the main source of my artistic inspiration growing up was song lyrics, poetry, the imagery derived from the written word. As I turned myself into a songwriter over time, I started to develop my own parameters for what I would choose to talk about, what images would and would not be usable in my written work. I never wrote "nothing" songs, I never wrote a "Don't Worry Be Happy" type of ditty. I derived inspiration and formative sensibilities from heavy hitters like Peter Gabriel, Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell, and Sting. Most of these artists are still actively recording today, and a few of them are still people I would purchase something from without hearing a note.
 
Paul Simon is responsible from some of the most beautiful lyrical poetry and clever turns of phrase in popular culture. Joni Mitchell may be the most poignant, gifted, and wholly artistic force I have ever encountered. Peter Gabriel is intensity, passion, and deeply primordial in not only his lyrics, but also his soulful singing. Sting was my guidepost as I became a musician - he embodied so many qualities I wanted for myself: writer, musician, lyricist - he was a triple threat. His lyrics for three songs on the album "Syncronicity" made me want to be a writer: "King of Pain," "Tea in the Sahara" and "Wrapped Around Your Finger" were so timeless and vivid, so deep and meaningful, I was hooked.
 
The power of these words, and I was only ever really interested in music insofar as it was lyrical and song-based, made me turn away from my visual art aspirations I had since a child, and delve into the world of music. Like all mediums when you take the first step, I was rubbish. My lyrics were highly derivative, my scope of experience was nothing, and the fact of the matter is, I had not lived enough to be a writer. I was a teenager. But, over time, I started producing songs I was proud of, songs that I still like to this day, and lyrically, were finally about something. It ran its course, and I am not actively writing now, but the odd song comes through now and again when I check the well for that particular water, but for now, the visuals are back in my life, and I am able to take my sensibilities and interests and channel them, usually successfully, into a visual representation. It feels, in a way, like coming back to something I left behind, but in most ways, it is an extension of what I was doing as a lyricist.
 
Art is art - the mediums change, but the source is the same.
 
Like many of the songwriters I admire, I look to other sources for themes and settings for my art. Sting referenced, in fact, directly translated a chapter of Paul Bowles' "the Sheltering Sky" into his song "Tea in the Sahara. " Peter Gabriel channeled Anne Sexton for "Mercy Street." I am no different, and I am inspired by a lot of the songs I hold dear to me, and their words take on relevance and meaning depending on what is going on in my life.
 
Take the "Soul Cages," for example. It is the name of the Sting's third solo album and also the title track song. It is somewhat a concept album, with a theme of family and the trap it can become woven throughout. Sting distanced himself from his upbringing, his family, to make himself into who he wanted to be. A shipbuilder's son, the nautical imagery of the lyrics were hypnotic and palpable. It is by far my favorite album of his catalog.
 
Family can indeed be a trap - and it's one I have tried to side-step for many years. I did not have the most idyllic childhood. A lot of it I would like to forget. I am estranged from most of my family now, and honestly, that is how it needs to be for me to ever hope to become happy or comfortable with who I am. Early into my adulthood, after college, I started the distancing, and I felt I needed to control who and what was allowed into my life. You cannot choose your family, but there is no requirement for you to retain them. At some point, you have to ask yourself if the people in your life provide any value, and joy at all, and if they do not, you have to decide how much you are willing to sacrifice for these people. I have no children, and I keep myself fairly insulated from most of my family now. It's not that they are bad people, all of them, it's about need. What do you need to become the person you wish to be? What is sustaining, what is depleting? This is not at all a unique point of view - many people feel they were born into the wrong family. I feel very alone when I am with them - no one shares my point of view, my aesthetics, my thoughts. Feeling like an alien is something we all experience now and again, but at some point you long to return to your home planet.
 
At my age, this is not a big upheaval - things have settled into what they are, and most of us have our own lives. But the drama, the dysfunction, the debris, is all around, and shrapnel is still flying, and I feel a potential cage, the chains threatening to pull me under again. It is not about compassion, not about love, it is about survival. There are elements in my life that are not allowed in any longer, and I will not alter this for anyone.
 
And so, this theme resurfaces, and finds its way into my art. Three months ago I shot model Mike Ryan with no preconceptions of what I was shooting, what this raw material would become. I did a few shots of him jumping up and down. Who knows what it could be? It eluded me for months. Two months ago I shot a large body of water, and two weeks ago I bought these massive, heavy and rusted chains. This weekend, I found a way to use these elements to revisit the Soul Cages, the metaphor of being trapped by your past or your family. My character is trying to lift off, achieve escape velocity from the dark sea, and chains hold him fast, threatening to pull him down. All around him are the hats , those that tried to escape before that did not make it out.
 
