Michael Friberg is a documentary and editorial photographer based in Salt Lake, City Utah. This selection of work, entitled ‘Domaine Binner’, captures everyday life at a small, family owned, 200 year old biodynamic/organic winery in Alsace, France.
How did you discover this place? Do you have specific inspiration for this project?
‘One of my best friends, Evan Lewendowski, has been gallivanting around the world for the last 5 years, apprenticing at different wineries, learning the craft of wine making. We have been in constant touch and he is a creative guy with a lot of opinions. One day, over skype or g-chat or something, he expressed his extreme displeasure with the majority winery marketing photography. The wine maker would walk out of his office, put on a pair of overalls or something and walk into the vineyard, pretending like he was the one doing the picking when in reality it was probably migrant workers. All the photos are drenched in sunlight and really campy. Evan was frustrated by how dishonest he felt it was, when there was a real story that could be told about the people who make wine.
‘After his first stent apprenticing at Domaine Binner, he was really excited about the winery and was telling me he wanted to get me out there to shoot a project on it. I sort of wrote it off because I was broke at the time and couldn’t afford to just run off to France to shoot some project. Later, he told me he would get me over there on his frequent flier miles but I still didn’t really think it was going to happen until low and behold, a plane ticket showed up in my email inbox. So, I would say the anti-inspiration for the project is all of the bullshit marketing photography that a lot of wineries use.’
Were your locations and subjects researched before shooting?
‘I did some research into the region in France (Alsace, and tried to learn as much as I could about the winery before I went but I was pretty much only going on what Evan had told me. I had a lot of ideas in my head about what a 200 year old winery in France would look like before I went there. Some of them were true, some of them weren’t. I like being surprised and confused when I show up somewhere. That way, I can’t fall into pre-determined visual tropes. I knew we were going at the end of winter and that things were going to be brown and dead looking. I was excited about that.’
What is your method for connecting with subjects during portrait shoots?
‘Well, when my subjects speak english, I like to find common ground in conversation before I just stick a camera in their face. I want to show them that I’m interested in them on many levels, not just from a photographic standpoint. Luckily Christian (the winemaker) did speak really good english but there was still a disconnect there. Evan had told them he was bringing a photographer but I don’t think they really understood I wanted to document everything so intensively. I think they were initially a bit confused about my intentions at first.
‘I think I only shot a handful of photos the first three days. They were doing construction on a new cellar and I spent the first few days moving rocks from point A. to point B. It was backbreaking but I really wanted to prove to them I was there for a reason, not to just shoot some photos and leave. I also shot a handful of portraits of people who didn’t speak english at all. I’m always impressed by how intuitive people really are when language is taken out of the picture. It almost makes things easier, because you are forced to connect on a different, less superficial level.’
Beyond the portraits, the use of lines as texture in your details is impressive. What do you look for when shooting details?
‘Shooting details used to be something I really struggled with and I would come back from a shoot with 95 percent portraits and no details. I had to force myself to look around at what was going on beyond the people. Ultimately, I think it’s these detail shots that really tie things together and help tell a strong story. Visually, i’m not smart enough to do these really layered, complicated compositions so I’m always looking for a way to distill what is in front of me into something really graphic and simple, even if the subject matter is complicated.’
I love the tone of your images and your use of natural light, could you tell about what you look in an environment before composing a portrait?
‘I used to be really picky when I shot portraits in natural light. I would only shoot them if the light was perfect. Lately, i’ve been learning to work with what God gives you at any given moment. Sometimes I do a lot of moving people around in an effort to clean up what was going on but a lot of the time, my background in documentary photography leads me to just sort of shoot the person where they are at any given moment. I’m always trying to find a balance between manipulating the situation and just sort of letting things happen. I’ve also found that when I’m shooting film, I can get away with a lot more in the way of “bad” light than I can on digital. It just has a way of holding highlights that you don’t get with the digital stuff. When I’m inside, I’m always looking for a window. Window light is the best thing on earth!’
Has this story been published? Where do you want it to end up?
‘This story has not been published yet. I’m talking to a couple publications about it. I really want to go back in late September/early October to round out the project and shoot harvest. If somebody wants to make that happen, I would be forever grateful!
‘I think it’s important to tell stories like this. In a day and age where so much of what we consume is coming from massive, industrialized, impersonal companies, I think it’s cool to see people who are so devoted to the things they make. You would think after passing a winery down from father to son for 200 years, that it would feel like a chore to make wine but Christian is so passionate about what he is doing.’
How would you say this work differs from your previous projects?
‘I think it’s definitely better than anything else I’ve shot up to this point! It’s nice to have a vision and be at a point photographically where you can execute that. I’m really making an effort to shoot exactly how I want to shoot and not do anything because I think it’s expected. I also think this project is more well rounded because I had a bit more money to throw around for film and I got to shoot as much as I needed to, instead of hoarding film and being really picky in the past. When I was shooting my West Yellowstone project, I ended up being too poor to shoot film the second year I went up. I was mortified about the thought of mixing film and digital in a project but it turns out it wasn’t so bad.’
I see a lot of images in this gallery, how did you decide on sequencing?
‘The edit of this thing was a beast. I shot around 60 rolls of 120 film. When I was a lot younger, it was easy to edit my projects because any negatives that were in focus and exposed properly made it through the first round. Now days, I’ve gotten a lot more technical and slowed down and pretty much every frame is in focus and exposed properly. I spent about a week with small 4×6 prints on the floor of my office, slowly whittling away at it. Once I had it down to a number I felt was more manageable, I started playing with sequencing.
‘I think it is really important to sit with a project for a few days while you make an edit. People would come through and help me cut it down, bit by bit. This is definitely a pretty wide edit for a project but I felt like it worked in this context. Editing is something that i’ve been really trying to get a better hold on as I get older. I used to just edit from my gut, really quick and dirty. Now, I like to slow down and really think about things. A mixture of head and heart I guess. There were lots of photos that I really loved that ended up in the garbage from this project because they just didn’t work in the larger context. Learning how to kill the photos I love has been a process.’
Any moments from shooting this story that stand out?
‘All of the meals I spent with the Binner family really stand out to me. Not only because of the incredible food and wine, but their hospitality was limitless and the French really know how to enjoy themselves.
‘On my birthday, March 8th, I went out to the vineyards with some of the workers where they were going to be pruning. I threw and old bike in the back of the work van so I could get home when I was done shooting since they were going to be out there all day. I photographed for about an hour in the vineyard and then rode the bike down through the winding roads, past a winemaker burning his prunings and past an old castle and through a little village. It was just slightly cold, enough to really make you feel awake. I remember feeling so lucky that I get to have these types of experiences as a photographer.’