by Ian Munro
Michael Bilotta is an award winning conceptual fine art photographer. All work is 100% photographic and the imagery is created as layered composites in Photoshop. Michael has a huge catalogue of amazing work in his 1x portfolio. Discover the man behind his fabulous creations.
Hey Michael, thanks a lot for giving us at 1x some time to run through a few questions that I know you are passionate about. Tell us a little about yourself and how you first began your journey in photography.
I was born and raised in Central Massachusetts, in New England, and went to college at Berklee College of Music in Boston. I lived in Boston for almost twenty years, and since then have moved back to central Massachusetts, not far from my home town. I spent my early adult years pursuing music. I was a songwriter first, a musician second. That’s how I would describe music in my life. As it was with visual arts, the expression, the idea, was always more important than the mechanics of performing it. I was drawing from a very early age, and kept that up through my teens, until the music took me. When music was hitting a lull for me, in my early 30s, I sort of rediscovered my interest in visual art - this was at a time when digital cameras were first available for the consumer market. I learned Photoshop on my own, and dabbled in special effects, photo manipulation, and a lot of video editing. From there, over about ten years, I learned some more about photography, how the camera works, lighting, and it wasn’t really until 2012 or so that it even occurred to me to use all these interests into actually creating a piece of art. I think it was a long period of learning mechanics, just like with music - you learn the rules, you learn the technical, so eventually they are part of you and you can then throw all that out and just make music instinctively. My first foray into conceptual or surreal photography was around December 2012, when I first worked with a model for the purposes of creating something artistic. Since then, it has become my process - to use photography and Photoshop to create art.
I first came across your work on 1x and since then we have become great “virtual” mates through Facebook and other social platforms. These day’s photographers and artists use social networking to the extreme and, it can be very beneficial. How does social media stack up to Michael Bilotta and how would you sum it up within the type of art images you create?
I have mixed feelings about it. On the one hand, yes, it’s great for getting your work out there and for people to see it. Great for meeting fellow artists like you, no question. On the other hand, it’s a burden - it’s like a meter that requires constant feeding. Inevitably, you fall into the trap of how popular you are compared to another, and then you begin to feel pressure to provide content even if you don’t wish to. There is a ritual I go through upon the completion of a new image: I draft a write-up for it, I write out tags for it, and then I begin to post it on various platforms. My website, Facebook, Instagram, Flickr, 500px, 1x. try to share it on all platforms, even though some are more effective in the morning hours, some better in the evening…it’s a lot to do. I try to keep a blog. I know that I would gain more of an audience if I provided tutorials for techniques in Photoshop, but after a few of those, I realized that I was pulling focus away from the art of it in favor of focusing on the craft - the how-to. I don’t wish to be seen as a Photoshop artist, I would rather be an artist. While I am not sure how anyone would see my work without social media at this point, I nevertheless feel it is a burden - I would rather not have a constant feed of information about someone. Before the internet, artists and musicians were more of an enigma - there was an air of apartness between the audience and the artist. If there was a feature about them, on television or in magazines, then it was more exciting - you were hungry for the content. If you saw them live there was more reverence to that. I think that is healthy. I would prefer to keep my real life separate from my artistic presence online, but I guess that is not a very practical option now. I guess if I had my druthers, I would have a website, and that would be it. I would post content to it and it alone, and everyone would somehow just know about it and go there. Again, not going to happen. But it would make having a website more meaningful if people would go to it. Social media platforms have become the mainstay now, not websites. For that reason, I keep one thing exclusive to my website: my blog. That is the only place you can read it. I also stopped doing write-ups for my images for the most part. I used to write a lengthy blog about each one, explaining the process in creating it, the meaning behind the symbolism. No more. I would prefer to keep some things ambiguous, to keep some air of mystery to it. Social media tends to make all content short-term and ultimately disposable. I am grateful for it and I kind of hate it at the same time.
As a fellow creative photographer I often get a little confused as to where the whole Conceptual genre is going. I mean there are plenty of sub genres of it and, also there seems to be a slight stigma around creatives who express themselves this way. Would you say it’s down to people copying trends or the reproduction of clichés that makes this field so difficult to distinguish?
