Michael Bilotta Photography Blog

the Scarecrow Syndrome

The purpose of a scarecrow is to, obviously, scare off crows. The idea is that a human presence will make the crows think twice about invading the fields of corn and flying off with stolen plunder. Whether it's ever been effective is questionable - perhaps in the short term it is.

Lately I have been thinking about perception - how others perceive you. How much is true perception and how much is expectation of your behavior? The fact of the matter is, people like to label you and need or at least expect you to be consistent.

But what happens if you change and the perceptions of others do not?

After years of unaided depression, I started taking meds again, and yes, I do feel different, I do feel better. I feel a lot of weight, a lot of anger, has lifted and daily life is not so arduous. A lot of people mistake my depression, my anxiety, for anger or aggression. Not to say I am not ever angry, but the reasons why are linked to depression more than anything else. Regardless, I feel a lot better now, but the perception that I am still a "negative" or angry person remains in the minds of others.

My new mood is being largely rejected or missed by those in my life.

And why is that? Is it because the change is more internal, more subtle than I think it is? Or is it that need we have to categorize something or someone and have that category be a constant? Perhaps a little of both, but this disparity is troublesome.

Do people need you to remain the same? How much a part does external perception play in your own estimation of your identity? Is all change discouraged because it upsets some sense of equilibrium in others?

This is the basis for the metaphor at work in this image, this social oddity I like to call "the Scarecrow Syndrome." If everyone else is a crow, and I am the big bad scarecrow in the field keeping them at bay, am I always going to be perceived as this scarecrow? Will there ever be a time when a level of trust is reached where the dark man in the field is deemed approachable? Perhaps it is my own doing - my own defense mechanism at play. Years spent keeping others away, protecting my personal space from attack have possibly led to a permanence of this stance. Maybe it's immutable, or maybe that is the role I have fallen into in the lives of others.

Beginning with a song called "Raising a Scarecrow" which I wrote in 1991, and then an image based on that song a couple of years ago, this metaphor of the scarecrow seems to be recurring, and I suppose there must be some truth to it in my life.

Regardless of the personal connection, this image was initially inspired by a wonderful pose and expression from model Ben, who increasingly serves as my stand in, my everyman, my protagonist, and occasionally my antagonist. Once I put him in a field of corn, these rest happened very quickly. There is a great deal of frustration with working as I do - with no pre-conceived ideas or agenda, but once in a while, the value of working this way reveals itself as it did when making this one. I had been thinking about my role as scarecrow in life, and then this image happened - as if revealing and connecting to my recent thoughts and giving them expression, and, ultimately, release.

Michael Bilotta
August 22, 2015


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The Company We Keep

Social Media. It seemed like a good idea, and maybe at its heart, it is. But the state of it now, the sheer presence of it in our lives, feels vaguely corrosive to me. I am not a technophobe, I am not a luddite, but lately, I feel it would be a good idea to scale back on it entirely. I know some people online only - I have never met them, yet I've known them for years. This is not a bad thing, but it is somewhat odd. Other friends I haven't seen for years, some in decades, and through the bizarre lens of social media, they become abstracted, approximations of people you once knew and now are distilled to a few lines a week.

The most egregious thing about it all is, despite its moniker, it is anything but social! It does not bring people together, it keeps them isolated, more often than not. It maintains a level of familiarity with anyone you are connected that becomes "sufficient" and so personal connection, literal socialization is not as vital or wanted as it used to be. I have friends I used to see, to be with, who now only write through social media. If I pulled the plug and took myself off this grid, they would likely disappear from my life entirely.

The other trend, a malicious one, is a growing air of majority opinion slaying the independent thought, first through language policing, and lately, content policing. This word is not appropriate, this content is offensive. A dangerous slope, and we are already sliding down the precipice. The content you choose to share is used to condense you to a category, a type, a generic label assigned to you in the mind of everyone who sees your contributions to this increasingly vacuous cloud of chatter.

In the last twenty years, the internet has largely supplanted our need for human contact by giving us an isolated, pseudo-social experience. It becomes a go-to for sex or sexuality, for boredom, for complaining, for lying, for friendship or a dim reminder of what that once meant. I do not exempt myself from any of this - I have my presence online as much as anyone and more than some. I am sure I am not the only one who feels this way about it. The substitution of quality time, of in-person exchanges and bonding is becoming wholly unsatisfying to me, and I would rather be without it at this point.

