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International, independent, e-magazine on skydiving, BASE & tunnel

Catching up with… Michael McGowan

After 54 years in the sport, beloved photographer Mike McGowan has finally hung up his rig. We asked him about what he's observed over the decades, and take a peek at his photo book…

Michael McGowan — by Omar Alhegelan
Michael McGowan — by Omar Alhegelan

You spent most of your life devoted to skydiving photography, how did that start?

It actually started in 1965 when i took an old Petri 7s hand hold camera that I purchased on a tour in Vietnam. I would fly up to the person or group , look there the viewfinder and take the picture then recock the camera (no motor drive back then) fly back and take another photo and that is how the dive sequence went for me.

What happened then? How did you become a pro?

After I left precision and moved to DeLand I went to work for Bill Booth (My first paying gig) but soon realized I needed to do more. Instinctively I knew cover shots and centerfolds would get my name in the right places. I found it very hard to break into a spot where the editors noticed me so I started submitting my work to Europe. Bang, zoom! The European editors fell in love with my work and cover shots and centerfolds came flowing like water. This got the editors' attention here in the US and soon I was seeing cover shots , centerfolds and just about anything else coming to life in the magazines. Editors were actually calling me requesting more photos. It wasn't that uncommon for me to have a cover and a centerfold in the same magazine at the same time. During this hay day I met Sandy Williams (Sandy was organizing all the women's world record and was captain of the Misty Blues all girl demo team) and she asked me to come on board as her official photographer. I took the job and not only did I get the opportunity to take some great photos I made a friendship that is still near and dear to me to this day.

While I am not afraid to mention that I worked incredibly hard day and night I would be remiss not to acknowledge I have lived a charmed life. Not only was I given the opportunity to film my heroes in free fall I was getting paid for it . One of my biggest life changing times was when I hooked up with Larry and Lil Hill. I met him at the Couch Freak Boogie in Fort Didge, Iowa in 1989 and he asked me to move to AZ from Florida to start a photography & video department on this new DZ he was building I said yes, we shook hands, and we have had each other's backs since that day.

What do you love about taking images of our sport?

The challenge. What it takes to make a photo exceptional on the ground you have to do the same thing in free fall except you have no way of talking to the subject matter to place them in just the right spot to get ideal lighting , you still have to compose the shot but you don’t have a viewfinder to see the composition. A photographer has to fly his body sometimes better than the subject he is filming. The challenges are many but so are the rewards

French ladies 4-way team  — by Mike McGowan
French ladies 4-way team  — by Mike McGowan

Is photography art or science?

Depends on if you are going for the by-the-book perfect shot or break a few rules and get a more interesting image. The problem with shooting with an artistic mind is you don't have the basic rules to guide you. You can be sort of making up your own rules as you go along and unless you are extremely knowledgeable and current with basic by-the-book photography you will have a lot of egg on your face . I personally prefer to go for the art side of photography and while the challenges are greater so are the rewards.

by Lesley Gale
by Lesley Gale

You’ve just published your first book, ‘Selections’, with photographic memories from 50 years of skydiving. Why did it take you so long?

To be honest until I retired from jumping I didn't have the time. I have always wanted to do a book but each shot had to be the perfect one and that took some doing All the tick boxes for every shot in the book had to be checked or it didn’t make the grade.

Why now?

The book is my way of leaving a legacy and now seems like the perfect time to do so.

Choose 3 of your favourite images from the book and tell the story behind them

Number 1: The first time I met MR Todd Love, I was stunned, amazed and in awe of his courage and skills:

Todd Love, one of the photos from Selections — by Mike McGowan
Todd Love, one of the photos from Selections — by Mike McGowan

Number 2: Freddy Williams, ex Navy SEAL. I was a bit apprehensive about making the jump because of the squirrely weather but Fred said we was going and who am I to argue with a Navy SEAL?! Turns out the weather supplied us with a painting-0like background and produced one of my favorite photos!

Freddy Williams — by Mike McGowan
Freddy Williams — by Mike McGowan

Number 3: One of the first photos I had taken after mounting a camera on my helmet. Try as I might 54 years of free fall and I couldn’t take one that I liked as much as this one!

One of Mike's very early shots — by Mike McGowan
One of Mike's very early shots — by Mike McGowan

What’s the reaction been so far?

FANTASTIC! People have been going out of their way to call, e mail or text me to tell me how much they love the book. Some folks even go so far as to post a selfie of themselves holding the book for a Facebook post

How can we get hold of the book?

Easy Most of the better gear stores carry it or you can go to and order your book. I usually do a same day turnaround.

Is it true you are looking for a European distributor?

It sure is. I would like to get the shipping cost down.

What are the 3 best developments you’ve seen in the sport?

Rip stop nylon. The piggy back and the square parachute

And the 3 worst ways the sport has progressed?

People downsizing before they should. People downsizing before they should and people downsizing before they should.

Is the sport safer now? Or is the kit safer but people still push the limits to the same danger level?

When you begin it is certainly safer. Equipment and training has improved immensely but after they get off student status – well that is a whole different monster!

Greg Gasson hanging for a photo stunt — by Mike McGowan
Greg Gasson hanging for a photo stunt — by Mike McGowan

Who has massively changed the sport for the better?

Lloyd Brydon and Susie Clements. They were some of a handful of people who developed and produced the first Piggyback system. [main and reserve in one container]

Describe yourself in 5 words or fewer

Happy, grateful, curious, spiritual and ready.

What advice do you have for newcomers to skydiving?

Find a good DZ with good instructors and do what you are told.

Do you have a motto, or favorite quotation?

Worrying is praying for something you don’t want.

What’s your pet hate? (inside and outside the sport)

Inside the sport? Downsizing before you are ready.

Outside the sport? People who try to rub their negativity off on me

Who’s been the biggest influence on your life?

Josh Hall from my old Texas days. He sponsored me and help me sober up… and had I not sobered up I would not been able to do the things I have.

What was the biggest breakthrough of your life?

When I left Precision Parachute company to go out and support myself with free fall photography.

Mike McGowan
Mike McGowan

What’s one thing you own that you should throw out but probably ever will?

My stubbornness.

Don't be a stranger! Where can we find you?

I live at Skydive Arizona so am among my family on a daily basis. Skydiving and skydivers have been my life for over a half century. It is all I know or care to know.