Finishing something from nothing is kind of a miracle, every time. I am speaking in this case about creating a finished image from the bare bones of model shots, landscapes, objects and anything else that goes in them. Every time I finish one I am convinced there are no more, there will never be more, that this is the end. But of course that is never the case, and the pursuit of the next one is soon underway. The other thing that can rattle your confidence and make you stop production is reaching a creative high point. I am speaking of personal high points of course, not critical appraisal of them. My last new piece, "the Sad Death of Giants" was, to me, a high point, and I was more than a little scared to follow it up, sure that nothing would be as good as that one. It also did not help that I am running low on fresh shots to use.

When I was very young, up until my mid teens, I wanted to be a visual artist, with my work appearing on the covers of books and in magazines. I was always attracted to the fantastical covers of novels and album art, and they were often a lure for me to buy those albums or books. I remember the wonderful album art of Depeche Mode and Pink Floyd, Duran Duran and ELO. I wanted to be the artist behind something like that, and it's a nice turn of events that those childhood aspirations are starting to come to pass all these years later. Imagery I have created is now in magazines, is now on a CD or two, and on a novel. So far. Hopefully this will all continue.

It was never known by me exactly how one becomes an artist for such things - there was no internet back then - and perhaps that is now no longer mysterious since the internet rules much of our lives now. Just in case you, the reader, are still in the dark about how all that come to pass, here is how I found my stuff gracing book covers, CDs and in magazines.

It is the nature of life and society on this world that the titans of today become the obscure and antiquated relics of tomorrow. It is unavoidable, though some keep a vigil and a respect for the past. The dinosaurs reigned supreme in this world, and then they were gone. The Egyptians and the Mayans were the most advanced civilizations of their time and now they are not. The proud warriors of the Native Americans were overcome by the Europeans who invaded. The list goes on. It happens in the microcosmic sense as well; the strong man brimming with strength and vigor will eventually falter in the later years, the intellect of another could be erased by dementia.

It is the way of things.

There is a theory in social psychology that proposes a basic conflict in humans having a desire to live but knowing that death is inevitable. This produces terror, and a solution to the terror in the form of religion, belief in the afterlife, seeking immortality  and even acts of violence. After reading a bit about it, it seems that the fear of dying, unique to humans, is the prime motivator for what we do in this world. The anxiety of our inevitable end creates laws, belief systems, deities, writers, artists, and it is a subconscious foundation in all our lives, whether we are aware of it or not.

I am in a stage of life where the terror level is most elevated. Apparently, it is high in the young, peaks in the mid life stage, and lessens in the later years. I can tell you for a fact that this is true, because it occupies much of my thought lately, and robs me of sleep. Looking back on my life, I think the terror of it was always there, always closer to the surface than is probably wise, and lately, with every muscle pull, with every outward sign of aging, I am preoccupied with it more and more. My terror management has only ever been one strategy: the creation of art, or something that will last beyond my years, that will be linked to who I was and be regarded fondly or profoundly. I do not believe in the afterlife, I do not believe in Heaven or Hell, and I do not believe in the immortal soul.

I wish that I did.

It's not an easy thing to do, after all, to create a miserable place. As an artist, I tend to want beauty, escape, surrealism leaning towards the fantastical, but the idea for this piece was hope in the midst of squalor. That requires an ugly place for counterpoint, it requires an undesirable environment, to juxtapose a ray of hope against. Having just endured a seemingly endless winter of cold, snow and darkness, and now in the gradual warmth of spring, the last thing I felt like depicting was more bleak snow, more darkness, more cold. But universally those qualities are regarded as misery incarnate, so they are there now.

I assembled the almost post-apocalyptic wasteland from bits and pieces I shot at Salton Sea in March, and the model was shot recently, with my favorite overhead dish light. Perhaps being an ex-Catholic this pose and this lighting always reminds me of Biblical depictions of Jesus in the garden the night before his death.

