Made by Will: Selections from 4 Portfolios
“Pardon me, may I steal a moment of your time? I am going to put you on the spot. Would you be willing to let me take your portrait?”
Houstonian Will Michels (b. 1968) has been making portraits for more than twenty-five years. Initially driven to confront something that made him uncomfortable, he turned his camera’s gaze inward, and later to other male subjects.
Made by Will is the first comprehensive exhibition of the artist’s more intimate work and includes four series: Self-Portraits, In Their Room, Studies, and Busts. These images are evocative, demonstrating a heightened degree of intimacy and the artist’s firm understanding of art history.
Notably, the artist’s better known series include Living History: Iwo Jima + 60 and CREW: The Men of the U.S.S. TEXAS, a project that earned him the 1999 HCP Fellowship Award. While works in Made by Will pivot around the chronological axis of the artist’s HCP Fellowship Exhibition, they move beyond the documentary to suggest a more emotional and experimental photographic practice.
Rich in tonality and expertly printed, Will’s gelatin silver, cyanotype, and salted paper photographs are works by a Master printer who is destined to create beautiful and intriguing images for years to come.
In 1991, Will began applying to fellowship, scholarship, and residency programs for artists. For the applications, the artist began to develop a unified body of work on self-portraiture. In an effort to unify the exploration in self-imagery, he made a conscious decision to include his head in every frame. However, his deep aversion to his own image became an exercise in avoiding the camera’s gaze.[i]
Will’s Self-Portraits formally began with the Friday series. Taken immediately after waking and holding his camera at arm’s length, he faithfully shot three rolls of film each Friday morning for a period of eight months in 1994, amassing an archive of more than 1,000 negatives.
These images are about lines: formal compositional applications of line as well as imaginary explorations on lines of privacy. Photographing himself in his bedroom, later in his bathroom, and eventually his bed, Will discovered physical and emotional spaces of increased intimacy and vulnerability.
He continues to make self-portraits on important days. In My Room, The Day My Friend Tim Died, February 2, 2003 and After the Allergy Test (1993) memorialize and record physical and emotional happenings in the artist’s life.
In Their Room
Prior to 1996, Will had never taken a formal portrait of another person, nor utilized artificial lighting. Upon receiving a commission to create CREW: The Men of USS TEXAS, a photo documentary project about the ship’s veterans, Will desired to practice controlled lighting techniques in interiors. He purchased lighting equipment and asked his friend Travis Howell to be his first sitter, followed by his friend John Walkowski. Will’s initial decision to photograph them in their bedrooms was out of convenience; Howell and Walkowski were living in their first apartments or with their parents. Will quickly realized that these environmental portraits, like his self-portraits, were also about lines of privacy. The series evolved over a period of six years.
In their Room served as turning point in the artist’s practice of portrait making. He achieved greater direction with his subjects, sophistication in combining natural and artificial lighting techniques, tightened compositions, and control in printing.
Similar to his earlier Self-Portraits, the artist uses photography as an antidote in Studies. Following a nightmare on November 3, 1996, the artist replaced the dream’s memory with images:
“My dream was a disturbing combination of beautiful, religious iconography and torture from the Middle Ages. I was both the observer and the victim. I woke up with a start in a cold sweat; the sheet stuck to my back. The next night while I was out shooting pool, I met someone whose botched appendectomy looked just like one of the marks of Christ as it appears in paintings. I felt compelled to ask him if I could photograph it. Oddly, the resulting nudes replaced the imagery of my dream. I’ve been using those initial images as my foundation for these studies ever since.”
Like in his dream, the artist creates dichotomies. Contrasting symbols of Medieval and religious, brutish body hair and flowers, beauty and pain, and masculine and feminine emerge in these images.
Studies contemporarily incorporates compositional cues and re-interprets imbedded meanings from known Italian Renaissance, early Dutch and Neoclassical images. Compositional inspiration is drawn from works like Caravaggio’s (Italian, 1571-1610) The Flagellation of Christ and Hans Membling´s (German/Netherlands, 1430-1494) Crucifixion. Other images reinterpret the male form as an object of beauty and vulnerability, like Odalisque (2005), drawing influence from Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres (French, 1780-1867) painting of the same title.
Deviating from his earlier environmental portraiture style, Will began a series of Portrait Busts in 2005. Primarily influenced by the regal marble busts he adored while studying in Rome, Will produced similar studies in composition and form. Akin to the classical relics, the heroic figures in Will’s Portrait Busts are suspended between life and immortality. The sitters, shirtless in front of neutral backgrounds, become almost larger than life in these simple compositions. The subjects are everyday people; often they are quiet individuals who are anonymous in public domain, a quality the artist possesses. Will explains:
"I concentrate on the texture of skin, hair, facial expressions, quality of light and the simple way the subject fills the frame. My intent is to produce a quiet, introspective and moody portrait, essentially a reflection of myself.”
