Michael Van Auken, Visual Storyteller

Throughout his 40+ years as a photographer, Michael Van Auken has been connecting the regional visual environment with the lives of creative people. “It’s a combination of fine art and people-focused photography. My goal is to create a story by integrating portraits of amazing people into natural and urban landscapes.”

Raised in the Walnut Creek/Pleasant Hill area, Van Auken became interested in photography in high school. “I thought it would be an easy class and a great way to meet girls,” he confesses about his motivations. By his senior year, Van Auken was taking photos at high school events and was a school newspaper and yearbook photographer. He continued his study at Diablo Valley College and Laney College. “I was drawn to the landscape photography of the greats – Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, Imogen Cunningham, and others.”

He opened his own studio in Pleasant Hill in 1982.

“At that time, you had to have a storefront to convince your clients that you were worth what you were charging. The main source of advertising was the yellow pages.” He promoted his business through art fairs, charity events, give-away promotions, and eventually a website. His portrait and commercial photography evolved alongside the emergence of digital technology. He began working with internationally recognized photographer Bambi Cantrell of Cantrell Portrait Design in Walnut Creek in 2002.

Michael Van Auken, "Couple on Beach"

Van Auken discovered Benicia while taking wedding photos for a couple getting married at the Jefferson Street Mansion. “After exploring the area, I invited my clients to do their photoshoot in the Arsenal with its urban funky vibe … and they loved it.” Other clients did, too, making the Arsenal area a favorite backdrop for his portrait photography, as well as his urban landscapes and still lifes. When Cantrell Portrait Design relocated to the Benicia Arsenal in 2006, he moved there as well. They drew customers to Benicia to enjoy “an escape by the bay.”

Michael Van Auken, "Roweena and the Hip Chicks"

Benicia has been central to Van Auken’s work.

“I was inspired to photograph the creative people I met here — artists, actors, and other creators. I was fascinated with their studio workspaces and wanted to photograph them in their own environments, and in the beautiful landscapes here. When I studied landscape photography in college, I felt the landscapes lacked a story. By blending people into these amazing environments, I have been able to create a visual story.”

During the early months of the pandemic, Van Auken divided his time between landscape photography and a series of “front porch portraits,” capturing fun and engaging photos of families and artists in their shelter-in-place environments. “I’ve always valued the idea of family portraits as a way of recording our family history, a history that will be passed down through generations. I wish I had more photos of my own family – unfortunately, I only have a few of my early childhood years.”

Fellow photographers and youth have benefited from Van Auken’s creative skills and abilities through mentoring and teaching. He was a cofounder of California Photographic Workshops and Northern California Professional Photographers, for which he served as their first president.

Michael Van Auken, "Front Porch Photo, Fox"

More recently, Van Auken has taught a series of classes at Benicia’s Liberty High School.

“In my professional work I use the Nikon D4 series, but for these classes we use the iPhone, since that’s what everyone has to work with.” He teaches skills in lighting, composition, how to create unusual angles, how to see unique things in common places, as well as basic camera phone operation. “You can always learn, no matter how long you’ve been at it. I’ve been all over the Arsenal taking photos for years, but these kids took photos from perspectives I’d never thought of. After the class, I went back and created my own versions of the photos that they created. I was inspired by them. Now I use some of these photos as examples in my teaching.”

To see more of Michael Van Auken’s visual stories, please visit https://www.mvaphoto.com, Facebook, and Instagram.