I think the tendency to copy is pretty significant, yeah. But that is not exclusive to this genre, just more obvious in conceptual photography. I do see a lot of bad compositing and overworked Photoshopped images. That sounds hypocritical coming from someone who does so much of it, but there is a difference between using Photoshop and overusing or misusing it. Aside from that, I do see a lot of lazy conceptual work, that is not really conceptual at all. It is one thing when the meaning or the concept behind a piece is ambiguous, but when there is no evidence in the image itself that there is a concept, well, this is not conceptual. If you have a piece you called “Prometheus” and there was no fire, no reference to Greek mythology, if all you see is a portrait of a muscular male doing nothing but posing, well, maybe to the photographer this is Prometheus, but there is nothing in evidence visually to support that. You need to see your concept through, you need to imply things or blatantly reveal them in order for it to be conceptual. I would say the sub-genre closest to it is Surrealism. That is a line I straddle. I think Ben Goossens here on 1x is a fine example of Surrealism. Yes, it is conceptual, but the presentation is less a scene or cinematic presentation and more based on juxtaposition and allegory. Ian, your an example of conceptual in the true sense of the word because you have a concept and it is very much there for all to see. I do see some surrealism in there as well. I guess it comes down to experience. There are a lot of people calling themselves conceptual or fine art photographers that are not there yet. The desire is there, the wanting to express in this way may be there, but the skills are not. It takes time to learn, and often the first efforts are bad. My first ones were horrible - I would say the entire first year was just overworked, overcrowded compositions that I can hardly look at any more. This is why I will go back and re-edit some older pieces - I believe there is a good idea there, but the execution was lacking. The trouble is, thanks to social media platforms, everyone now has the ability to get an instant audience and all genres suffer due to the influx of the good with the bad. And then there is the copycat syndrome, but that is another matter entirely!
The one thing that we have both done is photograph the male form in some way. All be it nude or implied and as far as I am concerned my work that includes this never, has the same impact with the same audience in respect to female figures. How important is this aspect to you and are you inclined to change to satisfy the people? Is this, to you essential to get your story or message across?
I do love a challenge and I do love to rail against the norm. When I first started dabbling in working in conceptual photography and using models, four years ago, I started to notice a stigma about using the male form in this genre. The message, it seemed to me, was that women were fodder for art, not men. Women are the muse for storytelling, not men. How rife this genre is with women in dresses, women in period piece costumes, female nudes, floating women, doppelgänger women, hair billowing, dresses flowing. It all ties into a rather timeless notion that the female form is art, and the male form is utilitarian. I find this a sexist mentality. There seemed to be a time, hundreds of years ago, that both sexes were considered worthy subjects for art - painting, sculpture, storytelling, and somehow, in the modern day, we have gotten away from that. Well, being a man, and not wanting to be my own model, I feel the right choice more often than not for me is to use a male model to express my ideas, my point of view. As for the nude angle, I have always found a beauty in the male form as well, so it never occurred to me that there would be a stigma associated with it. Oh, but there is. If I post a nude or implied nude of a male, I will get less comments, less dialogue arises because there is a certain discomfort it creates. To you and me, this is absurd. Work with nude models long enough, and the body is just that - a body. Yes, some are beautiful to behold, but it has become so commonplace for me it has been demystified to a degree. Aesthetically, it gives me a timeless palette to work with. Nothing is universal to the human condition like nakedness. We all have that in common. Once you put clothing on a model, you are relegating your art, informing it with a time period, however vaguely. Still, the fact that there is a stigma associated with male nudity in imagery does impact me in some way. I am not inclined to change it to gain popularity, but I am moving away from it a little naturally now. It is not down to anything but change. I now find clothing and accessories help tell a story as well. I want to work with more models and the fact is not all models are willing to pose nude, however artistically they are presented. I will never stop shooting nudes, it is a challenge and an art form in itself, but I will always do a mix of clothed and nude. I do feel compelled to champion the cause of presenting men in a beautiful light though, and changing the preconceptions and sexism in the art community about the male form. I always use this example for a compelling reason to shoot nudes: There is an artist I admire in the conceptual photography genre, and one of his images depicts an angel, a male angel, in a natural setting. Did he fall from heaven? Did he take on human form? Not entirely, since he still has wings. But why then, on the way to Earth and this beautiful spot in the woods, did he stop to buy a pair of jeans? For me, that takes me out of the story. The world will not end if you depict a young man’s backside!
I have and will continue to use myself in my images as the model. I know what I want and I need no direction to get the look I want. I find this a great help and also less expensive than hiring a model. Anyone who follows my work will see that I use a senior male model with a very normal “non model” look. It’s great for getting my thoughts and stories across. Why do you use mostly male models and what do they do to change the dynamics of your photography session? How does it compare to using female models, just in your own opinion?