My image depicts a man clearly alone, in an empty space, hooking into his drug, his connection to the outside world. Signs of an interface for direct access of sorts can be seen on his forehead and even replacing his genitals, a grim metaphor for a future where actual physical contact and pleasure have become quaint and dismissed altogether. Certainly this is a pessimistic view of social media and its role in our daily lives, but I would not be the first person to express a concern with integrating too much technology into our humanity. I see the value in social media for sharing art, for sharing music, for keeping in touch with an audience, but I am learning that the person I am is not really in line with the content the majority has deemed acceptable.

We need to keep it light, we need to always be positive, we need to show our meals in bad overhead photos, we need to post treacly MEMES that read like a sappy cat posters, but real feelings, insights, personal experiences that have any weight, are discouraged and criticized. If you, like me, feel increasingly judged and marginalized lately, perhaps that's due to the company we keep, and where we choose to keep it.

Michael Bilotta
August 19, 2015

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Inside The Cloud Factory

If you read my blog or follow my work in any way, you probably know I share a lot of personal insights and feelings in my imagery as well as with my written work. You probably also have noticed a decline in the frequency of my output this year. There are a lot of reasons for this, but the main one has been my lifelong shadow, my ever-present companion, depression.

I have used my depression to create some images in the past, particularly one called "the Pull of the Tidal King," but this year was the first time that my depression has actually stopped the flow of creative work completely, and that was a sign that things were declining and something needed to be done.

It's odd to consider suicide while being completely terrified of death itself - the two viewpoints tend to cancel themselves out rather well, and that's fine, since it seemed my fleeting thoughts of my own demise and my fear of oblivion maintained a stalemate that stayed my hand from doing self harm. But the thoughts were there, and the loss of interest in what I do for creative expression followed me as I took a trip in April to New Mexico to gather what I hoped would be some imagery for future work.

New Mexico was a bitter trip and a bitter disappointment, yielding almost nothing usable for my work, and it was the place where my depression reached a zenith not yet experienced - I hated that trip, I hated my life, and I hated the thoughts in my head. Going home from that emotional upheaval I had almost nothing to show for the effort and the thought of ever creating anything again seemed absurd and beyond pointless.

The trouble is, I don't do very well doing nothing. I don't like to relax, I don't like not having something in the works. The last time I worked with a model and had a shoot was November 2014, and anything usable had been pretty much exhausted and there was nothing fresh to use from my time in New Mexico either. The well was dry - both in my head and in my collection of imagery.

I have been on antidepressants before, but it's been almost ten years since I had taken anything. It felt time to do that again, and I began to seek therapy as well. My memory of these drugs and their effects on me was the loss of interest in doing anything, the leveling of all emotion, eliminating extreme highs and lows. I was not eager to resume taking them again, fearing my artistic crisis would be complete should I choose to take them. But I was already at a point of "what's the point" anyway, so really, how could anything make it worse?

I decided to take them again, and there was a rather startling and immediate relief, much more than expected. No, they do not vanquish all bad thoughts, no, they do not make me a simpering positivity guru, but the weight, the clouds in my head were lessened and suddenly I could function better, think better, feel better. Physically I felt better as well - it is no small thing, the effect depression can have on your body.

Getting back to creating imagery was again a desire, albeit one mixed now with anxiety for having been away from it for a long while. I kept busy as much as I could this year so far - old works reworked and updated, and perhaps eight or nine new images made it through, but trying to resume my process was daunting after being in the haze for so long.

What did I want to say? How do I say it?

As the cliche states, you write what you know, and visual expression is no different. This image is about release, the diffusion of the bad thoughts, the letting go of self-containment, and the relief from depression. It's letting the light out, the poison vented, the mind altered and soothed. It's a simple image and that felt right too, almost like hitting a reset button, starting from the inside and working outward over time.  I imagine my head was a factory spewing poison and the smoke stacks were blocked and all that toxic waste was trapped inside my walls. The fact that I am using drugs to open those stacks is not that important to me really, but the relief and the cleaner air they are providing certainly is.

