Circles of Light

Michael Wilson made a career photographing some of the biggest names in entertainment. But it's not like he planned any of it.

 
By Rodney Wilson | Photography by Scott Beseler | Published February 2019
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Michael Wilson
Michael Wilson (’82) is gazing back in time, and he seems amused over what he sees. We’re seated in Wilson’s Cincinnati home, a compact Cape Cod in the city’s Price Hill neighborhood, and he’s sipping a homemade latte—a midday ritual he observes despite the summer heat—with a look of puzzlement on his face. 

“When I talk about it now,” he says, “it’s like, ‘Did things really happen like that?’”

He shakes his head of loose, gray curls remembering the events that led to him becoming what he is now—to many, a venerated artist possessing both critical acclaim and commercial success, with photographs appearing on hundreds of album covers by musicians ranging from B.B. King to Robert Plant to The Avett Brothers. To himself, though, he’s just a guy lucky enough to make pictures.

And it all started, more or less, with a brass instrument.

Sound Seduction

“I fell in love with the French horn,” he says. “I’m sure it was based on some sort of fantasy. I loved carrying it around, and it was this beautiful thing to look at. Like so many of the good things in my life, I arrived at it not so much by pursuing it than finding myself surprised by something.”

Wilson discovered the instrument after following a friend into Cincinnati’s Norwood High School band class, where he found kinship among the music makers. “Something connected for me,” he says, “some sort of bliss that I really loved—being in the band, surrounded by this sound generator.”

He was so smitten, in fact, that Wilson became laser-focused on acquiring a French horn of his own and worked part time at fast-food restaurant Burger Chef to earn the $800 price tag. And he reached the goal during his senior year, around the time he also reached an inconvenient realization. “That was coincidentally when it was dawning on me that I can’t play the thing,” he says. “I was always the last chair. It was almost like I’d been caught daydreaming for three years.” 

Seeing no reason to continue on with the instrument (“It wasn’t like my dream just died in front of me. It was just a reality”), Wilson set himself to spending his accumulated savings. He knew his older brother, Jim, had his eye on a Martin D28 guitar, so a loan of $600 took care of the bulk of his funds. (Jim paid him back eventually.) As for the remaining $200….

“I just wanted to buy something,” he says. “One of my other good friends was the photographer for the school paper and had a darkroom in his house that his dad had built. I’d seen a print developed, and it was fascinating. So that was enough to make me say, ‘You know, I think I’ll buy a camera.’”

The Accidental Scholar

He made the purchase, but, camera notwithstanding, Wilson was a long way from becoming a career photographer. With no plans for college or a post-high school life, he was miles from any path until, on the last day of school, fate once again intervened when he was pulled out of homeroom for a curious offer.“

A counselor said, ‘Do you have any plans for college?’ and I said, ‘No,’” he remembers. As luck (or fate or…whatever) would have it, the high school had a Presidential Scholarship to Northern Kentucky University available (in 1977, NKU handed out full rides to local high schools to boost awareness). Wilson was confused why the offer was being extended to him—he wasn’t a star student and only avoided a failing math grade because the instructor knew his sister—but he accepted.“I for one am incredibly grateful that they were of a generous mind,” he says. When he showed up to register for classes in Regents Hall, serendipity held one more push for him in the form of an intuitive advisor who, faced with the clueless freshman, decided to do some digging. “He didn’t know me, I was just the next in line, but he asked me, ‘Well, do you have any hobbies?’ I told him I’d bought a camera, and he took the trouble to look through a catalog and said, ‘Well, here’s some photography classes. You could be a photography major. You’d be a fine art major—would you be interested in that?’ At that point, I’d never had an art class, but I said, ‘Sure.’”

Once he started taking photography classes, all the beneficial happenstance of the previous months fell to the side as Wilson entered a full crush stage with making pictures (his preferred phrasing, as he doesn’t like to think he’s “taking” anything). “It was sort of like a needle fell into a groove. I can’t imagine what would have happened if that needle hadn’t dropped.” The photography program was run by Barry Andersen, who taught students the history of photography alongside creative and technical aspects of making photographs. For Wilson, the academic experience was transformative. 

