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Heart of Our City: A photo says a thousand words

Michael Ambach has a passion for telling stories through images

Whether he is taking portrait photographs of a family event or taking pictures for a business trying to brand itself, Michael Ambach remains obsessed with one thing — how can he convey a sense of story and connection through imagery?

“I don’t know what captures that sort of shared experience,” Ambach said on a foggy morning in his studio. “Is it the light, the colour, the textures, or is it the angle? There’s something that resonates there and that’s what keeps me curious about poking a camera around.”

The 48-year-old photographer has been actively capturing moments in people’s lives for years now in Prince Rupert. Go to any major event and chances are you’ll see him with his cameras, blending in with the surroundings so as to not disturb the scene.

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However, while he may have turned his hobby into a career, Ambach’s fascination with visuals and eye for powerful scenes has been developed over a lifetime of exploration.

Ambach was born in Quesnel, but his family moved a lot in his youth as their father — who worked in forestry — was often relocated.

Some of Ambach’s earliest memories are of Prince Rupert, where his family spent a brief stint before moving to the Cariboo region.

The Ambach’s moved to Williams Lake where he spent his spare time exploring the trails around Fox Mountain. It was here where Ambach developed is love for exploration and the outdoors.

“You can do interesting things in a small town because you’re right on the fringes of nature and things are more accessible,” he said.

Ambach also remembers playing with a small, seldom used camera his father kept in his closet.

“It was a fully manual camera and I used to just marvel at all of the chrome dials on it,” Ambach said.

While he was fascinated with that first camera, Ambach didn’t actively take photos until he was much older. He was far more interested in drawing and sketching as a young man.

“It seemed clear to me at that time that the only viable options when you went to school were to either pursue the sciences or take up a trade of some kind,” he said.

Ambach enrolled at the University of Victoria where he initially studied science, but part way through the degree, a desire to see the world prompted him to travel.

For the next eight months, Ambach backpacked through Indonesia and Malaysia. It was his first extended trip outside the country, and he was struck by how the different value systems and world views manifest in different places.

“I knew from that moment that I wanted to use travel to educate myself about the world,” Ambach said.

Upon returning to Canada, Ambach returned to school where he decided to pursue a fine arts degree. He said this time was critical to developing his artistic visual sense.

“It really got me to observe my surroundings and got me curious about those things in a visual way,” he said.

After graduating, Ambach travelled to Latin America, where he learned Spanish.

When he returned to Canada eight months later, he moved to Quebec where he taught English as a second language before taking a position as a cultural exchange supervisor for students. In that role, Ambach continued to travel, spending time in Mexico, Ecuador, Brazil, Costa Rica and West Africa.

Ambach’s love for photography came around the time he decided to move back to Prince Rupert. After spending most of his life travelling and exploring, Ambach said he felt drawn to Prince Rupert both because of the time he had spent in the city as a youngster and how much it reminded him of his family home in the Cariboo.

“Like a lot of Rupert people, you come here and you end up staying,” Ambach said.

It was during this time that the camera industry was really shifting from film to digital technology, a switch that made experimenting easier for someone who was learning.

“It was a lot easier to really explore and learn and make mistakes and try different things and really learn how cameras work,” he said.

Ambach began to take photographs recreationally, focusing on buildings or sites that are either abandoned or are in some sort of transitional state.

Over the years, he’s built a business based on event work, portraiture and business profiles.

“I’ve enjoyed it more than I thought I would,” he said of his commercial work. “If I didn’t have it, I think I might get stuck in a rut of some kind and not progress.

“The real pleasure for me is being able to give somebody a product that makes them feel proud about their lives, their business, their story, whatever it is.”

Ambach said that travel and exploration has given him a greater appreciation of being able to find unique stories in scenes that might appear to be mundane at first glance. A new environment excites the senses and draws the eye to new and exotic things, but finding something unique in the familiar requires a discerning eye.

“It’s interesting to me when people look at one of my photos and says, ‘I’ve seen that before. Where is that? I’ve never really looked at it that way,’” Ambach said. “I feel that I’ve succeeded if I can make somebody appreciate that sort of common place thing.”

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Matthew Allen | Reporter
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Michael Ambach loves bring life to ordinary places with his photography. (Matthew Allen / The Northern View)
Michael Ambach loves bring life to ordinary places with his photography. (Matthew Allen / The Northern View)