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EPF 2010 Finalist

Michael Christopher Brown


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I feel most alive while on the road. As a result, I am often drawn to photograph people in a state of transition. Fifty years ago President Dwight D. Eisenhower ordered the construction of Americas Interstate Highway System, which helped open the Heartland and West and create a culture that would eventually spread around the world. China is experiencing a similar boom in industrialization and culture and I am currently driving around the country, photographing along the expanding road network. While the final form of this project remains unclear, while crossing the country I can only continue to listen, record and grow.  A loose approach, using small film cameras while often photographing without looking through the viewfinder, has enabled me to focus less on the lens and more on having an experience.



Raised in Washington State, Michael moved to New York and began working as a freelance photographer in 2006. His clients include GEO, Time, National Geographic Magazine, Smithsonian, Fortune, The Atlantic and ESPN The Magazine, among others. When not on assignment he might be found driving around China in his modified bread van.


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Michael Christopher Brown


41 thoughts on “michael christopher brown – china”

  1. Some very good pictures, unfortunately here weighed down by others nowhere near as good. I LOVE number 14. My advice, keep numbers 8, 14, 15, 16, and 18 and leave the others out. As it stands, it doesn’t form a coherent essay, to me at least. But Michael clearly has something going which he should pursue.

  2. It is great to see Michael among the short list again this year. There is no question that he has what it takes to produce multiple stories/ essays back to back…. I do not know him but you get a sense looking at his work that Michael could go anywhere as a photojournalist and produce on demand great supporting material… This essay on China is very good, with few pictures that I may have left out (I do not particularly like nb 2) but there are some that I really like. I find the last one very magical… I also like 4, 14, 16 well…does not matter really several are just great… Only point is that I could not stop myself from comparing this essay with his Sakkhalin essay last year and somehow, maybe because that Sakkhalin Eastern countries area spoke to me and my imagination more, I was even more positive last year vs this year. The one question I would have for Michael is about where he wants to go next…we all ask ourselves that question at some stage but how to do go even one level up….This essay is great but of the same vein for me at least as last year… While great, it did not add to me vs the great work you did last year except it is about a different place. This is outstanding to do the work you do and have that consistency in the quality of the work you produce but have you thought about doing something even more personal, closer to home…something that would be more different and in a way, taking you into another rich path… Not sure I am making much sense but hope you understand what I mean :):):…

    In any case Michael , my sincere congratulations again and look forward to get your thoughts….



  3. I went to full screen mode, where image number one appeared large before me and I liked it, but I was a bit bothered by the unnatural purple flare in the lower middle and I thought, man, I would have done what I could to tone that purple down as it is just a distraction to an otherwise excellent photo. Then I advanced to # 2 and I thought, oh boy, it looks like this is going to the Burn essay that I do not enjoy at all.

    I then moved to #3. Whoa! I said to myself. This is a good image. I like it. Maybe there is promise here. And in fact, from that point on, I was taken by every single image. Like Sidney, I absolutely loved #14, but others as well. I spent some time pondering #5, which at first glance struck me as weak, but upon further study it came across to me. I wanted to know a little more, though, like why was what appears to be an American flag crumpled up upon the ground alongside a coal plant in Harbin, China?

    This is not a criticism, I would not expect you to answer every question your photographs raise, but I wondered.

    Now I will go back and study photo #2 again and see if whatever is in it that struck you and your editor at Burn as worthy of publication might come across to me this time.

    I am not going to tell you if it does. I will let you wonder whether I became converted or not.

  4. Michael, I know it’s not fair but, like Eric, I find myself comparing this body of work with Sakhalin and Sakhalin wins. Perhaps it’s the fact that Sakhalin was such an unusual place with such tanglibly harsh weather conditions and a mood that permeated every photo in your essay. Maybe it is simply that the photos were stronger. But, that being said, I can see why this essay is a finalist for EPF 2009.

    You have a way of placing us inside a place without contrivance or self conscious technical fireworks. Images like #3 and #12 just do it for me. You leave us with more questions than answers and that is the key. Stay with it, Michael, and keep looking for the unexpected, surprises that make you ask more and more questions. China has been “done,” for sure, but that doesn’t mean you won’t find something no one has found before. If anyone can find it, you will.

    I would also love to see your own surroundings through your eyes. I know you’re an explorer but maybe your explorations could take you back where you started from. Would be interesting to see…


  5. I’m sorry, but I just don’t get this one. Photos are okay for someone with that resume, but even the photographer admits they’re not really about anything, at least not yet. It’s like if I printed all my favorite photos, put them on the wall, threw twenty darts and called the results “America.” Maybe we’re just in some post post post aprés moderne mundo these days where mimicking some tourist’s twenty cities in twenty days cheap camera out the bus window approach is so deliciously ironic, but by “we” I don’t mean “me” and if I wanna see “America,” I prefer Robert Frank’s approach to the dartboard method of which even I am capable and right now I feel the same way about “China.”