“I’ve used the visual picture of when you’re a grade-school kid and you go on your first trip to see a real theater production. The house lights go down, the curtains go back, and you see the stage is lit in a certain way that looks totally like you’ve never seen it,” he says. “It’s like this is the world, but it’s a world I’ve never seen before. There was a moment like that when I began to be exposed to the 150-year history of photography. There was no reason for me to ever think about that before, but once I did, it was like, ‘Wow.’“

It wasn’t too long of me being immersed in that environment that it became clear that this is what I wanted to do.”
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Michael Wilson
‘I Want to Do That’

Upon graduating from NKU, Wilson continued to pursue photo-graphy, staying active in the darkroom in his free time while earning a living through jobs such as janitor at a fish hatchery and dishwasher in a kitchen. He married a woman, Marilyn, whose portrait he’d once taken and eventually landed a position as a photographer’s assistant at Cincinnati-based South-Western Publishing, working on typing manuals and other instructional titles. But, although he was making pictures for a living, Wilson’s passion for photography waned during his four years at South-Western; conversely, his musical side experienced a reawakening as he found himself becoming passionate about music again—this time as a listener.

“I really sort of surrendered myself to being a fan of music. It’s all chemistry, right?” he says, “I developed a dissatisfaction with spending that much time working around pictures I didn’t care about, and that dissatisfaction merged with my growing interest in music. So most of my spare energy was spent going to record stores, where I would see a beautiful record cover and think, ‘Well, I want to do that.’”

Encouraged by an illustrator friend, David Sheldon, to quit his publishing job, Wilson paid off his and Marilyn’s total debt—the loan payment on their truck—and, in 1987, embraced the freelance life. When not making pictures, he spent time in record stores, examining album covers for inspiration and eventually noticing a common thread between the ones he was drawn to—Jeri Heiden, then-head of the art department at Warner Bros. Records. In what he describes as a move bold for him, Wilson decided to make contact.“

Marilyn helped me hand-bind together a little book of maybe 10 portraits or so,” he says. “I found the address and mailed it to this name.” Wilson was ecstatic to receive an acknowledgement letter in return but didn’t expect what came next, when Heiden recommended his skills to Wisconsin band The BoDeans, then, soon after, invited him to a meeting at Warner Brothers’ Los Angeles office. And so, photos in hand, the young man headed west.

“I had a small portfolio of assignments I’d been paid for that would have said that I was professional, but it was really uninteresting,” he says. “Fortunately I had with me a group of square pictures that I was going to show to a writer friend out in Los Angeles, so when she finally asked, ‘Don’t you have anything else that you can show me?’ I said, ‘Well, they’re just pictures I made for myself.’ She said, ‘Well, I’d love to see them.’”

Wilson showed her the prints, a lifelong project started during his days at NKU entitled “Martha, Martha,” and she was drawn to one, a picture of two dogs taken in the streets of Newport, Kentucky. The image eventually became the album cover for The Replacements’ “All Shook Down.” 

“There’s a lesson there,” Wilson says with a laugh. “I don’t know if I’ve learned it yet.”

The Replacements album led to more music-business opportunities, and by the 1990s Wilson had built a career making pictures for music, with photographs appearing on albums by artists as diverse as Adrien Belew, Toad the Wet Sprocket and Cincinnati folk rockers Over the Rhine (Wilson’s old friends—some of his most iconic pieces can be found on their albums). Working in mostly black and white, and using available light to create dark shadows with deeply layered highlights, he developed a distinctive aesthetic that caused many listeners to rifle through record bins looking for the “Michael Wilsons” (I know—I was one of them). In the years since that fateful L.A. meeting, his work has appeared on a handful of Grammy-winning albums, and he’s gained a rich network of friends in the artists and musicians he’s photographed.

But ask him what he thinks of all of this, and he averts his eyes and chuckles uncomfortably. “I remember I saw a Facebook post by a musician that said, ‘The truth is, I’ve had really good gigs,’” Wilson says. “I’ve been really fortunate to get the opportunities that I did. Having received great opportunities is the biggest part of being able to do good work.”