Mostly, I am glad to be working on something again, and glad to be writing again too. Expressing myself in art has been a constant in my life - that, and depression. It is one thing to deal with the darker companion constantly but quite another when the lighter one is absent.

model: Ben

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the Sadness Will Last Forever

sadness natural 850


There is a lot of conjecture about the nature and reality of depression in the modern world, and I daresay a lot of people diagnosing themselves with it who perhaps do not truly qualify. It is not a "blue" feeling, it is not merely a low point. It is actually quite hard to describe, even for someone as verbose as I tend to be. I tried to recently, in a blog and an image called "the Pull of the Tidal King."

This fictional ruler has grown more and more real for me over the last year - as a way to describe the experience, he is as close to an accurate description as I can get. Image being stranded on a small island, alone, with little to do or see. You try to build a life on this island, but far across the sea, there is an unseen ruler, a king, who can command the tides, and, without warning, send a force of waves at your island so powerful it will knock anything you've built down, and temporarily drown you. When his waters recede, you need to do it all over again - to find the strength to rebuild your life.

The Tidal King cannot be reasoned with. He cannot be conquered. He is forever unseen, legend, but nevertheless potent and all too real. A tormentor, for sure, not directly trying to kill you, but rather drive you to it, to wear you down, to drag you under.

This is the metaphor I have created to explain my troubles, which have been lifelong. I do not look for mercy, for pity, or even understanding. I rail against those that insist on classifying people as "healthy" or "toxic," "positive" or "negative." To those that think passion, a word used far too often these days, must be accompanied by ebullience, consider how much art is created in people considered "dark" or "low."

I am not trying to justify myself or even classify myself. I am as honest with these notes as I can be, and I do not see a lot of value now in holding something back.

This image was constructed using some recent shots I took in New Mexico. It is not a happy image, and the trip to New Mexico was not a happy time. I went specifically for my art - to gather imagery for another year of creating my digital paintings, or photo manipulations, or whatever you wish to call them. I went alone. The trip was a miserable time from the start, and I haven't yet recovered from the intense feelings of grief that were stirred in me whilst there.

On some level, there is an imagined self - a construct, an idealized image you aspire to be. I wanted to be this person - this adventurer completely comfortable with traveling to a new place by myself, getting lost on new roads, not knowing what will come. I think I realized, on this trip, that I am not that person or version of myself, and I am not likely to ever be that person. I think I came to an understanding that the affliction or imbalance, or whatever you wish to call depression, which has been with me since I can remember, is here to stay, and it is indeed hard-wired into my mind. There is no surgical removal, no alleviating it, no simple matter of altering its course.

Why was I drawn to lonely, desolate places in New Mexico? Why did I seek out forgotten ghost towns and abandoned structures, or this place seen in this image - white sand dunes with no trace of water? Why do they speak to me so clearly? Why am I drawn to these towers that I imagine will be here after we are all gone? They are as potent a metaphor for loneliness as I can find in this world - a communication tower with no one to communicate with.

This image takes the two towers in this abandoned and lonely place and puts the man in between, his head removed, showing the circuitry that makes him as he is, circuitry that cannot be removed, that echo the towers - pointless towers transmitting perhaps, but no one is receiving those signals. To the chronically depressed, this is how it feels - no one really can understand or interpret your signal, and so there is a fundamental and permanent breakdown of communication. A man without a country, without a tribe, without a face, without a hope. There is no angst in his pose, there is a quiet relaxed manner - after all, there is no one to see your reactions here, no one to comfort you or even speak to. All masks are off, there is only the raw circuitry of your core being - exposed and reflected in the harsh isolation of the land around you.

My thoughts turned to Vincent Van Gogh this morning. Not sure why. Well, he was an artist known for his depression, or as it was considered then, mental illness or madness. Some of his last paintings were of wheat fields, and even in those fields, he found sadness there, and painted storm clouds above the wheat. I think that characterizes a depressed person more than anything else - how they view the world at large.

The alleged last words of Vincent Van Gogh, relayed by his brother Theo at his deathbed were, "The sadness will last forever." Years later, a songwriter named Don McLean wrote a song called "Vincent." It was a song to the depressed artist who died 80 years before, and the chorus contained these lovely words:

Now, I think I know what you tried to say to me
And how you suffered for your sanity
And how you tried to set them free
They would not listen, they're not listening still
Perhaps they never will

Michael Bilotta

May 2nd, 2015

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a house but not a home


A few weeks ago I tried something I have never tried before in my imagery: a conceptual image with no human in it. Ultimately this experiment resulted in firing a blank - there was nothing in it for me emotionally.

