A rusted nail on a rooftop. A broken brick. Stairs leading to the sky and ferns growing from cracks in windowsills are details transformed into objects of beauty by photographer Michael Mastro. Refining a photograph until it fits the image in his head, Mastro proves there is an art to creating simple, timeless images that can bring back the past or draw attention to the present.
“Photography comes easy to me and I can’t help but see things, but I don’t know why I see them,“ he says. “Drop me off for an hour in the middle of nowhere and I will come back with a great picture.”
A white panama hat covers Mastro’s smooth, bald head and smoke swirls from his cigar as he tells of early memories and the highs and lows of a career in photography. “In 1951 we met Bud Abbott and Lou Costello at the Los Angeles airport when we were waiting for my aunt,” he says. “I was 13 months old and at one point Costello grabbed me by the cheeks and said ‘What a cute kid!’ Abbott slapped him and said ‘Leave the kid alone’.”
Mastro studied Photolithography at Don Bosco Technical Institute in Los Angeles and for 40 years he has photographed everything from rock stars to cathedrals. He has also sold cigars, fronted a band on guitar and keyboards, and rolled cases and lifted amps as a roadie for The Atlanta Rhythm Section, The Georgia Satellites, The S.O.S. Band and The Dazz Band.
From the photographer pit, he took pictures of future rock icons that toured through Atlanta including Fleetwood Mac, Patty Smith, The Pretenders, and Billy Joel. His pictures are on album covers and in books about Queen and Tin Lizzy. “All I wanted to do was shoot for record companies and promoters,” but I was too late for the glory days of rock photography in the late ‘60s when photographers traveled with bands like The Rolling Stones or The Beatles.
“Concert photography was different in the ‘70s,” says Mastro. “We shot on film and you had to pay attention to your shot because there was the pressure of wasting film, especially when you were young and broke. The roll of film cost $6 and processing it cost $15, so I had to make a choice between shooting and what I was going to eat for lunch the next day. I didn’t have a motor drive and I threw away hundreds of great images because eyes were closed. Film was much more expensive than digital, but it was a good lesson in the relationship to shadows and highlights.”
In a photo album, Mastro points out the lighting in ethereal pictures of Stevie Nicks with her chiffon shawl and blonde halo of hair. “I learned to read musicians and look for action, emotion, and passion in a song,” he says. “My emotions affected my pictures and if I was into an act, like Fleetwood Mac, I shot them better.”
Mastro later became a freelance graphic production artist in Atlanta and worked with advertising agencies for Coca-Cola, Major League Baseball, Nike, and Anheuser Busch. “Maybe I see things differently because I spent so much time in advertising,” he says. “Commercial photography has to be pretty, but it also has a purpose–to be perfect.”
A commercial photography job at Gayfers brought him to Mobile. It ended after twelve months when Dillards bought out the store, but Mastro married his wife Melodie three days later and stayed in Mobile. In today’s age of iPhones and digital cameras, making a living as a photographer on the Gulf Coast has become difficult because it easier for anyone to learn how to work a camera, and fine art and commercial photographs don’t sell like they used to.
“It gets discouraging,” Mastro says. “It took me 40 years to learn how to take great pictures and I work hard to do it, but people and ad agencies don’t want to pay for photography. Professional photographers have to keep searching for new ways to work, and I am looking for what will challenge me. I get bored shooting a bunch of images that sit on my computer that no one will see, but I still keep my camera with me at all times in case I find that perfect shot.”
Carol Hunter, communications, director of the Downtown Mobile Alliance, describes Mastro as an artist who is as important as nationally recognized painter Eugenia Foster in capturing the essence of downtown Mobile and sharing what sets Mobile apart from other cities in the country.
“Through Michael’s eyes he has given us a whole new window into the beauty and architecture of our world,” Hunter says. “He has an eye for details like decorative iron work, embellishments, and sculptures that we often take for granted or overlook. He finds beauty in buildings that need care and attention and shows that they are still lovely. That encourages building owners to invest in restoration and care of the buildings. Michael helps all of us appreciate our unique heritage and his work is an incredible art form.”
