There was once a boy who aspired to be an artist. He had been drawing since birth and developed a keen interest in film. Later on, his interests turned to music. He decided that was his goal, to become a musician. Off he went to a music college, had a great time and a great education immersed in music, developed some friendships based on music and became a songwriter. When college ended, he stayed in the city and set his sites on his musical ambitions…he felt it was only a matter of time until he would be recording albums, going on tour…and then…none of that happened.

Lurking beneath this superficial story of someone with musical aspirations was a lot of fear and doubt. To me, the protagonist of this tale, it is easy to assemble this into a chronology now, but at the time, it felt like the world was crumbing around me.

Allow me to explain…

All through college I did not engage in any sexual or romantic relationships. I told myself at the time that this was due to me being laser-focused on attaining my career as a musician, but the simple truth was I was gay and not willing to admit it or face it, and certainly not accept it. It was not in the plan, and the vision I had for myself could not accommodate this fact. So I stuffed it down, way down, and ignored those facets of life.

Obviously you cannot hide from yourself forever, and right after graduation from college and the summer following, everything came to a head. I was in a band, we were just forming, and I thought this would be the band to make it. I was starting to write some good songs, and the world seemed full of possibilities. You can only deny your nature for so long, and right around the end of that year, I had my first gay sexual experience. The guilt, confusion and mental anguish this created in me cannot be overstated. I was raised Catholic, I was told this was wrong, I did not want to be gay. Again - it was not in the plan. I pulled away from friends, left the fledgling band, and retreated within. I was in a bunker, I was holed up and trying to deal with it.

Over the next year, I came out to my family and friends, and things started to normalize. Music was certainly not the focus, and while I was still writing songs, still had my ambitions, this missing part of my life was pulling my attention away from music. I started making friends, gay friends, and one of them introduced me to the gay bar and club scene in town. He sort of Pygmalioned me - molding me into what he assured me was the way to be a gay man. He discouraged my slightly weird, trendy, muso-inspired clothes, and suggested I tone down - button down shirts, khakis, the “right” kind of cargo shorts, even baseball hats. I hate baseball.

Through his lens, my desired life of the singer/songwriter/artist was kind of a drag, and not at all desirable to the denizens of this club scene, and I lost some of myself as a result. I suppose I wanted to feel normal, and I had never had that feeling. It seemed like a reasonable tradeoff. I started going to bars and clubs almost every night. You can see the math of it: working a day job all day, then going out all night - it did not leave a lot of time to cultivate a music career. Sure, I now had plenty to write about, but no time and less and less desire to do it. I should say, and I am very thankful for this, I did not touch alcohol at all in this time, and if I had, I would surely have been a drunk before too long. Or worse.

A couple years later, I decided to reclaim some of my ambition and managed to get a recording made of ten songs - in many ways a full-fledged album. It was dark, it was almost folksy, and certainly not what I had in mind as my style or sound. All though this time, I continued to hit clubs and bars and had more sex with more partners than anyone should. It was conquest, it was a validation of sorts, and it was certainly overcompensation for my virginal, self-loathing youth.

Six years later, I was in a less than healthy relationship and living in the city still, and playing the odd coffeehouse or bar as a solo performer. I was recording a second album, and I think in my mind I knew that this was to be a swan song of sorts - a last ditch effort to be a viable musician. It was more pop, it was more up, but I was 30 and my pop years were up, in terms of starting that sort of career. It was not going to happen, I knew. The following year, I played a club that was to be my last time on stage. I did not know that, but it kind of organically fizzled out by then. I was done.

Fortunately, at this time, my interest in visual arts returned and the digital camera was on the market at the consumer level. That was 15 years ago, and for the most part, visual art has replaced and healed my shattered musical dreams. I still have music - I record the odd song here and there, and write one occasionally, I have guitars around me even as I write this, but my focus is on visual expression now.

It is a tired old adage that you should not live in the past - I agree to a point, but examining the past can be healthy. That brings me to this new image, “the Detour,” and as you may have deduced, this road is my life as I imagined it, the road to musical success and fame - the tower in the distance. Ahead of me, directly and descending down, is my detour, my fork in the road, my dark wood, my Underworld. It seems like a path to something, and it’s bright and inviting, but does the man in this image know where it leads, where it lets out? Will it lead to the tower or even in that direction? He is a moth to the flame, the bright lights and the mystery of the underground world all but pull him off the road he is on.

This is the impetus for this image -my lost years of the bars and clubs, where I lost myself, deliberately changed who I was to fit in, and sacrificed focus of my art for normalcy. I believed at the time and even years later that this reality, this detour to make myself okay with being gay, derailed me from who I set out to be. I took a wrong turn for all the wrong priorities.

It is easy to say that, it is easy to point a finger at something and say “this is why I failed, this is what made me weak.” But life is not that linear, and that detour, that dark tunnel that seemed so bright and inviting and fun, had to happen. I had to go through it and come out the other side. It made me who I am today, for better or worse, and even though I did not achieve my musical goals, I still have my art, my self-expression and it is once again a focus in life. I am able to focus on it now like never before because I am not a confused, malleable young man in his twenties. I have more to say now as a result of that journey. I wish it didn’t happen, but I accept that it did and life does indeed go on in the wake of it. Life can be planned only so much, and force of will can only get you so far.