  6. I dunno. I mean, for me theres two or three really cool shots and a bunch of stuff with some nice colour.
    But it does kind of take you on a little journey..if thats what floats your boat. I think I may wait for the train though.

  7. OK so it’s not about the technical ability anymore. It’s about ability to tell a story. I am starting to get that. So where’s the story in this essay? Most images to my eye are fairly cliche, good in their own right but where is the story? I am confronted by this critique when looking at my own work, so nothing personal here. So is the effort that goes into getting there and staying there for an extended period of time what seperates wheat from chaff? Don’t get me wrong I like this essay. Is it top ten material? It must be.

  8. Michael :))

    big congrats for making it 2 years in a row….some great pics, as always….preferred the Sakkhalin essay as well, but shit, as a photographer, theres a whole bunch of my own work i prefer to other bunches of my own work, it’s natural…..as a shooter that rarely looks anymore through a viewfinder (at least not with my lomos or with the toy cameras and rarely with the old 35mm or russian rangefinders), i completely agree with the sense of moving photography toward the physical experience rather than as a cerebral exercise in composition, with you all the way on that….my only lamentation is that i’ve seen so much work on china and particularly work done by known and unknown chinese photographers, and as an essay i didn’t feel that level of either intimacy or the alienation that i would have expected….that aside, you take some ferociously gorgeous pictures, indeed :))))….i think 6 is brilliant, just madly brilliant (in conception), 14 is iconic and heart breaking (her expression, the trapped blue in the puddle) and shit a bunch of others….maybe it is JUST the arbitrary limitation of 25 pictures for the EPF in which i’m struggling here, ’cause i can see you making this baby sing…and by arbitrary limitation, i do not mean david/anton are being arbitrary or limiting, but that the simple demands of a competition and to be realistic (to keep a limit) can one edit that works brilliantly for some work and doesn’t work for another body/photographer…so that may very well be the think bugging me as i look through this edit…

    anyway, in truth, what your story (these 25 pics) best feels like is my favorite chinese filmmaker’s first 2 films….Jia Zhangke ‘s Pickpocket and Platform…it feels more like Platform (his first masterpiece)…if you can, watch Platform…and then everything else he’s made after…they’re all avaialbe on dvd….

    well done michael


  9. Michael’s website is spectacularly impressive. I’m loving his ‘Boxer’ series at the moment.

    I honestly don’t understand why there has to be an explicit so-called ‘story’ for people to be able to appreciate a collection of strong images either. Someone needs to burn this rulebook when they find it!

  10. to expound the littlest bit on my comment…realistically I may only ‘love’ 4 images out of this series, but that is quite enough for me here, because those images transport me on many levels, in a way that much work cannot.

  11. jenny lynn walker

    I feel most alive on the road too. And the journeys I love most are journeys without a plan. To hit the road and see where it leads – see where you end up, who you meet and come across and all that you learn.
    I have no problem with this or a series of seemingly random photographs connected only by the fact that they were taken on a journey. In fact, I love it! It’s a concept that i LOVE because it is largely how I live my life and what LIFE can be all about (if you like it that way): an exploration.

    I also like that, to some extent, it captures a country ‘in transition’. There is so much variety between the photographs – it gives the impression of leaping across centuries with vast time gaps and the actual way the images are taken also reflects that. The last image is one of my favourites in this regard. BUT, others are very far from the mark and whilst I love the inconsistency in that regard, I don’t at all like the inconsistency in camera angles. In fact, it gets my goat! I sense that by nature you want to take images straight on – that the framing at oblique angles is actually ‘out of character’. It could be an exploration of self, a sort of pushing oneself to do things differently as an exercise in extending oneself? I know I like to do that so I like it as a concept, but feel the images taken or selected chosen are simply not powerful enough. I hope you will not take this in the wrong way – it is simply my feeling and I may be entirely wrong. I have not seen your other work, deliberately, so this makes my analysis an exploration a guessing game which is how I like it because I’m enjoying it tremendously! Thank you so much!

    I also don’t look though the viewfinder anymore but for the past few years been working in digital. I will soon go to your website an see if I got anything right or return to see if you add any comments on this! I stayed in China for 8 months some years ago and loved the areas that I saw. I would love to return to but may not have the chance… : (


    By the way, is the caption on 15 there to wind me up?! ; ) You mention the construction site which can hardly be seen but not the Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet still under Chinese occupation after 50 years!

