Pho­tog­ra­pher Will Wil­son

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Since Will Wil­son be­gan work­ing with a large-for­mat cam­era and pro­duc­ing tin­type por­traits, he has amassed a for­mi­da­ble port­fo­lio. His home page at www.will­wil­son. pho­to­shel­ter.com is ar­rest­ing, full of more than 200 pic­tures of faces ren­dered in the dusky tones that are char­ac­ter­is­tic of his medium and fea­tur­ing the pur­pose­ful ex­pres­sions that are of­ten the re­sult of lengthy time ex­po­sures. He doesn’t keep any of the tin­types he makes. “I give them away to the sit­ters, but I have scans of them,” he said.

Wil­son was speak­ing from Bos­ton, where he had just given a talk about his pho­tog­ra­phy at the Pe­abody Es­sex Mu­seum in nearby Salem. “We’re also talk­ing about me po­ten­tially com­ing out and do­ing a project here.” That would prob­a­bly be re­lated to his longterm Crit­i­cal In­dige­nous Pho­to­graphic Ex­change (CIPX) project, which he be­gan in 2012 at the New Mex­ico Mu­seum of Art. His in­ten­tion was to en­gage par­tic­i­pants in both di­a­logue and a por­trait ses­sion as “an on­go­ing in­ter­ven­tion into the his­tory of pho­tog­ra­phy,” specif­i­cally the his­tory of Na­tive Amer­i­can rep­re­sen­ta­tions.

The Diné pho­tog­ra­pher was born in San Fran­cisco but spent his for­ma­tive years liv­ing on the Navajo Na­tion. He first started us­ing a cam­era, a Nikon FE2, when he was fif­teen. When he saw a show of Joel-Peter Witkin pho­to­graphs at the San Fran­cisco Mu­seum of Mod­ern Art, it was an epiphany. He went on to earn an MFA in pho­tog­ra­phy at the Univer­sity of New Mex­ico. To­day he runs the photo pro­gram at Santa Fe Com­mu­nity Col­lege.

His CIPX project re­quires an old­fash­ioned, bulky ap­proach. For the por­traits, he totes a hefty tri­pod to hold his 8 x 10 view cam­era that is equipped with a 150-year-old lens. “It’s re­ally a cool process. I make my own film, es­sen­tially, on a piece of metal. They call it wet plate be­cause the emul­sion has to stay wet; oth­er­wise you won’t get an im­age. So I have to have a dark­room with me wher­ever I go.”

He men­tioned an artis­tic wind­fall that has come to him from Yale Univer­sity. “The Bei­necke Rare Book and Man­u­script Li­brary at Yale has a fo­cus on Western Amer­i­cana and they kind of see my work as fill­ing an im­por­tant gap in their col­lec­tion. They have a lot of images of del­e­ga­tion pho­tog­ra­phy of Na­tive Amer­i­cans from the 1800s, and a lot of the Western sur­vey, Western land­scape stuff, but very lit­tle by Na­tive Amer­i­cans, so they’re go­ing to col­lect like 600 pieces over the next few years.” This will be some of Wil­son’s pre­vi­ous work as well as new work, in­clud­ing a cur­rent se­ries of pho­to­graphs of Su­per­fund sites around the Amer­i­can South­west.

He is also look­ing for­ward to be­ing part of a group show at the Seat­tle Art Mu­seum next June. “When I was first de­scrib­ing the CIPX project, I kind of framed it as a re­sponse to Ed­ward Cur­tis’ The North Amer­i­can In­dian project. Cur­tis’ stu­dio is in Seat­tle and next year is his 150th birth­day, so they’re do­ing a big ex­hi­bi­tion and they’re hav­ing three Na­tive Amer­i­can artists re­spond.” — Paul Wei­de­man

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