I want to say this is a cautionary tale, a sad tale, but I don’t feel it that way anymore. It happened, it changed me, it did not crush me. I am still here, I am still an artist, and I am on a road, as we all are. It may not have been the road I wanted, but detours will come to us all, and accepting that has been a lifelong task that is still in progress.

The tunnel in this image could be anything to anyone - for me, it was the nightclubs, the bars, the lure of sex and excess. It could be alcohol, drugs, suicidal thoughts, depression - anything that pulls your from your trajectory. Perhaps someday I will shoot a sequel to this, depicting the man emerging from the other end of the tunnel, aged and darker for the journey, but still walking, still on the road to find out!

April 30, 2016
Michael Bilotta

 

It’s been more than three years since I shot a session with a female model. The reasons are many, but the main ones are these: Fine Art photography is rife with female imagery. It is the dominant aesthetic. The focus is usually on hair, dresses, tired cliches of gothic damsels on the moors, countless riffs on Ophelia, and, for the most part, the woman, as depicted in this little niche of conceptual or surrealist imagery seems, at least to me, to perpetuate the stereotype of the woman as victim or passive. I mean, Ophelia is not a kick ass role model - not that everything has to be.

The other reason is that I do try to inject myself - or at least my thoughts, into the images. These models tend to represent me, and I suppose, by default, my point of view is decidedly male. What story can I tell with the female model? What do I have to say about it? What do I know about being a woman? Sure, there are things in life that are universal, free of the parameters of culture or gender, but those tend to be broad concepts and hard to distill into an image.

And so, I shot exclusively with male models for three years.

I think it did help me distinguish my work visually from the rest of the pack - there are so few that use males, and I was content to swim against that tide. This year though, I wanted to break that constant, and try working with a female model again. I thought, after so many images using the male, it would be an instant and strong contrast in my portfolio, and give me a badly needed sense of freshness as I worked the images into something.

This was the first setup or shot with Kate, the model shown here. She literally came in, met me and Ben (the other model in the shot) and fifteen minutes later, Ben was manhandling her and yanking on her hair (by my request!). Seems to fall right into the whole victim thing, yes? True, this can certainly be interpreted as a predator attacking a young woman, but these were never meant to be literal characters for this image.

What they are supposed to represent is archetypes, the animus rising in the woman, the male energy or aggression overtaking her. I knew what it meant, but the image wasn’t really conveying that. Despite the vaguely seductive look on her face, she did seem to be undergoing some sort of assault. Once I added that glowing animal eye she instantly ceased to be the victim. Now there was some sort of connection to the shadowy man behind her. He is overtaking her, yes, or guiding her. He is muzzling her, or perhaps they don’t need words.

He is her shadow, her male energy lurking in her unconscious.

And this is how I found a way to shoot with female models - to explore characters, to go from without, rather than within, for concepts. I can look for stories or characters in literature, and, being careful not to literally recreate a literal interpretation of what has come before, I can create something that references the source of inspiration but also has its own identity and a personal stamp on it.

Certainly a source of recent and ongoing inspiration for my images, Joni Mitchell’s songs and writings, her very being in fact, are replete with intelligent analysis and colorful characters to draw from. One of her more vague lyrics, this song, “The Wolf That Lives in Lindsey,” seems to me to reference the aggressive, the wild, lurking inside her titular character. I think there is also a familiarity to using the wolf here, as the Red Riding Hood story is often very open to psychological interpretation and metaphorical roles. The Wolf in that story could be her Animus - her sexuality, her inner maleness if you will.

Much more interesting, in my opinion, than sad old Ophelia laying dead in a pool of water.

April 10, 2016
Michael Bilotta

 

 

What started out as a lark and a one-off image, “World Turning,” has turned into a bit more than expected. With that image, I wanted to try to create something with no human presence, something, strangely, I have not been able to do. In the end, the wheels, these devices, were affixed to mountains and lit in the center with an otherworldly glow. When you build something like this intuitively, you ask yourself “What does this mean? Where are we? What am I trying to say?”

In the two weeks or so I worked on that one, a very elaborate story or backstory started to develop, and suddenly I knew what I was building. It was kind of exciting, because this idea could have some mileage in it, allowing for a potential and ongoing series of images.

This may seem a tease, but as I am not ready to commit to the idea, which is still being developed, I will not be explaining much about this image either, just as I did not explain the first one. What can be gleaned from the title is this: the series is called “World Turning” and the word “dream” in the subtitle is meant to convey that this image is in fact a dream or vision of a character, for now referred to as “the Prophet.”

Everything in the image is there for a reason: the city, the tattoos, the giant wheels, and even the upside down mountains above the character’s head. The three birds flying toward him symbolize something as well. If this character resembles a figure I used in the image “The Long Walk Back,” you are correct, because that image ties into this potential series as well. In fact, quite a few of them do.