  12. to expound a little bit on my comment, I think most of the problem I have with the essay could be solved by changing the title from “China” to something like “China in Transition,” which is consistent with the statement and is likely more of an achievable goal than “China, the whole Enchilada.” Although I might agree that such things as titles and statements and captions aren’t important to photographs or sequences of photographs, I think that once one has chosen to use them, they need to support the work rather than undermine it.

    My knee jerk reaction was that it’s preposterous to try to tell a story in twenty photos that could realistically be called “China.” But then I started thinking about it and am not so sure. I wonder how Frank approached “America.” Did he identify his themes beforehand or as he went along? Or probably more realistically, what was the mix?

    Although it’s impossible to prove, I think that there is something about the photographer’s intent that imbues, or doesn’t, a photograph with emotional resonance. Sounds kinda new-agey, I know, but I think I’ve heard DAH say something similar. Correct me if I’m wrong David, but it was something to the effect that a photograph without a story, or perhaps without a strong sense of authorship, is just a photograph. That’s kinda what I feel with these pictures. I love the last one, for example. But I get no sense it’s about anything. And no, in general, I don’t think a photo has to be about something. But it does seem like that one should.

  13. ^Or maybe he wanted to contrast the solid word ‘China’ with the fragmented reality of what it is. Who knows, really?

    I’m also not sure that I agree with the idea that a photo is about a certain thing/has a certain meaning, just because the person who took the photo says it is about that; the ‘photographer’s intent’ that you talk about is a funny, sometimes sinister, thing that can’t always be trusted.

    Sorry I’m not trying to be contentious at all MW, but you’re just raising some interesting issues here, with regard to this essay and but also for photography in general for that matter…

  14. Perhaps the issue people are having has more to do with inconsistency in the aesthetic than anything else.
    This has future brilliance written all over it. For me, the first and the last photos frame the essay I hope to see expanded one day.

    p.s. Funny, I looked at a bread truck for sale the other day, dreaming.

  15. To me this is again the best essay from both years of the EPF grant finalists.

    One of the reasons that I love this particular essay is due the fact that Michael has tried something different as he admits in his text. I agree with one of the other comments stating that ‘Sakhalin’ was a very strong work, but I would differ in saying that it is not better than ‘China’, just different. These are indeed two completely different places and environments and the resulting work reflects this. Having said this, ‘Sakhalin’ is perhaps extremely strong, but we have seen some of those kinds of images before. Off the top of my head I’m thing about Jonas Bendikson’s wonderful work ‘Satellites’. ‘China’ seems new. Perhaps it is the technique and the kind of film used that produces this wonderful soft grain.

    Regardless, it is evident that MCB is a very talented photographer who can play with color and texture in situations that require quick decision making and perhaps even “sensing” rather than seeing the moment.

    At least half of these images are super strong and who cares if they don’t tell a story at this point or are not very organized. I’m convinced something great will come out of this project in the end, if there is an end :-)

    I have one question…What is the image on the poster in #15? Is it not Tibet? This photo is superb!..so many levels

    These photos made my evening…Bravo!

  16. You have inspired me to dust off the old LOMO. I am so happy to revisit this style of photography, its so visceral and spontaneous.

    Out of curiosity (and I know it goes against the “forget the technical” philosophy) but what cameras are you shooting with?

  17. Michael – congratulations!!!

    At least for me, most of the photographs in your essay transport a certain feeling that makes me want to jump into my shoes, grab my camera and go, go, go! Maybe it’s because you capture transition – and as transition does not exclusively consist of a new start’s wonder but also of vanitas, situations but also entire settings seem to fade away. I agree, that the edit could be a little tighter, but maybe it’s just me not being able to “get” some of the images.

    The man with the pink bag is just fantastic! Your last image leaves me in a William Turner painting.
    And I love Turner.


    i agree with both of you…Sakhalin a stronger body of work overall…however, when a photographer’s mean line is an essay like this, then we have a photographer to be reckoned with overall..Michael is right on the edge…what happens to him in the next three or four years will tell all…he knows this…he knows what he wants and who he thinks he should be, but he also knows that he has a step to go..a big step….this should be interesting for all of you…to see where Mike goes from here….i have watched Mike since college days…always thought he just might make it…Mike is at the swing point….let’s hope he knocks the ball out of the park…

    cheers, david

  19. I don’t think this work is bad by any stretch of my imagination. It just leaves me somewhat cold. I think that’s due to a combination of the scale of the challenge and the drive by nature of the strategy. I suspect that 20 photos from just about any one of these locations would tell us more about China in transition than this lot and 100 more photos from 100 more different spots. I know I’d rather see 20 more from near a river near Nanchang.

