There are people who claim that editing photographs does not make it an art form and then there are people like Michael Bilotta who have time and again proved that editing / photography is not merely a gimmick.
Michael Bilotta is the winner of Camera Obscura Journal’s Outstanding Photo Award and was named as Photographer of the Year by the Italian Publication JC&Art Elite. We had the chance to interview the award conceptual fine art photographer from Boston.
- Tell us a bit about yourself.
I was born in Massachusetts and still live here. I was raised Catholic, went to music college in Boston, am a songwriter/singer/bass player, and have been interested in the visual arts since before music came along. It was my first love as a child and probably still is, though I chose music to study when the time came. I am atheist now, and have been since my teens. I started working with Photoshop before I had my first camera, and that was in 1999 I believe. I have been focusing on Conceptual/Fine Art Photography for three years now.
- Did you take any professional course in Photography or went to any of the Photography schools?
I did no formal training or courses in Photography. I learned very gradually over time – about 10 years, learning a little bit from others and trial and error. I think getting my first DSLR was my first real year of learning basic photography – before that, it was all point-and-shoot. I think I got my first DSLR in 2008. Since getting that, I have almost never taken it off Manual mode – which, I think, is the only mode it should be on when you want to learn the basics.
- Since when did you begin your journey as a Conceptual Fine Art Photographer?
I have been working on Conceptual/Fine Art photography since 2011 – about three years now. I think really that the journey unofficially began long before that, as a child. I was always drawn to the unusual, the striking, the larger than life imagery.
- Tell us about your Photography Equipment?
I shoot now with a Canon 5D mk II. For lenses, it’s usually a 50mm 1.4, an 85mm, and sometimes a 24mm. No zooms. I use three Canon speedlites with large diffusers for lighting, and use cheap Cowboy triggers for them.
- What is your favorite computer/editing accessory, other than your computer?
I pretty much only use Photoshop CS6 for all editing, and prep the raw images in Adobe Camera Ready. Getting a Wacom tablet was a real game changer too. It allows for very precise painting of masks and getting really fine lines on the final product. I don’t know how I did anything without it.
- Mac or PC, Your preference.
Macs only since 2007.
- Any particular reason as such?
I used to be a PC user, and when I was doing video editing and photography editing, I found that using a Mac allows for use, more than troubleshooting. I don’t really care how things work, I just want to get to the creativity. Macs allow that seamless user experience – less crashes, more stability. It just works without endless updates and viruses.
- Do you have eyes on any particular new equipment which you would like to acquire?
Hmm, I don’t know. I think most photographers love gear, and if I had unlimited money I suppose I would get the best of everything. But honestly, I am more interested in acquiring props, costumes, a larger place to shoot – that sort of thing, more than gear. I am pretty happy with the gear I have now. It works and I have a system for now, so I am satisfied.[quote_box_center] I don’t really care how things work, I just want to get to the creativity. Macs allow that seamless user experience – less crashes, more stability. It just works without endless updates and viruses.[/quote_box_center]
- What made you get into this style of photography?
When you are learning photography, you focus on the mechanics of it: Aperture, speed, ISO, and you can become very technical that way. I was never interested in the technical – I wanted to get into the potential for making art. I think photography is the first step for me – something I need to do to get to the creative process of making something else. I am a musician too, and it was the same when I was learning music – I was more interested in writing music than playing it. I think the same holds true for photography for me. It’s just what interests me more than landscapes or portraits or still life.
- Anyone who takes a look at your images is haunted by a question “How does he do it?” Would you like to give a step by step process of how you create your images?
It’s actually quite easy, but it takes practice and patience. It’s more or less like painting. These days I am less interested in giving technical explanations than the conceptual discussions about the “why” of it. But, in terms of the process on the technical side, I would say the only tricks in my bag are shooting on blank stages (seamless floor to ceiling, lighting in the studio, and then using layer masks and a lot of adjustment layers in Photoshop. Once I am able to isolate the model in the shot, everything else is just masks and layers upon layers. The real trick is the shooting. If you shoot in a way that makes selecting the model easy, the rest falls into place. That means strong light on the subject and a fairly even illumination on the seamless. Coming up with ideas of what to do with it all is the hardest part. My process also does not allow me to shoot outdoors or in other environments – for now, I am limited to shooting in the studio setting.