In a way you have already answered this. It’s great for getting a story across. If you are using a senior male model in your work in a field replete with young people, mostly female, then you are already distinguishing yourself. Aside from that, I look for the non-model type as much as possible. I am not doing straight portraiture. I am trying to tell a story. My stories are not dependent on a washboard stomach, high cheekbones, perfect head of hair, or rippling superhero musculature. If anything, I look for the common, the everyman or everywoman. Above all, you must be able to express emotion with your face and body! So many models strive for a blank expression and unnatural pose. I am going for more of a still from a film sort of aesthetic. I do not want you staring down the camera, giving attitude, The fact that I do not use myself for shoots is down to the hassle of being both in front and behind the lens, as well as my opinion that I do not look malleable enough. I might be of a type, and I don’t want that type every time. Plus, I feel a little too exposed using myself - I have in the past, early on. It’s rather a bit like writing an autobiography, and then casting an actor to play your part. That’s one of the reasons why I use men more often. As for age, well, I tend to use middle aged to senior because, aside from being considered not model material, which is a wonderful reason to use them, I am myself middle-aged. My concerns and themes and interests revolve around this phase of my life, and my fears of the future, of aging, of mortality. It’s hard to create an empathetic character struggling with mortality when you are using a bronzed Adonis in his prime as a model! It takes men, people in general, I feel, a good number of years before they are comfortable with themselves and their body. I find older people have more expression, more range of emotion. More has happened to them! If you were to come here I would certainly love to shoot you as a model. You cut a nice figure on camera and you are the right age for me!
I see more and more people taking up photography and hear them speak easy about their inspirations and people and ideas that inspire them. Usually when I see and hear this I realise that most people are indeed simply reproducing work identical to their inspirational peers and claiming it’s their own work. Now, I know that it’s all been done before and I have photographers who’s work I enjoy. I would hate to simply reproduce it (and probably not as good) and say it’s my concept. What actually inspires you to build on an idea of your own and what does the word “Inspiration” mean to you? Would it ever include any form, however subtle of plagiarism?
This topic is something I am getting more and more vocal about, because the very word “inspiration,” aside from being overused, is now becoming a pretty euphemism for just plain stealing or copying. And yes, you are correct in that it’s all been done before, and that is an argument those who do it knowingly hide behind. It is one thing if you emulate a favorite portrait photographer and approximate his or her lighting style, which I see - there are many out there copying Joel Grimes, but it’s quite another thing in the Conceptual genre because you are dealing with a fairly small and unique genre. Plagiarism becomes more obvious. It also is symptomatic of maturity. You start out superficially. You see something that excites you, something unique or visually powerful. Something inside you gets motivated and you say “I want to do that too!” And so you copy it. Yes, it is part of learning, and it’s natural, but the truth is many never mature into artists in their own right - they just continue to emulate other works. Perhaps it is a lack of confidence, a lack of depth or just nothing to say, personally. The thing everyone should be looking at, when viewing something that inspires, is not what they see visually, but rather, what is the connection between the concept and how it is expressed? Dive deeper, past the visuals, and look at the visual language. Obviously there is a lot of Magritte influence in my work, less now, but certainly a lot in the earlier stuff. I began to see a lot of Magritte showing up in the places I was sharing my work, but here is the difference: I never copied him, I never approximated a piece of his. I see so many people copying his “The Lovers” or having a damn apple in front of a face - all you are doing is copying a pre-existing work. I was always interested in how he expressed an idea, not with what he literally used to express it. It’s a fine line. Don’t do another image with a damned apple in front of a face! Instead, ask why it is there, what does it mean, what is the relationship between idea and what he used to present it? In the time I have been working in conceptual, I have seen legions of copycats all doing the same things over and over, to the point of rendering something cliche. The floating or levitating model. The baby powder shots. The endless parade of girls in the woods holding lanterns. The mile long dresses. Enough already. I call a lot of them “Brooke-alikes” because so many of them literally copy the work of Brooke Shaden. Ask why the person is levitating - is there a reason for it? Is there a meaning behind it? Don’t just do it because you think it looks neat. I went off on a tangent there, but it is a hot button issue with me. As for my own process or what inspires me…hmmm. As I explained, I don’t really go into a shoot with ideas. I let them unfold as I edit. I think it’s more akin to painting - starting with a blank canvas and allowing something to come. Yes there is a lot of work out there I think is amazing, and yes, there are pieces out there that I wish I had created, but I would not feel like a real artist if I copied those “inspirations.” I will give you an example: I am often inspired by lyrics of songs, and have used many of them as the basis for my pieces. I recently did one based on a Joni Mitchell song called “The Hissing of Summer Lawns.” Now, there is nothing literally in my piece from the lyric itself. I saw the shot of my model and thought “what is she doing?” “Where is she?” “What is she looking at?” I think the end result serves the lyric, but does not copy it. So there is something that inspired me but it is still my own, I made it my own. I took an inspiration and filtered it through me. I guess that’s what it comes down to - develop your personal filter - otherwise you are just stealing.
