This image started with a vague idea in place, and a desire to make a triptych. When it was shot, I knew the sisters three would be seated in a row and interacting somehow, but I wasn't sure of the particulars, I wasn't sure what the conversation was, or what precisely I was going to convey. Mind you, I prefer all that - it keeps possibilities flowing, and doesn't lock you into a predetermined image. 

Something about siblings, or in a broader sense, a social pecking order dynamic. I lit the shot with the intention of the middle sister's head being a brilliant light source, so that concept, referencing Magritte's "Pleasure Principle" image was in mind from the start. It was shot with the middle sister being ignored or overlooked - the idea of the quiet one or the overlooked one being the most brilliant, the most illuminated. 

In the month and a half it took to finish this one, it went through a lot of iterations, and when the candles and lanterns were added, something started to click. In addition to the original vague concept, the dynamic of the two side sisters hoarding light sources became more meaningful, and I had another layer of meaning as a result: the theft of ideas, the borrowing from a source. 

It is something I've written about before and will again, this plagiarism euphemistically called "inspiration." I see it all the time in the strange circles of conceptual art/photography. One person does something, and suddenly there are three other images looking exactly like it, with almost no change to the original's composition. I could name names, but I won't. So, my sisters are artist wannabes, stealing bits of light for their "art" from a singular and powerful source  - siphoning it in an attempt to match the light they desire to emulate, but producing a duller, feeble light despite their efforts. The center sister, I call her "Stella," has real animals near her, drawn to her, and the blue sisters have artificial constructs. They have matched her dress, matched her chair, but still they do not shine as brightly. 

This was the idea in place for most of the last month, and then, last week, I found another layer to add to the allegory of the piece - one that mimicked the art thievery perfectly on a massive, macrocosmic scale: vampire stars. 

There are stars in the galaxy called "Blue Stragglers" that appear young, too young for their locations in the universe, and they appear that way because they are sucking the energy from a larger more powerful star they have attached to, until that star is drained of all its plasma and reduces to a white dwarf. Quite the symmetry there, yes? The connection was too perfect, so I added a light matter stream from Stella's head (Stella comes from the word "stellar" or "star" of course) that the sisters are using their wands to absorb. I changed the glow of the wands to blue for my "blue straggler" reference to connect. The animals chosen for the blue sisters, a goat and a horse, are references to constellations - one in the northern hemisphere and one in the south - just to reinforce the metaphor further. 

So ends my first triptych - certainly a new challenge for me, and ultimately a rewarding one. Better to be a Stella than a Blue Straggler, a thief who creates nothing original, and borrows the ideas of others.

Michael Bilotta

May 18, 2016

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

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