The Art of Adaptation
by Alexa Bouhelier-Ruelle
These days, Tatiana Wills might be well-known for the more vibrant colour and colourful background she works with. But, whatever is happening in the world right now, she felt compelled to do something more organic and less stylized; quieter, more composed and earth-toned. “It almost felt to me like a return to a place we should have been all along, that’s what was in my mind. Whether it’s photographing my friend’s clothing brand, the whole thing was about the people that are close to you and being happy underneath, being positive and trying to be accessible.” Wills’ friend created Smalls Merino: a children’s clothing brand using only organic cotton, sourced sustainably and responsibly. She describes the brand’s approach as “very feminine, but not necessarily female. Feminine in a sense that you could be a man or a woman and have a feminine approach to the world.” That attitude and those kinds of more collaborative environment, when women come together – she admits that women can absolutely be catty but her personal experience is the opposite as, through her career, Wills always sought to work with people lifting each other up. “I want to bring more of that feeling to the world.”
“I guess my work is reflecting more of that feeling now. I’m doing some things that I would have never done a year ago. If you really look at my work it evokes some other meanings, looking at it for the first time, and then again another time, the meanings can change with time. If you saw that work ten years ago, would it have meant the same thing as it does now? I want everything to seem timeless and not too trendy.”
Tatiana Wills also reminisces on that period she spent working at a top entertainment ad agency, “they had a photobook library and I would spend as many hours that I could in there. The ones that stayed with me the most are the photographers that were not taking images of fashion models, or celebrities but someone like Irving Penn who took pictures of indigenous portraits.” Indeed, Penn’s bodies of work are all very different but his style always shines through no matter the subject. The same can be said for Wills; no matter what she’s shooting her distinctive look comes through, as she gives space to the subject as well and doesn’t only voice her own style on the person she shoots. “I think that the biggest challenge that came out of this pandemic is that I’m ready for a change. I love following groups of artists, I love deep diving in whatever they’re doing. But I’m also getting this taste of doing more commercial work.” Wills’ photography has an uncontested gift for elevating the grace and delicacy of the artists she captures by revealing who they really are beyond their roles. It is through this process that we land in her work at the highest form of human beauty: authentic, naked, whole.
“At that point, you work with what you have, look around you and what you can do, opposed to what you can’t.”
Seven years ago, when Tatiana Wills was pregnant with her son, she never stopped shooting and seeking out dancers from all around the world to come to the studio to shoot images. In 2013, she moved back to LA with her family. “I have a studio here so I photographed as many dancers as possible to get a book going – that now turned into two books. But the pandemic came and it put a big pin in everything. No one is touring anymore and I rely heavily on touring companies coming through.” She would schedule almost a year ahead of time with these dancers. She had organized almost ten photoshoots in 2020, but they never happened. “It has been a time for rethinking what I was doing.”
“The pandemic is overwhelming, and almost every morning I have this wave of feeling coming up.” In the first two months of 2020, Wills was seeing the end of the tunnel on some projects, so she thought it was the year she would get to finish one of the books. “I was even going to have a show in February, but everything got cancelled. I took some comfort in knowing that everything I was doing was a small production anyway.” A lot of her work gets used later, she creates content that gets used in other ways: festival posters, or cover of a magazine when they can’t get access to the dancers but she has imagery. It was a little revenue stream for her, and break even. “Making the money part wasn't an issue for me as I have always been used to flux in that area, but it was more about how I was going to feed that creative aspect.” She couldn’t shoot in a studio so she needed to be outside. Wills then turned her house into an outdoor studio, using an overhang as a backdrop in order to not be in the direct sun all the time. “At that point, you work with what you have, look around you and what you can do, opposed to what you can’t.” Strangely, during the pandemic and because of some of the events that happened at that time like BLM - as terrible as that is - it really was a catalyst for other people to find other ways to speak up and look at what they were putting into the world a little deeper, and that is happening especially in the art world.
This is when one of her friends got in touch as she was starting her own clothing brand, she wanted to know if Wills would be interested in taking photos of their Fall/Winter collection. “I agreed, I got my daughter and some of my son’s friends, our neighbours and other friends and family. We all got tested weekly so we were COVID safe. It was very fun to shoot and turn them into baby models. It was clear to me that I couldn’t say no to that, I had the resources and the time, my camera and the sun. I hadn’t shot in natural light for so long as well, the light was so beautiful in the summer there and onto the fall now.” Consequently, it created a new look or a new style that is a little bit of a departure from Tatiana Wills former work in the studio with very bright colours. Here everything was more natural, everything she was shooting was on this vanilla-coloured canvas.