The irony of this image, the song, and the events and thoughts motivating it, is that nothing would be there at all without the darkness that created it. If nothing happens to you, if you live in Pleasantville, there is little to write about, to process into your work, to fuel your alchemy, turning angst and pain into art. The cage underwater fuels the desire to escape, the fear of being pulled back does too, and the need to express all of this does too. They are all connected. Perhaps the attempt to escape, the desire to be free of it all, to float above it, is finally the point, and the cage is never really going to release us, but reaching for the sky gives the cage context and relevance, and the effort of rising out of the water, the space between the limitless sky and the murky deep, is actually where art lives. I suspect it does, at least for me.

Michael Bilotta
July 29, 2013
 
 
 

 

One of my goals this year, in terms of photography and art, was to start learning the world of fine art printing, specifically, my own. Printing has always been frustrating to me, and the few times I tried to get my stuff printed, I found the results disappointing – too dark, too contrasty – colors drifting away from the intended ones. While I think 2013 is too early to consider trying for a gallery showing of my work, I did want to start getting the prints up and running, and see what, if any, audience out there was interested in buying what I do. If a gallery showing does come my way, I want those prints to be good, and know that I can produce them reliably and consistently.

This year, right on January 2nd, I started looking into it intently. Since then, I have had six test prints created for me by four different printers. I am close to getting this up and running, but not quite there yet. There are a lot of hurdles. First, you need to know what kind of medium you want to print on; there are dozens of papers, mounting and framing options. It can be overwhelming to the uninitiated. Without the blow by blow, I will say that at this point, I have my preferred paper in place, and have settled on a printing company, and the last hurdle is pricing. More on that later.

I am not going to name names here, but here is my experience with the printers so far…

The first one gave me some great advice, and a good deal of time on a Saturday, and I walked away with a lot to think about. He also showed me a canvas wrap of one of my images in his studio. It was exciting to see it presented on something other than a monitor, and I was elated, but there was a concern about the hi gloss sheen on it. I asked about it: he told me he had not finished some sort of post treatment on it and it should be fine going forward. The best piece of advice he gave me was to take control of the print sales, and stop using sites like FineArtAmerica.com and RedBubble.com, etc. The biggest problem with these services is you have no idea what people are getting on the other end. You usually have to upload your files as jpegs, a lossy compression, and you never see the prints unless you buy one yourself. Also, these companies produce things like t-shirts and iphone cases with your artwork, so if that works for you, great, but I did not want to be on a mug with my work. The pricing structure is set by the site, and you have no real say in it, and they are priced to move. Again, you have NO IDEA what it looks like on the other end, if the print is of good quality, what medium it’s on, etc. The point is, your name is going out there, and if your print looks terrible because the site is upscaling an image past the quality point to sell them larger, or their calibrations don’t match yours, you run the risk of angering a buyer without even knowing it. You also get a pittance, a small percentage of the sale that is already priced too low for fine art. While this might be good for some photographers, depending on the style they shoot, my fine art conceptual work was not going to work in this bargain-based pricing strategy. So, I pulled all my profiles down off these sites – I had only sold a couple of small prints anyway, so this was not a hardship at the time.

He also gave me some advice and time regarding calibration – this was a huge piece of the puzzle. Often, you get an image to look exactly how you want it on your monitor, and then…too dark, too bright, colors look different, etc. I ended up, on his advice, buying a little piece of hardware that you use to calibrate your monitor, and then it sits on your table and takes periodic readings of ambient light levels so you are always viewing the calibration profile at the same intensity level. It has made the transition from monitor to good printing results almost seamless, but still, there can be variances to your calibration profile and the printer’s profile, so some issues still pop up.

In the end, this printer was a wealth of information, and I thought this would be a good fit, but when I asked for a finished canvas wrap of one of my pieces for myself, to have a sample in my hands to showcase on Facebook and other social media sites, he seemed annoyed that it was not a “real” sale, even though I was paying for it. Perhaps for that reason he took his time, a long time, getting it done, and when two weeks went by, I asked where it was and he had not done it yet, and said it was a freebie, for me. This is a nice gesture, but it seemed at the time it was to save face because of the turnaround time. When I got it, it looked great – all shiny and new and ready to hang. But I repeat, all shiny…I had expressed my concern about the glossy finish before, and this one was like a high gloss lacquer was applied to it. You literally could not view it in a room with a light source in it! I mentioned to him that that colors were spot on, the quality was great, the canvas wrap and hardware was great, but the shine – I really thought that my work, especially on canvas, would look best with a matte finish. He balked at this, again seemed annoyed with me, and said he never heard of someone asking for matte finish before. Huh?? NEVER??? But thanks for making me feel stupid about asking questions. No, this was not going to work. Next…