I know this is a huge question that cannot be properly digested with a separate in depth interview, but I am intrigued by your workflow. So, you have had an idea, you’ve taken the images you need and you are ready to edit. I know that you work with a grey screen backdrop mostly and you build your layers up of several images, but how? This would be very helpful to our readers who love your style.
Ah, but you have some things backwards here! Most of the time, I shoot models with no ideas at all. Yes, I shoot on grey seamless. I concentrate on lighting, on variations, on expressions, on poses - sometimes I have the model interact with some props, but most of the time, I am shooting with no concept. Then I take the raw shots and start working them. It’s like starting with nothing. The first thing I do is see where my subject might want to be. Is he outdoors? Indoors? Day? Night? I have a growing library of personal stock I keep adding to - environments, skies, ocean, birds, etc. Once I make the layer mask of the model, I drop things in until something clicks. Then it becomes a matter of finding the story - what does it need? Sometimes it will require additional objects or elements to be shot. I suppose it’s like sculpting in that regard. As for the technical, I do a lot of pre-prep of the files in Camera Raw, and since I always use a square format, this means cropping the shot or extending the rectangle into a larger square. That’s where the grey backgrounds come in quite handy - it’s all useless information for the purposes of selection - useless except for the shadows and light. It serves as a guide for lighting, and whatever I put over it takes on the light and shadow elements of it. My bottommost layer in all my compositions is my model shot. I never clip out the model - it’s the other way around - they are the foundation and all other layers go over them. Transfer modes other than “normal” mean cleaner masks and more believability. Once I cut the one layer mask of the model, all others are based on that or added to it. I also use what I call “global effects” over everything. These are the topmost layers of my compositions. Usually they consist of a soft vignette, some texture overlays, color solids in various transfer modes, and Vibrance, Levels, and Curves adjustment layers. This is what I refer to as “digital frosting” on the layer cake of the composite. It helps to seal it together and makes it more cohesive. In terms of my exterior elements and objects, I try to go out on overcast days only - the lighting of my model shot is usually very directional, so I would prefer to shoot flat lighting for the exteriors, but sometimes nature demands strong sunlight. My exteriors are nothing interesting on their own - I shoot them for my purposes, in angles that I need, so on their own, they are not good photographs compositionally speaking. For any other elements needed, i usually bring them down to my basement studio and shoot them with the same lights and the same grey background and try to recreate the lighting as much as possible. All of this could take a day to a week to finish one image. A new thing I am trying lately is actually sketching out ideas for the shoots, with mixed results. It’s certainly easier if everyone knows going in what the goal is, but I still prefer a degree of “I don’t know” for the shoot. The sketches have mixed results - some work and some, even though we shot the sketched idea, turn into something else entirely - the benefit and flexibility of the seamless background, that.
What software and camera equipment are you using at this moment in time?
In terms of computer and software it’s an iMac and Photoshop CC. i use a large Wacom Intuos tablet. That tablet is the most essential tool for what I do. My camera is a Canon 5d Mk II, I use three lenses, all Canon EFs - 50mm, 85mm and 24mm. For lighting it’s three Canon Speedlites with large soft boxes, and two old DynaLite heads with soft boxes. I also have a medium sized beauty dish.
Ultimately, who are you creating for? Would you like more mainstream coverage with magazines or is it purely a personal journey?
I have always believed that art needs equal parts expression and audience. I think artists need an audience, I think it is built into their impetus to create in the first place. Perhaps it can be locked into a psychological profile. I suspect many people will disagree with my opinion, but let me clarify it a little further - the creating, the art itself, is a selfish thing - it is for me, of me, about me. My point of view. I want mainstream coverage I suppose - I never thought about it that way, but yes, I would like to achieve a level where my art becomes a full time career and finally becomes what I do, not what I do in my spare time. For that reason, yes, I do want an audience. I want people to see my work. That said, I am not willing to make concessions on the artistic or creative front to achieve it. In other words, if someone offered me something in exchange for editing out something I felt was important in one of my images, I would not change it. If someone values my art as it is, then wonderful - mission accomplished. But I doubt I will be a gun for hire, getting assignments, shooting for clients. Seems that does not work well for me.
