The ancient astronomers of Greece were the first to postulate the notion of a geocentric system of the cosmos - with the sun in the center and celestial bodies rotating around it. The desire to learn the path of the stars, the heavens, is a metaphor for the human condition, and one for the creation of art as well. We seek - we need understanding, we need order and logic. To make sense of the universe. We can live with a mystery for only so long before we succumb to our innate nature to learn and comprehend.

This is true of my approach to creating these images too. I inevitably create mysteries for myself to make sense of by shooting things separately and trying to put things together to mean something, at least to me. This can be said of this piece, certainly, as it has been sitting unfinished for several months now. The pose of the model, shot on a blank background, and then several grounds and skies and objects were tried and rejected. For most of the time, the working title was "Hello Earth" - a nod to the song by Kate Bush, and I was going to put my figure on the moon looking back at Earth in the night sky. Certainly the pose of the model seemed to suggest a sense of "behold!" but the inability to go to the moon to shoot our planet myself, as well as my aversion to using stock photos for my images meant this idea was not possible!

the Business of Dying

It started simply enough - a shot of a model walking away from the camera, mostly in silhouette. Lately I tend to do this - masking the identity of the person in the shot with a downward glance, a manipulation of the face, a from-behind angle. Why? Well, it's sometimes easier to keep it ambiguous, to lend the viewer some space for interpretation. It is also very anti-model, something I am gravitating to more and more. These are very few shots of someone posed, giving the cheekbones, the attitude and the heavy lids. Most of the time, I tell the models to almost never look directly into the camera. It's an aspiration to capturing a performance, an actor, and actors don't tend to stare directly into the camera when delivering their soliloquies.

That same ambiguity can have a reverse effect on the artist however…

There are planners in this world, people who arrange things on a fine detail level, in every facet of their life. Some of us cannot even conceive of going on a vacation, or get through their work week, without knowing what the plan is, who is going to be there, what we will will do when we get there, and how long we will spend there. It's easy to see the appeal of the orderly mind; the steadfast refusal to allow chaos to rule over order, to maximize our potential, or wring every last drop of useful out of a period of time allotted. All these things are very human, very common, and even noble aspirations as we get on with our increasingly bewildering and frenetic lives.

This is where you would expect this line to drop: "I am NOT one of those people!" But no, that would be disingenuous. The line, more honestly, would be: "I wish I were more like one of those people."

I do try to plan, to stick to a blueprint, to call ahead, whatever one does to be a "planner." I do in fact get very uneasy when I don't know where I am going, or how long I will be there. So it seems that planning is in my heart, if not exactly manifest in my daily life. To quote Yeats, who I grow more and more fond of, "things fall apart, the center cannot hold." It seems destiny or fate, neither of which I really believe in, have different, er, plans for me.

I met a successful fine art photographer recently who said she plans all of her shots out, and storyboards them. She keeps a notebook of ideas. She goes to a location with a model with a plan, with the wardrobe and props needed, and takes only the amount of shots needed. The shoot may last all of 30 minutes or less, with 5-10 shots taken. The longest part of the process seems to be the journey to the location itself. I imagine it must make it very easy to communicate to the model with that idea notebook in hand, and be able to show them what they will be doing. Perhaps the success of this approach over and over again makes the photographer confident in her shooting, and allay any doubt or fear, over time. I WANT to do things this way - I see the logic in it, the ease of it, and the benefits of it. The trouble is, I simply cannot do it. I have tried, and still try now, but I simply cannot.

Now, I am not saying I am a slave to chaos, to randomness, to the blank canvas, but if I look at my body of work up to this point, and take my favorites out of it and move them into a pile, almost none of them will be of the planned variety. They were all happy accidents. Not accidents really - there is some plan, however fetal and vague, that informs them.

