. It's OK, i have a picture of me with Carl Sagan I will probably be buried with.

How does being one of the tallest photographers in the area help you?
It's a sign from above that photography is really not my main gig. Science and teaching are.

As a photographer in the Internet age, what's your biggest pet peeve? Is it people copying your photos on to other sites?
That's one that is unavoidable. I used to complain a lot, but have now resigned myself.

My pet peeve is people should learn to either listen to a show or photograph, it, but not do both. Doing both may be impossible. I take my photos and then put the camera away. This does two things, It allows me to enter the space as a listener, and it removes one more photographer.

For the shutterbugs out there, what kind of equipment are you using these days?
My main body is the Canon 5D Mark I2 or Canon 7D and my main concert lens [the white one] is the Canon 70-200mm f/2.8 Mark II.

For surfing and fast events like Roller Derby, I have a Canon 1D Mark 4. It takes ten photos a second. Sounds like a machine gun.

You want quality, you have to pay for it. It's exactly the same camera the guys in Rolling Stone and National Geograhic and half the papprazzi on the planet.

Thanks to Facebook, people get to know some things they might never have known before. I had no idea you kept all of your ticket stubs through the years.  How many do you have saved and how did they survive through all this time?
Their survival is pure dumb luck, I've moved so many times. I have about 100 stubs, about 25% of the shows I've seen. They are a lot of fun to look at, to remember really great concerts.

Finally, what are your future plans? Any new albums in the works? Photography books or collections?
My focus now is doing stuff for the fun of it. Concert photograhy was fun when me and the other photogs were the only ones snapping, now half the audience is recording the show.

I've started a dozen books, and haven't completed any. Terrible self-discipline. One is about water, one is about the space program, one is about a single piece of art in Washington D.C, a throne a man built for the return of Jesus.

Now that is true art. This man, James Hampton, said he was visited by God and told to make the Throne for His return. Now I am agnostic, and do not subscribe to any organized religion. But the story of this man, making this enormous piece of art, almost 200 pieces, and he made it out of abandoned furniture and tin foil and lightbulbs and he did this for years, never intending to show it to a single soul.

That's what it's about, the desire to create, and the creating. The accolades and reviews should mean nothing. Nothing. Perhaps humans are the Universe's way of expressing itself.