Michael Bilotta prefers to call his work images, rather than photographs. Today we get to know more about this unique artist who, when it comes to creative editing, truly is in a class of his own. Thanks to Yvette Depaepe for conducting the interview. You will find more photos at the end of the article.
Briefly tell us about yourself, your hobbies and other jobs.
Since I can remember I have been drawing and sketching. When I was 12 I was sure I wanted to be a filmmaker. Digital wasn't around then, so that seemed like an unattainable world at the time. Around 16 I became obsessed with music, and decided to follow that passion - I ended up going to music college, and became a singer songwriter. I wrote my own material, recorded a couple CDs, played the clubs a bit in the Boston area, and when digital photography and video came along, I kind of picked up where my twelve year old version left off, and dove into that. I focused largely on video first, and then started getting a little more serious towards photography.
In a way, the music and photography, to me, are one in the same - they come from the same pool of creativity - I am just transferring from one medium to another. Both of them were vehicles for expression for me - I was not interested in the music of others, or capturing real life in photography - it was always the creation of something personal. Lately I have started to make room for both in my life - I find I miss the other when I focus on just one. My images are the same, in most ways, as my lyrics. All through this time I have had to work day jobs for a living, as most do, and they are usually dull, office drone jobs that threaten to suck the creativity out of you. Most of us know that struggle. I am trying to change that now, and trying to make art my career. In fact, I was just hired by a company as a full time Photoshop re-toucher!
How has your history and life experiences affected your photography ?
I think that time is a great teacher. I compare it to music because I do both, but in both mediums you grow - sometimes slowly, but certainly surely, over time. I grew up in a family that is largely unsupportive or just completely uninterested in the arts - I was an oddball, and I learned to be my own support system for my artistic pursuits. It was always insular, self-contained, and self-sustaining. It never went away, and I have always had some artistic project I was working at throughout my life.
Like all things, we may want to be deep and profound early in life, we want to be taken seriously right away, but time gives you layers or depth, some insight cannot be rushed and some is exclusive to living a number of years on our planet. I might have written some songs that tried too hard to be deep, in other words, when I was young, and likewise with photography - my first attempts, particularly with conceptual work, were a little forced and maybe not as good as I thought they were at the time. It takes a lot of trial and error to settle into things, and after 14 or so years playing with cameras and Photoshop, it feels like it's settling in now.
Which are your most important experiences that has influenced your art ?
I honestly believe that art is derived from pain or a sense of emptiness. Personal pain leads to questions, the desire for change, the need to transform the pain into something else. In times of crisis, the larger questions are formed, the desire for structure, something to hold onto is there. Without pain there would be no preponderance, no introspection, or very little. This is the space where, if you are artistically inclined, your art is forged. It doesn't mean you need to sustain a level of pain in order to create, but the events that shaped you, or rather, derailed you, can be the spark of desire to create something. It was for me at least. There are events, both mundane and profound, that affected me and compelled me to create more, to imbue things with some personal meaning. I am not sure a life of relative contentment would have done that for me.
What first attracted you to photography ?
I have to say the films I saw as a kid. There were certain techniques in cinematography that always appealed to me - that were unique to photography. The films I grew up with are burned into my psyche and certainly made me want to be the same kind of artist. "Blade Runner" was a huge one, and I was 9 when "Star Wars" came out, so the influence of that cannot be overlooked. Film Noir, Hitchcock, Spielberg, all made me want to be a visual artist.
Describe your overall photographic vision.
I try to imply meaning. It's a balancing act. I know exactly what I intend when I build them - whether that is evident to the viewer or not. But I do not like to be obtuse or too obvious either. I like images that suggest something, but have space for interpretation. I like that in all art really. I was never a fan of song lyrics on the level of "I can't live without your love, baby" - that, to me, is boring and perfunctory. Some deliberate ambiguity is the goal, but also enough tangible that an intent, however unclear, is obviously there. I want them to be expressions of me, my experience, my point of view, my life, but I think there is probably enough universal in there too.
Above all, I do not want it to look like a photograph. I know that is odd on a site like this, but I want them to be regarded as images, which is why I call them that. While they are 100% photography - all the elements are my shots, they are assembled or created in the spirit of a painting. It's why I use the square format too - a rectangle says "photography" loudly and a square is a little less common for photography. I also love the symmetry of the square. There are qualities I try to uphold in all of them: surrealism, meditative, conceptual - however you term it. But if it looks like a slice of ordinary life I did not live up to my standards!
Why are you so drawn by creative edit photography ?
It has the potential to imply story or encapsulate a concept or idea. Much is made in photography circles about the "story" - what is the story? I happen to think it really is not possible to tell a story in one image - for anyone. It is the equivalent of one frame of a film. Impossible to fill one static image with enough information to tell a complete story. But, it is possible to imply one, or to give some elements for the viewer to imagine and build a story from the visual language you provide. I think images that are disturbing, surreal or display heightened reality lend themselves to it more than other genres. They can remind us of dreams capes or nightmares, or maybe even some of the fantastical images we grow up with in children's books. I think of Carl Jung and his archetypes when I build - this man is not the point, but who or what he represents is. This is not just a tree, it is a metaphor.
What is more important to you, the story behind an image or the technical perfection ?
Story for sure is more important. Technical is a starting point - it makes getting to the story and the creativity that much easier. In other words, if I take a decent picture as a starting point, then assembling it into a layered concept becomes much easier and in the end, the technical helps make a better image.
What generally is your relationship to your subject matter beyond being an observer ?
