Q&A: Michael Wilson

Ben Taylor © Michael Wilson

Michael Wilson is a music, portrait and fine art photographer whose clients include Warner Bros. Records, Sony Music and Elektra Records. He's a photographer's photographer, shooting with older film cameras in a variety of formats, and working long hours in his basement darkroom. To top it off, he's one of the nicest, humblest photographers around. In preparation for their assignment to shoot a cd cover, we looked at Michael's work online and at 3 of his early monographs of personal work. Then the class asked Michael these questions:

Kayla Newman:
How did you start shooting cd covers?

Michael Wilson: There are probably two basic things that led to my start in making pictures for music packaging. The first being that I had enjoyed making portraits of musicians. I had always been very interested in music, and in the people who make it so when I began making portraits (as a student in college) I was quite naturally drawn to make pictures of musicians who were in my world at that time... friends and acquaintances mostly. The second was a growing awareness of the potential life for the kind of photographs that I loved and was desirous to make in the world of record packaging. As a music fan, I used to spend lots of spare time at record stores reading album covers to see who was playing on which records, who produced the record, etc... I was also very aware of the record covers... and looking at who made the photographs or who did the design. I would occasionally see records with really beautiful photography... photography that was rooted in the kind of photography that made me fall in love with pictures in the first place, and inside I'd be jumping out of my skin thinking, "I wish I could make pictures like that for music like this." At this time in my life, I was 7 years out of college, 4 years of which I'd spent in a job as a photographer's assistant/darkroom technician at a text book publisher which had an in-house photography department. The grind of doing the kind of work that we churned had gone a long way to my becoming not very interested in photography. By contrast, when I saw a Robert Frank photograph on a "New Lost City Rambler's" record, or a beautiful Simon Larbalestier photograph on a "Pixies" cover, or a Stephen Shore photograph on some record that I knew nothing about, I would remember that I really did want to make pictures. In 1989, with the encouragement of a good friend and the help of my wife, I sent off a handmade book of about 10 or 12 portraits that I liked to a woman whose name I knew only from reading the backs of record jackets... her name was Jeri Heiden and she worked at Warner Brothers Records in LA. Other than that all I knew about her was that her name was listed as Art Director on a surprisingly high percentage of the records that I saw that caught my eye as being really beautiful. It was truly one of those "nothing to lose" moments and I've come to realize that no matter how old we are or where we are in our lives... realizing that we have 'nothing to lose' is a great gift. Anyway, I received a nice note from her a few weeks later and I was very happy and I thought that was the end of that. A short time later, I got a call from a manager of a band (which was from Milwaukee area, by the way) called the BoDeans and Jeri Heiden had given him my name and suggested that I do a shoot with the band as they were going to be close to Cincinnati on tour. I did and the pictures wound up being used in their package. A few months after this, I made a trip to Los Angeles and met with Jeri Heiden in person (she was the head of the art department at Warner Bros. at that time). That meeting led to the use of a personal photograph of mine becoming the cover for the Replacements "All Shook Down" record and Jeri also hired me to shoot the band in Minneapolis. That project probably did more than any other single thing to help get me started making pictures for music.

Lyle Lovett © Michael Wilson

Kathryn Kmet:
When preparing for a musician photo shoot, does the musician tell you what they want out of the book you create, or do they trust you to create it on your artistic judgment?

Michael Wilson: Only very, very rarely have I been given direction going into a shoot and on those occasions the direction has more to do with things like, "make sure it is not too serious " or, "... you know that this artist hates to be photographed." Fortunately, most all of the time that I'm hired to photograph for a project I've been given the trust and free rein to make the pictures that I want to make. In most cases, the project is discussed beforehand with either the artist or the management, or someone at the record company so that I understand the "feel" of the record and so that they know how I go about my work. But beyond that it is usually me doing my best to make the most interesting and honest pictures that I can make.

Jenny Scheinman © Michael Wilson

Andrea Payne:
How do you go about making the environment you’re shooting in comfortable for your client? How do you make them relax in front of you?

Michael Wilson: I don't know that I have any formula for this, but I do approach the portrait as a conversation and as such I follow those same instincts, behaviors and courtesies that that would lead to a (hopefully) meaningful conversation with that person or group of people. My being forthright and honest and vulnerable going into the portrait 'conversation' is where I hope to start. I'm not the kind of photographer who has a lot of ideas ahead of time or one who pre-visualizes what I'd like to come away with... so I am almost totally dependent on the subject trusting me enough to open up and welcome me in to whatever it is they might have to share. I really do think of it the same way that you think of meeting any person who you may know very little about and trying to have an honest/meaningful conversation. It takes a bit of time and it is certainly not without akward and uncomfortable moments... moments when I feel totally lost. When I feel that way, I usually will come right out and say so. Quite often that helps. I also keep in mind how much I dislike being in front of a camera -- try to understand some of the discomfort and reluctance that the subject might be feeling.