Let me give you an example: On my last session with Ed Barron, the only concrete idea I had going in was Jekyll and Hyde. I had just seen a BBC series from a few years back that sparked my interest in it. I had never given the Stevenson novel and characters much thought before, but upon seeing this version, I saw the metaphors at play beneath the fiction - the duality, the repressed id, the man behind the facade. It is timeless and rich - from that classic novel all the way to Marvel's The Incredible Hulk, the theme is relevant to our psychology and societal constraints. Okay, so bam, a light sprinkle of inspirations hits the exposed wire of my creative mind, and a little feeble spark ignites. So then, the mind starts turning and musing for days about what to do with it for my shoot and with my one model, who certainly can look both parts, and is a far better actor than he probably realizes. I discuss it with him a little, and we decide on him bringing a suit and top hat, which mercifully, he had in his possession, otherwise I would have had to shell out more money I don't have for a costume rental. Okay so, theme is in mind, and so is wardrobe and model. Great! But still, no ideas as to what specifically I will be actually doing with the shots, the actual compositions are not visions in my head, waiting to be born. They are more like a whisper that you can almost hear, but then the tv ads drown it out, like they do everything else. Fast forward to the morning of the shoot - full panic has set in, because a model is coming in 3 hours and I have the room ready, the lights are charged, the camera battery is charged, and the compact flash cards have been cleaned out. all is ready, but I am not excited, or eager, or even calm. I am in performance anxiety panic mode driving to Target and Michael's arts and crafts looking for something, some THING, anything, that might be purchased for the shoot in the way of a prop that will assist me in doing Jekyll and Hyde. Earlier in the week, I saw a photo from someone on using an empty portrait frame as a prop. In the shot, a person's body was coming out of it, but not on the other end - it was like a dimensional portal. Neat idea, and not mine at all.

I buy the frame and head back home.

Ed arrives, and I discuss a little about what we are doing - this is delivered in a nervous barrage of vagaries, because, well, that's all I have. I spend a ton of time trying to get a shallow depth of field shot happening, for the other feeble idea I had, which was sort of an amalgam of the eye monster from Pan's Labyrinth and the classic book cover from Stephen King's "Nightshift." This image became "Nightshift."

Michael Bilotta NightShift

After that, I stalled for time even more, by having Ed do some nude poses, some in a chair, some not. Ed is a professional figure model, and has no issue whatsoever with nudity, and I am grateful for this because, if all else fails, I will at least be able to add to my "Fine Art Nude" gallery. So now that is over, and I have Ed don his suit. But before he gets anything on but his tuxedo shirt, I stop him - there is Mr. Hyde. Edward Hyde, free of the social constraints of Henry Jekyll, I imagine, would be a rabid anarchist, not caring about being dressed or proper in any way. I see Ed, with Tuxedo shirt on, unbuttoned, and wearing nothing else, as Mr. Hyde suddenly. I shoot some shots of this, telling Ed to improv up a snarling Hyde, hair mussed. We pose him with a dagger - Hyde did murder someone, so why not? This is where the portrait frame clicked in. I thought that I would pose Dr Jekyll as if he was in a portrait sitting, holding onto the frame, which contains an image of his alter ego within. The image of the stately doctor rigid in posture, holding a portrait of a disheveled Hyde, shirt open and glaring at the viewer, was born. Not exactly by plan, and not in any notebook. This became "The Strange Self Portrait of Dr. Henry Jekyll."


Now while I am appreciative of this image, and happy enough with it, it is by no means my favorite thing I have ever done.
And this is where the planning and the notebook fall apart for me.

See, I had Ed for four hours, which I pay him for, and I bought a frame that cost over $60, so I wanted to make sure I got as much coverage with model and prop as I could. So Dr. Jekyll was holding that frame sitting, standing, shaking it, whatever I could think of, in every angle i could do with my tiny studio in the basement. During editing, after the shoot was over, I immediately put the Jekyll and Hyde shot together, and well, that was that. Was there any reason to do more of them? Did the Stevenson novel need more coverage or artwork dedicated to it? Not really, no. But I had all these nicely lit shots of Ed looking dapper in his suit and hat, holding that damned, overpriced prop. So, I start to ponder on what else I can do with those basic elements. I did NOT want to copy the photo of the portrait frame as portal I had seen earlier, that type of online copycat plagiarism is enraging and ultimately empty. This is where the some of the best shots from the session came from: "That Was Another Country" in which the negative space of the portrait frame showed the warmer landscapes and memories of an immigrant, a stranger in a strange land of dark, forbidding cities. The more whimsical "Weather With You" which used the portrait as a vessel to take the inner climate, your weather, along with you. Lastly, and much later, after three frame shots had been born, I used it one last time for "The Shape of Things to Come" where the frame shows a preview of better days ahead.