Who are these men and why is Will photographing them? The artist responds:
“If I knew, I don’t think I would be interested in portraiture. Most were strangers to me before the images were made. All have chosen to sit for their pictures. Sometimes, I ask them not to shave, to remove glasses and jewelry. If they have tattoos, I avoid including them in the composition. My intent isn’t to get accurate likeness of their physical perceptions of themselves, it is to capture something deeper than that. I ask them to look right into the lens and to simply think about their day. The session evolves from there and usually lasts for about an hour. I hope to create a mix of the contemporary and the timeless.”
Backs of Frames
When Will completes a photographic object, he sometimes personalizes the back of the frame. His signature includes variations of the phrase “This Was Made by Will” and his thumb or handprint. He often affixes mementos such as postcards, snapshots, flora and fauna to the back to commemorate events and friendships, further elevating the object as a landmark and reinforcing the intimacy between artist and custodian. When hung on the wall, the object has a public presentation and a private, hidden meaning.
Commerce Texas was a gift to Will Michels’ younger brother Dory on his thirtieth birthday. The verso of the image frame includes butterfly wings and a portrait of the artist’s brother at their grandmother’s funeral. Visiting his grandmother’s house a child, the artist fell in love with butterflies and built a collection of all species native to Texas. When he was five years old, Dory played with Will’s butterfly collection and accidentally destroyed it. The artist reflects:
“After 25 years, I felt my brother could have the butterflies. By affixing them to the back I knew that the act of giving the wings to him meant that I forgave him, but it also meant that he could never forget what he did… In a beautiful and funny way.”
Sketchbooks, Artist Books, and Ephemera
The process of making photographs – from conception, to photographing, to printing, to framing – is a time-consuming and holistic act for Will. He has kept working sketchbooks since 1995. These contain handwritten notes on a variety of subjects including printing records, sitters’ and collectors’ details, sketches of compositions, and test prints of successful and unsuccessful images. Pictured here are Russ Lane (Bust) (2009) and J.R. Carroll – In His Room (2002), contact prints that evidence the artist’s editorial process.
Drawing back to his days in architecture school, Will enjoys working with his hands to construct the art object. The titles of works often include a time stamp that denotes when he finalized an object, as in the artist book Self Portrait – 03.17.1991 – 3:47a.m.
Will experiments with varying methods of presenting photographic objects, including sculpture, and bookmaking. This artist book is an exercise in series making and sequencing.
Will’s sojourn in Rome during his junior year at Pratt Institute and subsequent trips to Europe significantly impacts his way of seeing. He keeps ticket stubs, postcards, stickers and other ephemera – all relics that serve as records of his journeys as well as references to influential works of art that. Included in Will’s collection of postcards are painter Jan van Eyck’s (Flemish, c. 1395-1441) Portrait of a Man in a Red Turban and Medieval artist Giotto di Bondone’s (Italian, 1266-1337) Crucifixion, both of which are influential compositions in sculpting Will’s Studies and Busts series.
Notes on the Salted Paper Print Process
The influence of Late Italian Renaissance and Early Baroque painting styles are prominently visible in Will’s lighting and printing techniques. Principally inspired by Caravaggio (Italian, 1571-1610), Will employs either Sfumato softness or a contrastier Chiaroscuro style of illumination. Will elected to make salted paper prints of these images as the process produced a matured, tactile quality bearing likeness to these Master works.
The artist taught himself how to make salted paper prints after viewing Mediterranean Sea, Sète-no. 18 by Jean-Baptiste Gustave Le Gray (French, 1820-1884). “It was the most beautiful print I had ever seen. I thought to myself, ‘What the Hell is a salted paper print and how do I make one?’”
Invented by William Henry Fox Talbot in 1839, the salted paper print is the earliest known photographic process. Drawing paper coated with a form of chemical salt is dried and then coated with silver nitrate. The two chemicals combine to form the chemical compound of silver chloride, which is a light sensitive emulsion. Exposure times for salted paper prints can range from just a few minutes minutes to more than one hour. Will is a master at this difficult, antiquated printing method, as seen in his ability to control the relative tonality within this body of work.
[i] Davenport, Bill. “War photography – after the war”, Houston Chronicle, Sunday, August 20, 2006, pp. 17-19.
7 May – 27 June, 2010
Houston Center for Photography
Artist / Photographer