Bill Frisell © Michael Wilson

Aryn Kresol:
Was your utilization of the square format influential to you photographing album covers, or did your work on covers influence your choice of format. In other words, which preceded which?

Michael Wilson: My interest in the square format came before any interest in or awareness of record covers. I became very taken with using a twin lens, square format camera when I first started making portraits in college. I had always been somewhat shy and had difficulty looking at people in the eye and when I discovered the twin lens camera I loved that I could be standing there, basically staring down at my feet, but I was looking into the ground glass of the camera and having this connection with whoever it was standing in front of the lens. As crazy as that sounds, that is where my interest in the square format started. The square certainly does lend itself to the shape of the covers, however.

Georgia Lloyd:
For your album photographs, are you in charge of deciding how to design the cover, or are you only in control of the actual photograph to be used on the cover? How do you manage your framing based on this?

Michael Wilson: I have no control in the design of the covers that I work on and I don't want to control the design. I love great design, but I am not a designer. I am not thinking about the eventual design of the project or how my pictures will fit into that design when I am photographing, I just make pictures and let the designer sort out the mess.

Mose Allison © Michael Wilson

Georgia Lloyd: Many of your album covers are monochrome rather than color. What is this reason behind this decision? Is it purely personal aesthetic, or does it serve more purpose than that?

Michael Wilson: The work I've been most interested in during my life as a photographer has always been the b/w work. Certainly, I do think that there is a distillation or intensifying reduction that occurs when the world is seen without color and this distillation can lend a special weight to b/w work which I love and look for. The more practical reason for the predominance in my work is that I've always been most interested in the work with which I've had the most intersection. By that I mean, when I develop b/w film in my basement, I see the film when I hang it up to dry, I see it again when I cut it and sleeve it, I see it again when I make the contact sheets and then I study those contact sheets quite hard. By the time I get around to making prints (or scans as it is these days) I've had a lot of intersection with the work... I feel like it is mine. I feel attached to the work. I remember when I used to shoot color transparency for assignments, I would drop the film off at the lab, pick it up the next day or so, and then have to send it off to the client right away... and my work flow was such that I really did not spend very much time with those pictures. Sometimes I'd see something color in print and not even realize that it was mine.

Sarah Moore: Do you think a degree in photography is necessary to succeed as a professional photographer?

Michael Wilson: I don't think so...(but stay in school anyway). Quite honestly, I feel very much at a loss when I'm asked questions such as this about what it takes to succeed as a professional photographer. I think that each person will have to determine the definition of success for themselves. If "succeeding as a professional photographer" means making a comfortable living, making good money, it might be wise to spend as much time around photographers and groups of photographers who have developed business models and practices that have proven successful for them... photographers who are making good money. I've been making my living as a freelance photographer since 1987 and I still feel at a loss as to how to succeed as a professional photographer. I feel incredibly fortunate (and grateful) that I have been able to make a living making pictures but the reality is that there are a lot of people looking for the same jobs and I can't imagine that this trend will change. At the end of the day, I guess my opinion is that to succeed as a professional photographer you will have to either love succeeding in your profession as a business person or you will have to just plain love making pictures... whether or not you make money.

New Orleans © Michael Wilson

Aimee Keil: Does your personal and your professional work ever merge, or are they completely separate?

Michael Wilson: I think that my personal and professional work do merge... they are by no means completely separate. The same instinctive love of pictures, love of seeing is what drives any picture... any strong, meaningful picture, whether the initial impulse to make the picture comes from my personal interest or whether the initial impulse was that I'd been hired to make pictures for a project, it is the same love of seeing that will make either picture work. That being said, there are those times when I've been asked to make pictures of things or people or events that I have very little feeling for... when there is little more than professional obligation at work in the work it usually shows... and I usually don't want to look at it very long.

Rose Tarman: It seems many of the opportunities in your life have come about serendipitously. Do you have any particular advice for an in-progress photographer that has high hopes for the future?

Michael Wilson: As far as advice relative to a career in photography, I would go back to the ideas that I was clawing at in attempting to answer Sarah Moore' s question about what it takes to succeed as a professional photographer. The most specific and particular advice I can think to give anyone who is giving serious consideration to photography as a major part of their life is to look at as many pictures as you can... especially look at the pictures that have been made by people who have spent their lives making pictures for the love of making pictures. When you find work that moves you, be grateful and lap it up. There is probably something in that work that was motivated by the very same things that are at work in you. Make pictures whether people want you to make pictures or not... whether people pay you for your pictures or not. My experience has been that I cannot rightly determine photography's place in my life by thinking about it -- it has been by making pictures that I've come to find out photography's place in my life.

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