- What gives you the ideas or inspire you to create such awesome pictures?
I wish I could answer that. I am usually convinced every time I start a new one that there are no more ideas left. I sometimes have an idea that comes to me and then look for a shot that allows that idea to happen. Other times, I have no ideas and something in the model’s pose might suggest something to me. Other times I play around with colors or landscapes or environments until an idea eventually comes. To me, it is the same as writing songs. How does that come from nothing? I have no idea really!
- Do you have any assistant or a 2nd person?
Oh I wish I did, but no! An assistant to move or adjust lights would be the biggest help in the world, but I am not able to afford that now!
- Can you show our viewers your most recent image? Can you describe your thoughts on creating this image, how you shot it lighting, composition, settings etc?
My most recent image is called “All Of This Will Happen Again” (Eternal Recurrence pt 2) and it was a hard one to make! The shot was a nude of a model I have worked with twice now, doing a sort of death pose on the floor. It was lit overhead with a beauty dish, and one light for the background paper. I asked him to enact someone crawling to the shore, as if from a shipwreck. I didn’t know what I was going for when it was shot. When I was editing it, I decided to try putting him in a dystopian, bleak environment, like a desert, and then decided to put circuitry over him, as if this is a living machine or android. Eventually this turned into a closed environment of a technological space lit similarly to his “skin.” I added what reminded me of a blood trail on the floor, made of circuitry and lights though, sort of a high tech noir murder scene. It actually became a series of two images, using the first version in the desert, I created a concept of recurring deaths, of circular time, the inevitability of patterns repeating themselves. The circuitry was simply the motherboard of a DVD player I shot in the studio. I used it to create the scene, and used several slices of it to add to the model’s body. To explain how it came to look as it does is pretty difficult – I tried a lot of things until I got it the way I wanted it. I would say it is over 50 layers in all though, and relied heavily on layer masking and adjustment layers like Curves and Levels and Vibrance. I painted in some lights on the body as well.
- According to you what is the most challenging thing in creating Fine Art Images?
The challenge to me is not repeating yourself too much. It is hard to come up with a thoroughly original idea for every shot. As a result, fine art photographers have a smaller portfolio than, say, Landscape photographers. A good way to get some mileage out of an idea is a series – something connecting multiple images that allows for an approach or idea to be explored over time. I think the challenge I see in a lot of people interested in this field is copying each other. I see that a lot. Some call it inspiration, I call it being too enamored with someone’s work. The best thing you can do in a field like this is to close yourself off from other’s work. It’s too easy for other ideas to permeate your process. I used to do the same when writing music – I would not listen to music during a writing period for fear of being influenced by it.
- Though you are the source of inspiration for many, including me, is there any photographer / person who inspires you?
I thank you for that, and yes, there are others who have greatly influenced me. Maggie Taylor is one of my favorite artists who does photo manipulations. I admire the lighting of Joel Grimes. Rene Magritte, the surrealist painter, is perhaps my biggest influence overall. But then, I also love Stanley Kubrick, visually speaking, and he was a filmmaker. There are many photographers whose work is more purely photography that I love as well. Tommy Ingberg would be someone close to what I do and is a conceptual photographer as well. The biggest difference in our work is he never uses faces, I believe, and works in black and white, which I don’t tend to like for my own.
- First name which comes into your mind when you hear the term “Photography”?
Canon! I love Canon products and that was the first thing that popped into my head.
- Anything or anyone you would love to photograph?
I would love to shoot more models, and go to more interesting places for environmental elements for my images. Beyond that, I don’t have a wish list. I tend to look for things like: a snowy environment, an isolated building, a field, a great view of the sky. Mountains. The one place I really want to go is the Highlands of Scotland, specifically the Isle of Skye. That seems incredible. I look for timelessness as much as possible. Nothing too modern. New York city would be a place of no interest to me in terms of shooting. Alaska would be much more useful.[pull_quote_left author=”Michael on Peter Lik’s Phantom”]it’s not something I would hang in my home.[/pull_quote_left]
- …you’ve learnt the most from?
