For years, Los Angeles based photographer Michael Muller has traveled the world taking acclaimed and experimental portraits of celebrities: actors, artists, athletes, and musicians. His raw photography style is fearlessly provocative, playfully dynamic and undeniably magnetic. Think Kirsten Dunst with a tarantula sitting casually on her bare chest, think Joaquin Phoenix splayed on the ground in front of a 7/11, laughing with a bunch of cops, think Rihanna on the cover of her album Unapologetic. Muller’s intuitive skill and gift for for capturing the vivid personality of his subjects has revolutionized celebrity portraiture and produced some of popular culture’s most iconic images.
For the past decade, Muller has taken his talent underwater, dedicated to documenting another fascinating and infamous creature: sharks. Since 2007, Muller and his team have been photographing the majestic and often misunderstood sea creatures, bringing Muller’s signature intimacy and fierce authenticity to the shots by using a custom-built waterproof strobe lighting system and shooting without a cage. The results are staggering: up-close, well-lit portraits that capture a powerful and visceral energy almost never found in nature photography.
While Muller’s work is indisputably exhilarating, it’s not all about the adrenaline. The driving force behind his exploratory project is to shift the public perception of sharks and shatter inaccurate stereotypes. His passion, reverence, and appreciation for these endangered animals is powerfully felt through his extraordinary work. Muller intends for his evocative portraits to raise awareness about the devastating danger of shark extinction and the increasing need for conservation. Muller’s work has been compiled into a stunning new photobook by TASCHEN entitled “Sharks: Face to Face with the Ocean’s Endangered Predator,” and a selection of his works are currently on display at TASCHEN Gallery in Los Angeles until Sunday June 19th. We spoke to Muller about what inspired him to take on this challenging project, his feelings about Jaws, and how he unleashes his wild side.
LiveFAST: Hi Michael! What inspired you to transition from photographing celebrities to photographing “the most misunderstood creature in the sea?”
Michael Muller: I think there were a couple factors that inspired the move to sharks from actors and athletes. First off was the utter fascination I had with the animal combined with the challenge of photographing a man-eating shark in ways that had never been done before – that challenge in and of itself was a huge call. The main purpose revealed itself shortly thereafter: I had no idea that we were killing 100,000,000 sharks every year. When I found that out, I was devastated and realized my daughters may never see some of these animals. That really was the fuel that drove me. Having that purpose was such a rewarding goal and motivation and has really made this project the most heartfelt of any I’ve ever done.
LF: There is a powerful wildness in these images, as well as a great deal of respect and awe. What are your hopes for these photos, in general and from a conservation perspective?
MM: My hope is always to capture a subject in a way that is fresh for the viewer, first and foremost myself, since I am always the first to view my own work. I always like to challenge myself to create and to view something I haven’t seen before. Next, I really feel that we, as artists, put a piece of ourselves into our work so that wildness is just a small reflection of me as a person and I definitely feel I have a wild side.
The fact that drove me was that in nature photography you do not see studio lighting, or at least I had never seen it done before, 100% not underwater. In fact, the lights didn’t even exist to do this when I started out and I so badly wanted to bring the shark into the studio and that was not possible so I had to bring the studio to the shark in its’ environment. When I found that these lights did not exist and I was going to have to create them – that was a real crossroads moment. Fortunately, I was able to, with help, invent and create this new waterproof studio lighting setup which I received four patents on and, in my opinion, has revolutionized underwater photography.
LF: These images force us to face our own perception of sharks as well as their depiction in popular media – is there anything you think people would be surprised to learn about sharks?
MM: I think that they really are more scared of us then we are of them! When I have taken people down for the first time and they watch me surrounded by multiple sharks and all the sharks want is the fish we are feeding them and are not attacking me at all, their perception shifts. Even watching great whites from a cage, people can quickly see how intelligent they are and that they are not the mindless machine but more the perfect example of evolution.
LF: What is it about sharks that causes such adrenaline-fueled fascination (in comparison to other predatory animals)?
MM: JAWS. Pure and simple, Jaws affected all of us. That movie singlehandedly made the shark such a feared creature. They also own the ocean and we are not in our comfort zone being there. We lose that false sense of control we “think” we have on land.
LF: Are there any similarities between photographing sharks and photographing celebrities?
MM: Oh yes, they each have their own personalities. They are each larger then life, so to speak. They each have an aura of “power,” but the wonderful thing is sharks don’t speak! They may tell you what they think with their actions but they don’t voice them! 😉
LF: What’s next for you?
MM: I would much rather show you when it’s ready then tell you about it while it’s being created. Talk is cheap. I do think every artist should have their own personal projects. For me, the best things have always come from those projects.
LF: Lastly, LiveFAST’s customary question: how fast do you live?
MM: As fast as I can while staying in the moment.
“Sharks: Face-to-Face with the Ocean’s Endangered Predator” is now available from TASCHEN and Amazon. Michael Muller’s SHARKS is on display at TASCHEN Gallery in Los Angeles until June 19th – don’t miss it! If you’re still craving a shark fix, Discovery Channel’s beloved Shark Week begins June 26th.