I am a photographer. I stand in front of things and hope.
Looking for pictures. Listening for voices.
This collection of pictures has come about by looking through more than thirty years of pictures. Working on these pictures has been like putting my ear to some imagined wall, listening close for voices. Pictures have very small voices. The pictures are a harvest of disparate moments—passing glances and overheard voices. It is a harvest in hopes of piecing together a kind of story from these otherwise unrelated bits, a story that gives voice to that which is beyond suspicion yet so resistant to words ... a rope of pajamas and blankets to climb out of a window with.
Resident and luminous. Luminous and waning.
Many of these pictures are not about what they are of. What I'm hoping for in these pictures is a kind of mirror—make-shift and dull, perhaps, but owning that peculiar property of a mirror in reflecting back accurately that which lies in front of it. In this case, something of that which is resident and luminous in the world, but beyond that, something of the internal, invisible and intangible which drew me to stand still in the first place.
This is probably enough to say for now. I hope so. Anyway, talking about pictures is like thinking about praying.
It is tempting and sometimes comforting to regard the past as it is so often advertised: as static and unchanging. The poet William Carlos Williams proclaimed memory itself to be an accomplishment—and it would be, if in truth it required us to do all the heavy lifting, propping up the dead weight of spent time as if it were but an empty shell on the beach recalling the seductive sounds of a distant sea now lost to us all.
But we are, rather, in active and constant collaboration with the past, riding upon and fishing its waves, influencing it as it does us. We re-assign and amplify its significance and it in turn illuminates our way forward, offering context as ballast; and like musical score, decoding and unifying the flickering images to which we forever cling. Like weather around us, the past is both lashing and filling our sails, becoming what Ezra Pound said that literature must: “news that stays news.” And as such its imagery is engageable and evolving—powerful and endlessly elastic; and not as nostalgia, but in true partnership with us daily.
Images matter, I mean to say. And I have been staring at the ones made by Michael Wilson for nearly a quarter of a century now, and in them feel viscerally the weight of the past as it lays a thumb and tips the scales on all present discernments. Like the stories of dead relatives making themselves manifest in grainy family pictures, I invariably feel in Michael’s work an abiding sense of ghosts among us that not only hover but infuse inanimate objects and spent landscapes—vacant churches and dropped handbags—with the authority and residual spark of human desire; and that desire, failed or fulfilled, ultimately reveals our collective character in three dimensions. Like shadows, Michael identifies the things we cast off as speaking directly to our own changing shape and shifting perspectives.
In his portrait work, both formal and clandestine, I likewise register that the thread connecting its expanse is that we are seeing his subjects in relationship to themselves as much as in relationship to us as viewers; are bearing raw witness to personal revelation as much as public gesture and controlled proximity.
I have witnessed Michael at work—making portraits, mostly, of artists/musicians with whom I have also been aligned—and something unique always happens in that exchange wherein even typically reluctant and skittish subjects seem compelled to reciprocate the fierce attention, generosity and compassion they feel on offer from the other side of the camera—that alchemy of empathy being the unifying lens through which all of Michael Wilson’s work is focused and can be understood: every image a study in quiet hard-won dignity, and in the greater implications of its withholding.
Michael’s body of work is for me as singular and immediately identifiable as the voice of Louis Armstrong—and carries much of the same earthy radiance; yet Michael is always in collaboration—with his foreground subjects, but more than anything else, with light itself.
And thus … with time itself, since light is invariably in sweeping motion, lengthening our shadows and stretching our stories, until we know the past like extended family; like a ghost on the road ahead, pointing our way ever onward.
Joseph Lee Henry is an American singer-songwriter, guitarist, and producer. He has released over a dozen albums and produced multiple recordings for artists such as Joan Baez, Ani DiFranco, Aimee Mann, Mary Gauthier, Loudon Wainwright III, Aaron Neville, Hugh Laurie, Bonnie Raitt, Billy Bragg, and Over the Rhine, including three Grammy Award-winning records.
What language do you prefer to use to talk about the act of “taking a picture”? Do you say that you “take a picture” or that you “capture a picture” or “shoot a picture”? Is this language meaningful to you at all?
I’m not happy with most of the words that are used for photography—“shooting and taking” or “a nice capture.” I’ve been uncomfortable with all of them. It seems silly, but I like to say, "Making pictures."
The others are relatively violent phrases.
Right. Susan Sontag has talked very eloquently about that, language that assumes a power stance. On one hand it is just semantics, but on the other hand it feels like it matters.
