Photographer Directory & Magazine

Interview with John Mireles

Super cool and Americana do not typically belong in the same sentence – but in the work of San Diego photographer John Mireles the housewives, the businessmen, the beer drinkers, the middle-aged gardeners, and the rock climbers are all rendered as surreally cooler than cool. Whether the end result is commercial, or documentarian, or a fine art series, his work is always incredibly detailed and tells great stories – interesting stories – stories about the super cool life you wish you led…

John Mireles is definitely one of my favorite photographers of all time!

You balance so many types of photography – commercial, fine art, portraits, weddings – how do you do it?

This is a complicated question. Actually, I guess it’s my answers that are complicated. The simple answer is that I love photography.

For a long time, I used to think of myself as at different times as a “sports photographer” or a “commercial photographer” or a “wedding photographer.” Now I realize that I’m an artist who communicates his view of the world through my photography. It’s a fundamentally different way of approaching my work and one that’s allowed me to expand my focus.

I’m not a simple person. I have many sides to me. If my work is a reflection of me, then it should rightly have many sides to it as well.

I love photographing people. Whether it’s a kid in a portrait shoot, a bride on the wedding day, college kids partying, strangers on the street or a model on my set, they’re all people upon whom I project my view of the world. The real goal for me is to share something about my understanding of life with others. Just like most photographers switch lenses to get different shots, I use different subjects to share my larger view of the world.

I guess what I’m saying is that where you see many different types of photography, I see it as me expressing the same basic message through different channels. To me, an artist is someone who has point of view, a message, a way of seeing that they must share with the world. After many years, I’ve finally gotten comfortable with the label of “artist” because that’s exactly what I’m doing.

Besides, I get bored if I keep doing the same thing. I thrive off the challenge of doing new and different things.

Your portraits from Burning Man in particular are amazing – the image of the couple on the bikes with the bubbles, the woman with the flying hair, the guy with the goggles covered in blue paint splatters – how do you make images like that happen?

I’ll start with talking about my equipment. I only use wide angle lenses. That forces me to get in really close to get the shot I want. The famous war photographer Robert Capa once said, “If your images aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.” I live by those words.

I’m not afraid to violate someone’s personal space either. I’ll just get in there. I’m also not afraid to go up to strangers and ask to photograph their breasts (at Burning Man) or whatever.

This past weekend I photographed a Spring break party down at the beach. There were thousands of partiers in the water along with media and plenty of photographers. None of these other photographers even got in the water. They were on the beach with their big fancy lenses. I saw their images online and they all look the same. They’re boring.

Mine are in your face. You can feel the debauchery in your gut. I was out in the water and in the mix. People thought I was crazy shooting with my SLR with no water protection. But that’s how you get the shots. There’s a fearlessness and commitment that’s required.

What is the one thing you wish someone had told you before you started your career?

Hmmm… when you’re getting started, you don’t listen to what anyone says so I’m not sure what would have had an impact.

I’ll say this: Photography is not about the camera. It’s about understanding ourselves. The key to becoming a great photographer lies not in the gear nor even in the practice of photography. It lies in understanding what makes us tick as individuals. Forget taking workshops, go to psychotherapy to become a better photographer. If we can tap into the deep emotions that drive us as humans and release them through our photography, we not only can create powerful stuff, we create work that no one can ever copy.

Most folks just want to copy what everyone else is doing. Yet, our own lives have such rich source material that there’s no reason to even look at someone else’s work if we choose not to, much less copy. Greatness lies within.

Granted, most people will ignore this or think that it doesn’t apply to them. Most people will never grow to their full potential nor step beyond the range of average. Don’t worry though, it took me nearly 20 years to begin to understand this and I’m just scratching the surface of my own personal journey. Being an artist is far more rewarding – both financially and spiritually – than being a photographer following the masses.

For more on John Mireles please see his website at

About the Author of this Entry

Cheryl Spelts ยป  I'm a photographer in Southern California, and I shoot rock stars. Yeah, I'm really that lucky! I also shoot high school seniors, kids, adults, and anyone who wants an absolutely fabulous portrait. I find the seriously beautiful in everyone!

Comments for this entry

Elisa Sherman
03.31.2010 | 9:22 AM

Great first article/interview!

I really like the answer to the first question…it is different and I like his answer. It makes sense to me in a way that is the opposite of some narrower points of view I read from photogs at times…

Elisa Sherman
03.31.2010 | 10:01 AM

One additional thing – I like how he talks about being in the middle of the action to cover it interestingly – I have definitely seen plenty of event work that was flat shot completely tele…

Personally – I tend to do both – wide and long…I think you can capture different things with distance…and sometimes, regardless of where a photographer is – they will just deliver boring stuff – the reality is not everyone knows how to make the connection – regardless of focal distance…

Nancy Mantick
03.31.2010 | 10:07 AM

Excellent! He gives some spot-on insights into the creative process. I have always chafed at the idea that a photographer has to have only one “specialty”. Life is too full of wonder everywhere you look to miss out on turning your creative photographic vision toward anything you want to examine. Thanks for this, Cheryl!

03.31.2010 | 12:08 PM

Interesting without being pretentious: overall, quite insightful.

Cheryl Spelts
03.31.2010 | 12:15 PM

Thanks for the comments Elisa and Nancy and Roger! John truly is one of my favorite photographers of all time – and for good reason. I keep going back to his answer to the last question – it really is that simple, and that brilliant.

And here’s a quick link to the spring break images he mentions in the second question:

Kim Day
03.31.2010 | 4:28 PM

Nice article, Cheryl. I liked his discussion of wide angle lens usage. Maybe for the next interview you could also show samples of the artists work? It would be great to show along side his discussion of that kind of technique.

Cheryl Spelts
03.31.2010 | 4:45 PM

I definitely want to include images whenever it’s possible Kim, and in fact if you come back tomorrow for the next interview you’ll see exactly that!

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