I started shooting models three years ago. Before that, I would try my hand at products, macros, dogs in action, anything really. But always with a human figure involved my work was best - I am not really that good without having a human as my subject. I guess I have the most experience in portraiture. Since I started using models, I try to cultivate relationships with them, to use them more than once because like most things, familiarity puts me and the model at more ease, and the sessions get better. My models have to be more than models too, they have to be actors more or less, since I shoot long sessions with them and have no idea what the shots will be used for in the end. They need to trust me and I need them to be able to express and give me some emotion. I have several I have used more than once now.
What are your most important advice to a beginner in creative edit photography and how do you get started ?
Develop a thick skin! Conceptual/fine art photography, photo manipulation, however you term it, can be a rough genre to the very sensitive. I say this not having developed my thick skin very well, mind you. But besides that, you need to avoid cliche, you need to avoid trends, and perhaps isolate yourself from being exposed to others in your genre. Find what is important to you, find your voice. A floating person is only interesting if there is a context to it - the technique is a wow factor but only that - if you are copying others it is meaningless and sometimes silly. The best of this genre have a very defined, singular look that is instantly recognizable. I am a fan of Tommy Ingberg, Leszeck Padowski, Deviant Mind, all on 1x, for example, and they are all recognizable from a mile away. That is crucial - becoming singular in the sea of copycats.
Who are your favorite photographers and more importantly, how has your appreciation of their work affected how you approach your own photography ?
My favorite photographers…I will say there are several, but the two most influential in terms of my style would be one photographic artist, Maggie Taylor, and of course the legendary surrealist painter Rene Magritte. They had the biggest impact on my style and approach. But there are many photographers here on this site, and this is where I found most of them, that I look forward to seeing new work from: Tommy Ingberg, who I already mentioned, Aad Somerling, Leszek Paradowski, Piet Flour, Olga Mest, Adrian Donoghue, Ben Goosens was the first photographer I found online that caught my eye and led me to 1x.com in the first place, Peter Kemp, Ian Munro, Julie de Waroquier, Patrizia Burra, Jay Satriani, - I know I am forgetting a lot of names here, and now I am afraid I forgot to mention some of them! The thing this PARTIAL list of photographers have in common is a very recognizable style that I would know from a thumbnail.
Is there any specific photo taken by another photographer that has inspired you a big deal and why?
Maggie Taylor, "Woman with a Stone Skirt" - Maggie Taylor is one of my favorite artists. I first learned about her from this image, which was used as the cover of an album by Shawn Colvin called "These Four Walls" in 2006. At the time I didn't know who the artist was, or that this was even a composite of photos worked into this surreal image. But this was an aesthetic, an approach that I admired and found some common ground with. Though it would be 5 more years before I started approaching imagery in this way, this enigmatic image said a lot without being too specific, and left a lot of room for interpretation. Maggie approaches things with a lot more whimsy than I do, and uses antique photographs often as the people in her images, and I use models I shoot myself. Other than that, we are conceptually similar, in that we go out and shoot elements and assemble them in collage fashion in Photoshop. But this was probably the first image of hers I became aware of and interested in.
Are there any specific directions that you would like to take your photography in the future or any specific goals that you wish to achieve?
Yes, I do want to get more adventurous. There is a project I have been imagining for quite some time that I just don't know how to bring together. It would involve dancers, it would need a choreographer, it would need costume and a very thorough plan before implementing. In other words, it's a little on the expensive side and a little larger in scope than anything I have tried. To do that, I would need to work out the shots in advance, and that never works well for me. Any time I have tried preplanning ideas, they fall flat. But that doesn't mean they always will - it just might be a little out of my comfort zone. I am also really interested in trying some works using the triptych format. I have seen others attempt it in my genre, but the crucial part of that, to me, is that each panel would have to work as a standalone image as well as inform the whole - I just need a themeor idea that lends itself to the style.
Describe your favorite photograph taken by you and why it is special to you ?
My favorite so far is "The Lonesome Death of Giants." To me, it perfectly captured a sentiment, a feeling, a mood, and it said something important to me personally. Also, it was a technical personal best - it was a HARD one to make!
Well, before I put my foot in my mouth too deeply, let me say that I have found a tremendous amount of support and peers on this site, and that goes right up to the crew. It does truly feel like a smaller, more personal community than other sites. I think the caliber of imagery here is higher than any other site too. The curation aspect of it is unique, and of course it stings when you first join and get your first rejections, and even now, after I have had many published, sometimes I feel they missed the mark and rejected some that I consider my best. There really are some amazing photographers here, even in genres I am not particularly interested in, I find things to look at and love. Some of the wildlife and macro work here is amazing, some of the landscape photographers are truly unique, and I do look at things outside my genre.
I would be remiss if I didn't express concern at the lack of respect some of the members have for Creative Edit though - this sense that it's not photography, it's graphic design, or whatever the sentiment is. I am not sure why there is such strong negativity directed at CE, and it's fairly concentrated and loud here. I speak mainly about the members - the crew is accommodating to all genres. I just wish others would adopt or practice using a little tolerance towards genres they are not interested in. I certainly would never tell someone directly that what they are doing is not valid or doesn't count based on my personal tastes, and I would hope others would be kind enough to discern between their personal philosophy and universal truth - because really there is no universal truth. We are all here for various reasons. I do not paint, I paint with a camera and a computer, but that doesn't mean I am not a photographer in the strict sense of the word. I have gear, I learned how to use it, I have lighting kits, I have to go out and hunt for locations, I get dirty doing what I do too - my results are just different than others. Perhaps sites like 1x.com will evolve to consider themselves visual art sites, more than "photography sites." I think maybe the entire medium is going through some growing pains.