I think there is something powerful and sad about being naked in this environment. It is cold, it is jagged and inhospitable, and to be here with no protection, no warmth, is about as despairing as it can get. As humans we look for light, we look for warmth and comfort. Our bodies are insufficient to survive most of the climates on the planet without some sort of shelter or clothing. As I built this, I imagined this man was a survivor of a holocaust, perhaps a homeless man, perhaps the last man on Earth. This place is a ruin, and all the power is gone, the lights do not shine, the walls, if there were any, are gone. And still, he sets himself near the light posts - an instinctual move towards something that once represented light and safety. There is a remnant of a wall, graffiti still on it. Perhaps this wall, with evidence of writing on it is a connection to another person, even if that person is unknown or gone, it means that in this place once went another human, and so he stays by it.

And then we do have a light after all, and it illuminates the man and penetrates the darkness and shadows of his sad home. His gaze is fixed on it, and perhaps he is encouraged by it, but he is not reaching for it, he is not perhaps convinced this is real. A key floats before him - a symbol of hope, of unlocking another time or place, hopefully a better one. And still he does not reach for it. I think what is important, at least to me, is that the light is there, whether he acts on it or not. That, finally, is the point of this image: even here, even in a dark place, hope exists. I think we find it instinctually, will it to be, need it to be there. I think it is connected indelibly to our survival instinct, a part of it. The need and the belief of hope, the very concept of it, has given rise to all the religions of the world, all the spiritual beliefs of individuals, and as mortal beings aware of our own mortality, the specter of death is just too much to bear without hope, without belief, without relief.

Death is a dark place. Death is a wasteland. Those of us alive now have never been there, and those who have passed on have never returned. It is a great mystery, and the great ending to our stories. Some cling to their faith, their religion, and some of us, who exist without those convictions, have other lights and hopes to ease us into that dark place. The hope that something we did mattered. The hope that we mattered to someone. The hope that someone will remember us for a time after we have passed.

My title is derived from two places. a verse from the Bible, which has been translated a million times and basically says this:

And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

Peter Gabriel composed the music for the film "the Last Temptation of Christ" and one of the tracks was called, "Of These, Hope." The title suggests that the composer chose hope over love from the passage, and if that is true, I am in agreement. I think hope is the greatest power we have in this world, and it is hard to see most of the time, yet we will always find a trace of it at our darkest hour, even if it's all in our mind.

Michael Bilotta
05/02/2014

 

 

 

It's a logic breakdown, it's irrational, and, as told in the Bible, the story of Creation in the book of Genesis is the story of an omnipotent and highly dangerous prankster known as God. Here it is in a nutshell:

God creates the universe, including the world. God populates the world with flora and fauna, air and water, all that. God creates his ultimate creation, Man, in his own image, whatever that means. God gives him paradise to live in, and plants a tree right in the middle of it that he tells the man not to touch. God creates Woman as a companion for Man. God, presumably Creator of all, also created Satan, or the Devil. The Devil tempts the Woman to take from the tree the fruit and eat it, telling her that it will give her knowledge because, well, he was right - God said this was the Tree of Knowledge. Man and Woman, desiring knowledge, eat the fruit. God gets angry. God makes them mortal with all the suffering that implies, and expels them from Paradise. As an added bonus, he condemns this act for all eternity and creates the concept of Original Sin, which basically translates to punishing the child for the sins of the father - for all eternity. For eating an apple. Off of a tree that you put there. Knowing that they would be tempted, knowing human nature, which, again, he created. And, when Satan, Eve and Adam all do what they were created to do, all according to his design, he throws a fit and gets vengeful and completely irrational in terms of forgiveness.

That's the story of Creation in a decidedly sardonic delivery, but the contents are the contents, no matter my tone. And no matter how resolute, devout or deluded you are, you have to admit, God, in this case, in this story, is kind of an asshole. The good news is that Genesis, the Story of Adam and Eve, all that, is not real. It is allegory, or more specifically, a parable. It is a simple story illustrating a subtext, a metaphor for the human condition, for the nature of mankind. It is a parable about temptation and entrapment, and about actions and consequences. It is no more real to me than the story of Medusa, Perseus, or Odin.

