Michael Dvorak Interview


I admire the isolation in these images from Michael Dvorak. Working on the fringes of events held primarily in his native Minnesota, he has recorded moments of characters far away in their own worlds. It is an endearing look at family – be it his own or the communities of the sub-cultures he finds.  In his own words, he is “making an extended family album.

Sean: What does photographing the people of Minnesota mean to you?
Dvorak: My heritage goes back three generations in Minnesota, on both my mother’s and father’s sides.  Although I grew up in Montana, we visited a lot when I was young.  So I have family here, and I feel a real connection to the people of Minnesota and the Midwest.

What are you looking for when you document the things you do?
There is a common theme and that is that these characters are comfortable in their own skin, but with something in their eyes that draw me to them. Take the photo of the ROTC kid with the Woody Allen eyes; it was like getting hit with a baseball bat when I saw him walk by. There is also a timeless quality I look for such as the photograph of my wife’s grandmother sitting by her Christmas tree – that image could have been made in the 50s or yesterday.

What is the legacy you hope your images will create?
I want their portraits to provide an interesting glimpse of a culture in constant flux.  I want them to show how diverse this culture is and how our traditions adjust to accommodate change.  I hope they will spark conversation long after I am gone.

For his latest project on Elvis impersonators, Dvorak has visited Waterloo, IA; Toledo, OH; and Portage, IN. Over the course of 2014, he plans to complete this body of work.  In his hometown of Minneapolis, he shares a darkroom with friend and fellow photographer Tom Arndt, who he considers to be a great printer and mentor. “I think certain people enter your life at times when you need them the most; this is certainly true in my relationship with Tom. One of the biggest things I’ve learned from him is that ‘good’ can always be better, and ‘good enough’ is not an option.  He strives for that perfect print.”

I was drawn to this guy because of his size and child-like face. His cigarette was dwarfed by his hand, a truck in the background exclaims “Country Boy Motorsports,” a crushed water bottle at his feet.  He fit seamlessly into his environment.

I started photographing Elvis Tribute Artists last year, and this image was made at my first competition experience. When it started, I felt I had stepped into a Jim Jarmusch film. Garyelvis – he changed his name legally – was talking with some other guys in the kitchen of the ballroom while waiting to go on. He’s a big guy – played football for Alabama – but is all heart and loves to talk. He owns a sign company in Florida and started performing after his mother told him on her death-bed that he needed to bring Elvis’s word to the people. So that’s what he does, travels all over the nation competing and going to Elvis celebrations. He is also an ordained minister and often holds sermons and marries people wherever he may be.

I saw these two kids sitting under a flag with their bunnies, kind of disconnected with the girl on her phone. I moved into position, framed the shot and waited for either of them to notice me.  She looked up from her phone and I took the image before she could sit up and smile, which both of them did once they saw they were being photographed.

This is Saint, I don’t know his real name.  He’s a rapper and belongs to a gang. Since this photo was taken he’s done time, for what I don’t know.  At the time, I noticed his car first – the Louis Vuitton covering and chrome spinners just stood out. Saint was more than happy to have his photograph taken, the only stipulation was that he wanted to use it for his next album as a cover.  Six months later I was at a local record store, and there was his record and this image on the shelves.


Originally I was attracted to this big dog chained to a gas meter between two houses. The owners were having a picnic in the front yard, watching a parade go by. I asked if could photograph the dog. The woman said sure, just don’t get too close. As soon as I moved a bit closer and raised my camera, the dog lunged at me.  She came over to calm him down. I asked if she would let me photograph her with the dog. Without hesitation she posed just as you see her in the image; the dog calmed down, and I took two frames.

Making this image was a mistake that almost cost me my friendship with this Amish family. As  the children started to do their homework, without thinking, I grabbed my camera. I knew immediately I had messed up. Mary the mother made a little annoyed sound and left the room to talk to her husband, Dennis. Nothing was said that evening, but the next day Dennis asked me not take any more photographs in the house. I had photographed in the house before but always with permission. This is my favorite picture and so far it is the last image I’ve made of this family.

Robert is the only black Elvis impersonator I’ve come across so far.  He was crowned King of the World in Memphis a few years back. He’s a former Marine and was featured in the documentary Almost Elvis. He’s a great performer and has inserted himself into a very white, blue collar, and at times racist genre of Elvis fandom.

I saw this kid at a high school homecoming football game this past fall. I was drawn to his eyes, glasses and awkward teenage nature wrapped up in a tightly pressed uniform.

This is my wife’s grandmother.  She was known for her caramel rolls and Catholic faith.  She was the mother of 12 children and lived in the same small Minnesota town her whole life. Her husband was a blacksmith. Now her sons run the business. In this image, she is dwarfed by the Christmas tree her daughters erected and decorated for her every year. She didn’t want me to get her shoes in the photograph.

The temperature was hovering around -15 this day, so people were waiting in the entrances of buildings for the parade to start. For a moment she was separated from the crowd, so I took this shot before the scene disappeared into a mass of people.


© Sean Samuels 2014

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