In Conversation With: Tatiana Wills

Tatiana Wills is an LA-based artist and photographer, whose practice focuses on documenting creatives, rule-breakers, professional dancers, and her own daughter.

Wills—who’s photographed the likes of Mister Cartoon, Shepard Fairey, and others—currently focuses on professional dancers and choreographers (from institutions like the Bolshoi and New York City Ballet, or choreographers Lucinda Childs and Kyle Abraham). Her portraiture explores the dynamics of identity, power, and vulnerability expressed in the body in both performative and private contexts. 

When the pandemic shuttered the art and dance worlds, Wills turned to a sole subject: her daughter, Lily, who is a ballerina experiencing the effects of the pandemic and was even diagnosed with COVID-19 and had to quarantine in Wills’s studio. Their lifelong creative collaboration offers an intimate portrait into their artistic relationship and how Wills frequently turns to photography to convey how her own artistic career often veers between personal and public.

Emerald Arguelles: Do you recall the first image you took of your daughter? Can you describe the emotion?

Tatiana Wills: Yes. It was 1995, we lived in Seattle, Washington, and I had no idea how to use a camera. She was about 4 months old, was trying to sit up on her own, and like many new parents, I had resolved to document the milestones for posterity. Motivated by a lack of family photos of my own childhood, at first I had mixed feelings about shoving a camera in a baby’s face all the time but in my mind it was imperative to record these moments as proof I wasn’t a fuck up. 

As I fumbled around with the used Pentax I’d bought at a camera repair shop for 35 bucks, I became increasingly frustrated at missing the “candid moments” I’d romantically imagined being easy to get. Instead, I set things up to recreate the moment as closely as possible, maybe mostly in defiance that I could do a better job than was expected of me, both creatively and as a parent. I literally cried these very weepy sad, happy tears. I remember feeling half-vindicated for my patience and half-devastated at the realization that it would all be over so fast. Bearing witness to a life just beginning, brimming with possibility, it was all I could do not to mourn my own childhood. To keep photographing her would be a gift for both of us. 

EA: Can you expand on the idea of the dance world being a place of role-play and rebirth?

TW: It’s not my place to define the dance world, but that is how I think about it and that’s how it makes me feel. It is a living, breathing art form. The dance world, as I know it, is a space where the “outside world” is just that: a departure from the everyday, pedestrian way of experiencing ourselves. 

To me, dance is a constant reminder of the beauty of the human condition. Whether it’s some sort of narrative or plotless piece, one can find a way to relate or be moved, transported, transformed. After all, dancers are human. How can we not see ourselves reflected in dance? 

Trying on new identities is something we all do as we become who we are. Whether I’m seeing a performance or I’m in class, watching people move together in patterns, making impossible shapes with their bodies, usually to incredibly beautiful music, never ceases to amaze. The theater of life can be rather boring if you let it. Dance allows me to flourish and explore who I want to be in a moment. I live for infinite possibility.

EA: Where does dance and photography intersect for you? 

TW: Photographing people is a kind of dance, no? There are sequences of movement we both must perform for it to work, either improvised or purposefully selected, which, in the end, have aesthetic and symbolic value. I don’t necessarily try to be in control but the technique is there to be drawn upon, for the creativity to flow. 

In the studio, I prefer to be surprised, to be taken on a ride with the person before me. I want to accept, totally, who they are and for it to be evident in the photograph. The moment I take over is the moment I lose interest. Perhaps it’s that feeling of surrender where they connect.

EA: What has dancing taught you?

TW: Humility, perseverance, generosity, self-love. It’s a daily reminder of the beauty in the world that still exists. Dancing every day allows me to see the importance of persistence and that lots of small improvements or advancements can add up to big results. I was always a terribly shy and introverted person before I started dancing. I learned how to practice self confidence through being around others and working toward something together. There is a freedom in expressing one’s self; there is an inherent wonder that exists in difference, a space where everyone has their own way of performing a step that is uniquely theirs. I love the repetition and I find it gives me a sense of accomplishment like nothing else I’ve ever done. 

EA: How did your motion studies come about?

TW: In 2017, I met Kyle Abraham by chance at a party in Los Angeles and immediately invited him to come to the studio. I first learned of him and his powerful work through the Wendy Whelan documentary Restless Creature. There’s a specific gravity and meaning around Kyle’s work that pushes a button in my brain. The night before our session, I dreamt of ghostly figures interacting with a central hero image. It was very much a departure from the rest of the work I was doing at the time. It was unsettling but also an exciting creative and technical challenge I took on with gusto. Kyle got it right away, moving through the frame perfectly. The rest was really a matter of me not screwing up the technical side. 

EA: What is your process of creating images? 

TW: Generally, I seek out artists I want to work with. I like to think of it as excavating a future I’d like to see, connecting the dots and drawing parallels until something makes sense. I like to immerse myself pretty deeply into the scene I’m interested in documenting, and I do my best to forge relationships and create a network. I observe, listen, research, do my homework, go to shows, read books and articles, whatever feels appropriate. 

Creatively, I tap into my dreams and find inspiration during my daily ballet classes, which can be rather meditative. I also rely heavily on the artist I am working with. I encourage them to bring personal articles of clothing, wardrobe, or anything that they feel good in. I ask them to think about how they want to be seen or what they envision as their future self, seeing these photos 10, 20, 30 years in the future. Not that I really want the answers, but my hope is that it gets them thinking. I do my best to make the image about them rather than about me.

EA: Can you discuss your series Restless Energy

TW: Growing up near Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay during the energy crisis in the mid-1970s, my father would take my younger brother and I deep sea fishing. My favorite part was the voyage to and from the open ocean in the darkness, shrouded by the sound of the engine roaring and hypnotic whoosh of the waves against the boat. I would watch the lights on land recede as we headed out before the sun came up. I naively wondered what all those lights were helping people see and do at such an hour and seemed so unnecessarily wasteful. Even then, though I still found the artificial illumination of the landscape visually intriguing, especially in the evenings as we would return to shore, the luminescent landscape was a welcome and comforting sight. 

The photographs in Restless Energy reflect these contradicting feelings around our global dependence on fossil fuels and the awesome beauty of their looming presence at night. These structures and systems designed to sustain our relentless demand are a blight on our environment. Given that we are all rethinking the ways in which energy is produced and distributed, time will tell what future is in store for these monolithic emblems of industry.  

I created this project in the summers between 2003 and 2008, when my daughter was very young and we had just moved in with her (now) stepfather, who encouraged me to direct more of my time toward my photography. I worked full time (and then some) in advertising during the day, so I had to pursue any personal work at night. I’d put my daughter to bed and head out into the night, driving along the coast, waiting for the light to be “just right” to get what I saw in my head in an image. I often had to trespass or bend the rules a bit to get the angle I wanted, but the creative freedom it provided felt worth the risk. I needed that time to myself to make something just for me. Something that spoke of those memories of being near the water as a child.

EA: What would you like viewers/readers to take away from your work?

TW: Honestly, I can’t really answer other than to say I feel compelled to document those who strive to make something out of nothing, to bring art into the world, and make the world a better place. 

To view more of Tatiana’s work please visit their website.