In my image, which I fancied a sort of sequel to Genesis, we have a modern man instead of naked Adam. He seems a little to-the-manner-born, a little less gullible, than poor Adam having just lost his rib. My man seems to be looking up at God saying, "are you kidding me?" Do you really think I am going to fall for this again?" He is wise to the trap, and he doesn't need the knowledge that eating it would gain him. He is not going to be tolerant of any of this "look but don't touch, touch but don't taste" foolery. He knows his nature, and he doesn't need old fire and brimstone on high to teach him any longer.

Regarding the creation of this image now, I wanted to talk a little about happy accidents that combine to create something, and lastly, about the negative influence of critics and why it is important to be confident in your work. It's odd what motivations can conspire to create something. This image, for example, was improvised with the model on the day we shot, and while I have used this table before, and while I have used a green apple once before, I decided to put him at this table with this apple for unknown reasons, and I remember shooting it and thinking, "what the hell am I doing with this?" Adding to the mystery, I had him looking up, away from the apple because of a lighting issue. So, not looking at the object in front of him, which is clearly important in the frame, is, well, odd.

The reason he was looking up and away is not mystical though, it was practical; my favorite light to use, a large beauty dish, happens to look fantastic as an overhead light, but, that does require all models to use a raised eye line if their face is to be illuminated at all.

Last night I was combing through all the shots from the session, looking for a good candidate to use as a basis for something new, and I saw this one. I loved the reflections on the table, I loved his expression, as enigmatic as it was, and I liked his hands in the shot. What I did not like was the awful, bright blue chair he was sitting on though.

I have used it before, and it fits for me because it reads as Victorian, but the color really is atrocious. Something about the green apple though…green is arguably my favorite color, and yet I have been steering clear of it in my pieces for quite some time now, working with a lot of blues and magentas. My earlier work was very much a green paradise, but there is one thing about using a green overlay on a human that is less than desirable - it tends to turn the skin a sickly green as well. In any event, I decided to change the color of the chair to match the apple, and immediately I liked this image a lot. Once I put the blue tones in, I had one of my favorite color palettes - blues and greens are what I consider paradise, even if the overall tone of this piece is cool and perhaps a little cold blue, there is nothing more comparable to life itself than blues and greens together.

Maybe it was the apple, the "paradise" of green and blue, but the word "paradise" was starting to stick. Add to that, the man was looking up, and often, I regard that pose as looking at heaven or a deity in the sky. This image, to me, was complete with the addition of a little burst of light above the man, and nothing else. I loved how ambiguous it was, even though it was clear to me. I loved how uncluttered and simple it was, and I loved the lines of it. Unfortunately, after almost three years of criticism from social media sites and so-called photography experts reciting rules as critiques, ugly voices in my head began clamoring for context to be literal. I have been told this so often - you MUST show the viewer what the subject is looking at.

Well, guess what? NO, YOU DON'T. It's called imagination, it's called ambiguity, it's breathable this way, it is flexible. Those with a Judeo-Christian background will likely know what this piece implies from the limited clues in it, and the rest, well, if someone sees something different or regards it as meaning something else, then I am thrilled. I want that to be the case. Art is not a diagram, art is not an instruction manual. If you can't figure it out and you are annoyed by it then go look at photos of sunsets. It is my own insecurities to blame, but these echoes of critiques past had me spending hours putting trees and snakes on the top of the frame, and I just didn't need them. I didn't want them.

Though some may find it lacking, some may regard it as incomplete or "breaking rules" I really like this piece, for all it is saying and how simply it is doing so. The composition demanded simplicity and I embraced it eventually, and shut the voices out.

Once I do that, I can live with the inevitable critics that will find fault with it, because I got to a place with it that I am happy, and that level of surety is ironclad, and nothing can change my opinion now on this one. By providing trees and snakes I am sticking this image firmly in the book of Genesis, and while that is the meaning, TO ME, it would be sad if that was the only one possible. That is a mantra I may take away from this one, this learning experience I call "the Paradise Trap." It does not need to be literal, It does not need to be literal, It does not need to be literal…

Michael Bilotta

04/30/2014