    And don’t worry Max, you don’t come off as contentious. And I don’t mean to, at least not in this case. I’d much rather be with the majority here, who I respect, particularly on aesthetic issues. But, alas, I’m not. Nevertheless, my intent is to be constructive and my humble advice is to consider finding a few locations or situations, I’d say at least four, that can stand metaphorically for “China in Transition” and explore those exhaustively. Perhaps with that kind of foundation the photos that are more drive by in nature would work as transitions themselves.

    Anyway, sorry for my earlier flippancy and congratulations on your achievement — michael webster

  20. Michael, I am going to have to go with mw on this one. I have watched it several times and just can’t attach myself to it. I believe this is due to the lack of focus (I am not the biggest fan of shooting without checking what is in the viewfinder–not many can pull it off well), and the lack of definition with the color and form leaves me hanging. I do like a lot of your work on your site however. I am just not feeling it for this essay.

    Congratulations on getting into the finals. That is an achievement to be picked as a finalist out of the number of submissions.

  21. Wow.., first, congratulations for being a finalist, and for appearing here for the second time.

    I’ve just spent a bunch of time on your website. You have amazing talent. I’m exhausted just looking. Wonderful work. It is interesting to see how your work changes as time passes, and to see you exploring the medium.
    I tried very hard to like this, but I am afraid I’m with those here that see this series as the weakest in your whole portfolio.
    It is usually my habit to read the text before viewing. This time, I viewed the photos first, and I’m afraid I was bored and a bit confused. After reading the text, I was just as confused.
    There are a few images I like, somewhat, but none that really speak loudly to me. I really don’t like the added texture, and the tech quality in general. Banding, fuzziness, exessive contrast, bad colour (not all the images). I’m sorry to sound critical, but I felt as I was being manipulated along with the photographs.

    I realize, reading others comments, that I’m clearly missing something. I’m not sure if that is my fault or yours. Perhaps it is like myself and industrial strength jazz. Despite being a musician, I just don’t get it.

  22. Hi
    I like these a lot, I enjoy the glimpse into China it provides. I don’t think you can expect more than a glimpse, a taste even, when your looking at China. In that respect I think the piece works really well.
    I want (a print of) image 20 – looks like it was shot through the lung of a forty-a-day merchant seaman. Reminds me of a Turner work ;)
    Cheers – Rob

  23. Excellent!
    Mike you are one of a kind!…Amazing photographer and a very sweet, smooth personality…
    No wonder you are “here”..good luck to all your travels..
    u r a great inspiration..

  24. Michael, congratulations at being published here again! For this essay, 1,16 and 20 do it for me – with 16 being greatly aided by the caption in terms of understanding. With regard to your technique, can you please let us know what cameras you are using and details of your post processing. For me, again, for me, the look is ok, good sometimes, but not one that I would encourage you to follow entirely. It is in vogue now but vogue will change and it will seem dated soon it think.

    I’ve looked at most of your portfolio and remember seeing some of your work here and in Nat Geo. It was very interesting to look at your tearsheets and notice what picture editors are choosing to publish of your work. They look decidedly different to much of your website. What has been published has a more classic photojournalism look to it. The photographs are sharp and detailed, they tell a story.

    Much of your website imparts mood rather than information about a place or a people. Something to think about; I’m not saying change your vision because I don’t believe that you or anyone can, but are you aiming for photo story telling or fine art? I know that some are attempting to have a foot in both camps, perhaps with fine art sales providing funding for travel. Where do you stand on this issue?

    Hope you read this and look at your website and then your tearsheets and hope it helps. As DAH says, knock the ball out of the park!

    Best wishes,


  25. jenny lynn walker

    Michael – I forgot to say congratulations for being published on Burn again! Wishing you all good luck – we’re missing a picture of you on your travels in the converted bread van! Like David says: “knock the ball out of the park” – both literally and figuratively!

    I’m delving into Michael’s website and loving it – Sakhalin, Chinese Circus, Mumbotion! – ha! it’s certainly a city on the move. How very playful! What strikes me about this ‘China’ work is the lack of motion and blur as compared with much of the work on the site. Now I’m wondering if that is conscious and what could be motivating it. I have also seen that the frequency of different camera angles with no apparent need for them – just pure playfulness or a desire to be less of a photographer (the me photographer, you subject approach) and more of a friend – is consistent with the author’s other work. I like this motivation – it is behind my approach as well.

