One night a couple of months back, I was at a total loss about what to write in this space. I’d been shooting, and had even been doing a bit of writing, but it seemed like nothing was clicking. I actually came within a hair’s breadth of reviewing the new-ish Lyle Lovett CD, Release Me. Even by my standards, and even with my habit of tying things that, to the untrained (or perhaps more sane) observer, have very little to do with photography back to photography, this was a bit of a stretch. So I was thinking, This being a photo blog and all, I’ll have to bring it back it back to photog– oh, wait, got it.
Generally speaking, you don’t judge something by its cover. Well, you’re not supposed to, anyway. But I always thought that Lyle’s covers, shot by photographer Michael Wilson starting with The Road to Ensenada, were a bit like the singer himself; there’s a touch of melancholy suffused with just the right amount of wry humor (as with Release Me‘s shot of the singer entangled in a lariat). In other words, Wilson’s photos fit the albums (including shots for The Bears, Emmylou Harris, David Byrne, the Bodeans and others) in a way that album covers don’t always. After a series of emails, I finally managed to catch up with the aforementioned Mr. Wilson. For someone who worried aloud that he might not have much to say, he proved to be… well, as affable and perceptive about photography as I’d hoped. I’m happy — heck, make that honored — that he was kind enough to sit through an interview with me.
It’s no mistake that Wilson’s best known for his portraits of musicians. His first ambition in life was to play the French horn. There was only one small problem; as he admits, with a laugh, “I was one of those people who was blissed out by it but I really couldn’t play it. I had no talent but a lot of enthusiasm.” The money that would’ve gone into a French horn went instead toward a Pentax Spotmatic, which Wilson calls “the first piece of the puzzle.”
The second piece of the puzzle, as Wilson tells it, was a scholarship to Northern Kentucky University. “I got a camera because I couldn’t play the French horn, I got a scholarship because nobody else wanted it. I go to sign up for classes, and the advisor asks me what I’m interested in studying. I told him I didn’t really have any plans, but that I was interested in photography. Lo and behold, he said, “Oh, we have photography next year in the Fine Art program. Would you like to be an art major?” So I said, “Well, I’ll give it a try.” That was the third piece of the puzzle.”
At NKU, he credits Barry Andersen for helping him to realize that photography wasn’t, as he’d originally thought, something people did for newspapers. “I got there and it was like being in a darkened theater as the lights go down… the curtain goes back and you see this wonderful thing you never would’ve expected. That’s what the history of photography was to me. I had no clue that for 150 years people had spent their lives taking pictures. That did it for me. Watching a filmstrip of Bruce Davidson talking about his photography, that’s the moment I realized, ‘This is what I want to do.’”
Upon graduation, he found he had no interest in graduate school, or in teaching photography. However, even as he wandered from one odd job to the next, he found himself working his way closer to a profession in photography. Here, I’ll let the man himself take over:
Michael Wilson: I took a job as a photographer’s assistant at a textbook publisher. They had an in-house studio and I did the darkroom work and assisted on shoots. It was very controlled photography, everything lit to the nth degree. By this time, I was three years out of college, out of my honeymoon with photography, and I felt a sort of dread of photography coming over me, especially on days we’d be in the studio doing these controlled pictures. I remember thinking, “If this is what a photographer is, I don’t want to be a photographer.”
All the while, music has always been my main inspiration. I couldn’t help but notice that when I’d spend a couple of hours at a record store, you’d occasionally run across a really beautiful photograph, like a Stephen Shore photograph, or a Robert Frank photograph, and I’d be reminded of the pictures that made me love photography when I first discovered it, the pictures that made me want to be a photographer. The work of the usual suspects… August Sander, Robert Frank, Bill Brandt… all those people and that work was so unlike the sterile, institutional work I was doing for my 9 to 5 job. So when I’d go to the record store after work and I’d see a photo on a record that really came from the heart, I’d say, “Man, how did that happen?” So there was all this frustration building up, but it didn’t take too long for it to come to a head.
Paul: That dread, was it the work itself being so regimented starting to grind you down?
MW: It was that. Think of it like money sitting in a bank account somewhere. It was like that money was being spent on something I really didn’t care about and I felt like I was going broke. I’d get envious, because I’d see these photos and say, “Well, somebody’s doing beautiful work.” I think after a while the chip on my shoulder got big enough that they just asked me to stay in the darkroom.
