Interview by Aaron Hughes, photos by Frenchy

A photographer, musician, surfer and, heck, all-around legend, Michael French has taken up residence in our midst fairly recently, but has long been familiar to these parts. In fact, it's hard to imagine Frenchy as being unfamiliar anywhere. He is a smooth conversationalist and a soothing presence to be around - spend ten minutes with him and you'll feel like you've taken a little holiday from your own busy life. His cruisy cadence and effortless storytelling draw you out of your insular world and into his relaxed, yet fascinating, take on life. This laid back attitude, apparent in his social life, surfing and music, doesn't carry across to his photography work. He is extremely diligent and pays incredible attention to detail, something that is especially outstanding in his current exhibition and first solo show, Twenties. This professionalism is not so obvious that it draws you out of his images of a care-free, exploratory life however. It actually has the opposite effect - it pulls you deeper. Deeper in to a world of far more possibility than you likely dreamed possible...and yet wasn't that how it all seemed when you were twenty?

Aaron Hughes: Ok, so you're somewhat of a recent transplant to the Coal Coast, what drew you to make the move to paradise?

Michael French: Yeah, I just moved down a few months ago, but I'm no stranger to the area. I've been down here surfing a lot, for the last eight years, and made a lot of good friends. So once I finally moved here it felt like I was just down for the weekend and never went back. I knew I was going to move down here at some stage but it sort of felt like I might have been going into early retirement, you know like forty years too early, and just surf too much accidentally. But it's actually been the opposite, I've become more productive and I've been able to slow down time a little bit, so it's perfect for now.

Nice, very glad to hear you aren't retired yet. What fills your days then? Is photography the means to provide your surfboards and coffee?

What else is there except surfboards and coffee?!?

Photography is number one for me, you know, for the last ten years it's provided me with so much; it's given me a flexible lifestyle...something to focus on...a direction I guess I meant to say, a motive for a different kind of travel. It's kind of been the driving force of the last ten years of my life. Except for maybe last year when I get a little bit too obsessed with trying to learn how to make music and I didn't really think about photography for about twelve months for the first time. But now I'm sort of back on track and I'm on bit of a roll and things are back where they should be. Everything is sort of falling back into balance again.

Recently I've been filling my days working on my first solo show, which is up right now at Mild Manners Gallery on Crown St in Surry Hills in Sydney. That's sort of been my main focus, as well as commercial work, for the last three months and so once that is all wrapped up I'll just probably surf for a few days and kind of wash it off.

I'm keen to ask you a couple questions on the music side of life as well, but for now I'm curious to know what started you down the road with photography and then how you've managed to make a living from it...

The first time that I thought photography could be a job was when I got a lucky little opportunity from a friend. He passed on a chance to assist a photographer who was working in Noosa, where I lived at the time. We got along really well, and actually one of the producers and I became friends and he really helped me out. He started flying me down from Noosa to Sydney to work as a second assistant, and they're just like a dime a dozen, so he really took me under his wing and somehow got me on all of these shoots.

So I ended up moving to Sydney and studying photography the day after I turned 21. I studied at TAFE and it was terrible. It was the biggest waste of time. I was already working in the industry and the TAFE course was underfunded and just so slow. So I got a text book from a friend of mine who was at a really expensive Sydney photo school and I just sort of studied the text book in my own time.

I basically assisted every day for the next couple of years after that. I didn't really do so much hanging out. It was all about work and just learning photography. Once I started feeling comfortable, and that I knew a bit, I started to get out a bit more.

I assisted for five years, for some of the top photographers in Australia, and then I ended up shooting e-commerce photography, just taking pictures of knives and forks and business shirts and stuff. I did that for a year pretty much, just to fund the jump from assisting to shooting - which is really difficult to pull off.

After that I found my feet shooting advertising and fashion work and the last few years that's where I've been. It has it's ups and downs! Some days I wonder if I should go to university and study something where people appreciate someone at an older age for the experience they have. It doesn't really happen so much in commercial photography in Australia. It's like when you get older you're not relevant any more. Whereas in America and parts of Europe the older photographers have a lot more respect.

So, yeah, I'm not really sure what I'll do long-term, but I'm going to push really hard now to see where I can get to!

Your current exhibition is called Twenties and the show and concurrent book are filled with photos of your exploration of many aspects of life throughout that formative decade. I've found it fascinating to be able to watch over your shoulder a little as you've collected and arranged photos. Can you describe the process of going through the years and choosing the photos that define your life through that period?

I'm glad you enjoyed watching - I found it really Intense!

Editing Twenties was really hard. Trying to figure out whether I was interested in putting the picture in the book because I had a really strong emotional attachment to that time, or if it was actually a good picture, a picture that could make another person who had no idea feel something...if it was strong enough for them to be able to interpret their own meaning. That was really, really hard, and I had to ask a few talented friends, including yourself, for help on that one. Sometimes you're just too close.

The process behind it all just made me realise how important filing your images is. Although it's really boring to talk about, it's so crucial! Going back and trying to find a roll of film from nine years ago wasn't easy. Also some of the colours were really affected from not being fixed properly in some cases, so I had to really work on the colours to get them back to where they were originally.