You have said that making these pictures was, for you, like falling off a log. Over the years, I have noticed a certain quality of casualness that artists possess in their process of making. Would you say that your “falling off a log” is this sort of casualness?
There’s definitely an accidental element ... or maybe an unplanned element. There are photographers who plan in advance what they want to photograph and how they want the pictures to look and what they want them to say. My pictures are more about what is found. I told you I have this preference for saying “making” pictures, but there is much more finding and receiving than making.
I have heard you say it is like kids going around picking up stones.
That’s definitely how I think about it. I see something and respond to it intuitively … a bodily reaction to a stimulus at a given moment.
Then these moments tend to settle and find their way into arrangements that have some rhythm or succession. They gain a different kind of energy, more to do with imagination and memory.
You’re well known for your portraits of musicians. When one knows the musicians it’s impossible to look at the images and not hear the music. However, your other photographs also have a very musical quality to them. They are, at the very least, full of mood. How would you begin to talk about the relationship between music and your practice of photographing?
I’ve always aspired to music. Photography and other visual mediums don’t operate the same as arts that are more ephemeral, like music, does. At times I’ve found myself saying I want my pictures to look like certain music sounds. I remember wanting my pictures to look the way Echo and the Bunnymen sound—which is kind of odd because, while I liked Echo and the Bunneymen alright, they certainly weren’t my favorite band.
The analogy is weak, and you don’t have to go too far down that road before it all falls apart. However, the thing that has moved me the most is music. I aspire to the power that music has, covet it perhaps.
Making pictures is a much quieter thing.
How did you begin taking pictures?
I started at the very end of high school. I bought a camera just because I had the money. In high school I was ate up with the French horn. All through high school I worked at a Burger Chef saving up money, so I could buy an expensive French horn. The truth of the matter is that I couldn’t play the instrument very well. I was a little, maybe a lot, delusional. Someone probably should have told me, "You can’t play the French horn." That reality dawned on me my last year of high school.
At this same time I had a good friend who took photos for the school newspaper, and I would watch him develop the pictures in the darkroom his dad had at their house. That was my introduction to the process. With the $800 I had saved up for the French horn, I loaned my brother $600 for a Martin guitar (which he still has) and spent $200 on a camera like my friend had.
What was it that drew you and held you to the medium of photography?
A surprisingly good thing happened. I was given a scholarship to Northern Kentucky University, which at that time was a fairly new commuter college just across the Ohio River from Cincinnati. So I wound up going to college without having made plans. When I was signing up for my first classes, the advisor asked me what I was interested in studying. I said I hadn’t been planning to go to school and had no idea. He asked me about my hobbies, and I told him that I had just gotten a camera. At that point he looked through the catalog and let me know that I could actually major in photography and be an art major. I’d never taken any art classes up to that point, but it all sounded good to me.
It turned out that the photography department had wonderful teachers and great energy. It was very much a gift. If you can remember the first time you went to the theatre, the lush velvet curtain, the lights, mystery and drama, you know the curtain goes back and you’re like, "Wow!" That was sort of how it felt when the history of photography was introduced to me. I had no idea that people had been making pictures for the love of pictures for the past 150 years.
How has your experience of taking photos changed over the years?
You know what? Thankfully, it still has something of that unforced pleasure and sense of "rightness," and I’m very grateful for that.
Imagine you have a puppy, and imagine you could see inside your house when that puppy hears your car pulling in the driveway. You would probably see that puppy running all over the place anticipating you walking in the door. Ten years later that same dog may love you no less, but when it hears your car in the driveway it just sits up, stretches, and swats its tail.
Early on, I never had to think, “Boy, I should go out and make pictures.” For whatever reason that initial energy is subject to change. Perhaps it is a dissipation or dilution that comes from doing pictures to please others in order to make a living or some perceived lack of outside interest in your work. I’m not sure.
My experience more recently is that I have to decide to go out and make photographs. Once I’m out walking with my camera it’s all very familiar. Even though it may serve no practical function or provide any intrinsic benefit to anyone, I sense that I am doing what I am supposed to be doing. I realize that something is at work that was there early on.
“I’ve always aspired to music...I want my pictures to look like certain music sounds.”
This comment, from our conversation with photographer Michael Wilson, got us wondering: what would the photographs that make up the current Cody Center Exhibition, Shirt for a Ghost, sound like? In response, Michael curated a playlist for us–a sort of auditory companion to the exhibition. Music, trying to sound like certain pictures look.