Let me back up and explain the intent and the image itself.

We see a house at night. On the top floor a set of windows are alight, and next to it, another set of lights in an adjoining room, but dimmer. The house looks peaceful - trees and bushes nestle it on either side, but above it, in the darkening sky, menacing hawks fly overhead, and a faint wisp of smoke is seen from the brightly lit windows of the upstairs room. In the foreground, in front of a house, a coin-op viewer is pointed at the house.

That was all it was. What was the concept?

When I was 12, I spent a year listening to almost nightly fights between my mother and father leading up to their inevitable divorce. I would sneak to the top of the stairs, and listen as they tore into each other in hushed and heated tones. I learned things about their relationship, the problems they had, and probably I had a feeling that it was all ending soon. I was not surprised when the announcement came, and perhaps I was even relieved.

My image, which had the working title "the Divorce" or "Harry's Home," meant to convey this year spent listening in on the misery of a failed marriage. The room of light was meant to symbolize the fight, the two adults awake and tearing into each other. The adjoining room meant to convey my room, or me listening in to the goings on next door. The smoke coming from the adult's window was the heat of the argument, and the hawk overhead was the predator, the inevitable end, the threat lingering overhead. Finally, the viewer was symbolic of how exposed I felt in the neighborhood after the divorce, that part of the privacy of our lives was ripped away and we were now the house people gossiped about.

All this sounds well-conceived and functional, but…

I looked objectively at the image I'd made. There just was not enough of an indication that something was going on, that there was something not right, and at first glance, it was just a boring scene of a house at twilight with a bird overhead. I believe in the concept, I wanted to make this work - but in the end, I felt it didn't take the audience, the viewer to the clues enough, and I firmly believe a conceptual image should do at least some of the interpreting itself.

It's hard accepting the patient is dead. This one took as much work if not more than some of my other big edits. This house was not in this environment  - the setting, the lighting, everything was added and augmented one element at a time. Days were spent, seemingly to no avail.

All this led me to long internal thoughts on the audience for this type of work, and who they were and what they wanted. Who is my personal audience? What have they come to expect? While I believe it is important to try new things and explore the outer edges of your methodology, it is also important to have a constant line, a mark of recognition, a signature throughout your portfolio. Would this one look like it belonged in my portfolio? Sure, probably, but it also might be regarded as the least interesting in it as well. Over the years I have slowly been building up what I consider a respectable portfolio and my output has decreased over the last three years as well. This is intentional. I would rather produce half of what I did in my first year if that meant most of them were "keepers." In other words, I am trying to whittle down the lesser pieces, the ones that needed more time, the ones that had every good intention but in the end, found themselves lacking.

I also have had recently the opportunity to talk about Fine Art photography with a fellow photographer who absolutely hates the genre, and has no patience for trying to deduce meaning from visual clues. I showed this person a few of my images, and he spent no time at all looking at them, and said something to the effect of "they look cool, I mean, something is going on but I have no fucking idea what."

Now, I am never going to win over a person like that. If this was the world of literature, this person would prefer non-fiction and I would be immersed in the world of allegorical fiction. I realize that not everyone will like conceptual work. But what is important here, in my opinion, as it relates to the "divorce" image, is that this is the attention span someone may have out there - and if they saw this overly subtle concept piece with no human in evidence, they would conclude that there is NOTHING going on at all. They will not spend time on it, they will not want to. If this was to be the only piece of mine a given person saw, what would they think of me or the type of artist I am?

I think this failed image and the conversation I mentioned above helped drive home something important - the need to give a visual punch that is immediate and hard enough that someone would sense something unusual about it even with the most cursory of glances. I am not saying that things can't be subtle, I mean that they need to have a potency - every element in the shot, that serves the overall concept in a meaningful way. It is not sufficient to put birds in the sky because they look good. It is not sufficient to tell a story of divorce with lit windows only.