The next one did a test print for me, and after having a heart to heart discussion with him about my concerns about glossy finishes, I got…a glossy test print. Thanks for listening. Next…

I tried one that a friend uses. She is really happy with the results she gets from them. I chatted on the phone with them. Lovely couple, very much caring about doing good printing of good imagery, and I was really excited to see what the test would produce. It came – wasn’t thrilled with the poster tube method of delivery, and the print, while the detail was great, was way too dark, and he cropped the image. I lost about 20% of my imagery real estate. I sent emails addressing my concerns. All of them went unanswered. Then I started getting emails asking about the results – was I happy with it? It was as if my emails were going unseen into a spam folder and we were both talking into the wind. Sorry, not going to work. Plus, they were in a faraway state, and I have heard and believe that it is best to develop a personal working relationship with your printer so they know you, and know what you need and expect. Communicating via unseen emails and cell phones was not going to work. Next…

Ironically, I ended up going to a printing company nearby that primarily focuses on black and white photography, and given that I rarely use that, it seems a bad fit, but the test prints I got from them were the best yet (still some kinks to work out) but more importantly, their customer service is so great. I got all my questions answered, and they never made me feel stupid for asking them. I met with them, and worked out some concerns. I am, at the time of writing this, waiting for another test print, and once I know that our calibrations are working in harmony, and I can expect a good reproduction from screen to print, I am off and running finally, seven months after starting down this road. I expect, by next week, to have prints ready to sell, with exceptionally good quality, on archival, heavy, lightly textured fine-art paper and inks that will last 100 years or more. I will have size options worked out, and price points per size.

And here is where it gets sticky…

Pricing. It is really hard to learn about this, and few people in the industry offer their lessons-learned for free. I am, while a photographer, really more of an artist. I am doing pieces that take a long time to conceive and complete. I am not snapping scenery and running it through a few presets in Lightroom and producing hundreds of shots per week. I produce about 1 to 2 pieces a week, and that is a lot of work, actually. So, I need to price my prints as fine art prints would be priced, and that gets into an area of the great unknown, in terms of advice. I have one artist/photographer to thank for offering her pricing structure to the public, and that is Brooke Shaden, who, on an online workshop, dispelled the specifics of her sizing and pricing structure. I decided to use this as a guideline, and while I have made some variations of pricing and sizing, the lesson to be learned here was to not undersell your work. You are not just paying for the cost of the print and shipping, you are paying yourself for your effort, your experience and expertise, your gear, your expenses that went into it. All of that, plus, you are selling your work as art, not bargain prints like a poster shop in a mall. These prints are expensive to produce. They are done with high quality media, and that raises the price too. Of course, a little voice in your head balks at the prices you are going to charge, the fear of being perceived as egotistical or pretentious, of self-doubt, but you need to override those things and determine what the value of this work is.

In a week or so, I will start to advertise my prints as available for sale. Like many, I have decided to make most sizes limited editions, and since they are going to be limited, I need to make sure each sale fetches a good and adequate price. Adding to this structure, I decided to make one size available as unlimited (the smallest size), and offer it in a few ways: print only, print framed and matted, print on aluminum dibold with a hanger so it “floats” on the wall, ready to hang out of the box. We will see what this structure does and where it goes. I reserve the right to adjust it, but I do not want to undersell or undervalue what I do, which is expensive, absorbing, and extremely time consuming. It is also art – whether or not you agree with that sentiment, it is my personal art, my expression, and I see no point in devaluing it onto mugs or phone cases! I also plan on looking into self-publishing a photo book, with 50 prints in one book – and see if that becomes something more viable in terms of buying something from my collection, if not a print. We’ll see. The book seems like it is headed towards $100 or more for me to produce one copy, so the price tag could therefore become large on that was well!

Regardless of the outcome, I now have the goal achieved. Come what may, I have printing underway, I have prices in mind, and sizes worked out. So if those galleries start nibbling, I will be ready!

