Ketchikan photographer Mike Gates recently was honored with the sale of his self-portrait titled “Self” to the Alaska State Museum.
The black-and-white portrait was one of two of Gates’ photographs that were chosen for the 2019 “Alaska Positive” traveling exhibit by a photographer juror working with the Alaska State Museum.
His “Self” photograph earned an Award of Recognition in the juried exhibit. His photograph “Yellow House With Pigeons” also was one of the 38 photographs chosen for the exhibit.
The Alaska Positive exhibit featuring Gates’ works was shown at the state museum from Dec. 6, 2019 through Feb. 15, 2020, then traveled on tour to locations across Alaska. Gates’self portrait was then purchased to be added to the Alaska State Museum’s permanent collection.
In a telephone interview Thursday, Gates said, “I was especially tickled though, that they offered to buy it for their permanent collection. I mean, if they’d have asked, I would have given it to them just for the honor of having it in their permanent collection. It’s just a real treat. It’s something every photographer wants in their resume, or every artist.”
He said that state museum staff told him that the photographer who’d juried the exhibit kept returning to look at Gates’s portrait, and added that his portrait was the favorite of many staff members.
Gates said that he’s always been interested in capturing portraits of people through his photography, but the majority of his works have featured landscapes. When he decided to create the self portrait, he said it started as a practical move.
“I’m a model that I don’t have to ask,” Gates quipped. “I was there already.”
His notable self portrait actually was a “selfie in a bathroom,” he said. “I put up a black backdrop over the shower curtain and just used a hand-held flash.”
He said he took a few different photos, experimenting with finding the perfect exposure. The resulting portrait ended up having a feel similar to a famous portrait of Ernest Hemingway with a beard, Gates said he thought.
He added, “I’m so pleased with that silly darn portrait that I’ve edited it a variety of times in different ways to come up with different themes on it and I used it for my profile picture on Facebook. It’s so funny that my Facebook profile picture’s in the permanent collection of the state museum.”
Gates said he’s been interested in photography ever since he was about 13 years old, living in Petersburg. He also lived in Anchorage in his earlier years before moving to Ketchikan in 1988 for a job with an explosives company. He now works for Tongass Business Center as a service dispatcher.
When he first started delving into photography, Gates said he built a darkroom that was far more advanced than the cameras he was using.
“I was always fascinated with the darkroom,” he said, where he could watch images slowly emerge like magic.
He still has a darkroom, he added, but he hasn’t used it in a long time.
Over the years Gates said that he has become mostly known for his landscape photography. His photography work was slowed when he received a cancer diagnosis about two years ago. He has spent much time in Juneau working through 45 radiation treatments, and continues to take medications as treatments wind down this year.
During that time, Gates said “I turned my camera a little bit inward and shot a few things that I really would like to follow up on more, but I just haven’t been shooting nearly enough, and part of that is the medicine I’m on.”
He said he has entered a landscape photograph in the October Main Street Gallery exhibition titled “Positive Affirmations,” which is set to be a collaborative show with the First City Council on Cancer and the Ketchikan Area Arts and Humanities Council.
Gates said that he is hoping to delve more into portrait photography, and now has the equipment to focus on that.
He also expressed a desire to focus on capturing images that go a little deeper and more meaningful than “just pretty” shots in the future.
When asked what advice he’d give to a person new to photography, Gates said he wouldn’t necessarily encourage them to enter a formal university program. He said he has taken several formal classes and workshops on photography, but has found it more instructive to spend time working the craft thoughtfully on his own.
“I would encourage them to take their time with their photographs,” Gates said.
Having started his own journey in photography during the film era, Gates explained that he learned to be mindful every time he took a photo, and that approach built his skills.
“My advice would be to be mindful, and to study the greats,” Gates added.
He also spoke of his focus on the photography process.
“To me, process is everything,” he said. “The work itself is evidence that you went through the process. Seeing things and feeling things and intentionally choosing your palette of colors or your contrast or deliberately composing things and excluding things that don’t aid the composition or including things that do — the whole process should be deliberate and use your whole mind, from beginning to end, from your camera settings to the way you print it — and people really should print their work.”
He also added that he thinks “there’s a difference between an artist and someone who just snaps pictures, and it all has to do with intent. I am very mindful and intentional in my work.”
He said that he processes his own photos so that they can be printed in large formats. He also expressed his feeling that photo books are a valuable medium that he wishes would be more common, as they used to be.
“There’s something about being able to have it in your lap and look at it,” that offers a deeper interaction with the photographs than scrolling past them on a screen, he said.
Gates said he has plans to get back to his photography in a fully committed way as soon as he begins to get his energy back as his cancer medications are finished. With the health scare, he said he knows his creative focus will be somewhat transformed.
“Your work changes with your perspective and I feel a lot more mortal than I ever have, so we’ll see if that can work into my photographs and still maintain the sense of humor and just the wonder with which I view everything.”
He also expressed his gratitude for the supportive arts community in Ketchikan, and spoke specifically of the Arts Council as having been especially encouraging and helpful.
“It’s really important for me to be taken seriously, and I really appreciate that Ketchikan has afforded me that and has taken me seriously in my work,” Gates said.
Speaking of his self portrait that was purchased by the Alaska State Museum, Gates said he thinks part of the reason the photograph is so compelling is the direct eye contact with the viewer, sharing his bemused expression.
“It’s not a serious or sad photograph,” he said. “I think that really captures who I am.”