“I don’t think of them as tough times, if you’re referring to my heroin addiction,” Michael Tighe says, laying flat out on the table a topic I had been wondering how to bring up for a few minutes now. “They were horrible times, miserable… but I did it to myself, nobody did it to me.”
Our discussion so far has been circling around Michael’s start as a photographer in New York, a fast yet admittedly bumpy ride to fame that began at age 18. The sensible close crop he wears now was a tousle of angelic ringlets back then, and his large cornflower blue eyes were still getting the hang of being behind the lens.
“I didn’t have any connections, just started writing letters,” recalls Michael, who picked up photography from his dad, and later developed it in classes taught by Philippe Halsman, Richard Avedon, and Arnold Newman. “I wrote letters to artists, musicians, and actors I loved, asking to shoot their portraits, and many of them let me.”
One of these portraits was of Andy Warhol, whom Michael describes as “very shy and guarded. Hardly spoke a word, which made me very nervous.” The awkward shoot turned out to be one of Michael’s first big breaks, as he received a call from Andy’s magazine Interview that very afternoon, booking him to shoot Mikhail Baryshnikov. Also on Michael’s client list are Esquire, GQ, Time, Forbes, Harper’s Bazaar, New York Magazine, and The New York Times.
I wasn’t very good at talking to people. I was more comfortable shooting photos without people in them, and originally thought I’d like to be an architectural photographer. But I was good at it and people were responding favorable to my work.
The next years were spent in a fast succession of what Michael refers to as the “Warhol society”, drug busts, and yes, a Geraldo Rivera interview (during in his early 20/20 stage), and it becomes clear that the prodigious “celebrity photographer”—a label Michael’s never been quite comfortable with—was leading a life not too far from those in front of his lens.
“Work and pleasure mixed together into this non-stop life of extreme decadence and superficiality,” he acknowledges. “I wasn’t prepared and didn’t handle it very well. And as quickly as success came to me so did all the pitfalls.” Michael fell hard, and at 25, found himself broke, homeless, and facing jail time before finally getting some help. “Rehab was fun actually… to finally be away from the heroin after seven years of it, getting off the streets, and not worrying about how I was going to eat, where I was going to sleep.”
I completely dropped out from this world I inhabited for so long and lost touch with just about everyone,” says Michael, who worked a string of odd jobs as a shoe salesman, dishwasher, and counter clerk at a donut shop. Then he saw The Raging Bull. The 1980 Jake LaMotta memoir, directed by Martin Scorsese and starring Robert De Niro, proved to be just the inspiration Michael needed to pick up some used camera gear at a pawn shop (the same one where he used to sell stolen goods) and get back to shooting (portraits).
The first year I started shooting famous people back in the 70s, I photographed Margaret Hamilton, who played The Wicked Witch of the West in the original The Wizard of Oz. I think that was the first movie I ever saw, so it was pretty amazing to meet her.
Work picks up at a steady pace, and brings him to Los Angeles. Shooting the likes of Harvey Keitel, Christopher Walken, Julia Roberts—and yes, Scorsese and De Niro, Michael is once again the go-to photographer for the behind-the-scenes world of entertainment.
“I got star struck all the time. Especially in the 80s, when I was concentrating more on the movie business and shooting many of the people that thrilled me, like Daniel Day Lewis, Oliver Stone…” he notes. “But I’m rarely interested in shooting someone just because they’re famous. I’m predominantly a portrait photographer who wants to shoot those whose work inspires me or I feel a connection with.”
This longing to produce deeper, more moving work brings Michael two more heartaches in his career: a failed book deal for Hoffa, a Danny DeVito film that bombed at the box office and set Michael back a year in work; and a no-show photography exhibit—his first ever, prompted by the staff at Larry Moss Studios, where he had been taking acting lessons.
“It was the most miserable experience of my life,” reveals Michael. It’s a vulnerable statement, and one that he has all the right to make, given the sheer number of dues he’s paid in a 40-year career span—or rather three disconnected career spans. Michael has withdrawn from photography (whether self-imposed and otherwise) enough times to feel what it’s like both in and out of the industry and know for a fact that he’s sticking with it.
“Getting older is so great as I appreciate more and more how magnificent life is… Thank God the worst moments are behind me and too many to mention. I’m not ready to list the best moments because those are still ahead of me. I have been very blessed to have a talent that has allowed me to be a part of many extraordinary artists’s lives, whether for a few minutes or a few years.”
Seventy-five percent of everything I’ve ever shot was not paying work. Nobody asked me to shoot this stuff. These are people I sought out on my own to photograph. Most of it’s never been published or seen before.
WORDS BY KATRINA TAN.