I present the image here but nowhere else because it is not worthy of portfolio status, in my opinion. Lessons were learned, certainly, and surely I am better for the journey of it all, even if it resulted in a dead end. How to tell a story in one frame…it is never an easy task, and I have often said it is indeed not possible, but it is possible to assertively point to clues that make up a story - they have to make sense though, and not just to the artist himself!

January 28th, 2015
Michael Bilotta

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2014: the year in review

My third year in review. As always, this is about my creative year, or year of creativity, more than anything else, but as real life tends to impact art quite a lot, some of that might slip in as well!

So, here goes…

My year started off pretty well, creatively. I had shot two model sessions in late 2013 and still had a lot of material to work with. A bit of a superstition of mine is to make sure I start each year off with a new image on the first day of the year, and I did that with this one…

Better than my previous New Year image, I felt, and a good way to set the tone for the work ahead. What was in short supply was imagery for creating landscapes and scenes though, and as I live in New England, there is not a lot of variety to be had in winter here. I was also let go of my day job in November of 2013, a blessing in many ways, believe me, and this stint as an unemployed but in other ways full time artist turned into quite a long one - nine months of time away from jobs I didn't want to do, and the ability to focus on my art. I decided to go visit a friend in San Diego in March, and in doing so, capture some material for building environments with more variety than my area allows. For one week, I shot beaches, deserts, mountains, and a quick spin through Salton Sea gave me some really interesting, if bleak landscape material. The trouble is, I was low on money and low on model shots by the time I came back.

I managed to shoot three new models between spring and summer, and this was a life saver, as they all donated their time. This is something that unfortunately has to happen now - I simply cannot afford to pay models. I pulled together all my new imagery and model shots into what I feel was some of my best work this year. Every year I have been doing this type of art I inevitably produce some clunkers along the way, some I wish I never posted, but so far, 2014 is almost clunker-free for me - I am more or less proud of most of this year's work, well, okay, maybe a few not so much…

As I had a significant amount of time on my hands this year, I also found time to get back to making some music, something I put down three years ago to focus on the visual arts, and as ever, it is pretty much an all-consuming affair. As the summer came and went, I found I had needed a break from the visuals anyway, had little material left to work with, and dove deeply into recording, and even writing some new music.

Three things happened this summer that made the break from photography longer than expected. The first was the completion of this piece: 

When I completed it, I felt something new. Beyond the usual but brief euphoria accompanying the completion of anything, I also felt, quite strongly, that this was my best piece yet. It had a lot of my sentiment and feeling in it, technically was a strong one for me, and to me, packed a strong punch visually. After the euphoria wore off, I felt…empty. Where do I go from here? What else can I do with this medium? It became a roadblock in a lot of ways, because I couldn't imagine moving past it to a better level. I spent some time after that retooling older ones that I felt could use some updating and a stronger execution:

But other than that, it was weeks before I tired anything again.

Another thing that happened was firmly relegated to real life. Simply put, I was out of money, out of unemployment benefits, and had no job prospects. The latter was not really a deep concern - after all, I never liked the jobs I had in the past - they were time killers, time I wanted to spend on art, and they were far from art. I hate working in offices, and yet I have been doing it for twenty years. But, we all need to make a living somehow, and I could not land any job I was interviewing for. The panic and stress of this eventually swallowed up any space in my head for art.

Lastly, and this is a big factor to my time off, was some of my peers, some of my contemporaries, and some pretty bad behavior demonstrated online. As immersed as I have been in growing my art online on various sites, I watch how some people handle their presence, how they come across, what message, if any, are they broadcasting. I didn't like what I was seeing in a few of them, and the whole ugly affair made me want to just leave the online world behind altogether. I won't name names, I won't go into detail, but it did help me decide on what I wanted to put forth for myself, and who I wanted to be online. Simply put: myself. No affectations, no dripping sentiment, no hate mongering, no positivity for positivity's sake. Honest, and focused on the work, not the formulaic cliches of those aspiring for fame in this weird online world of art we are in.