    In fact, this looks exactly like a visual diary which stories can be made from moments! So I am wondering if the author makes the stories himself for the magazines or gives access to editors to make stories from the diary in hand with himself? It would be very instructive to know the answer…

  26. Hey, I’m another who forgot to say, “Congratulations” for being published on Burn twice.

    So, congratulations! Congratulations!

  27. Michael,

    I re-read my post and just wanted to say first of all Congratulations. I often post my firt impression and then take some more time with the essay. Going back and looking again I want to say that as for color photography I do really like this piece (some really fantastic shots) and as for story, it is not so much a story as evocation of an emotional response and that is more than valid. I also went to your site and was very impressed and believe (not that my opinion really matters) that you deserve all the recongition you have recieved. I can come off a bit crusty from time to time so sorry for that. I often let my own frustrations come out instead of focusing on the work, so again I really like this piece and as I said before. Is it top ten? It must be.

  28. Folks,
    Thanks for taking the time to look over the work and respond. I’ll answer some of these questions as best I can.
    Eric & Patricia: Good questions – Where to go next and how to get there – To make things more personal and closer to home – It all takes listening to the gut, self-analyzation and follow through. And time. This past year I needed to step back so I focused on my own projects rather than hustling for jobs and the business end of things. The process is beginning to feel magical again. I do have a project in the U.S. in mind but the time is not right. Though there is something about China that seems right – closer to ‘home’ and personal. China seems more like a home than an exploration. So I’m not sure it is China that is the focus of these pictures. I have been paying more attention to the process of taking pictures, my intentions and the truth and what that all means. I recommend ‘Camera Lucida’ by Roland Barthes, for anyone who has not read..
    Frostfrog: It is not an American flag but a red, white and blue piece of tarpaulin. As far as toning the images were barely toned – though the scans are not of the best quality. Many of them were scanned on a low-res scanner at a film shop in Beijing and the rest on an Epson flatbed. At this stage the wide edit (including these 20) has not been edited tightly enough (too early in the project) to begin a round of expensive scanning.
    Bob: Thanks for the insight and film recommendations. Saw 24 city in NYC but have not seen any of the other films so I will go check youku in a few mins :)
    Max: I agree. Not that all the images are strong but that the rulebook needs some revising.
    MW: I see your point. ‘China’ is definitely a working title and may have been chosen here because I was late on submitting the working title at the time, which was xiasi, or ‘reverie.’ Good question about Frank’s approach of America. Just my two cents but I think he drove around photographing whatever he found interesting. He certainly had motivations, as do we all, but I don’t think he photographed with the intent of making some grand statement about America.
    James: Thanks man. Send your email when you get a chance – I’ve pics from that Bonnaroo 2005 trip you gotta see!
    David Bacher: Thanks for your comments and I agree with regards to Russia. At some point we start to see the same pictures. There is, however, much great work about China that hasn’t been seen by a larger audience. Image #15 is a poster graphic of the potala palace on the outside wall of a construction site and beneath it are oversized, photoshopped Tibetan children. As the picture was taken in Xian, a treasured Chinese city (home to the Terracotta Warriors), the posters are likely just propaganda.
    Kbtownsend: Contax T3 and Leica M6.
    DAH: To the greatest mentor – Thank you.
    Engelsmannen: Ha. Ah yes, the air in Nanchang…
    Panos: My man. Thanks and I have some photos to share with you as well – from the roof.
    Mike R: Good points and I see where the confusion may come from. Most of the published work was produced on photojournalistic type assignments where as the other work was mostly produced on my own. BURN has so far been the best publication for my personal work. I can’t say I consider myself a photojournalist or an artist. I am interested in interpretation though I don’t aim to explain the meaning of something. If there are things to say it often means I am working on assignment.
    Jenny Lynn: Some of the stories on the website were for publication and others were not. Part of Sakhalin was for publication but not Chinese Circus or Mumbotion.
    Big thanks again everybody. And a big thanks again to BURN.

  29. Mike, thanks for taking the time to answer so thoroughly. Good answers.

    Best wishes and look forward to seeing you work in the future.


  30. jenny lynn walker

    Yes, many thanks for your answers Mike.

    My interpretation of your reply to me is that some of the work is commissioned. I hope I have this right.

    Wishing all the best shots come your way on your travels around China!

  31. I understand that film and it’s graininess are “cool”… but when I know a picture could have turned out much better with an amateur DSLR, it makes me wonder. Sometimes clarity kills the soul, i get that. Anyways, the point I’d like to make is that… I generally don’t like blurry/grainy film pictures… but your images have so much character and mood, it give me just a little more patience. This is really really nice work.

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