When opening Mike Jon’s portfolio, you are met with nearly one hundred faces looking back at you. These are Mike’s portraits, each of which, outside of being cast in black & white, captures the unedited truth of his subjects, whose expressions evoke sincerity and range. Some faces appear coy and flirtatious, while others emerge with more drama and sensuality.
Perhaps Mike’s most charming portraits are those that capture the bashfulness of his subjects. In one series, in particular, the same woman appears across five images, in which, behind both her glasses and the hands covering her face, she appears to be giggling, at once shy and hyper-aware of her being photographed. There is no forced, unanimous theatre expressed across Mike’s portraits, instead, each image emotes on its own – they are void of romantic augmentation and, instead, flush with irreplicable strokes of reality.
This authenticity is by design. Within the first few minutes of my conversation with Mike, we’re on the topic of honesty. He tells me he does not “glamorize” nor is he “embarrassed by blemishes”. Instead, he prefers things “documentary-style […] raw, gritty” as to best “capture the truth of a person”. Naming those featured in the portraits – each of whose complex truth Mike is invested in capturing – subjects, fails to convey the artistic philosophy at play. Mike isn’t recruiting models, he’s bringing people together. When I asked about his studio, Mike explained “My space had become this church, and I was the reverend […] people came to congregate.” This community gave Mike a new idea for a series: much like you would at a local congregation, host and friends and family day, in which each member invites a nonmember. The product of this practice, as Mike puts simply, “My family just grew.” It is this family, new and old, that assembled to appear in the portraits.
Outside of the members of his church, Mike aims to capture the breadth and depth of Baltimoreans. Mike describes two cities to me – there’s Charm City Baltimore, picturesque Federal Hill, cutsie, whitewashed tourism. And then, Mike explains, there’s the Baltimore he knows – Sandtown, a neighborhood whose history is marked by both prolific civil rights riots and widespread poverty. This Baltimore is where Mike doesn’t want to miss a shot, where he carries his DSLR, aiming its lens at the essence of the streets – “the culture, the people, the sensibilities”. Mike’s body of work is inextricably tied to this place, as he says best, “Sandtown is a part of me, and thus is ultimately a part of my art.”
While Mike’s art has largely materialized in the medium of photography, at the core of Mike’s creative genius is filmmaking. Speaking to Mike about his navigation between the two mediums revealed to me another trope of his artistry – practice. Mike tells me that before November of 2019, he didn’t consider himself to be a photographer, someone who, in his mind, “dedicates a certain amount of time to studying, to practicing…” Additionally, Mike’s aspirations lied closer to filmmaking – he had originally thought he might go to film school, but decided against it after being unmoved by the senior thesis showcase. And thus, last fall there existed in Mike meticulous energy, a dedication to better himself and refine his “creative engine”. Video is 24 frames per second – “If you can take a single frame”, Mike reasons, “then you’re going to be a better filmmaker.”
The success of Mike’s deliberate, patient work ethic is beautifully apparent in the trajectory of his portfolio. While Mike’s early portraits are captured through photography, today, he creates the same raw, intimate portraits in the form of short films, cinematic vignettes of a pastor, an athlete, a dancer, a homie. Mike works from the same vantage point of truth and honesty, he’s just expanded his threshold from 1 frame to 24 per second.