Starting a project like that, having been shooting on digital would have been a much different process. I was actually dreaming of it a little bit at one point, where I just kind of imagined myself pulling all these RAW files out of folders and just having them so ready to go. I was finding 10kb JPEGs and it being the biggest version of that picture that I could find on some old hard drive, with a moustache stuck to it and a melted corner from something or other, you know, just these trashed old hard drives and then using all these really low-res images to edit and go back and rescan all of the negatives again.

Because I found it hard to edit it down, the book ended up growing to twice its size during the process, from forty pages to eighty. It ended up being really time consuming, but I learned a lot actually during the process. It was the first time in ten years I'd stopped to look back...on anything really. I was just so set on moving forward throughout this decade that I just didn't stop to look back, so there was actually some really nice moments in there.

I was genuinely re-inspired by the process to go and shoot again, and actually today I've been out on the highway shooting and I think I might have been lucky and maybe taken a good picture in a car park at a service station in Eagle Hawk.

So it was a really interesting process and I've learned a lot. I'm looking forward to doing something like that again soon with the next project I'm working on.

Also I'd like to say thanks to a handful of my best friends who all helped out so much on Twenties, and a big thanks also to people from the Gong who came up to the opening of my show. I couldn't believe it, I was blown away. It was so nice, there's such support in the community and I was really feeling it, so thank you very much!

So you've talked about doing the commercial work and the personal - do you ever get to cross over your creativeness within commercial work? And do you find it hard switching between creative and commercial in general?

I don't find it difficult crossing over any more. I look at commercial work as problem solving. I really enjoy that part of the process and sometimes there's creativity involved in that. But I think it's important to find your way to separate the personal work and the commercial work so that you can be working as efficiently as possible in both.

Sometimes I get a great job though and it's really fun, you know it's like a road trip shoot or something and you're just out there making pictures as you go along and it really close to real life and really fun, with no art directors around and no client, you know just sort of really relaxed. Other days you're in the studio and there's fifteen people standing around asking you questions and I enjoy those days a lot as well. They're a real challenge and it sharpens up your communication skills a lot.

What would you consider to be the most beautiful thing you've ever seen? 

That's such a hard question! I've been chasing beauty the whole time. Some photographers study the heavier subjects and create really important images and I have so much respect for that. Personally I have to try and find really beautiful moments as a way to balance out the negative stuff, firstly for myself, but I would like to make other people feel good eventually.

Photography taught me to step back and watch out for these little moments, so even if I don't have a camera I'm still thinking, "Oh that's a picture!" and you remember it. There's been a handful of times I have put the camera down because I knew I couldn't capture it. Some things can't fit in the box!

You're constantly trying to get me to buy a Mamiya 7. How did you end up being so sold on this piece of equipment? Do you shoot exclusively on it for personal work?

Ha yeah I don't get too carried away about camera gear but this camera is special. I was shooting on square format cameras and 35mm cameras but I wasn't loving it. I was telling my friend about it and he said I could borrow his Mamiya 7 for a trip I was doing to the States.

That was it, no turning back. I had a camera that felt good to hold, it was light, the format is the shape of most magazines so you don't need to crop in your head while shooting full pages and it has one of the best lenses ever made on it, creating crisp images with detail for days but also keeping that special feeling that we know film has.

I shoot landscapes, fashion, portraits - anything, all on the one camera and most of the time with one lens.

Tell me about the music, what led you to end up getting so focused on it last year and how did Jon Dory form?

I started thinking about making music once I saw my friends having a lot of fun doing it. I always thought that music was for musicians and that I probably shouldn't go for it but I started tinkering around and then all of sudden I realised that it's same as photography and surfing and the other things that I'd been spending time doing. It is for everyone who wants to do it, there's no one who can't do it.

So once I realised that I could do it I got really buzzed and just kind of went for it. I just sat in my room and wrote a heap of songs. A lot of them were so bad and few of them were alright. Then one day at the coffee shop I was just talking to a girl called Eliza, who was making my coffee and she asked me if I wanted to start a band and I said, "Yeah, meet me in the park at 4:30 and we'll start a band." So we met up and we didn't really know each other and it was pretty funny.

Kynan was sleeping in the attic at the house that we were living in and he played bass. He'd been playing music in Bondi with these guys, but they were kind of douching out a bit on him and he wasn't feeling very good toward music. So the three of us had a little jam and it felt really good and we had fun. It turned out that Eliza had been playing music her whole life and she just didn't tell us and that she was amazing at singing and playing drums and guitar and bass and keyboard and whatever else she touches!

We ended up recording an EP down at the Scout Hall in Austinmer with Russell Webster from Shining Bird and he taught us so much. It was cool to see our ideas come along and then to see what Russ did to them was really cool. That guy is amazing, so talented.

So what's next then? More from Jon Dory?

More recording. I love how you can practice and get them in shape, preserve them and get back to doing other things. Sometimes I don't know if playing live is a good idea. With the exception of local band You Beauty it seems that you can't really put on a good show unless music is your number one priority. There's bands in this area who are putting it all into the tunes and getting us all riled up. Gotta love that.

What about with your photography?

Back to chipping away at the salt print process and a Himalayan road workers series.

Sweet, well I'm looking forward to it all!

Twenties is showing at Mild Manners Gallery, Surry Hills, April 23 - May 2, 2015.