Lots of photographers get off to a fast start in the field but few can claim to be where Mike Hart was at age seven—down on the hardwood floor of the Coliseum, shooting Pistons’ basketball alongside the pros. Was he a child prodigy, a Mozart of the motordrive? Maybe. But his dad also happened to be the auditor for the Fort Wayne County Coliseum (where the Pistons then played), and the perks of the job including getting his kid passes to the shows and photo ops with the stars. Mike has autographed pictures of Roy Rodgers, Annie Oakley and other icons of his 1950s boyhood. Taking pictures of the Pistons was his own inspiration.
‘I had just gotten a Brownie Star Flash for my First Communion,’ he says. ‘I saw the press photographers down on the floor, and thought– I have camera. I want to do that, too. So dad made the arrangements, and at half-time of the next game, the ushers put me down next to the photographers. They’re shooting with their 4×5 Speed Graphics, and I’m shooting with my little Brownie and M2 flashbulbs. Dad didn’t think my pictures would come out, but they did.’
Mike’s next big career move came when he entered middle school. Having received a better Brownie (a Super 27) as a grade-school graduation present, he once again felt drawn to photograph a basketball game. The ninth-grade players were a little shorter than the Pistons but the consequences proved long lasting. The Yearbook advisor at the school got wind of Mike’s interest in cameras and asked if he’d like to learn more about photography.
‘I told him I was interested in anything that would get me out of study hall,’ Mike recalls. ‘So he took me into the darkroom, and it was one of those ‘Wow!’ moments. The pictures I took that night were in the Yearbook. And within months, I had set up a little darkroom in our basement. Eventually, I added an enlarger and all that stuff. I learned lighting by shooting portraits of my friends down there. I was doing stuff for hire by the 8th grade.’
Although sports got him started in photography, it was portraits, especially environmental portraits of people in the workplace, that proved to be the mainstay of Mike’s long and successful career as a corporate/annual-report photographer. He left the University of Texas early to take a full-time job at Gittings, the premier portrait studio in the Southwest. During the last three decades, his images of people and places have been featured in Communication Arts and Print’s Regional Design Annual, honored by The Dallas Society of Visual Communications, The Houston Addy awards, and The Art Director’s Club of Houston. Mike has worked with leading advertising agencies and design firms, photographing in 30 countries for an elite client list that includes many Fortune 500 companies and a strong sampling of oil industry giants.
‘Because I’m based in Houston,’ he says, ‘a lot of my work has been with oil companies, shooting oil fields and offshore rigs from Angola to Yemen and a lot of places in between. On one shoot, we literally went around the world. Starting from Houston, we went west and came back around from the East, via Singapore and Cairo.’
Traveling also inspires Mike’s personal work. On a recent trip to Europe, he grabbed a photo of soccer players in the morning mist that is about to be published in The Greatest Black and White Photography in the World, a collection of images from the first three years of the London Spider Awards competition. ‘I was out early one morning walking around Hyde Park, and I saw this whole group of guys in Hyde Park with their arms and legs at crazy, quirky angles,’ he says. ‘I use this picture to explain why I don’t dance.’
Mike’s wry humor is also evident in his explanation for cutting back on oil field photography after more than three decades of climbing on rigs. ‘Recently, I wrenched my shoulder just trying to get out of the jump-suit we wear for oil field work,’ he says, ‘And I realized it’s come to this: I have injured myself taking off my clothes and there’s not even a woman involved.’
Despite his early interest and later success in photography, Mike’s first career choice was to be a rock star, a dream he shared with about half the adolescents in America when the Beatles invaded and conquered the States in 1964. ‘The Beatles changed everything,’ he says. ‘I was a huge music fan anyway. I grew up listening to Chicago radio stations, but sometimes, with my transistor radio under the covers at night, I could catch Cousin Brucie from New York. I really wanted to be a drummer but I ended up on bass because dad couldn’t stand the racket.’
Mike’s family moved to Houston while he was in high school, and Mike moved from listening to music to becoming part of the scene. He got into a band and was good enough to get recruited for the Traits, which had recorded the nationwide hit ‘Treat her Right.’ He also worked as a ‘roadie’ for a big teen club called the Catacombs, and had the high honor of driving out to the airport at 3AM in the morning to meet Country Joe the Fish when they flew into town. While attending the University of Texas in Austin, he formed another band, and dropped out to hit the road. ‘We played for about three years’ he says. ‘Then I started having visions of myself still doing this when I was really old, like 35, and decided it was time to go back to school in photography.’ Music stayed in his blood even after he got off the bus. He has collected some fine bass guitars, still plays in bands from time to time, and even has some licks on a CD released in 1998.
Digital photography came along just at the right time for Mike. He had gone through a divorce, been flooded out of his home by tropical storm Allison, and was beginning to feel a little tired of the kind of work he was doing. ‘Digital totally rekindled my interest in photography,’ he says ‘because of the control. I started by going to a bunch of workshops at Photo Expo in New York and came out feeling like my head was going to explode, and it’s been non-stop immersion ever since. At night, I’m sitting up in bed reading a manual about Color Management while my girlfriend is into a novel.’
The difference between digital and film was highlighted for Mike by a recent assignment to shoot a chain of designer outlet centers in classy European settings. ‘The client did a big, perfect-bound book including my images and two stock photos on film,’ he says. ‘The comparision is night and day. The film is grainy, and the color is not as good. The digital is pristine. I have one shot looking into a storefront on a sunny day and I’m carrying detail all the way from the stones and flowers on the sidewalk into the interior of store.’
Mike is looking forward to inspiring students at the Digital Photo Academy with his own excitement about the possibilities and creative control of digital imaging. And he thinks he can do it without making any heads explode.
Call Digital Photo Academy at 1 877 372 2231. Lots of people seem to hang up if our welcome recording comes on instead of a live voice, but we promise to return your message within a day or two if you leave one with your name and number. It would be even better if you included your e mail address as well as the date and city of the class you are considering. If leaving a voice mail message is not your thing, please email us at DPAbooking@digitalphotoacademy.com or Richard@digitalphotoacademy.com.