July 18, 2013

Michael Bilotta

 

 

 

 

It’s a vague and certainly over-used word, depression. It has become erroneously synonymous with sad or feeling “blue.” It’s not that simple, as anyone who has had it can attest. I do, and have for decades. I will not classify it as “suffering with” depression, because I believe it is a permanent state, a part of my core being, and whatever genetic anomaly or strain has taken hold is not something you can extract or easily overcome. To be honest, I am not sure it is wise to try. In the interest of full and honest disclosure, let me be clear: I consider myself a moderate case. I am not extreme, I am not schizophrenic, I am not sure I am manic-depressive. I have never tried to take my own life or hurt myself outright, though have contemplated the former a few times. I think there is a kernel of optimism in me somewhere, but it is hard to find, and harder still for others to see. Mostly, I feel at odds with the world, with the people in it, and I feel like an alien most of the time. I am someone that most classify as “negative” but I don’t really believe in that word or give much credence to classifications like “positive” or “happy” or “dark.” I am simply who I am, like everyone else, a product of personal DNA and circumstance and life experience. I do not see a way up and out of it, because I am not entirely sure that what I am is something that needs extensive modification.

This is one of the benefits of getting older: clarity. I am not the most wise, the most intelligent, the most insightful, but I am no slouch either. And living with my eternal inner companion, depression, is as natural to me as anything else, for better or worse. There are pluses and minuses to this companion though, and that is where this confessional diatribe finally arrives at the world of art and photography.

I believe that a person’s point of view and state of mind, if they are channeling honestly into their art, informs the work, and can be seen or felt in the results. I believe that a lot of art is an allegorical, abstract personal expression totaling a sort of autobiography of the author or artist. Since these are my convictions, the best thing I can do is ride the waves of my ebb and flow, of my “mood swings” and let them flow into the pixels of my compositions. I do not think that waiting until you feel “better” is the time to do the work, I think a spike in your depression is the perfect time to dive in, to channel it, and hopefully give it expression, and maybe help it resolve into a transformative experience and hopefully a piece of art. I do not mean for this to be a “how to” blog about coping with depression, in fact, I have no insights into it, as it seems to be the Tidal King, the ruler of your oceans, the wave and the undertow. I do not think this king a dictator, a corruption or a thief, I believe he was in place since birth, and is likely to rule my oceans and islands for the rest of my days. He has, I suppose, taken things from me, robbed me of some peace of mind, but he has also been generous with his influence – he has given me some depth, some insight, and some art, that I may otherwise not have. I hope there is something “more” or some meaning that some of my work provides the viewer with, but that is dependent on not only the success of my vision and execution, but also the experiential palette of the viewer. But either way, creating something has been a fixture in my life from earliest memory, it is something I have always gravitated towards, and it is now as embedded and indelible to my identity as my depression is. They may likely be tied together, twin entities from the same source.

My spikes are tied to certain month of the year, certain days of the week, and I am very much attuned to them and can see them coming. I know which months are loaded with memory and wear me down, which ones are revivifying and uplifting, and what days of the week I am likely to be “up” or “down.” I will admit that the times when I am clear of the fog and spray from the Tidal King are easier to work in – my mind is more focused and intent on completion and procedure and diligence kick in and are accessible. But the “darker” times have a richer substance, and air heavy with meaning and symbolism, and the work in that time seems more personal and vital to me. There is a song I wrote, and borrowed its title for a recent image, called “Monday Bleeding” that I distinctly remember writing in a really low period, and I was sad, I was angry, and the words were pretty direct and focused. I remember the goose flesh that the coda outro of that song gave me long after I wrote it, every time I performed it. It was a feeling of vindication, of taking the “poison” from the Tidal King and turning it into an elixir, a potent and transformative moment accessible whenever I sang it. I get these flashes and feelings in some of my imagery now, when I am composing in those times, and the results sing to me. Those are the ones that make it worth it, give meaning to my sometimes difficult life, and keeps me invested in working on my portfolio – they are the fuel for the engine that drives me, that keep me coming back for more, that make it all okay, ultimately. It is sometimes hard to even want to work in the high tides of depression, it seems impossible, at this moment, for instance, that I will ever complete another piece, that there is any point to it, or any purpose that makes how I feel worth it. I have lived enough years though to know that it is worth the effort, and it is a catharsis in itself, and worth the struggle to begin. And so I will, because the tide is high, and the king demands it.

It’s a funny thing to be branded as negative so often by so many people. It is cause for concern I suppose, that you are not one of the Joneses, but then again, what is the value in adapting to the majority for ease and convenience? Why is the dissent of the masses, the people in your life, cause for a complete psychological overhaul? Who has vetted their dispositions and certified them as more valid? In terms of artistic composition, the negative space is just as vital sometimes as the focal point, and informs and frames the focal point, and gives it context. The same can be said from within – my “negative” space, my high tide, is as crucial to my inner ecology as the low tide. Being “negative” defines the positive, and shapes its borders and colors it. If it is easier to see people as black or white, negative or positive, depressing or inspiring, so be it, but I choose to look at them both as vital, and equally useful.