There is a lesson in all this for me, and though I see the lesson, it still is a hard one to accept. My best stuff comes from an improvised sketch, done during shooting, and pulled together later, when the anxiety and stress of the shoot is over. It is almost pointless for me to plan shoots, and I am learning to let go of that desire to storyboard and plan, and let the process unfold as it wants to. This is why I shoot indoors, against a backdrop of gray seamless paper, with a model and a pose, and maybe a prop or two. It gives me a sketch, with a lot of room to fill in the blanks. I therefore shoot this way all the time now. I accept it, but it still makes shooting a panic for me, and a measure of trust is needed from the model, that I won't do something tasteless, awful, or silly with their like

ness. Where the well-known photographer shoots 5 to 10 shots, has a plan, and spends maybe 30 minutes getting her image, I spend upwards of 4 hours doing a marathon shoot with a model, taking upwards of 400 shots, a few planned, and most of them blank and bereft of ideas until I put them together later. Perhaps the pondering of the "concept" is a slow cooker in my head, taking time to stew and complete. If I look at the collection of images I got from my last shoot with Ed, I see a though-line, a continuity of theme, of duality. Jekyll and Hyde, seeing the world differently through the frame shots, the literal duality of "An Unwilling Duel," where Ed is fused together in two poses as if at war with himself. Even the latter two, a couplet or at least aesthetic brothers, "Lazarus Heart" and "I Dreamed my Genesis" both have elements of duality or juxtaposition in them - of reaching up but being pulled down, of devastating scars but an expression of hope.

So I think the concept was there, and perhaps informed the shoot, but certainly drove the editing process, albeit subconsciously. I should know by now that I will get something from the shoots, and that things will come together somehow. Maybe a few more successes and I will start to accept the process and go with it. Maybe someday I may enjoy the shoot even! But at the moment, I am shooting a new model in a week, have very few ideas, if any, and am starting to feel that panic rising in me. Something to do with ladders, and youth, and…well, no point in foreshadowing, as I have no notebook to show you! You'll know the plan shortly after I do, when the shoot is over, the model has left, and I am staring at the sketched image on the screen trying to figure out what it all means.

Thanks for spending time with a would-be planner!

September 29th, 2012

I think I joined Flickr in 2008 or so, and posted vacation pics, pics of my dog, and later, some portraits i was doing for the occasional clients, some high speed fruit drops, macros of bugs, things like that. I was not that invested in it, and neither was anyone else, given my views and comments on the site. About a year ago, I stopped trying to be a photographer in the traditional sense and started to reassert the artist, and I started caring more who was looking at my photos, and how many.

In this last year, I have created a portfolio that I consider, despite shooting with a camera for over 12 years, my first real body of work. There are about 100 images I consider portfolio worthy, and about 50 that I am really proud of. I have made this medium that I have dabbled in work for my artistic expression, much the way music and songwriting did before it. So naturally, like my music, I want an audience, I want the feedback, I want the sense that it matters to others more than just me, the creator of it. Any artist seeks these external channels, and if they say they don't, they are kidding themselves and you.

I started on Flickr, like I said, and then found a few more sites:,,,, and most recently, and That's a lot of sites to maintain, in addition to the expected Facebook and Twitter and StumbleUpon and Pinterest, and…well, you get the idea. It becomes quite an undertaking to maintain your profiles on these sites, and develop a few relationships and contacts on them, and "feed the meter" constantly. After all, there is the other stuff, the important stuff, like coming up with ideas, procuring models, props, wardrobe, etc. Suffice to say, you have to wear a lot of hats doing conceptual/fine art photography - you are essentially a director, a prop master, a researcher, a photographer, an editor, again, you get the idea. But you also have to be a press agent, a marketer of your work, to beef those numbers up to respectable and build some momentum and audience. Yes, your stuff has to be good, and get some attention on its own, but in the history of any medium of art, the quality of the work has never EVER been enough to carry it along into notoriety. You need to work it.

In seeking this exposure, in this past year, I have learned a lot. My thin skin has hardened a little, but not quite enough. Things get to me still. Things like apathy, indifference, or outright hostility. I don't get a lot - basically people are kind on these sites, and some are downright wonderful and endearing. There are a handful on every site that I have to thank over and over again, because they absolutely deserve it, if for nothing else, sending me a supportive or positive comment when I was feeling down about the image they commented on. Some I could imagine having a drink and a great conversation with, if only oceans and continents did not divide us. I think most of them have been more generous with their time than I have with mine, and I fret about not giving as much as I get all the time.

But now we come to the savages…

These are the alphas, the aggressive go-getters, almost unbefitting the art community,  who chase accolades and numbers with all the brute force of a cheetah bearing down on a tiring gazelle. Often, this ferocity is a product of the young, and it's part of the cycle, but some of us cringed from this linebacker personality in grade school, and it's just as unappealing in our adult lives as it was when you gave us beatings in the schoolyard.

Let me give some examples, without naming names…

The popular, established one, who dances in the same artistic ballroom you do, who will send out a garish fishnet of friend requests and get several hundred, but will never accept yours.

The popular, established one, who will silently accept any comment or vote, but will never deign to comment on yours, thank you for anything you've said, or even look at your portfolio on the most cursory level.

