INTERVIEW WITH … Michael “Monty” May

Researched by Roberta Pastore


My name: Michael May – born 1958 in West Germany – married with the best wife of all – two elder sons – two fabulous dogs.
My profession: journalist – working as a staff photographer at a German newspaper for more than 25 years now.



Going back in time how was your passion for photography born ?

My career as a photographer started in a wake of a desaster.

It was the time, when I studied sports at the university in Münster in 1980. Unfortunately, I broke my ankle during a football match in such a complicated way, that I had quit sports studies and activities completely fhus becoming a sports invalid looking for a new challenge. I restarted my life with photography.


Considering your works, which ones marked your entrance in the world of real photography?

One day somebody gave me a ticket to visit the library at the graphic and design institute in Münster to look for some buried treasures. There I found all these magic photobooks featuring the old masters such as Henry Cartier-Bresson, André Kertész , Eugène Atget, Samuel Brassai, Andreas Feininger, Bill Brandt, László MoholyNagy and August Sander. I could borrow these books for weeks and so I did.

I cannot say with with absolute certainty, which particular picture was the initial spark to getting seriously with photography, but it was definitely a black and white one. Maybe this eye-opener by André Kertész:


Even my two dogs like Kertész. (This snapshot was taken in our living room.) A magic performance without posing.


This following picture I took in 1982 with my first (used) camera (MINOLTA XG9) on orthocromatical film material (AGFAORTHO 25) in Umbria. It was my first film as a newbie in photography and the first picture to be proud of.


How do you manage colour and B&W?

I started my career with shooting with Black and White films. B/W was the only category in photography that seemed to be accepted in the artistic photo world in those times suggesting credibility when used for documentary and social reportage.

Colour photography was synonymous with amateur photography; even Ernst Haas of MAGNUM did not publish his fantastic colour work, because no editor was really interested in this kind of stuff.



But regardless I made thousands of colour positives for exercising my personal skills in  lighting and full framing. For  a long time I went out with two camera bodies. One for B/W and one for colour. Nowadays in the digital world it has become much easier to solve this „problem“


Which kind of camera do you use?

Fuji X100T. The best  purchase ever. I even use this camera in my newspaper job for street photography, classic concerts, theatre performances and situations which are difficult in terms of the amount ofavailable light. For the „categories“ (such as sports, tele, studio and flash photography) I prefer my NIKON D-700, which is an excellent allrounder.


What determines if a photo is “good one” or not?

HCB would have said, „you have got a good picture if you turn it upside down and the composition still works.

A good photo from my point of view is a timeless shot, which works on different and complex layers, memorability and iconic qualities of some decisive moment, and lastly has been expertly printed and presented on a gallery wall or in a photobook. Nothing more and nothing less….and last bot not least, humourous, quirky and intriguing.



But if we raised the bar of quality very high, even the best photographers in the world would only have about 100 top pictures in their portfolios.

When you are shooting, do you have an image in your mind? Do you build the final photo before shooting it or are your images also a result of a post-production phase?

Sometimes, yes, when I find a very interesting location and have enough time to wait and see how a scene may develop. I do take my time to make some blind shots and check lighting systems, composition and framing to be ready for the decisive moment 

As I never crop my pictures, the final post production (developing the RAW files in Capture One and processing as 16-bit Tiff-files in Photoshop) can do done pretty fast.

In my personal work-flow it’s just fine tuning at the end, provided that the RAW material is perfect from the beginning.


Museumsinsel Hombroich
Museumsinsel Hombroich


What training did you follow? Who inspired you?

 Before I started with photography I learned all the techniques and theory from specialised books. So I was a really self-taught amateur before I began a practical training in documentary photography and darkroom work as a photographer at the newspaper.

Photobooks have always been a source of inspiration have always been photobooks, the tutorial work for the adult education centre and meeting so many well-known Magnum and National Geographic photographers, who had their exhibitions in our high-regarded „Städtische Galerie“ in Iserlohn

This is Magnum photographer Richard Kalvar in my studio:

Magnum Fotograf Richard Kalvar
Magnum Fotograf Richard Kalvar

What was your first camera?

My first camera, as I mentioned above, was a MINOLTA XG9, followed by MINOLTA XD 5 and XD 7. In 1994 I bought my first LEICA M4, some years later an M6 and CL. At the newspaper I worked with NIKON FM 2 and F3 until we bought our first digital NIKON cameras.



What is photography to you? And what should not be instead?

It’s my job, my hobby, (my wife) and my life. Life is in a permanent photographic flow and from time to time the whole family is very much involved in my activities, but they give me a lot of supports for example in organising „Observations 2017“ our second Street Photography Festival in Iserlohn, which will happen between 07/14. –  07/23. next year.


What is the photo that struck you the most of a great historical photographer

This iconic shot by Josef Koudelka:


 An intriguing shot, which turns a real street scene into surrealism in a very subtle way. Top Notch!!

What is your favorite technique?

Shooting with 35 mm and fixing all camera systems into manual mode. Focussing hyperfocal, manual ISO, manual lighting, manual flashing. As I have been shooting for 35 years now, I trust my own skills, parameters and personal experiences more than any computer systems in cameras.

Why do street photography?

For one, I am a member of the Observe Collective, a group of street photographers from nearly all over the world. Consequently doing street photography makes a ton of sense. For two, apart from that it is the photo genre, I always loved most in my photographic life, even before I’d ever heard of its existence. To me it has always been shooting candid people in their environment. In order to document public/social life and behaviour, though not necessarily only in the streets. 

As Bill Brandt once said: „I am not interested in rules and conventions – photography is not a sport“ .Maybe he was a sports invalid too

What is your best shot and what does it represent for you?

Less is more, keep it simple and make it clean, clear and perfect is my personal credo and this picture represents it all.


Sometimes persons and elements come together for a decisive moment in the viewfinder of your camera for a split of a second to celebrate a feast for the eyes. Then they drift apart and vanish completely.

If you recognise the potential of a scene and get that decisive moment perfectly, you will be a winner and take it all, but if you missed it, you missed it and there is no further need to tell the world what and how and why you missed it – you didn’t score the home run this time, but…. don’t worry, your once-in-a-lifetime shot is just waiting around the corner.

What is your relationship with the street and the people who are in your shots?

I always try to be the invisible man, the silent predator. Still I don’t shoot from the hip or with a tilt screen. I shoot candidly with the camera in front of my eyes. So everybody has a fair chance of recognizing what the fuck man? I am doing. In those cases I try to explain myself in a friendly way. Street photography is not very common in Germany and you can get into serious troubles, if you publish pictures of people without their consent. My (as I hope) eloquence and combined with my press card have thus far helped me a great deal in difficult situations. And if all fails: Press the delete button…as much as it may hurt.


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