I had a friend who was an illustrator, and he knew what was going on. He said, “Well, show somebody your pictures you care about.” I put together a handmade book of portraits, work I’d done for myself, and I sent it to a name – she really was just a name that I’d seen on a bunch of record covers that I liked. She was the creative director for Warner Brothers. I didn’t even know what a creative director was at the time, but I knew that if I looked over five records that I thought were really beautiful, three of them would involve this person. And I thought, “This person responds to the same things in the world that I am.” So I made a handmade book of about ten to twelve photos that my wife bound together, and I sent it over. A few weeks later, I got a call from the manager of the Bodeans. They’d been given my name by Jeri Heiden at Warner Brothers and she suggested I get together with them and make some photos. That was my first break.
PB: So you sort of drifted into this.
MW: I drifted, but what was deliberate – and I tell this to photographers now – is instead of following the money, I’d say to look at the pictures you wish you would’ve made. Go back and follow that picture back to a photographer, back to a photo editor. I just followed pictures I loved back to a name, and back to a person. It’s a long shot, but that’s probably the best advice I can give to anybody, especially if you’ve got a strong photographer who has an idea of the kind of pictures they want to make. I meet a lot of young photographers who are trained to do specific things – tabletop, headshots – and that sort of shotgun approach is a different approach that I don’t really know as well. If you know what kind of pictures you want to make, and you know what kind of pictures make your heart beat faster, see what names are attached to those pictures.
PB: Speaking of pictures that make your heart beat faster, who are some of the photographers who’ve done that for you over the years?
MW: I’ll name an unfair and very partial list. August Sander is one of my favorites. Bill Brandt, Eugène Atget, Robert Frank, Bruce Davidson… Emmet Gowin, Robert Adams (also for his writing). I could go on and on. I’m not as aware of the current “edge” of photography, but there’s a portrait photographer in South Africa I really love named Pieter Hugo. And Andrea Modica is also wonderful… But once you start talking about photographers, it’s like talking about music, the records you really love. You start, but you can’t really stop. I’ll leave it at that.
[After a pause, he continues] The woods behind our house are filled with grapevines. I love how those grapevines grow. There’s something in you, there’s work that exists out in the world, and it has the role that light does on a plant from the inside out. Without thinking about it, we grow toward things that move us. And those are people who’ve been light to me.
PB: Continuing on music and some of the photographers you’ve mentioned previously, how did you arrive at your style? Was it something learned, or…?
MW: Yeah. Now I’m getting nervous, like I’m about to teach a workshop. [laughs] I don’t perceive myself as having a style. I have a way of working, but that’s just the tools in my toolbox. I just throw a bunch of pictures on the table, and… okay, this works, this doesn’t. They tend to be pretty simple. There’s a photograph I did for the Replacements for All Shook Down, it’s just two dogs standing in the middle of the street. I hesitate to call it a style. It’s not a deliberate choice. What I have done is I’ve chosen to work in a very reductionist, simple way. I think I benefited a great deal from those four years at that book publisher, where everything was lit and gelled and we would tweak shadows a half an inch one way or another. For me, that was painful. I felt like, “Life is way more interesting than what we’re doing here.” I realize now that I was shortchanging it, ‘cause there are people who make great pictures by exerting a lot of control over a photograph, orchestrating every element. I think I came to find that that’s not going to suit me well in the long run. I just didn’t have the patience for it.
The other thing was, early on when I went freelance, I’d take along a strobe and a softbox, and I’d try to be professional and get the lighting just right, but those pictures were never as good as the pictures I made when I was just walking around and I just had to find the lighting. So that was more of a subtractive decision. I got to the point where I just told artistic directors, “I don’t use lights.” The truth is, there are occasions I carry a light with me. I recently did a shoot for a record company I work with, they told me I’d be shooting in a club basement with no lights and no windows, but 99% of the time, I don’t augment the light. If it’s fluorescent, or bare bulbs, or whatever, I just use it. I’m better off that way.
PB: It’s funny, ‘cause I look at somebody like David LaChapelle, and I say, “You know, I wouldn’t have the patience to do this.” But I wonder, am I copping out doing that?
MW: If you look at LaChapelle’s work and it resonates with you in a way that you want to do that… in his case, there’s a lot at work in his pictures. The lights, the styling. Anyway, I’d say that you know when your pictures complete the thought that’s in your head. If you’re making pictures that feel like a finished thought, it’s not a cop out. The pictures I made with the strobes and all that stuff, I didn’t want to show those to anybody because it didn’t feel like me. I wouldn’t feel guilty about it unless the nagging persists. And then you need to call a doctor. [laughs] Certain people are almost like directors. It’s a different mindset. They know what they want before they go in. I’m a total reactionary. I need something to respond to. They imagine things, and create them… “Wouldn’t it be great if so-and-so was covered in a suit of leaves?” And then they go to the lengths it takes to execute that vision. If you’re the kind of person that has that kind of vision but won’t do the work, then yeah, you’re copping out, but otherwise it’s not.
PB: Speaking of reacting to what you see, what strikes me in your work is how the album covers especially just seem to go with the music.
MW: Yeah, that’s more serendipity than anything else. In the case of Emmylou Harris, Buddy Miller’s a friend, and he’d played guitar for her. He suggested me, and that worked out well. Sometimes, like with Lyle Lovett, the art director knew me and knew him, and because he knew both of us as people, knew that we would “get” each other. I’ve also worked on projects that haven’t turned out well. There was a time when I was getting offered work because of Lyle Lovett’s popularity, people would say, “We should get the guy who did Lyle’s picture,” but they had no knowledge of me. They saw it as a “look,” and almost without fail, those didn’t turn out well.
I can give you an exception, though. The most recent Lyle Lovett record… Release Me was his last album on Curb. It was just me and him. We were sort of joking around, then we saw this lasso and it just came together. It was a silly joke on the title. But I wasn’t allowed to get his suit dirty. [laughs]
PB: Walk me through the process of getting from that first contact from an art director to me holding the disc in my hands.
MW: I’ll give you a specific example, a best-case scenario. I do a lot of work with Nonesuch Records. They’re really good, a great record label that respects photographers. There’s a new record by Shawn Colvin that I shot. I knew the title of the record, I’d heard the music, and that’s good, but it doesn’t change how I make the pictures. It helps me to know them a little bit, but I don’t pick different cameras or change the shots.
Nonesuch isn’t committed to your photo being the cover. They’ll say, “Go make pictures, and we’ll see what happens.” So what I’ll do is just go and make the strongest pictures I can. Some will be color pictures for publicity, but then I’ll also just take pictures I like to make. This shoot, I did some shots with a pinhole camera, and just played around a lot. The cover picture was taken at the end of the day in her back yard. I knew the music, I knew the title, but you’ve still got to make an interesting picture. I just spend a day, however long the artist has, usually about four to six hours, and make a bunch of pictures. They’re really simple pictures if you look at them. If you saw me taking them, you’d say, “He’s really not doing anything.” The Shawn Colvin picture is a woman smoking a cigarette by her garage. There’s no high drama. But it’s a lovely thing as a photographer to have a designer who gets it and can put it in a setting where it resonates. I feel really lucky when that happens. Those are pictures that are really simple, but I’m happy that they’re out in the world.
PB: So the photos are more a reaction to the people than the music.
MW: Exactly. It’s funny, the Jeremy Denk record… he’s a classical pianist. The music is inspired by fractals, but the pictures that ended up working were the simplest ones. It’s just a guy sitting on the floor. Sometimes the ideas behind a record are so huge – a broken heart, being really happy – they’re usually big things that are hard to photograph. What’s cool about doing portraits is if you make a really honest picture of somebody, there’s a kind of power in that that leaves room for lots of complicated ideas that you’re not talking about in the portrait, but they’re there.
PB: A lot of the photographers that I’m drawn to, it’s like… whatever life puts in your lap, that’s what you’re photographing that day. It seems like you leave your subjects room to speak for themselves.
MW: When I’m looking at a portrait, I kinda want to feel like I trust that picture of that person. I know that’s a slippery slope, but I think you can tell. You see someone trying to look coy, or look some kind of way, and you say, “That’s not real,” you know? But when you see a strong human connection, those are the pictures that hold up over time, even when it’s a family snapshot in an album. It’s like trying to cross a stream and you’ve got your choice of rocks to put your foot on to get across. You look at a rock sometimes, and even though something’s sticking out over the surface, you know it’s not steady. You find somewhere else to put your foot because you know it’s solid. That’s the kind of portraits I want to make. I don’t want someone to feel duped. Like the Lyle Lovett pictures. They’re often exaggerations, but hopefully there’s something honest about them.
PB: Whether someone’s just starting out, or if they’re rethinking how and why they shoot, how would you advise someone to get to that kind of honesty, if that makes sense?
MW: Yeah, it makes sense. I guess I’d say there’s a few things that go into that. It’s gotten to a point now where you can push a button on your camera, and the picture looks pretty good. But the biggest dose of reality or inspiration I can give someone is to just go to the library, pull the photo books off the shelf, and look at them. There’s a really powerful energy when you’re learning something new and you’re excited. That’s a really important energy, and we need to keep that enthusiasm. Robert Adams talks about how artists live by curiosity and enthusiasm, and you need that. But you also need to look at pictures that are beyond you. Look at the history of photography. Yes, take pleasure in the pictures you’re making and stay enthused, but spend deliberate time looking at people who’ve made pictures for their whole lives. That, to me, feels like something really important to do. To know what the scope and power of the medium is. That’s bound to be frustrating, but none of us are original. We’re all mining veins that exist in the soul or in the world. We see someone who’s mining from a particular vein that’s also where we want to be digging. That’s different from the early pleasure you get when you pick up a camera and start playing. The curiosity is good, but you need to add to it some deliberate looking.
PB: The understanding versus a scattershot approach…
MW: Not even an understanding of how they did it. Just to know that there is somebody named Robert Frank who took a little camera and surreptitiously photographed what it felt like to be the outsider. To know Karl Blossfeldt, who in the 20’s and 30’s made these incredible photographs of plant forms. Emmet Gowin and these incredible family photos that read like stage plays… that stretching that comes from being exposed to something. Not the settings. Just having your eye and your head stretched.
PB: Any particular piece of advice you wish you’d had starting out, or some piece of advice you wish someone would’ve given you early on?
MW: The first thing that pops into my head is, “Beware of jealousy.” Learn to be grateful for what you’ve got. Whether you’re trying to get attention to try to make a living, or get attention to get shows, it’s hard to just be satisfied with the smaller stuff, like making pictures and doing it as well as you can. It seems to me that most of the energy and desire to enjoy looking and be out with your camera gets sapped. You suffer from the desire to get noticed. If you’re a freelance, you need to let people know what you do, but it’s that part of it that I wish someone would’ve said, “There’s no reason to be jealous.” If photography doesn’t exist in some truthful, joyful place in your life, if you don’t get unforced joy or don’t see something beautiful and want to say a prayer of thanks – that sort of prayerful part of the process needs to stay intact by whatever means you can do it. A lot of damage happens when you’re just trying to get attention.
PB: When you get to that point, whether it’s jealousy or frustration, or just a rut, how do you get out of it?
MW: The physicality of the process. The actual walking outside and realizing, “this is what I love to do.” Lately in my life that’s happened a couple of times. A younger photographer’s asked me a few times to walk with them and take pictures. That’s been a godsend to me. Doing something physical, doing the duty part of it – the actual discipline of shooting. Maybe nobody needs or wants you to make a picture, or is going to pay for it. In my case, I’ll just find a neighborhood and start walking. Just do the work of a photographer.
PB: Any thoughts in closing?
MW: There’s a quote I love by John Berger: “What makes photography a strange invention with unforeseeable consequences is that its primary raw materials are light and time.” And this one’s by August Sander, who’s one of my heroes. It plays off the same idea. He said, “If I have attempted to pursue and represent the revelation of the spirit through nature with only the photographer’s usual means, both the stimulus and contemplation necessary for this has come to me through my experience that miracles do happen.”
Afterword: All photographs reproduced in this post appear by kind permission of Michael Wilson. There’s plenty more where they came from; his website is http://www.michaelwilsonphotographer.com/ and I’d suggest not missing his series The Pipe Coverer’s Ball for all the album covers and famous people.