The wannabes, who glom onto the coattails of the aforementioned established one, and gracelessly copy and siphon the work of his/her blueprint-cum-role model until their "work" is nothing but a skin suit in Jamie Gumb's basement of terror.

The popular, established one, who will always back and support and promote the wannabes copying him/her so blatantly, that the only explanation of their support of this outright plagiarism of their work is it must somehow stroke their ego, while they offer no support to you when you, again, dance in the same ballroom, but chose to wear your own clothes, and not the same, redundant flowing gown they are wearing.

And then of course their are the hacks, the underdeveloped "artists" that relate success and merit ONLY by their following and number of views.

I have met them all, and lately, I have to add the local photographers in my town to the list of savages. Savage in their silence, in their indifference, in their sending a "like my page" only to never "like" my page when I send one back to them. Savage in gathering you in under the guise of "community" but only as long as they are the local celebrity. The thin skin is showing here, but you know what? I am not that worried about burning any bridges or offending anyone because these people will NEVER READ THIS! For all the reasons I have explained already. 

Their indifference is profound, predictable, and complete.

Though this may sound like a rant, there is some empathy too; I used to make it a point to reply with a thank you to each and every comment I got, and make sure to look at the work of the commenter, and find some time to comment in the spirit of genial reciprocity. I do know that this can snowball if you are lucky enough to grow some numbers. It is now sort of impossible for me to do this, what with my 40 plus hour "real job" and the all-consuming pursuit of my craft and passions. I get it. But then, not to the extent that I exonerate the actions of the savages. You are not off the hook. I may never be able to help you along in your trajectory, but surely, if I ever was in a position to do so, that kind of turn the other cheek is not something I can do. Not when i see shining examples of how you might be a better inhabitant of the virtual jungle.

And so, to end on a positive note, here is a list of wonderful people I have met this year, who have been a supporting presence on whatever site we are on together, who probably have encouraged me more that I have them, and deserve at least another round of thanks and mention. I feel I have found my voice and direction this year, and your words, presence, and support have been essential to it!

Thank you Misty Fugate, who dances in the same ballroom I do, but never ever withholds or loses connection with me. I have never met her, but she is one of my favorite people. She also is positively a bad ass behind the camera and photoshop.

Ruby Walker del Angel and Paul Long, friends on more than one site, and whose work I greatly admire.

Jim McKinniss, whose work I just found and is already inspiring me to do some more self portraits. Jim is a very generous person, I can tell that from 3000 miles away.

RodeoRose, Linda Morgan, Jethro61, lianne, carlunruh, happyhead64, frederiqueroy70,  charliebeck, valerie rosen and ramonfernandez  on - gotta be the friendliest bunch of people ever assembled on one site. BlueCanvas is my favorite site because of people like them, and there are MANY that I am forgetting I know, and I am sorry if I did!

Mel Brakstone and Carol Brandt, Deborah Zaragoza, AnnaCuypers, RosaCobos, Carol and Mike Werner on - this site and I are often out of sync, as I believe it is based out of or primarily Australian, so people are sleeping when I am up, and vice versa, but nevertheless, several artists there have lodged in my memory, and are on my watch list! I hope you know i am watching! LOL

The list is long, and I will never have it complete, but the point is, there are supportive people out there, and it need not be dog eat dog. We are all in it for our own needs and reasons, but we have that in common. I have never been very community-minded, but this is the closest I have come to feeling a common bond, and I have never met one of them!

Thank you all.

I am always looking for models, always. I have worked with four, and one of those I have booked three times. He's great to work with, does it professionally, and is willing to do anything I throw at him. Given all these admirable qualities, I would use him all the time, except that I want to populate my visual world with more than one face, and sometimes a fresh injection of blood is a good thing, not just for the imagery, but also to keep me on my toes. More and more, I am searching for male models, not because of any objection to female models, but as I continue to find my voice in the conceptual/fine art photography world, I am pushing a male point of view because, well, I am male, and it is my point of view as well. There is also the point that there are so many surreal/conceptual/fine art photographers out there convinced that a girl in a prairie dress in a field looking either enraptured, troubled, or levitating for no apparent reason is compelling. Maybe it is in the right hands, or maybe it once was, but there has to be more to say than that! At least I feel that way. And before I get off the soap box, there is also a perception in the art photography world, or art world in general, that women equal beauty and muse, and men, well, do not. Give me a conceit like that and I will rail against it every time!

