Mike Breen – New Zealand experimental photographer

by Christopher Osborne.

New Zealand photographer Mike Breen has photography flowing through his veins. He is normally a commercial photographer by day although as we speak on WhatsApp video, he is incapacitated recovering from a back operation to repair damage caused by falling off a mountain bike years before. In his spare time, Mike is surely one of the most enthusiastic and experimental photographers on the planet? His parents gave him his first camera, an Instamatic when he was 10 years old. He remembers the chemist asking him why he had taken one of the images at an angle. The recognition that he “was a bit different piqued his interest”. He moved on to his Dad’s Nikon F which came with 50 and 135 mm lenses. He quickly added wide-angle lenses.

“There is art all around you. You just need to unlock it. It doesn’t matter what the weather is like, or whether you are in a good mood or a bad mood”. In his spare time, Mike always has a camera with him. Digital is for work, so he usually turns to analogue photography in his time off. He explains, “analogue photography is personal. I use it to make photographs to please myself”. At the moment he is amusing himself with a Viscawide panoramic camera which creates 10x49mm frames on 16mm film. Mike has lived in the UK, China, the Philippines, Namibia, Canada, Malaysia and Singapore. His adventures include riding a mountain bike 1,500 km across the Tibetan plateau.
While in Lanzhou, China, studying Mandarin, he was asked to help with a movie in the distant Gobi Desert city Wuwei . He spent two weeks on set and ended up playing three parts. He shows me an image of him playing an Arab henchman sporting a genuine Chinese AK47. (The costume looks more Chinese than Middle Eastern, so clearly, Chinese moviemakers have the same ability to interpret the world through their own eyes as filmmakers in the West). His work ranges from dramatic colour 6×12 pinhole landscapes, travel photography, sports photography and environmental portraiture. We look at some of his images on Flickr and I am struck by the breadth of his portfolio. Mike explains “most photographers cannot specialise in New Zealand. Many of the brands are run out of Australia and the advertising comes from there. New Zealand exports huge amounts of agricultural products and there isn’t enough call for local photography around that. So, we have to be flexible to survive”.
Unusually, the images on Michael’s Flickr pages are photographs and scans of negatives and prints. I asked about an image featuring New Zealand artist Chris Heaphy sporting a leather jacket. Michael wheels himself around and shows me the final print. It was made on a commercially available photosensitised linen sheet and was stitched into a frame after processing. It features real zips and studs plus embroidered sunglass frames! Another image features New Zealand painter Shane Cotton, who Michael knew when Shane was an art student. It is printed using Gum bichromate. “I love process as well as art”, Michael explains. And, then at the other end of the spectrum, Michael shows me a rose which was shot on expired Agfa colour C41 film, scanned and digitally printed.
Mike used to have a fully functioning commercial lab and studio in Christchurch. Ironically, he is building a new darkroom in Auckland and has purchased a Durst Laborator L1200 and a Besseler 23XL enlargers for this project. In addition to having a facility to create prints from his own work, Mike intends to run training courses and print from a huge archive of historic negatives that he has carefully stored. These include images taken from an early Antarctic expedition, as well as a young Sir Edmund Hilary testing out a jet boat for use on an expedition up the Ganges River. It became the first jet boat ever to have navigated the river from finish to start.
We move onto a series of images taken at the UCI World Mountain Bike and Trials Championship. Many of the images distributed around the world were from Mike’s camera. I ask why, and Mike talks about the “need to be different”. Instead of  telephoto action shots, he shows me images taken close up with extreme wide-angle lenses, even 16mm fisheye. When other people started to copy, he moved onto making blurred images capturing motion with a splash of 2nd curtain sync flash. Of course, that is a technique that we associate with digital photography, however, one cannot help but feel caught up in Mikes’ upbeat drive for flexibility. “You need to keep re-inventing yourself”…
Images © Mike Breen 2021. You can see more of Mike Breen’s work at https://www.flickr.com/photos/147023660@N06

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