Michael Wilson and his black lab, Lulu, welcome me as I arrive at their house in Price Hill. The photographer with a considerable career opens a solo exhibition, The Day of Small Things, Friday at the Weston Art Gallery.
Wilson leads me into the kitchen to talk about it, and we sit at a wellworn wood table. I’ve seen his photographs of major musicians like Over the Rhine, Lyle Lovett, Phillip Glass and B.B. King and start asking questions. He’s so humble about his work it’s almost unnerving.
“See, at the Weston, they’re calling it a mid-career retrospective, which is probably as good a term as any,” he says. “And it will have a section of pictures — portraits I’ve done of musicians — but that won’t be the main thrust of it. For the most part, it will be drawn from 30 years of work that would have been done just for myself. Personal work.”
Wilson wears big round glasses and a Magnolia Mountain T-shirt with a pen clipped to the collar. As he talks, he moves his hands over the table like a blind man reading Braille.
He knows his personal work isn’t as well-known as his portrait work, which has been on album covers and in museum shows like the Cincinnati Art Museum’s 2005 exhibition Borrowed Time: The Photograph As Album Cover.
As it happened, Wilson chanced into his career in photography. He bought his first camera after graduating high school. He’d been saving for a French horn, but when he had finally saved enough money for the instrument he realized he couldn’t play it — he used the money to buy a camera instead.
Wilson later enrolled at Northern Kentucky University without having planned to attend college.
“They asked me, ‘What are you planning on studying?’ ” he says, looking down at the table. “I told them I hadn’t planned on going to college, so I really don’t know. And they said, ‘Do you have any hobbies?’ And I said, ‘Well, I just bought a camera.’ So somebody, literally a guy at a desk looking at a catalog, said, ‘Oh, we have photography,’ and so I thought I’d try it.
“I wound up being an art major because I bought a camera because I couldn’t play the French horn. I’d never had an art class in high school.”
For Wilson, though, the idea of making photographs for a living was far-fetched. For years after graduating from NKU, he took jobs in restaurants or janitorial positions — anything to pay the bills.
He made pictures for pleasure.
At the same time, his love for music never ebbed. He spent a lot of time at record stores, listening and looking at album covers, and something clicked.
“There weren’t a lot of great record covers,” he says, “but there were enough that you think, ‘Wow, someone’s doing that for a living.’ I would get jealous, seeing a beautiful record cover. I’d think, ‘Why can’t I do that?’
“There was a woman’s name on a lot of the record covers that I really loved, and I made a handmade book and sent it to her, not knowing anything about this woman except her name. That was really the foot in the door. She was the head of Warner Bros. Records’ creative department out in L.A.”
Dennis Kiel, then-curator of photography at Cincinnati Art Museum and now head curator at The Light Factory Contemporary Museum of Photography and Film in Charlotte, N.C., was instrumental in co-organizing The Day of Small Things with Weston Gallery Director Dennis Harrington. A version of the exhibition opened in North Carolina last fall, albeit with a bigger emphasis on portraits.
Over the phone, Kiel tells me what he thinks is so interesting about Wilson’s personal photography.
“He makes a print that can stop you in your tracks,” he says. “But it’s (an image) of something you walk by every day. It just shows you don’t have to travel to the Caribbean to make a good photograph.”
Kiel has always been interested in the connection between photography and music, curating a show for Wilson at the Cincinnati Art Museum several years ago.
Cincinnati has been exposed to a lot of Wilson’s portraits, but less to his personal work. The Weston will take that on.
“The biggest part of what I do to make a living has been assignment work: portraits, mostly for musicians,” Wilson says. “I’ve always loved portraits, but I’ve always loved not-portraits. The places where people aren’t.”
The Weston exhibition comprises about 50 small black-and-white prints — nothing digital. Wilson talks about his process with a little hesitation.
There’s something drawn-out in Wilson’s photography that I find to be increasingly rare. It’s a purposeful slowing down of a moment, of a place, of a face. He catches the light of the ordinary in such an extraordinary way that it becomes suddenly sharp and significant. And that seems to come from his reliance on traditional photography.
“The process asks something of you,” Wilson says. “The chemical process, it requires a certain amount of time and physical actions you have to do, a space you have to be in. It costs you a little bit. It’s not painful, but it does cost you something.
“There was a time when the only way (to get from one place to another) was walking or riding a horse. I think the experience that someone had walking those two miles had an effect on them that was different — maybe not better or worse — but different than the effect of someone hopping in their car or their motorcycle and going that same distance.”
And it’s that difference he’s seeking in his work.
“For me it might just be a way to deal with the incredible flood of pictures that are in the world, that anyone walking around with a digital camera or a cell phone could generate,” he says. “It’s just overwhelming.”
Which is not to say that Wilson is totally anti-digital. In fact, he recently purchased a digital camera — for assignment purposes only, he assures me.
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