Back to the matter at hand…

My shoots are infrequent. More and more, as I try to develop a theme, they become mini events in how to convey the concept. The risk is expensive if it fails - money spent on costume, props, fabrics, etc. So the concept has to work, or else I have nothing. For the last few shoots, I have settled into a methodology that seems to work well for me, where I shoot a segment of the session focused on the concept, and then we do a segment of improvised pose and movement - all against a blank seamless backdrop. It's a bit like a special effect shoot on a sic fi film - where actors strut in front of a green screen, reacting at nothing and giving some vague tips on where and how to react. Almost always, my concept works but comes off a little flat, and the improvised session is where I get the most bang for the buck, giving me shapes and poses and a body that, depending on what I inject or add into the scene, can be raw material for anything, in any environment I decide upon. This is where I tend to ask my models to pose nude; I am looking for some emotion, some human thread, something fundamental and basic and timeless, and a blank canvas to build from, and the nude form is timeless. A suit, or pair of genes, or a trendy haircut puts you squarely in a time period and limits my potential scope.

It is a haphazard way to work - I'd much rather go in knowing exactly what each shot will be and what I need to do, but it's just not in my process to do so, no matter how much I may want it to be. I have accepted it as the way I work though, and for now, it is doing just fine by me.

The trouble is, no one wants to be naked, it seems.

Part of me understands this, and part of me is amazed at how much of a big deal this is to models. If I had a body that I deemed average or passable enough to do that, I would, no problem. But for one, I do not feel I am "everyman" enough, and the other is self portraits are a logistical pain in the neck to execute. Some of the models I have seen on modeling sites, who flat out state they WILL NOT do nude, have shots of them in thongs, or skimpy briefs. With that little covered, really, what is the difference of going, excuse the pun, whole hog? Again, if I had some of these bodies, I would be naked all the time!

A look at my past work would indicate I am not doing erotica, or anything overtly sexual - I have explained my reasoning for working with the nude form. There are two other concerns that a nude model alleviates for me: one is the aforementioned flexibility to make the image into almost anything I decide on later, and the other, practically speaking, is it is less expensive for me. I do not have to obtain costuming for this segment of the shoot, and when you are paying your models, buying props, renting costumes, this all becomes a rather expensive venture. I also happen to think that the nude form is compelling.

I am currently looking for models that are not what many would consider to be the model type - I am not looking for overt glamour, or abs of steel, or size 2 females with D cup breasts, or a man who plucks every body hair away. I am looking for a strong presence of humanity, in the face, in the demeanor, and at this stage in my life, it is hard to inject any personal truth when using an 18-25 year old perfect specimen. I am exploring the other side of mortality lately, the darker side, the weightier years, and I look for models that can express that for me.

But again, no one wants to be naked.

I frequently do searches for models on a website called ModelMayhem and search for males and females in a 50 mile radius from my home that accept nude assignments. The search results are scant, and the models tend to be not at all what I am looking for. Many of them seem to be posing for the cover of Hustler, or Honcho, or any porn rag you can think of, and again, that is not my vibe. Sometimes I reach out on Craigslist. I make a case for it, emphatically stating that this is a fine art photo shoot, and not sexual in any way. Often the replies are odd, novices, or people with motives that are anything but artistic. Often someone reports my ad and I get deleted. It's depressing that someone out there considers me some predatory pervert. Sometimes "applicants" will ask what my gender is. Why would that matter to a model? Why is one answer the right one there, and my answer results in someone reporting me as a pervert?

When I work with a model, I never touch them, even to adjust a pose slightly, unless I ask them first. I am respectful and I treat it professionally and even a little bit matter-of-factly. Nudity is not shocking to me, I have seen a lot of naked people. When one is exposed to it or used to it, it is not innately a sexual energy unless you switch to that mode or mental state. And really, isn't all this a lot to go through for me to lure a naked person into my trap?

So what does one do? Where do you find the willing model comfortable enough with him or herself to pose nude? What does it take to convince them that no trash or scandal will come from our working together? I pay all my models, try to make them as comfortable as I can, and never cross any lines. All but one of the models I have worked with in the past have expressed an interest in working with me again. Why is a bikini brief or thong acceptable to some but the removal of that one ounce of flimsy fabric a deal breaker? Are we really that afraid or ashamed of a vagina or penis?

Currently I am planning a rather ambitious shoot with a concept involving a character of a priest. I have a very specific type or look I am trying to cast. I have had several responses to my ads, and one was absolutely spot-on what or who I was looking for. After carefully stating my methodology or intent to them as I have in this blog, I stop hearing from them and they are apparently no longer interested. It's frustrating and time consuming. I didn't think men would be hard to coax out their exhibitionist streak, especially those blessed with a good body or a decent one at the least.

Does anyone know how I can tap into a more willing resource for my modeling needs? Am I doing this wrong?

Arrgh I say! Arrgh!