Hopefully, in a couple of weeks, the third image in the series will be complete - it is already started - and it’s going to introduce another character to the series. Hopefully, until the backstory is explained, the image will be at least interesting to inspire some speculation as to what it all means!

January 24, 2016
Michael Bilott

 

It seems odd that I should place poor Ed Barron (the model in these two shots) in water all the time, but at least it’s water he didn’t have to endure at the time. The burden of that water was mine, in post, in Photoshop, using several pictures to try to tell a story.

After completing the newest image, “Storm Psychology,” I went back and found this older image from nearly three years ago, “a Preference for Fiction,” and I was struck by the contrast in the execution of the images. Sure, spend enough time on something and you do get better, but there is more than technical craft I wish to discuss here, there is sensibility, temperance, and restraint as well.

“Fiction” is an image that’s dear to me still, but I no longer consider it part of my portfolio. I like the idea of it - it speaks to me personally - about a person who is completely oblivious to the world around him and prefers to lose himself in a book or other fiction. It certainly is a personal statement, but I cannot get past the technical issues as well as the compositional failures too.

Critiquing an older work has its merits - it shows you where you’ve been and where you are, and makes certain recurring tendencies very visible. “Fiction” features one of my most challenging habits to overcome: overcrowding. Too many elements, too much information. At the time, each element had a justification - the clocks literally meant the passage of time while lost in a fictional world of reading. and the rain and lightning and spray were there to convey BAD WEATHER!!! A ladder above meant that there was a way out of this mess but he was oblivious to it. The wall was a feeble attempt at establishing some sense of location - perhaps his property? I didn’t put much effort into creating a “where” element in the image, but then, maybe I justified it as not important to the concept.

But then, neither were the antennae, nor the piece of white fabric on the ladder, nor the ladder, nor so many clocks. It is something I have done, this overcrowding, since I was a very young child drawing. Once in awhile I feel compelled to pull out all the stops and make something grand, at least grand in my own mind, with dozens and dozens of layers and elements all woven into a tapestry - a feast for the discerning eye. Mind you, I do not think this desire is a bad one - I do think there is a place for it in art and in my work, but this older image suffered from it.

It would have been enough to have the rain and the storm clouds and the man reading in the midst of it. It would have been better still to have him walking and reading in the middle of a road. It would have been enough to convey the idea, with the title driving it further, without all the nonsense elements that distract from the character.

And now onto the new one…

Without going too deep into what I was thinking and the idea behind it, you can see this man is also somewhat submerged in water and seems somewhat unbothered by it. Where is he? What is going on out there behind him with all the animals? Why is this room he is in open to the water and allowed to flood? These are the questions I hope the image inspires the viewer to ask. To add more clues to it would be a disservice. I don’t want to explain it all to you, I want to give you a suggestion - some basic ingredients to steer you in the right direction, and leave some room for your own interpretation. That is my hope, anyway.

Now, onto the lessons learned…

Those tendencies I mentioned still trickle into my mind now, even if it has learned a thing or two about composition in the last three years. For instance, I wanted to have a lot more going on out that door than is here now - I had buildings behind the animals, some of them submerged. I had a lot more detail in the clouds, and I had even more animals than I do in the final image. In this room or house, I had a lot more in mind as well. Paintings, mementos, objects all hoarded into this place to try to keep possessions safe. I had an animal close to the door peeking in…

All those things I felt would have been fun, but ultimately distracting to the man in the image and the circumstances he may be in. The animals are leaving in formation, there is water coming into this place, and this man is not alarmed or moving. There, enough said. It’s hard to listen to reason when you feel a burst of creative excess come on - but it is something to strive for. No, I don’t think that simple is always best, but direct or focused is. Balancing essential elements and extraneous or superfluous ones is a maturation process necessary for most artists, and it might be embarrassing to look back on your earlier work, but it is useful for growth and perspective.

I like this new one a lot more than the older one, but then, the idea of the older one is still sound and relevant to me, so perhaps this image will be revisited one day and reshot with more clarity and sense of focus.

Ideas are never the problem, the execution of them tends to be.

Stay dry and watch out for the Polar Bears!

Michael Bilotta
February 14th, 2016

 

 

 
At first glance, looking at a classic SciFi film from the mid 70s might reveal a slightly tongue in cheek campiness and very little else. Logan's Run is a good example of something that might seem rather dated and silly, but has a lot of metaphorical layers to it. These layers connected with me as a young person and this film and its central themes stayed with me.

If you don't know the premise, it is essentially this:

In a post apocalyptic world, a domed city thrives with a population of beautiful, care-free people run by a central computer network. No one has to work - leisure and pleasure abound, but there is one catch: when you reach your thirtieth birthday, you must be "renewed" in Carousel. Carousel is a public spectacle where those whose "life clocks" have expired must rise to the top of the amphitheater to be obliterated by a lethal machine. The throng of spectators cheer because there is a rebirth promised to all who renew.

Read more: There Is No Sanctuary

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