Interview with Arielle Bobb-Willis:
The Failing Process Means Everything to Me
Anonymous, androgynous and seemingly close to collapse, that is the human structure on the current cover of form 276. 23-year-old photographer Arielle Bobb-Willis from New York uses photography to push the limits of the human form to the edges of abstraction, making the viewer feel alien and uncomfortable.
The models – often people from the artist’s circle of acquaintances – wear colourfully contrasting second-hand clothes and are twisted into absurd poses in front of urban or rural backdrops. Focusing on the colourful shapes of the clothes, the human being in Arielle Bobb-Willis’s photography is reduced to one element of the overall composition, resulting in an image without a central focal point. When looking for inspiration for her model’s poses, the artist turns to modern painting, where the human form is not bound by any limitations. In contrast, the colourful nature of her work stems from the artist’s enthusiasm for children’s art and culture.
Arielle discovered the medium of photography after she moved from New York to a small town in South Carolina as a teenager, a time in which she was struggling with depression. Photography gave her a therapeutic outlet and a way to express herself artistically. The fascination with the medium led her to New Orleans where she studied photography, finally leading her back to New York where she currently works as a freelance photographer.
How do you prepare for photo shootings?
My preparation process is somewhat different every time. Sometimes I’ll see a location that I want to shoot in and I’ll build around that. I love to take really long walks and find new small pockets of colour in whichever state I’m in. So far I think New Orleans is definitely my favourite city to shoot in, it gives me a lot to work with when it comes to colour and composition.
I also roam around 99 cent and thrift stores and just get lost in all of the random things they usually have. That’s where I feel a good amount of my ideas come from. I feel super focused when I’m there and it’s just fun to see the props I could use, whether it be popsicle sticks or an oversized pink suit. It’s a great way to be super internal and take the time to just focus on what’s in front of me.
The sketches I make before a shoot aren’t amazing but they basically serve as bullet points when I’m shooting. I usually do them in my journal or whatever notebook I have at the time and write down how I’m feeling. If I have a ton of ideas coming to me at once it’s just a great way to organise it all so that on the shoot I don’t forget any of them.
What type of camera do you use? How do you develop your pictures?
I have a Nikon N80 and it’s the only film camera I’ve ever used in the past ten years of shooting. It’s just the camera that introduced me to the world of film. I started with digital so the move to film was super eye-opening for me. I loved how film had this soft graininess that I would try to recreate in Photoshop when I would shoot digital. I’m also big on wide, fixed lenses just because the consistency is really important to me.
I created a dark room in my high school’s art room and it wasn’t my favourite. I think it was just important for me to learn as much as I possibly could about photography and see how I wanted to process my film and how that would tie into my work. I’m definitely impatient when it comes to getting to finally see my photos so I go to a developer in Brooklyn that I stumbled upon on a walk one day. It’s a really small spot but he is always super kind and let’s me pick up next day.
Do you post process your pictures?
I improvise a lot when I’m shooting so it’s mostly just an unfiltered stream of ideas. When I move my photos around or turn them upside down it’s definitely something I change afterwards. Through editing I’m allowed to sit and stare at the frame for hours if I want. While shooting I’m moving a lot faster and just trying to get as many ideas out as I can. I love being able to have the time afterwards to slow down and edit as I see fit.
Where in the arts do you find inspiration?
Painters will always be my number one influencers – Sister Gertrude Morgan, William H. Johnson, Benny Andrews, Beauford Delaney etc. But most recently I’ve actually been super inspired by street photography. I don’t carry my camera with me everywhere so my iPhone has been my go-to for capturing snippets of my day. I think I’m being pulled towards street photography because you do need a lot of patience to get that one shot when it’s not planned and I think it’s just something I really admire and respect. The photographer I’m most inspired by right now is definitely Alex Webb.
What fascinates you about the human form?
Existentially, there are a lot of things that fascinate me about the human form. For a long time, I felt, and to a certain extent still feel, that my body is something I’m renting or that has been given to me. I never felt like it was mine. I wanted to study and reflect on how the body can be seen and feel like a foreign object. Dissociation from the self is something I’ve struggled with before, so I feel like that can be seen in my work. I’m definitely the kind of person who isn’t big on being the centre of attention. I’d rather have my work get all of that. So I can understand how the anonymity of my subjects can be tied to that. I also felt that being on Instagram all the time and constantly seeing how the face and beauty are such a big deal I just wanted to keep true to who I am and not be a mirror of what my peers think is cool. I think I would love to push forward and work with more specific groups of people who are experiencing the same emotions on an issue in their lives. We’ll see – the possibilities are endless!
What does failing in the creative process mean to you?
The failing process means everything to me. I feel that my work came from a time where I felt like I was personally failing at everything I tried to do. Going through a long-term depression was the reason I even started taking pictures. A lot of the times when I felt I had failed elsewhere I would turn to photography to heal and stay present. I definitely have had stepping stones, ups and downs, and creative hiatuses in my photography that were just a reflection of how I viewed myself, how I was feeling, and what I was personally experiencing at the time. Over the course of these ten years I felt my work wasn’t as strong as I wanted it to be. I had to keep pursuing it because, even without the response from others, I need photography to maintain my happiness. I think persistence and failing forward are definitely things I try to keep in mind. Although I was going through hard times it was my choice to turn it into something better. I’ve had to learn many times that good things can come from bad times and that’s what my photography represents to me personally.
Is there an object in your daily routine that you couldn’t live without?
Yes! I am really big on journals. I’ve had a journal every year of my life since the fifth grade. I started writing every day back then. It’s nothing poetic or anything, it’s more of a straightforward account of how I felt throughout the years. I think re-reading these journals will be very inspiring and refreshing when I’m older. I just never want to forget that I’m still that girl who was eleven, 16, and 20. I don’t want to just bury those people in my head and forget about those times, no matter how embarrassing. The thing is, I rarely buy journals anymore. I’ll find notebooks around my apartment or my little sister who’s nine will let me have hers. I love writing in her art books because she never really uses all of the pages. The ones she does draw on I love writing around because I love kid’s drawings. She actually filled up a notebook for the first time with a ton of drawings and she let me have it. It’s so amazing, everything my little siblings have drawn I’ve tried to keep. My little brother, who was five at the time, wrote my mom a mother’s day card that said “Dear mom, You are beyond love”. I thought that was an amazing thing to write for a five-year-old so I took a pic, printed it out, and have it with me wherever I move to. I hope to frame all of their drawings and have them up in my apartment one day.
How do you regard the current state of contemporary photography and artistic production?
I definitely fall in love with photography over and over again because I’m constantly looking at images and new art. I think one thing that I have a love-hate relationship with, as do many other creatives, is the fact that there is so much content out there in social media. It’s easy to get caught in the noise. I appreciate having sources of inspiration at my fingertips but when it boils down to me having reflective thoughts and ideas I have to turn everything off and just be with myself. So I think for this generation it’s important to have a healthy balance.
I will always and forever be pushing to see black people in abstract and contemporary art and I’m excited to see where that brings me. I also like to surround myself with sensitive, empathetic people so I’d like to think my generation values that. It’s a time where people should be more open to accepting what others unique idea of happiness is. I appreciate that there are a lot of millennials who are that way. I want to always be very open and accepting of everyone through my work and just in everyday life.