Michael Potts: Portfolio Contest Winner

Words: Dean Brierly

“As I started to build a collection of images, they seemed to take on a dreamlike quality.”

Photo: Michael Potts: Portfolio Contest Winner photo no. 1
Forgiveness, Phoenix, Arizona, 2020
For a body of work imbued with such a playful, joyful and innocent spirit, it’s small wonder that its gestation in 2016 was inspired by those spontaneous, otherworldly creatures we refer to as children. Nor should it come as a surprise that what eventually became the series Dreamtime was due more to serendipi- ty rather than previsualization.

Michael Potts was primarily photographing children at that time, and he thought that an underwater setting might be fun for them. The camera he was using, however, was substan- dard, and the initial color images “looked awful.” Once he began shooting in black and white, the visual potential for a new photo series became apparent, soon followed by dis- parate yet unifying thematic threads: peace, chaos, order, abstraction, freedom.
Photo: Michael Potts: Portfolio Contest Winner photo no. 2
Into Dreamtime, Phoenix, Arizona, 2017
“As I started to build a collection of images, they seemed to take on a dreamlike quality,” the Phoenix, Arizona-based photographer says. “Many underwater images are peaceful, but life isn’t peaceful. Dreams aren’t peaceful. I like the peaceful ones very much; one can lose oneself in them or use them in medita- tion, but the chaotic ones add another ele- ment, and are in some ways much more interesting. You can keep looking at them or come back to them and find more each time.

“It’s a different meditation, one that wakes us up rather than puts us down. Dreaming, and life, need a balance of rise and fall, in and out. While it seems counterintuitive that two different types of images would blend so well, it seems so obvious once you look at it that there has to be a balance, a yin and yang, to coin a cliche.”
Photo: Michael Potts: Portfolio Contest Winner photo no. 3
Freedom, Phoenix, Arizona, 2019
That’s not to say that “peaceful” images like “Forgiveness” and “Into the Dreamtime” lack the complexity of more turbulent offer- ings such as “Awakening” and “Scattered Dreams.” There’s as much going on beneath the surface, so to speak, of his subjects, expressed through facial expressions or enig- matic body movements.

In keeping with the improvisatory vibe of this work, Potts let the children play freely. If he saw something he liked, a gesture or pose or movement, he might ask for it to be repeated. With older children and adults, he was a bit more specific; they lacked some of the freedom of thought and movement that comes so natural to children.
Photo: Michael Potts: Portfolio Contest Winner photo no. 4
Scattered Dreams, Phoenix, Arizona, 2018
The water itself also becomes a character, aided by the strong natural illumination that sculpts distinct areas of shadow and light, conjuring an almost spiritual aura. The dark- ness that envelops his subjects can represent the subconscious or the unknown, while “the images that include a lot of surface disorder could be a boundary, or the swirling infinite of possibility.”

“I could probably make a decent series of images without any people,” Potts says. “But as with most images of places (real or ethere- al, such as these), adding the figure gives it life and a voice, scale and meaning. Separate, both would be complete works, but together, they become more than the sum of their parts.
Photo: Michael Potts: Portfolio Contest Winner photo no. 5
Awakening, Phoenix, Arizona, 2020
“There is a definite spiritual component as well, as we are spirits in physical shells. We rise and fall in life, in dream, in spirit, so each contains and represents the other. Breath in and out, sleep and wake, rise and fall, dichoto- mous and circuitous. In many ways, we are reborn each night from the dreamland, or per- haps we die here to enter the dreaming.”

The Dreamtime series shares similar qualities and themes with the other projects seen on Potts’ website (compellingly provocative portraits and nudes), particularly with regard to the personal and creative influences that have shaped his art.
“Ultimately, any work involving people is about the relationships I have with them. My best and most-beloved pictures are the ones of people I’ve worked with multiple times, and with whom I’ve developed good relationships and established a bond of trust. This ‘relation- ship first’ approach was strongly emphasized by a photographer who has kindly encouraged and mentored me during my creative journey, Jock Sturges.”

Fact File
Phoenix, AZ
Epson prints of approximately 11×14 inches on 13×19 paper are available in editions of 10 with 1 AP, currently with #1s being $500.