Photographer Tatiana Wills
Loving books and art and photographs and my friends are all forms of everyday wonderful. Having a friend publish a gorgeous book of photographs of artists’ portraits that I can pore over is incredible. My friend Tatiana Wills and co-photographer Roman Cho have published Heroes & Villains with an essay and interviews by Amanda Erlanson. For Heroes & Villains, Tatiana and Roman spent the last six years meeting, courting and photographing key figures in the street art, comic book and alternative contemporary art scene. The portraits are straightforward, funny, fierce, evocative, clear and honest. The LA Weekly called the book “badass” and that would also be correct.
Tatiana and I met through our daughters about 5 years ago. We keep talking about working together. As a gentle first step, we talked for a couple of hours recently about the book, street art, motherhood and being an artist. Tatiana and I can talk for a long time so I’ve split up the conversation into two parts. This first part is about H & V. The second post will cover art and motherhood.
Tatiana and Roman first worked together at an ad agency while both continued to work independently on other projects as well. When Tatiana left the agency, she and Roman started kicking around some ideas for a project to do together. H & V came out of personal interests and the need for a creative project to stay motivated while doing freelance work.
Tatiana’s husband, Justin, knew some of the street artists they’ve photographed. Between these friendships, the support of gallery owners (mostly in LA) and hard work, the project came together over time. In talking with Tatiana about the nature of street art and comic books, I got a clear sense of the outsider status of the artists they photographed in the early phase of the project. As they were working on the portraits, Tatiana and Roman saw that status change and these marginal art forms have become more accepted. Some examples of the move toward center are found in the current exhibit Art in the Streets at MOCA, the Oscar-nominated film Exit at the Gift Shop and Shepard Fairey’s iconic image for the Obama campaign.
The beginning of the project was fueled in part by the enthusiasm of the gallery owners who were showing these artists. Artists like David Choe got interested and introduced Tatiana and Roman to other local artists. Word spread and the collaboration between Tatiana and Roman went to a deeper level with recommendations of who to shoot from artists active in the scene. Tatiana said, “This is when it got really exciting for me…And then we had people coming to us and asking to be included. We were shooting for the project, but not everything was going to end up in the book. The picture had to be good…The project always had a fine arts aspect to it. We both dislike the idea that just because it’s a photo of a celebrity, it’s automatically good. That kind of annoys me and you can print that [laughing]. It doesn’t get said often enough.”
As the project progressed, it became more defined and gained shape from momentum and attention. Most artists are familiar with this process. You start out with one idea, one question and end up in a most unexpected place. For Tatiana and Roman, a project created to build up their portfolios became much larger in scope and a central theme of observation developed.
Tatiana talked about Shepard Fairey and some of the more high profile street artists featured in the book. While we were talking, Tatiana had to step out of her studio because an artist who remains anonymous had come by. “Street artists were so involved with their work. You see someone like Shepard Fairey who’s so high profile now, but the idea is that he went from someone who’s an outlier, to becoming more accepted. That was what the project was about—what is popular, what is mainstream. Amanda Erlanson wrote the essay for the book and it’s really good. She says all of this so well, in a way that I never could. I’m not an art critic or anything. You have to read the essay and interviews in the book.” Tatiana’s right, the essay is a great read. It really places the photographs in the context of the contemporary art scene.
The book that Tatiana and Roman have created contains lasting portraits of many artists who have moved from fringe to center recently. The path of creating H & V parallels that trajectory. “A lot of these artists have found ways to make a living without following the traditional steps. We had the same experience. The galleries really helped in coming up with artists and things spread by word of mouth from other artists and we did our own research. And where it’s all going is fascinating. Working on the street, artists like Know Hope, they’re doing great stuff and they end up with just a photo of their work. That’s what’s lasting.”
For the lucky artists in H & V, they also walk away with a portrait of themselves published in good company. Looking at the portraits in H & V, the clarity of the pictures makes it seem as though they were created effortlessly. This is a mark of real craft, skill and talent. Tatiana is a wonderful supporter of other artists so the subject matter of H & V made perfect sense to me.
I titled this article, “The voice of inner necessity” after seeing the quote by Kandinsky in Erlanson’s essay for H & V. Street artists don’t know how long their work will last, who’s seeing it or the reaction to it. But there’s a compulsion to get their work out there, in public. There’s an inner voice that compels us to write poetry, take photographs, make our art. For street artists, Tatiana talked about the push to get the art out there and she commented on my piece about the show Playing Field at the Carmichael Gallery. She said, “What happens when you bring the work inside? How does it change? Will it change? Where will it go next? I just don’t know.” It’ll be interesting to see and hopefully Tatiana will be there to record it.
Before H & V was a completed book, some of the portraits were featured at the Corey Helford Gallery in Culver City. The show was just listed as a standout by the LA Weekly.
Click here to find out more about Heroes & Villains and Zero+ Publishing and to order your very own copy.
To find out more Tatiana & Roman, here a few links to interviews they’ve done LA Weekly and Fecal Face Dot Com.
And the link to Tatiana’s site (Check out her portfolios. I love the shots of the dancers!).
Part 2 of our conversation coming up tomorrow…