I suppose this has amounted to a personal statement more than a blog entry befitting a photography/art site, but then, to anyone who has viewed or commented or appreciated what I do, you already know who I am in a way, through the abstract, through the concepts and themes I gravitate towards. Once again, I see no point in pulling punches and keeping a blog that is less than honest. The Tidal King and his turbulent waters are just as important to what I do as Photoshop or my Wacom tablet or my Mac are, so perhaps you can consider this another blog of the tools of my trade!

July 10, 2013

Michael Bilotta

It happens to everyone who creates. Blockage, uncertainty, failed attempts, bad paths. I am sure I am not alone when I say I feel frustrated and incomplete when I don't produce something consistently. I enjoy the sense of completion more that the process, the satisfaction of the conjuring, the will to create. Fitting a steady artistic life in around a full time "day job" and a personal life is extremely difficult to say the least. Generally, I count on the weekends for the more ambitious projects and images, and if I get one during the week, then I consider it a bonus and a happy surprise. Hence, I average about one or two a week. To make even this happen, it requires having a supply of raw material i.e. model shots at the ready, and all the myriad objects and materials needed for the compositions. That means shooting a model about once a month, and hunting for objects, shooting the objects, keeping an eye out for optimal skies, trees, etc. So, all that happens, ideas or not, and then the weekend comes, like this one, and…failure.
 
It's not really a failure, but let me err on the side of pragmatism over treacle, and say that the failed attempts DO in fact lead to other things, and are an unfortunate and unavoidable part of the process, but dammit they are unwelcome and really unfortunate when the weekend rolls around with time for creating, and nothing much comes of it.
 
Okay, enough of the theory, and down to the specifics: Here was this weekend…
 
I had finished "When the Angels Fall" last week and was really pleased with the results, and consider it one of my best. These come once in a while, and they have a specific, twofold effect on me: a burst of motivation and a bit of a high, as well as a little angst over what I can do more, what I can do better on the next one. Sometimes to crack on from these benchmark images, I start where I left off, using the style layers of the previous one as a starting point on the next one. It's a way of igniting something, since the last one was a pleasing result, why not stay in that world on the next one, to expand it, to see what else it can house. And so, focusing on watery images lately, I began with the template created for "When the Angels Fall" and picked an image from a previous shoot, with a different model, as a start point. I thought, after three consecutive images focusing on a priestly character, to give that a break, and find something new. I chose a shot from my recent session with model Mike Ryan, and found one I liked, and pretty much new what it was going to be: an image inspired by one of my favorite films, Lord of the Rings. Using the water of the reservoir I shot recently, I decided on the Dead Marshes, a bog where dead bodies under the stinking water can mesmerize the traveler into following their "lights" or "candles" into the water and become one of the unfortunate dead of the marshes.
 
It should have worked but it didn't. Something about it fell flat, and I thought it didn't do a thing for my portfolio or the Tolkein legacy of artistic interpretations. I started it on a Friday night, and worked at least 12 hours on it on Saturday. On Sunday I tried to save it, and even convinced myself it was finished after three more hours. But I did not write it up, and did not release it. It was dead on arrival, and I knew it, but I was too focused on getting one done for the weekend to accept it. Once I decided to shelve it, I decided to use the rest of Sunday to at least start another, knowing that they take days to complete lately, and I feel better when one is in the pipeline. I again used the style template of "When the Angels Fall" and found a new model shot to start with. I won't bore you with the specifics of that one, since the image online is accompanied by my usual write-up about it, but this time the image worked. The result was "Procel: The Demons of the Goetia."I got it done in less than eight hours to my satisfaction, and I can feel good about posting this one, as it is visually something I am proud of, or at least pleased with.
 
I could call this perseverance, but it is more likely stubbornness, hopefully the good kind. I suppose there would be some value in taking some time off and laying low, certainly I could use it, but I like what I do too much to willingly take a break, and the curiosity of what may come next is too strong to ignore. These kind of weekends remind me that no matter what kind of discipline and dedication I apply to what I do, there is only so much I can control, and creativity takes its own time and marches to its own beat.
 
All I can do is keep vigilant and wait for it.
 
 
June 30, 2013
Michael Bilotta