Anyway, back to the year…

So, in late July, my time, money, and hope was up, and no job. And then I was shown a listing for a job - a real company, a fairly large one, looking for a Photoshop Retoucher. A what? Is this a real job? And could it be any more ideal for someone who has spent 14 years obsessed with Photoshop?? Yes, in fact it was a real job, and I lobbied for it hard - I went after it like no job before. Imagine a chance to earn your living something that interests you, that you don't loathe, that is at least closer to something that matters to you. I couldn't imagine it  - it never happened before! Anyway, the money was not great at all, in fact, it was almost half of what I was making before, but this would be a chance to better my future doing something creative, or at least a chance, and I had to try for it. I got it - and suddenly was gainfully employed as a full-time Photoshop Retoucher. I work in a photo studio now, I edit about 50 photos a day, and work with the photographers and art directors on compositing elements to create rooms out of nothing, adding furniture when there is none - that sort of thing. At this point, four months in, I can honestly say I am grateful for this opportunity still, and now am not ashamed or embarrassed when asked what I do for a living. That is a huge improvement in my life. The money, well, there are some things more important, but I do wish it was a little better. Another drawback is, after an 8 hour day working on Photoshop, going home and doing more if it, well, sometimes even I need a break from it.

Slowly, as life settled in again and I adapted to the relative shock of working full time again after so long a break, I tried getting back to some new pieces. Still tentative from my highpoint of "the Lonesome Death of Giants," I managed to produce a few new ones that I quite liked: 

This year is drawing to a close now, and I can look back on the year's work - less prodigous than previous years but stronger work in my opinion, and can at least foresee a direction going forward. Certainly I will need some new imagery, some new scenery, but as always, I need more ideas. Without ideas, I am producing nothing but a picture with no intent, no purpose. I decided to keep doing what I do, regardless of online "celebrity" status, which, based on what I see it do to others, I can do without. I only want to be an artist, and really, that's all I ever really wanted to be, and have been. I also decided I want to keep music in my life and not take so long a break from it. There may be less time for both, but when I hit a wall with one genre, I can pick up the other to satisfy my creative urge. It's pretty great to have both now.

Lastly, I want to thank everyone for their continuous support, views, and encouragement. To all the models that donated their talent and time, I am so grateful. See you in the new year.

Michael Bilotta



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Even Here We Are

It's a beautiful flower in your garden
But the most beautiful by far
Is the one growing wild in the garbage dump
Even here, even here we are

by Paul Westerberg

This title and lyric has long been on my mind as a concept for an image, but the pieces needed for it never seemed to line up until now. Sometimes things come to you or come back to you seemingly out of nowhere and inform what you are working on. This seems to be the case here. The "garbage dump" I have been in has been a wasteland of artistic blockage for some time now. Life gets in the way, depression can stop short momentum, doubt can unhinge the most ironclad resolutions.

In other words, I have been questioning what I do and how I do it. This is not to say I am down on it, or frustrated by it, but restlessness within one's process is natural, and it is often advisable to pay attention to it. Long periods of emptiness have come this year, but it is also a natural result of pushing the art against its own pace, of insisting on output when a time of dormancy is wise. This year, for a variety of reasons, I decided to create a little less, and by doing so, increase the personal value of each completed piece. This may have been the least productive year I have had in terms of sheer output, but the potency of them was amplified, at least for me. They were each more satisfying for me.

Being after all a human being with the requisite ego that comes with that status, I did succumb to doubt, to fear, to impatience at not being artistically active for most of the last few months. I feel better creating, I feel more settled. No ideas would come though, or very few, and some time was spent contemplating what it was I wanted to convey and how I might do it.There are very few ideas that compel me strongly - this medium tends to generate a lot of repetition amongst the individual artists as well as the community overall.

When I visited Salton Sea earlier this year I knew there was a lot of story to be gathered there. Wastelands, ruins, ghost towns, a stillness and perhaps a sadness is easily felt there. A far better "garbage dump" than I imagined for this image. Being too literal with it would somehow limit the metaphorical potential. This ghost town is far more suited to an artistic wasteland, a lull in creative energy made manifest. Putting a man in the image to represent the artist, or me, gave me most of what I needed for the concept to be satisfied. Adding a touch of growth emanating from the man, in this place were nothing can grow, made it complete.

Waiting for this image to happen naturally on its own time was certainly not easy, but the completion of it, the lyrics, and the meaning behind them all became more potent for the waiting. It reminded me that the artistic desire, the need to create, the ability to create never really dies. It will prosper and live in even the lowest places and periods in your life.

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