Clean composition is Mastro’s signature and it is as simple as two rafts floating in a pool, tall grass growing in the water of the Mobile Delta, or a window reflecting clouds in the sky. He finds beauty in scaffolding, steel beams, peeling paint, and shadows in the afternoon.
“Many other things can be corrected, but composition takes your eye right to the subject, so it has to be perfect,” Mastro says. “You can fix light and exposure, but you can’t fix composition, so composition and depth of field have to be right. I will work with a photograph for days taking out things that should be there or putting something in to make it fit the image in my head. Anyone can work a camera–the difference is if you can see the picture. I always shoot with the final image in mind.”
The artist Nall selected 30 of Mastro’s photographs to hang in The Battle House, the RSA tower, and the Renaissance Mobile Riverview Plaza Hotel. “I wanted to choose many artists not just from Alabama, but from Mobile specifically, to help show visitors and tourists what great talent lies within our state,” Nall says. “The clarity of Michael’s photographs is amazing. The photograph of the triptych of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Mobile appealed to my aesthetics with the grandeur, simplicity, and subject matter of this landmark that helps define that city’s origins.”
Mastro’s photographs of the Cathedral are featured in Mobile’s Cathedral 1850-2004 that commemorated the three-year restoration of The Cathedral-Basilica of the Immaculate Conception. Then-Archbishop Oscar Lipscomb wrote the book about Mobile’s eight bishops and their contribution to the Cathedral. Built in 1850, the Cathedral was the largest ecclesiastical structure in Alabama and it is unchanged today.
“The cathedral is a living, priceless gem, and Michael’s photographs are the best thing that has happened to the cathedral…since it was built,” Lipscomb says. “He has enshrined it with skill and sensitivity of the past but understanding the present and the future. He preserved the history, tradition, and reverence, and this will last into the ages. I love stories of the old cathedral, but Michael surpassed the telling of all stories with his visuals.”
Mastro grew up in the Catholic Church with a respect of history and connecting the past with the present. He describes himself as neurotic over details and he worked for two years on the book that began as a cover shoot, but grew into the design, photography and development of a much bigger project. He photographed the cathedral from top to bottom and found original nails on the roof and bricks made by slaves in the basement. He also researched and wrote a timeline of bishops, popes, and local and world events.
“I got carried away making the book, but I had a blast doing it,” Mastro says. “That cathedral picture was the hard part. When I walked out of the first meeting with then-Father Farmer, I knew what that image was going to look like and the way it should line up. I took 85 separate images of the cathedral, shooting everything at 90 degrees and putting them together. I had to shoot that several times because it would be just a little off and wouldn’t line up. Every little point has to line up to be mirror images. If it is supposed to be symmetrical, make it symmetrical. Don’t make it almost symmetrical, then it looks like a mistake.
“I have a photograph of Archbishop Lipscomb presenting my photograph of the Cathedral to Pope John Paul. For an old altar boy, that is pretty cool.”
As Mastro’s eye developed, he added cameras to his collection and advanced from a Canon FX to F1. There have been a few Nikons, Bronicas, and a Hasselblad, but none cost as much his first camera. “I paid $8,000 for a Canon 1DS, two weeks later they came out with a 5D and I sold the 1DS five years later for only $800,” he says. “Most photographers use a telephoto lens, but I shoot wide angle and need a full frame. I use a wide angle 14mm or 17 to 40mm lenses to create and control perspective.”
“In the beginning, I shot everything and then tried to find a good image in the clutter,” Mastro says. “But I learned how to focus and visualize the image before I even pick up my camera.
Behind every photograph stands an observant eye and there will always be an art and beauty to a well-composed image from a photographer such Mastro who can break down barriers to the past and present. “I still get excited to see beauty and capture it,” he says. “I often see what other people miss. God puts it in front of me, I see it, and shoot it.”
Photos by Michelle Stancil and Michael Mastro