Tatiana Wills once worked for a top entertainment ad agency and now, her artistic work reexamines the portrait as a model for more immediacy, inclusion, and self-representation. Based in Los Angeles, Wills photographs other creatives across a variety of fields and portrays them outside of their usual environment. The result is a body of photographic work that is much more than the person she photographs and more about capturing their emotion in a particular moment.
On her own since the age of 17, Tatiana Wills never went to school for photography, but she always took art classes as she knew, deep down, she would benefit from these skills to help express herself. Wills had her daughter when she was very young, “I quickly found out that my life didn’t reflect that of my peers ever. What came with that was a certain freedom, even though at the time it didn’t feel that way.” With a passion for learning, she always sought new ways to find information. She lived in DC when she was in High School, which fueled her curiosity and expanded her vision of the world. She would often travel to NYC to visit her aunt and it is through these visits that her small-town life came in direct contrast with the new experiences she would have. “I wasn’t a bad kid, I just felt confined where I lived so I would just go. In my life, I always sought out art as a way to explore what I consider a really interesting part of the world, which took me out of my routine. That also led me to experiences I build upon, and towards like-minded people. I believe that these experiences far outweighed the insular college experience I would have had in art school because I wasn’t stuck in this academic idea of art.”
After her daughter was born in her early 20s, Wills bought a “little crappy” camera because she wanted to document her daughter’s first years and share them with her family. “I had no idea how to use it. The back was broken and didn’t really shut so I had to duct-tape that. I would set up my daughter, but it was only in my free time and I got more and more excited about those moments.” Then she started to take photos outside and understood what that camera could do. “I had found a medium with instant gratification, even if it was on film. I didn’t have to sit for hours and days to finish something.” It wasn’t until she turned 30 and moved back to the West Coast that everything sped up. She started to take evening classes, went to museums, moved from San Diego to Los Angeles and as luck would have it, was in the right place at the right time. “I went to a friend’s wedding and got seated next to this other couple and one of them was a film producer. He was looking for a photographer to shoot behind the scenes stills for a short film he was working on. My friends turned to me and said to him that I was both available and a photographer. It was one of those moments when you just say ‘yes’ and don’t think about it too much.”
"That very first experience stayed with me in that the better your team is, the better the environment, the better you can do. We all bring each other up."
Wills was on set with cinematography legend John A. Alonzo who was in his late 70s and he could definitely tell she was like a deer in the headlights. “He told me what I was supposed to do as he picked up the vibe and the whole day was amazing. He wasn’t all about tools or gadgets, I watched him on that shoot and he was all about lights. He would just take a piece of paper and use it. It was my first commercial experience, and thank god it was with those very talented people and everything came to me very organically, along with the guidance of others of course. That very first experience stayed with me in that the better your team is, the better the environment, the better you can do. We all bring each other up.” From then on, Tatiana Wills always tried to seek out that kind of experience and when she wasn’t finding it in parts of her life, she would always make that happen somewhere else. “I knew what this feeling was like and I wanted to replicate it, to always be learning from others and this collaborative feeling.” Not long after, she took a photo editor job. “I met all these top-level photographers where I could be in the room, watch them work, and help produce their vision. After a while, the industry changed, and the budget started to shrink as digital came in, younger photographers also undercut some of the jobs. It was a really interesting time to be in the industry but from what I observed this industry is image-based and it was changing so fast that we couldn’t keep up.” Tatiana Wills admits that she was young and almost too naïve to be stuck in these old ways. She would make suggestions that sounded outlandish but wanted to take the pictures herself. After all, she was there and she had a camera. “They would assign me to do the mock-ups of the posters in the studio and then they would go and hire a big deal photographer to do it. Until I worked for HBO on a show called ‘Dead Like Me’, they needed a very fast composition of an idea the creative team had come up with. I shot the whole thing and they were very happy with the result. They proceeded to hire another photographer and it was a disaster he couldn’t replicate what I just did.” Wills started to look for personal work outside the agency and started making art she wanted to see.
“My husband was collecting art from Shepard Fairey, who was still underground back then. He lived in LA and he suggested I take photos of him.” That’s how she started to take portraits of other artists for her book Heroes and Villains. The book is a collection of artists’ portraits over a number of years. That project was a labour of love for Wills and her partner Roman Cho–a talented musician and who also used to take photos of artists at the iconic McCabe Guitar Shop in LA. They both were tossing around these ideas of naming this project as they were very close to finishing it. Wills wanted to present it as a sort of dichotomy to show they were partners. The book is full of comic book artists, graphic novelists, there are always heroes and villains in those stories. There are people doing murals and graffiti as well, not sanctioned artwork in the public sphere: to some they are heroes and for others villains. “I wrote that down on our list. A day or two after we talked about the title again and this one was at the top of our list. Maybe 10 minutes later he gets a text from one of the Beach Boys he photographed in the studio, saying their next song will be called Heroes and Villains. That was the name of our book.”
After this, Wills started a new chapter in her life. “We packed everything up and went to move somewhere so we could have an easier lifestyle or less challenging, let’s say, and invest in ourselves in other ways. We started fresh.” The family moved to Oregon, where Wills' daughter, who had been dancing her whole life, decided to become a professional ballet dancer. She graduated from high school and joined the company in the Oregon Ballet Theater productions. “I was around the dance world and her decision was one of those moments I wanted to document like I had been my whole life with her. I was looking for my next project and I always knew I wanted to work with dancers. I was also aware that dance photography was a very special animal, capturing someone’s movement and freezing that in time, knowing when to take that photograph is something different entirely.” Tatiana Wills started to work for the Oregon Cultural Trust. One of the people she got to photograph was a very well-regarded local dance company directed by a couple. She showed up to the shoot where they had racks of clothing, this amazing studio and some dancers there. It turned into this photoshoot of dancers jumping in the air, featuring an incredible wardrobe and it had this collaborative feeling Wills always sought, as well. “I had a wonderful experience and the pictures turned out amazing so I collaborated with them on other projects. It felt right so I took my daughter and started taking photos of her as an aspiring dancer, even now, as her 25 year old self, I continue [to photograph her as I always did]. That day in Oregon and then working with my daughter, it all became very clear that it was going to be my next project.” This is how Wills’ latest work focuses on professional dancers and choreographers, including her daughter. In this collection of portraits, her attention to the immediacy and intimacy of performers and how they choose to represent themselves when they are no longer in the context of performance is something that she has now sharpened to needlepoint. Through these images, we are able to appreciate the vocabulary that these artists create for themselves. Their movements are like none other and sometimes speak more about them than their face. “To look at another person with intention is to engage in a moment of pure vulnerability. Especially now. There is so much available to us that shapes how we present and form ourselves for others that much of what constitutes us is also based on performance.”