Michael Holtby became seriously interested in photography in 1969, when he was shown how a camera lens aperture and the shutter speed worked together. He thought, “I could do that!” and began to follow a photographer who had been mentored by Minor White, a master of light and shadow. Holtby’s own work reveals this mentorship lineage; the way in which he captures light against a solid black background is impressive. He worked with black and white photography for seventeen years, utilizing a large darkroom, but found that he could not master color processing until he went to digital in 2003. He now prefers color, and lots of it.
A primary focus since 2022 has been the “Whidbey Beard Project”. He has photographed fifty local bearded men and has displayed their images in public spaces, not without some controversy. Holtby plays with stereotypes; he shows that the book is deeper than the cover and that a bearded man is not necessarily who you might guess he is.
His ongoing project is “One Planet, One People,” a series of images that portray people and their cultural diversity while also referencing our common humanity. Holtby’s images strive to remind us of what is generally true; people from other cultures or backgrounds are not scary, just different, and they share with us similar goals, needs and aspirations.
His interest in bridging cultural divides began with an early desire to major in Cultural Anthropology at the University of Washington, but family life prohibited him from pursuing fieldwork in Africa. “Now I have come full circle,” he says, having recently returned from a photo shoot in Peru. He has explored the people and wildlife of 46 countries, focusing particularly on indigenous people.
Holtby is inspired to photograph people, especially when they are able to relax and show their true selves. He is also fascinated by the behaviors of wildlife. Viewers will find Holtby’s work unique in the sense that most photographers show scenics or abstracts, but his work entices the viewer to look deeply into the character of his subjects, both people and animals.
Whidbey Photo is a large studio, its walls covered with framed photographs. Visitors may enjoy the Samsung Frame TV that displays Holtby’s works in large format, changing the image every three minutes. Holtby also promises that studio strobes and a black background will be available for those interested in learning more about his portrait techniques. And if you engage him in conversation, he might also tell you about the time he traded a kayak for a Pentax Spotomatic.
Collected and edited, Cynthia Albers (May 2023)