Tuesday, April 23, 2013

From the Empirical Archives: A Moment with Michael Baird

PHOTOS: "Mike" Michael L. Baird, flickr.bairdphotos.com
A Moment with Michael Baird
Originally published in the October 2012 issue of Empirical

Michael’s living the dream at Morro Bay in California, taking photographs of the macro and micro realms he encounters there. Empirical gets a peak inside his world.

Empirical: Hi Mike. Thanks for talking with us. You’ve quickly become one of our favorite go-to photographers. How did you get started in photography to begin with?

Mike: I retired twelve years ago, at the early age of 55, from a VP of Engineering position at ask.com in Silicon Valley in 2000, just when the internet was starting to blow up. As a farewell gift my associates gave me one of the first digital point-and-shoot cameras.

Empirical: You had never been involved in photography before that at all?

Mike: Before I got my digital camera in 2000, all I had done was use disposable point-and-shoots, and I didn’t really know or care about the basics of photography.

Empirical: So what happened after that? What took you to the ocean?

Mike: After twenty years in the fast lane, participating in lots of start-ups, an IPO, stress, and absolutely insane working hours, my wife Heidi and I decided to abandon the career, restore our health, and better enjoy our limited time on earth, in one of the best places to live on earth. Landing in the idyllic Central Coast California town of Morro Bay, I found myself surrounded by the beauty of nature, the solitude of vast open spaces, and involved in volunteer work in our California State Parks and the Morro Bay Museum of Natural History.

Empirical: I’m sure they appreciated that. What did you do for them?

Mike: I immediately became a docent for State Parks, and being pretty much the only one with a digital camera supplemented with abundant computer and internet skills, I became the default photographer providing all of the images needed for interpretation, programs, presentations, museum newsletters, museum displays, and outdoor kiosks.

Empirical: You dove right in, it sounds like. Was there a certain point that you began to take it more seriously and to see yourself as a photographer?

Mike: I created the morro-bay.com website as a way to integrate into the community, and through that (and my volunteer work) I soon met many local artists and other intelligent, well-educated, retired friends–many of whom encouraged my new-found photography activity. Because I was not particularly well-informed about birds, flowers, natural history, and the stuff of State Park interpreted hikes, I instead contributed through my photography and computer skills, offering, for example, to help every one of the 150 docents to become computer literate, and to repair and upgrade their machines, and provide free technical support. That burst of PC volunteerism soon led to overload, and I retreated almost exclusively into photography. I created a social network of now over 350 local photographers (http://tech.groups.yahoo.com/group/photomorrobay/ and http://www.flickr.com/groups/photomorrobay/) who are now teaching each other how to grow and improve.

Empirical: I guess you moved on from that original digital camera. What equipment do you use now?

Mike: I soon found that I needed a much better camera, and better lenses, if I were ever to get the professional quality in the photos that I wanted. Choosing Canon, I’ve gone through every model from the first Rebel to the latest 5D Mark III, upgrading cameras once a year.

Empirical: Did you get any training other than in the social network you created?

Mike: I’ve never paid for a lesson, and have an aversion to doing so, as I’d rather buy a $500 lens than take a $500 course. I consumed all of the most-popular photography books on Amazon. com, and exploited much of the free rich content on the internet. I now consider myself a fairly advanced photographer technically, but certainly not an artist. I actually don’t think of photography as a very challenging technical activity. After all, a camera is a simply machine to operate, with just a few variables to control, and there is not much science to it, for the limited kinds of documentary work that I do. I spent my earlier years as a research scientist, after getting a PhD in computer science in 1973, so taking photos was more relaxation and recreation than a technical challenge.

Empirical: Did your work in computer science help with your digital photography?

Mike: I was completely at home with the new field of digital image processing, as my early work was in the field of computer vision and robotics.

Empirical: You have quite an impressive background. What kinds of subjects do you relate to best as a photographer?

Mike: Photography was becoming more an excuse to get outside. Everyone told me the best photos are only taken early or late in the day, but I’d said “I don’t wake up to do photography; I do photography when I’m awake.” I shoot opportunistically whatever is presented: including people, photojournalistic events, insects, mammals, reptiles, birds, flowers, and landscapes. My camera is an extension of my eyes, and I’m interested in seeing everything in this world closer and in different ways.

Empirical: Why don’t you see your work as an art?

Mike: I recognize that there is an entire other world of artistic photography, where images are created that I’ll never be able to visualize, let alone realize. That’s not my domain. I’m a documentarian, not an artist. I shoot what I see in everyday life, what comes my way, and rarely do I go after a planned target.

Empirical: Can you say more about your basic philosophy when it comes to photography?

Mike: My Flickr profile (http://www.flickr.com/people/mikebaird) says “Life is short, and I get a kick out of seeing others enjoy my images in a responsible way. My motivation for freely sharing almost all of my photographs under a Creative Commons Attribution License, without compensation, and for almost any purpose non-profit or for-profit, comes from my interest in contributing to a legacy, which I define as the ‘bits one leaves behind on the Internet.’ This can only be done by having a fair number of images with attribution persist in perpetuity, through inclusion in a wide number of educational, wiki, archival, governmental, NGO, private, and corporate websites and digital resources. This follows the LOCKSS (Lots of Copies Keep Stuff Safe) philosophy for preservation of intellectual property.” Through the magic of Flickr, Creative Commons, and the internet, I now have thousands of my images being used in websites, blogs, books, kiosks, displays, movies, and archives (many in Wikimedia and Wikipedia... but I don’t put them there myself ). I encourage photo sharing, and say, “A photo taken but not shared might just as well have never been taken.” As a result of my preaching this, and many others taking that advice to freely share, a small photo community around me in San Luis Obispo County, CA, has in a way been transformed into a highly visible, recognized center-of-excellence for photography.

Empirical: Do you have other hobbies in your quite active retirement?

Mike: I also do a lot of kayaking, hiking, beach walking, birding, and I spend eight hours every day learning things from the internet which is just the most fascinating thing in the world to me. Cool resources like Empirical magazine come to my attention, and the cycle of sharing and learning continues.

Empirical: We appreciate your saying that. And thank you for sharing with us.

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