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The Idea of Trust: Tatiana Wills on Photographing Other Artists

Tatiana Wills, Kyle Abraham, ongoing project for upcoming book, 2020. All photos courtesy the Artist.

 

By JUAN MARCO TORRES, April 2020

Tatiana Wills is a Los Angeles-based portrait photographer who elevates the beauty of her subjects by paring them down to their true essence. Her work depicting prominent artists from the LA art scene challenges the overly fabricated depictions of reality from editorial photography, often proving that less is more. I recently had the opportunity to have a conversation with the artist about her artistic journey. 

Wills grew up as an illustrator. Originally from Washington, DC, she recounts how natural it was for her to draw from still lifes. Eventually, this developed into her characteristic mastery of light and shadow in her photography. “I grew up drawing all the time,” says Wills. “People realized that I could replicate what I saw. As I got older and life got in the way, I abandoned it. Once I had my daughter in my mid-twenties, I decided I had to take some pictures of her. I went and bought a camera. It wasn't a natural progression or transition, but I certainly knew about light and shadow, which informed my ability to translate light and how it works with subjects. I can see the light around a subject and manipulate how I want it to be.” Later on, her father gifted her a darkroom while living in San Diego, where she learned the technique of developing and printing film. Her transition into her photographic practice might not have been the most natural, as she puts it, but it certainly culminated in the fruition of an artistic eye that uses photography to illuminate what she sees in the world. 

As a young artist living in LA, Wills remembers constantly being “at the right place, at the right time,” leading her to land a job as the head of the photography department at Seiniger Advertising. She recalls: “I had no preconceived ideas, I was hungry and I wanted to learn.” But even her newly found success did not quell her artistic ambitions at the time. Wanting to rebel against what she saw as an overly fabricated and often contrived reality, Wills found the time to dive into her own photography practice. “At night, I would go out and practice this more simple, pared down idea. I did a lot of moonlighting. I love architecture, so I would go out at night and shoot structures and buildings.” One of her first projects that resulted from this impulse, Restless Energy, is a smooth exploration of the nocturnal cityscape, and, interestingly, provides the atmospheric framework for her current portraiture. Although she abandoned architecture at one point, her approach to photography remained the same: looking at her subjects indiscriminately. 

Tatiana Wills, Patricia Zhou, 2019.

Wills’ career took a leap as she started focusing more and more on capturing impactful images without the oversaturation usually the result of post-production. Acting as the liaison between film studios and the advertising agency, she started witnessing how many of the photographers she was hiring were capturing all these “cool” portraits of people she wanted to know more about. They were photographing “regular” people, people like the butcher, the hairdresser. She soon realized it did not matter if the subject of the photograph was an artist, a celebrity, or a dog walker, it could still be a compelling image because the person—not their role—was what was compelling. Wills has carried this reflection into her work ever since. 

At a time when guerilla advertising campaigns were making their debut featuring work from prominent graffiti artists, Wills was sent on a mission to research and capture this new trend of subversive advertorial. What she found during her assignment was an immersive and rich artist community that was seeking to deliver art to the people, to democratize it. “I knew there was something happening,” says Wills, “and I wanted to capture it.”

This discovery led her to starting one of her landmark projects with co-photographer Roman Cho, Heroes & Villains, a collection of striking, and intimate portraits of the most influential Lowbrow artists at the time. In the collection, Wills eschewed her commercial background in order to seek more personal connections with her subjects, combining her technical mastery with her more intuitive eye. “Whoever you are shooting,” she says, “you can't just be a dabbler, an interloper, you have to immerse yourself to gain their trust.” 

Tatiana Wills and Roman Cho, Imminent Disaster, from Heroes & Villains, 2010.

This idea of trust is a quality that resonantes in her work because it is so personal. Having a professional ballerina as a daughter, as well as being a ballet student herself, Wills got the inspiration to create her latest series Dance, an exquisite celebration of a dancer’s artistic and human qualities. In this collection of portraits, Wills focuses on contemporary choreographers and dancers outside of their usual element on stage. Through these images, we are able to appreciate the vocabulary that these artists create for themselves. Their movements are like none other and sometimes speak more about them than their face. “It's about the hand for me,” says Wills. “I know that’s weird because usually everyone looks at their face, but the way the hands are used is very emotional to me. The way someone goes to touch someone else, says a lot about them.” 

“Everyone is so obsessed with showing this reality that has go to be so real,” says Wills. “I am showing the true beauty of these subjects. These people are not getting their hair and make up done into oblivion, the beauty is just there.” Wills’ photography has an uncontested gift for elevating the grace and delicacy of the artists she captures by revealing who they really are beyond their roles. It is through this process that we arrive in her work at the highest form of human beauty: authentic, naked, whole.

For more, visit Tatiana Wills’ website: http://www.tatianawills.com/ WM

Juan Marco Torres

Juan Marco Torres is a writer-astrologer-stylist currently based in Los Angeles. 

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