Getting a good portrait is a combination of guts, sensitivity, and ceaseless experimentation, and Wilson is well aware the odds are stacked against success. “It’s an unnatural moment,” Wilson explained. “It’s way more likely to fail than to work. The way I work, I have to be given something by the subject, their trust—there has to be something. The first job is to understand the light and all the nuts and bolts of picture making, but then it becomes a matter of managing the human aspect, the conversational aspect of it.
“I might see glimpses—you see the way their weight shifts, and very often the stuff that is most interesting is what happens when they think they’re off the hook, when I’m loading film or something like that, and then I come back. It’s like two people passing each other, and no matter what they do they get in each other’s way, and then eventually you meet in some kind of place where there’s some actual good flow happening—and then hopefully at that point the light’s working for you.”
Typically Wilson spends three to six hours with a musician. “Some of that is me looking for places,” he explained. “We’re driving somewhere or walking or talking, but it will wind up being maybe several hundred photographs. I use several different cameras, so I shoot anywhere from 100 to 200 frames. Maybe that’s six to ten rolls of black-and-white film and an easily equal number of color, which would be shot digitally, so you’re talking about 400 or 500 pictures from out of which 10 or 12, hopefully, will really resonate.”
Wilson’s fondness for film cameras extends beyond nostalgia or technical preferences. It also affects the portrait process, I learned after asking if, while snapping photos, he has Eureka! moments where he knows he just snapped the perfect shot. “No, and I usually don’t trust that,” he replied. “I try not to think about it. And that’s one of the problems that I have with digital photography—there’s such a temptation to judge your work as you’re taking it. Basically I’m staying in the moment of the conversation. I’ve seen people make the digital image work in their favor, but I try not to be swayed by how I’m feeling at the moment.”
So what does he look for when he sifts through contact sheets in search of a successful portrait? “I equate it with, you’re trying to get across a stream and you’re judging the rocks, which one will hold up your weight, and I think a good portrait is like that,” he explained. “You look at it from a distance and you say, ‘Yeah, I’ll put my weight on that.’ That’s how I feel about a picture that’s a success. It will hold the weight of the viewer’s trust, and hopefully it’s flattering—I definitely want the subject to like the picture. There are some really beautiful portraits in the history of photography that are about confrontation and discomfort and many more that are about drama and glamour. I think that my portraits probably land somewhere between those two poles. It is what I can do honestly.”
Wilson didn’t mention this, but I also suspect his easygoing and down-to-earth demeanor works in his favor by helping his subjects feel at ease. What also helps is his favorite camera, a Rolleiflex. “It’s a square format, and it’s a twin lens, so you hold it at your waist and look down,” he said. “When I first discovered portraiture I always had a lot of difficulty looking people in the eye. When I’m using this camera, when I take your picture I’m staring at my feet while you’re looking at the camera.”
Technology and the music industry have both changed radically since Wilson began, but his role is still the same. “From where I sit it doesn’t feel that different,” he said. “I’m still standing at my sink and developing film. I’m standing here at this table cutting the negatives, making the contact sheets, and I’m sitting somewhere in the house with a magnifying glass and studying those pictures. I’m still looking for the picture in these ten contact sheets and throwing stuff in the pot and reducing it down. That part really hasn’t changed.”
All of us have viewed album covers where the artwork seems to match the music so well that it’s hard to imagine one without the other, and I asked Wilson to reflect on that special interaction between a good album cover and the music on a record. “The photograph can almost carve out a mental space where you think of that music,” Wilson said, “and I know for my own sake there are those occasions where I’ve been able to work on a project that I honestly think is a really beautiful record and to feel like the picture is not hindering and maybe even adding to the experience. It doesn’t get better than that.”
After Wilson discussed his first experiences in the music industry, I decided to track down the art director whose support helped launch his career. Now the creative director for Smog Design Incorporated (smogdesign.com), Jeri Heiden clearly described the impression Wilson’s photography left on her when, decades ago, she became aware of his work. Her response affirmed that, even in the earliest stage of his career, there was something special about Michael Wilson’s photography.
“What struck me most about Michael’s work was his humanistic and compassionate eye,” she wrote in an email. “His work reminded me of some of history’s greatest portrait and documentary photographers, such as Walker Evans, Robert Frank, August Sander, Eudora Welty, and Dorothea Lange. He has a tremendous ability to see light and work with what is natural and present. His pictures tell great stories and reveal great characters and emotion. Michael’s work stood out strongly against all of the glitz, glamor, and processes that were so prevalent in the 1980s.”