For some of the readers to get an idea of what goes through your mind during a shoot, what’s the low down on a typical afternoon modelling for Michael Bilotta? If I was modelling for you would could I expect?
Well, what’s going through my head is a degree of nerves. Shooting models is always a bit of an anxiety for me. I don’t know why. Probably due to the unknown factor of what will we shoot and what if I have no ideas. I try to make it as light and fun as possible - for all the serious tones and themes of the images, most of the time we keep it light while shooting. New models are more of a tension for me than the recurring ones - which is why I prefer to use some over and over - aside from being great in front of the camera, we develop a rapport, and it all becomes easier. Then we run though some shots - sitting, standing, laying down, no expression, dramatic poses, all very loose and open. I let the models improvise and I stop them when I see something I like. Other times I will direct specifically based on what I am seeing in the camera. We change the clothing up a little - hat, no hat, jacket, no jacket, and most of the time, all the way down to nude. Most of the models I use are life models and are quite comfortable being naked for the camera. For me, it gives me a range of looks per session. I get the clothing, the various changes of the clothing, the nudes, all in one afternoon. Lately, I am using models that do not pose nude but that means finding more looks for them per session - always a struggle. For the most part, the shoots are just me and the model, in my basement studio, for about three hours.
Which current photographers most impress you and also if you could spend just one day with any photographer who would it be and why?
Hmmm, it would be easy for me to say I am more inspired by painters than photographers, but there are some photographers that really do impress me: Tom Chambers, Greg Crewdson, through 1X.com I discovered recently Ryan J. Weiss , Tommy Ingberg , Edith Hoffman, Mel Brackstone, ugh, I am going to forget some so I will stop there. I was mostly focusing on people that do something similar to what I do. But honestly there are a lot of photographers, a great many of them on 1x that I greatly admire outside of what I do, and also, mainly because they are outside my area. I love good animal portraiture, though I don’t do that. I love a great landscape photographer though I am not in that arena. There are some amazing portrait photographers and macro photographers here. In terms of spending the day with someone…we are all kind of doing our thing, and for most of us, it is a solitary thing. I would love to spend a day watching someone work that does something completely different to my process. Ian, your shoots, I imagine, are vastly different than mine, and they look like they are fun, a lot of work, and more than two people involved. I think it would be really gratifying for me to watch someone like you work, because it is different to how I work. Honestly though, I sound like a politician, but I do think it would be really educational and interesting to watch any other photographer I have named work and learn how others approach things.
You have a huge catalogue of amazing work on your website and here at 1x. Which are your favourites and why?
“The Lonesome Death of Giants” - this one might still be my personal favorite. Firstly it came out better than I’d hoped, and it really became a very tidy piece to encapsulate what I am all “about” and what is important to me in terms of art.
“The Sadness Will Last Forever” - an image about isolation and sadness created at a time when depression was getting the best of me. It feels very personal to me and is kind of hard for me to look at still.
“Stranded Starfish” - This one was a mystery to me at the time, and it seemed to dictate its direction and meaning without me. I think in the end it came close to looking like a painting, which is always a goal of mine.
“The Fire Next Time” - It’s dark, it’s weird, and it’s theme of religious fervor and terrorism was satisfying to place in the interior of a church from my home town, which I got to shoot a few years ago.
“the Three Great Stimulants” - I like the lines of this one, and it was a personal best at the time I created it.
“the Cloud Factory” - I do like massive edit challenges from time to time, but this one was so simple. I managed to get the light from the hat in-camera, so it was very easy to edit and I was happy to have such a simple image to contrast some of my more elaborate ones.
What’s next for Michael Bilotta?
I am gearing up for submitting my work to galleries in the hopes of representation. I have never approached one before, but I think the time is right. I want to see if I can create an audience beyond social media. I have printed a physical book, a portfolio, and am focusing now on creating series within the portfolio. Aside from that, I plan on more shoots this year, and possibly hosting my first Photoshop/Photography workshop. It’s something I have always wanted to do.
Michael, thanks so much for tolerating me with what could have easily been a thousand questions. I would like to take this opportunity to thank you myself and also on behalf of 1x for your time.