He points to the now-defunct network of record-business art directors who recommended him when he was building his career, as well as a once-thriving recording industry that enabled him to travel the world taking pictures while raising a family (he and Marilyn have three grown children: Henry, Polly and Sunny) in his hometown of Cincinnati. “I just happened at a time when there was a network that would spread your work around,” he says, adding, “That world is gone now. I feel incredibly fortunate. I’m not sure what the new normal is, but I’m convinced that what has been is not what will be.”
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“The life of any artist consists of what I think of as a circle that’s somehow involved with a bigger circle,” he says. “The smaller circle, the inner circle, involves responding to the impulse to, for me, be curious enough about something to get my camera and go stand in front of it. The bigger circle is the one that the world sees and is like, ‘Oh, you did the cover for so and so,’ or, ‘Oh, I heard your song on NPR.’" —Michael Wilson


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Emmylou Harris

Emmylou Harris

Nashville, Tennessee, 2000
Lyle Lovett

Lyle Lovett

Cincinnati, Ohio, 2007
Karin Bergquist

Karin Bergquist

Cincinnati, Ohio, 1998
Philip Glass

Philip Glass

New York, New York, 2001
Robert Plant

Robert Plant

Nashville, Tennessee, 2010
BB King

BB King

Sao Palo, Brazil, 1995
Lucinda Williams

Lucinda Williams

Losa Angeles, California
Thane Maynard

Thane Maynard

Cincinnati, Ohio, 2013
Avett Brothers

Avett Brothers

Dayton, Ohio, 2007

Staying Focused

Though established, his career hasn’t been immune to industry changes, with music work tapering off in recent years. But Wilson’s love for making pictures is resilient, and he’s found new ways to explore his passion, branching into teaching at a Cincinnati-based arts center and, in various ways, allowing himself to become a student again.“

In the last, specifically, year and a half or two years, a significant part of my time has been involved with Manifest Drawing Center in Madisonville,” he says, adding he’d become familiar with the center through drawing classes Marilyn takes there. A few years back, after acquiring darkroom equipment from a program shuttered elsewhere, he approached Manifest with the idea of setting up a darkroom there. “I’d been imagining a sort of community darkroom where this analog process could be taught and practiced,” he says. After the employee initially put in charge left town for another opportunity, Wilson took over and has spent much of the past year helping the fledgling program survive. “I would love to see it prosper.”

Wilson remains in demand as a fine artist, too. His show, “They Knew Not My Name and I Knew Not Their Faces,” is on display at the Public Library of Cincinnati Hamilton County’s Main Branch through the end of 2018. The exhibit and companion book, presented by FotoFocus, are a collection of black-and-white portraits made during the past two years that involved Wilson erecting a portable studio and having strangers pose for a picture. And a recent show at the Cody Center in Kerrville, Texas, entitled “Shirt for a Ghost” featured a number of photographs that stretch back to his time as a student at NKU.

And he’s always looking for something to learn. A handful of years ago, Wilson, with his son, Henry, started producing performance videos by bands he’s worked with, and he’s currently learning collodion-on-glass imaging techniques that date back to the earliest days of photography. 

“I’ve become sort of a student of the wet plate, a process from the 1850s that’s taken me way down to the beginner level,” he says. “Part of me feels like I’m just learning photography in that sense.”All of which underscores one of Wilson’s greatest skills as a photographer and, in the greater scheme, a person: perspective. Despite a career that’s positioned him among the contemporary greats, not to mention a litany of high-profile friends and acquaintances, he remains a person lucky enough to occasionally get paid for doing what he loves.

“The life of any artist consists of what I think of as a circle that’s somehow involved with a bigger circle,” he says. “The smaller circle, the inner circle, involves responding to the impulse to, for me, be curious enough about something to get my camera and go stand in front of it. The bigger circle is the one that the world sees and is like, ‘Oh, you did the cover for so and so,’ or, ‘Oh, I heard your song on NPR.’ 

“We are responsible for navigating both at the same time, but, in large part, they seem unrelated.” 


 
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