This sounds arrogant, but I learn the most from myself. I have been working in art in various forms for years, since I was a child. First drawing and sketching, then music, then video, and then photography and conceptual photography. At my age, I feel I know my creative side very well, know my strengths and weaknesses, and know when I am being real or dishonest in my work. Most artists work in a vacuum, by themselves, so I have had a very lonely creative life that no one could be part of anyway. When you spend that much time with yourself, with self-expression, you would do well to know that part of you intimately and listen to that side of you. There have been teachers, of course, in music, influences in photography, but since I spend the most time with myself and have been generating art of some kind for over thirty years, I have been my own worst enemy, my biggest supporter, and, by default, my own teacher.
- Other genres of Photography which you enjoy the most?
I do enjoy looking at genres that have nothing to do with me or what i do. I love good macro, good landscape, love animal photography, and appreciate fine art nude when done well. I think it’s easier to appreciate something that is far removed from what you do. I do not really enjoy street photography much. I just don’t care about it. It is too much like documentary filmmaking. I am not terribly interested in literal images or captures.
- You have recently started teaching Photoshop to all levels of photographers. Tell us about it.
Well, it’s something I offer to those interested. I teach one-on-one via Skype. I suppose if one were local I would do it in person. If someone is interested in how I edit, I am happy to teach them that. The only limitation is that my process is specific, so if someone is interested in my overall process, they would need to be able to shoot similarly as well, with lighting, in a studio. However, for beginners, I am certainly able to show them around Photoshop and get them started. I have been using it for over 14 years now, and it is my day job as well – I edit photos for a home goods company all day!
- Peter Lik’s “Phantom” has just made history by selling the most expensive photograph. Your comments on this and his photograph?
Well, I am not sure how to feel about it. If someone can fetch that kind of money for what they do, then good for them. If someone deems it worthy of that kind of value and wants to pay that money for it, great. For me, it’s not something I would hang in my home. It’s a strong image, done well, and I am not sure the level it was manipulated, but in the end, it is a black and white photograph and I don’t tend to favor those. I often find that a lot of people who are strictly monochrome only shoot things that I feel would be more striking in color. When I see shots of wild animals in Africa in black and white, I usually think, “why??” Why would you not want the striking colors of this place and this animal? I wonder what this 6 million dollar photograph would look like in color?
- Editing images is considered as cheating with arguments like “Photography is not an art” frequently popping up. Your views?
Those people with those views are pretending to be purists, and they are usually either threatened by what they do not know how to do, or tying to inflict their own limited views on everyone else. I have very little patience with this argument, and have dealt with it quite a lot in the last three years. I consider myself more an artist than a photographer. If they say I am not a photographer, then so be it. I don’t want to be what they consider “valid.”
- If someone asks “How can I be next Michael Bilotta?” What would you say?
I would say be careful what you wish for! Like most people, I have a great deal of insecurity, a great deal of ambitions, but also have had depression most of my life, and have been challenged when it comes to making art a part of my life and not giving up on it. The greatest quality I have though, is self-confidence where it matters: I always assume something is attainable, something is possible, if you spend the time to do it. I am impatient most of the time in life, but for some reason, I am able to be patient when it comes to creative endeavors. That means putting time into practicing, spending four days editing one image…it cannot be stated enough how important it is to be patient with art. It will fail if you rush it. So, I suppose the only advice I could give would be to always assume you can do something you want to do. Find out how to do it, put the time in to learn it, and you will get it – at least some measure of it.
- Why don’t you show our viewers your 5 photographs which are closest to your heart?
- Readers can find out more about you and your works on:
I write forwards or explanatory notes for all my images and those can be found wherever I post them: Flickr, 500px, 1x.com, and, of course, my website. I also keep a blog going on my site, usually more personal than the notes about the images. I am on Facebook, of course, and have a photography page there as well. The links are: