The Mark McInnis Photo Interview: Straight Outta Oregon | “If someone asked me if I was an artist I would say, ‘No.’ I don’t know why bc I view photography as art. As an art.”
The Mark McInnis Interview
The images that photographer Mark McInnis creates float above the sea of mediocrity that social media spews out daily. After first coming across his work five years ago, I was struck at the story worthy moments he could freeze in time both at home in Oregon and around the world. Mark’s timeless and passionate style was a perfect fit for a new surf magazine we had just launched called LATER. Immediately he became a main contributor. Our paths randomly crossed soon after somewhere between Mexico and Oregon – Mark does NOT name locations. As we stood staring at shitty waves off the PCH I learned that even though he lives hours away from a stoplight, he isn’t a full granola cruncher. He has some serious knowledge of gangsta rap and can also shred the metal.
Mark is now a globetrotting photography superstar who is rarely home long enough to unpack his bags. Even though we’ve searched for perfect waves in sketchy corners of the earth together, I’d still yet to visit the slice of heaven he’d carved out of the coastal woods for himself. When I found out he was going to be home for a week I jumped at the chance to leave the rat race behind and check out the Oregon that made Mark the passionate talent he is.
The timing was perfect for a catch-up talk as he was selected as the first photographer to participate in the Red Bull Chasing The Shot series, he’s coming hot off a gallery show in Portland, and his first self-published book Alba is available for purchase. With his corporate and personal work booming one thing is certain, Mark will always have his feet firmly rooted in Oregon soil.
Rapper: If there were no budget constraints how would you take your coffee?
McInnis: Exactly how I get it; triple hemp milk latte. You gotta get the Pacific hemp milk.
What’s your biggest gripe as a surf photographer?
The first thing that comes to mind is how much crap you have to travel with. But then you look at filmers and they have twice as much gear and you feel like a wuss when you say that.
What about having your name misspelt?
That’s huge. I hate having my name misspelt. You communicate on emails and my last name there is spelt right. So those editors can’t double check their inbox? It’s kind of frustrating.
Anything you do there are things that get to you. Getting a sick shot of a surfer and there’s another photographer near you. And then you see that shot somewhere before yours is used and it takes the gusto out of getting it ran. At the same time it’s your fault for being an idiot and standing right next to someone else. Everything falls back on you too when you realize it.
As a photographer what’s the most gratifying way to see your work displayed or published?
Doing the Alba book was pretty sick. Even though I hardly sold anything it was a cool personal accomplishment to see a collection of your work from one trip. To have that tangible was super cool.
Did you have that planned out in advance?
No, we just shot so many images on that trip. No matter how many features it ran in there were still going to be images that I’d want to get out there. But in terms of a goal, you always want to set the bar high. Seeing the awesome books that Burky, Jeremy Koreski, and Corey Arnold make. They are all collectible. Something that could sit on the table for 20 years. A book or a major part in something memorable like that I’d be stoked on.
Is that in the back of your head when you’re shooting for a client or is that totally separate?
When I’m working with a client I want to make sure that they are getting what’s in their head. At the same time they are coming to you for what you do. There’s always a push and pull, so get everything. Tight, pulled back, portraits, everything. You’re trying to cover all the bases. When you do trips or personal stuff that is definitely on my mind. Getting a crazy shot.
So with art vs. commerce, how does your photography fit into that?
It almost seems like they are the same thing now with social media. I don’t know if I’ve ever thought about what I do and considered myself an artist. It’s weird. If someone asked me if I was an artist the first thing I would say is, ‘No.’ I don’t know why because I definitely view photography as art. As an art. For some reason when I think of artistry I think of drawing and all that. The point I’m getting at is after starting this whole thing it’s been about trying to make a living. Trying to hustle. Trying to make contacts and get on cool trips. Getting and maintaining clients. Growing bigger and becoming more sought after. Honing in on a style so that you can generate business. It’s been about selling something. Selling myself as a photographer. Selling my art. Selling my time.
So with social media is that something that helps you with those goals or is it something you struggle with having to be a part of?
Again it’s a double-edged sword. My favorite client found me on Instagram. At first it was an insane business opportunity and I still enjoy doing it, but also those people have become close personal friends. So I’d say social media has been huge for me even though I don’t have some crazy following. If it generates things like that then I owe it something. And it is fun to post. You go through stages. At the same time it’d be sweet to be one of those people that is completely off the social media radar, but was pulling in seven figures. It is hard to promote yourself and it feels weird to be like, ‘Hey, look what I did. I’m so cool. You should double tap this on your little screen.”
Where do you draw the line between getting ‘likes’ versus posting your own personal favorites that showcase your unique strengths? It’s pretty obvious when deciding between two photos which one is going to get more likes.
As the photographer there’s often a photo that will mean more to you than it would mean to the audience, so there is a struggle there. Do you post the photo that’s not going to get as many likes? Which really who cares? It’s so stupid the whole thing, but for some reason it is important and I care about it. And then you’re like, oh this photo, people are going to ‘like’ this more. But maybe if I post the photo that’s not as visually appealing and tell that personal story people will identify with the words instead of the photo. You never know.
Or maybe less people will ‘like’ it but it might hit one person hard and impact their life.
Exactly. Or change your career.
What role does living in Oregon play in your work and career?
When you’re trying to start your career all you have is what you’re surrounded by. You’re not doing any crazy trips. So I owe Oregon a lot because it helped me stand out as a photographer. It also didn’t make me many friends here, but it definitely helped me stand out and put a different spin on things. Now it’s getting to the point that when I come home I almost don’t want to shoot. Not because I don’t think it is beautiful, but because I think it’s even more beautiful now. When I was starting I wanted to show everyone, ‘Hey look at this pretty picture I can take.’ I wasn’t necessarily taking into account how special some places were. That’s something I’ll admit. So now I like being here more. It’s more relaxing and it’s the place I come to not work. Even though I still do.
Surfing in LA must be different than the PNW. Can you get down with it?
Los Angeles surfing is indeed the polar opposite of anything in the Pacific Northwest. That said, of course I can get down with that. I had the most epic longboard session in Malibu. You have to go to places like that with the understanding that you are going to get burnt. On the contrary, I have had sessions where I get so mad because of the crowds I swear I’m going to quit surfing forever. The first time I surfed Lowers I got burned by groms the entire session and nearly had a brain aneurysm from the frustration. But that’s on me. I should’ve known and will probably never surf Lowers again. As with all things in life, the pendulum swings both ways.
You met some new famous friends surfing in Malibu right?
I was sleeping in my truck on the way back north and woke up and went to the Dume Plaza for coffee. I was waiting for the person in front of me to order, so I simply asked if he was still deciding. He turned around and it was Rob Lowe saying, “Go ahead.” I was tripping out. After that, I went to the beach to meet some buddies and found an epic parking spot. I took my board out, but realized I had stripped all the wax off of it already. So I see a dude a couple cars away with the back of his crappy looking Prius open. I mosey over and say, “Hey, do you think I could buy some wax off of you?” And before I even saw the guys face, I knew it was Edward Norton by the sound of his voice. He tosses me a bar of wax, but refuses my offer. Solid dude. Tripping times two. Next, I get a call from my buddies who are close. There was a parking spot right behind me so I told them I would hold it. But before I even hung up some stupid little golf cart pulled in and parked like a complete asshole. I walked up to see if they wouldn’t mind pulling forward and it was Anthony Kiedis from the Red Hot Chili Peppers. He was meeting my old friend Eddie for a surf and kindly moved up admitting that he had totally parked like an asshole. Another solid dude. I had been to LA numerous times before, but had never ran into a celebrity, let alone three huge celebrities in the span of an hour. My little backwoods Oregon mind was absolutely blown.
Is it safer to sleep in your truck in Malibu or Portland?
Sleeping in your truck can be weird no matter where you are. Just last week, I was bumming it in NW Portland and woke up in the back of the truck to three punk kids inside stealing crap. They stole my backpack out of the truck. I was watching the J-Bay event on my phone and forgot to lock the doors when I crawled in the back to go to bed. I called 911, and when I hung up some street kid told me that they knew where the kids were with my backpack and then they took off running to try and get it for me! I was asleep and had no idea what was happening. Right then the cops came around the corner so I didn’t go with the person, but sure enough, they got my bag back and then got in a fight with the cops for not doing anything and then asked for my number to do a photo shoot for me. It was so bizarre. I gave them all the cash in my wallet and took off. As I am pulled over a few blocks away shaking from adrenaline and taking inventory of my once stolen backpack, some girl opens up the back door of my truck and tries to get in, saying that I have her friend Chun Li with me. I snapped and told her I was by myself. She gives me this blank stare and says, “No you’re not!” I told her to get the hell out of the truck.
What about situation with sharkiness in the PNW? Are there places you wouldn’t swim or do you feel like you don’t have to worry?
There are places that I think straight up people are crazy for swimming at. There have been some photographers come up here and swim at them. One part of me is like, ‘Good for you,’ and the other part is, ‘Why?’
Do they just not know?
I’m not sure. It’s easy as a surf photographer to gauge if a spots sharky or has that weird vibe to it. But there have been more fatalities in Southern California then in the Pacific North West in the last, however many years. You’re always hearing about something weird going on down there. It is definitely sharky, but it’s not like people are getting attacked left-and-right.
Why should people care about your photography? What’s the ‘mark’ you want to leave?
This is one of those questions that some people have at their fingertips and can rattle off. I don’t have that. Maybe I’m selfish and it makes me happy to shoot photos and it keeps me psyched to get up everyday. To work like you have a 9-to-5, but you’re doing it for yourself so it doesn’t really feel like work type of thing. It’s always cool when every couple months I get a random email through my website with somebody saying, “Hey I’ve had your photos of Nicaragua on my desktop for 6-months, just wanted to reach out and let you know they’re awesome and blah blah…”
It’s so cool that someone would take time out of their day to write that. It sounds so cliché, but truly in your heart if somebody tells you that your images, or your painting or your words or anything, made them feel a certain way or – I kind of hate the word ‘inspires’ now because everything is fucking ‘inspiring’ these days – I don’t know why, but I guess it is the right word.
It’s like ‘adventure.’ Everyone’s going on fucking ‘adventures’ these days that are the softest trips ever.
Yeah, but I don’t know. If somebody sees a photo and it was something that made them dream. It goes hand-in-hand with why I don’t name locations. When I look at photos I like to dream about, not necessarily that spot, but somewhere like it. To keep people dreaming, to keep people wandering, and guessing ‘where is that?’ or ‘places like that exist?’ That’s cool.
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