Michelle Pemberton has been shaping the imagery of the city of Indianapolis for many years working as a photographer for the Indianapolis Star. She is also a big part of the arts and fashion scene around town. We met for coffee in Broad Ripple for this interview. She had a decaf chai tea, and I had a black coffee. Michelle was adventurous enough to agree to let me use her gear to shoot some images of her in an alley. Although it was one of the more artful and cool things I have done this year, she later informed me that all of the images I took had soft focus. Disappointing, yes, but it was a pleasure meeting and talking with one of Indy’s finest. She’s got style, a great laugh and interesting stories to tell. She thinks everyone has a story, and she is always looking to capture a moment.
Pattern: I know you work for the Indianapolis Star, but what exactly do you do for them?
Michelle: These days we like to call ourselves multimedia journalists. You are expected to do photo and video. I do a lot of that. My work can range from documenting hard news to illustrations, where I get to be creative, to fashion and fine art photography.
How long have you been at the Star?
I’m going on my 15th year come October.
What do you love about your job?
The thing I appreciate the most about my job is the people I get to meet. It’s something new every day. Everyone has a story to tell in the city. It’s always interesting.
What makes for a good photo?
It could just be something that is a powerful moment emotionally or visually. Or it just might be something that is truly beautiful, and that is hard to capture.
How would you define your personal style?
I think it changes a lot. The basics of what I do, usually there is a vintage aspect to it. Right now I’m into old leather that looks like it’s deteriorating. Actually some of it is old leather that is deteriorating that I find on eBay! (Laughs) I really like mixing that with motorcycle chic and a lot of things that symbolize a strong, independent, powerful woman who is not afraid to get her hands dirty. A lot of what I wear has to be utilitarian because of my job. I’m a very active woman. If I can find something amazing, sexy and is still useful everyday, that’s what I’m after.
When do you know that you are ready, clothing and style wise , to head out the door?
I don’t know if I ever feel ready, I have to just finally shove myself out.(Laughs) People who spend a lot of time on style, maybe you are someone, like myself, who isn’t always comfortable with how they look. That might come from being the nerdy girl, or the dorky girl when you were a kid, like me.(Laughs) You want to look nice when you leave, and once you get out the door and you are feeling confident, you are ready for the day and you’re like, “Yeah, let’s kick some ass!” (Laughs)
You are a wardrobe stylist. How does that affect your personal style?
I’m lucky when I do art direction or styling; I get to sift through a lot of great pieces. I’m the same size or close to most of the models, so there are a lot of times when I come back from the shoot and say… “ahhh I’m just going to keep this one,” and then I go buy it.
You do some modeling too, right?
Just occasionally, I don’t think I’m very good at it. (Laughs)
So you prefer being behind the camera?
I do. Of the two I’m better behind the camera.
What has being behind the camera for so many years taught you about being in front of it?
It’s taught me to never ask my model to do something I’m not comfortable to do myself. That is one of the reasons why I do model a little, so I can remember how they feel. So I can interact better with them and make them feel more comfortable. I’ve learned a lot of life lessons behind the camera and how to interact with every different kind of person.
How do you make a subject comfortable in front of the camera?
I let them go at their own paces. “What would you like to do?” I will do whatever they want to do for a minute so they can be comfortable.
How do find the beauty and art when photographing people?
I think everyone is beautiful. To catch that moment where they’re unconscious of whats happening, that is usually when I find people look the most beautiful.The models can turn it off or on when they want. Everyday people have that moment where they think about something and smile about it or they just look at something and the way they look at it, it’s just a beautiful moment. To catch that moment is what I try to get.
Where are you rewarded in your work? Is it the consumption of what you have created?
In some ways. A lot of what I do doesn’t really get appreciated. You do things, and you hope that it makes a difference in the community. What I’m really proud of are the kind of stories where you get to tell someone’s story when they wouldn’t have otherwise had a voice, and it really does change their life and hopefully for the better.
What about your contributions to the art scene here in Indy?
I’ve done a lot in the arts community over the years. When you see how far First Friday has come or other art movements in the city, whether I have been a part of that specific project or covered them for the paper, it’s a circle of life. People know about it, go to it, appreciate it. Maybe they even bought someone’s piece. Maybe some dude, instead of sitting home watching Sports Center, went to an art show and actually enjoyed it.
What do you think of the style and culture around Indy?
I think it’s changed a lot. Especially for men. Women, you could always be progressive and that would generally be well received. I see the boys in high school and college, and they are all fashioned up. Wearing things that you might see in Chicago or New York. When I was coming up, we were the weird kids that nobody wanted to talk to for dressing like that, but now its like, “They’re cool.” (Laughs)
If you could design a new uniform for the Colts, give me some bullet points of what that might look like.
I think they wear way too much clothing. (Laughs) That is kind of the beauty of athletes, the beautiful body and muscle tone and it’s nice to see that.
A perfect night out for you would be…
A Creedence Clearwater Revival reunion concert with my boyfriend and we would discuss our love of flannel while eating stuffed filet mignon.
If I have one regret, it’s….
Deciding to not have regrets sooner.
If I could give one piece of advice, it would be….
Live life fully, or you’re wasting it.
Art and creativity is a valid religion.