Art Will Set You Free: In Conversation with Photographer Bill Phelps

Tracy Perrizo photographed by Bill Phelps


As life was turning constantly during this past year, when at times there seemed to be no belief in hope, but only in the present, one of the things that constantly kept me looking, hoping to see beyond what I saw was my on-going conversation with photographer Bill Phelps. From the very beginning, we both agreed to keep our conversations in writing, in mutual appreciation of the time we would afford each other to truly carve out time and space for a little more communication, for letting our thoughts form, for coping with everything that was going on in life. Bill’s creative process came up in our interview, but it was his openness and honesty about his feelings, about navigating life, about his New York City bar that stood as Café Moto for more than a decade before it had to close last year, about homeschooling his daughter, about a day’s perspective that started from sitting by a burning fire, that made me fully understand that his creativity came from and was reborn from his perception of everything in life.

His photography is like that. It has no hurried departure, nor a preconceived destination. It’s more like a wondrous path in which spontaneity, intimacy and a truthful eye are at play time and again. It’s about discovery, letting something unfold, full of the unexpected, but always looking for what’s genuine and real, and relating to people, to the human part of people. I remember how moved beyond words I was when Bill wrote to me one day, telling me how emotional a recent shooting had been, the first one since lockdown, when he was able to be among people again, sharing with them the excitement of feeling alive and creating. Creativity is his basis of self-expression. Affection runs through all of his work, sprung from his desire to express himself, to give everything he can give, to let it go and be part of life, art and heart his greatest companions, and resulting in such a deep and profound experience for everyone being part of, witnessing or viewing it.

Photograph by Bill Phelps

For as long as possible, he hung on to analog photography, which I believe has enabled him to shape his stories, like a maker. He is a storyteller. The most important thing is to tell a story – through light and shadow, through a personality, a gaze, a mindset – that genuinely talks about life, and being, and that he can share with people through his pictures. He doesn’t just capture something or someone, it’s more like a connection between him and his subject and the space around them. He captures what makes sense to him, just a moment of pure sincerity (even when he is shooting a landscape), just an evanescent moment of life.

His photos of musicians, actors, artists, performers, people and places display the diversity of his work. His latest creative project, started in the course of last year, is a food and culture magazine (Meal magazine) with really no pictures of food started by a local man, “an opportunity to stretch some new muscles and work on the project as a whole”, he tells me, art directing and illustrating it almost entirely with his own photographs. As an artist, he feels he must try different things. He is not after perfection, but awareness, truthfulness and emotion.

He lights up when he talks about his daughter, revealing a special bond that can once again be traced to his photography. His portraits of women go beyond physical beauty and his perception of women nurtures not only our own perception of his models and muses, but them as well, leading to the most powerful thing, to feeling something, to an inner truth and the beauty of life itself.

Jazz singer Lizz Wright. Photograph by Bill Phelps


If you could be anywhere in the world right now preparing to shoot, where would you want to be?

As the days continue to shape us, in these ever so surreal times, I find I want to make pictures more and more a part of the fiber of my life. Not just creative inspiration rising to the top, but a very real part of my well being. I would be on the North West coast of France, with my daughter, absorbing the new. I would be shooting for myself, for a book, something personal.

Your words remind me of what another photographer told me some years ago, saying that the lightness of not having to be creating something important reminded him of the joy he discovered when he first picked up a camera. Does that relate to you?

By important I think you might mean for an assignment? For someone else?

Yes, I believe that’s what he meant.

I have always felt whatever I was doing was important in the idea that it will no matter what be a part of my communication, whether it personal or commissioned. This conviction is not always easy to maintain. It is often we are hired to be a vehicle for someone else’s very literal idea, often overlooking the nuance the photographer can bring, from the more personal side. This is an age old struggle no doubt. I will never forget what it felt like when I made my first pictures in high school, the thrill, I saw my whole life flash before my eyes. A powerful part of the excitement was in what I imagined I could bring to an audience, whether personal or professional.

Marie-Yan Morvan photographed by Bill Phelps


Eve Rydberg photographed by Bill Phelps


Was that the moment you knew you wanted to be a photographer, in high school?

I think I had a sensitivity to the idea of “gathering” images since I was very young. Not very different from now, I am always collecting memories. I grew up painting and drawing, but it was when I found the camera in high school that I knew this would be my path. It was true magic, all of it.

What does it take to go there, to want to tell a story through your photographs?

Storytelling is at the heart. I feel my work is always trying to communicate. The implied narrative is always running through me, the sensory, the lyrical. This can come through character creation, setting, mood, but also through design. I often feel like a designer with a camera. I take great satisfaction in experiencing design, architecture, furniture, graphic design, typography. I find it very powerful, informative, exciting.

Do you always carry a camera with you?

I have not always carried a camera with me, but do so now. I spent many years shooting large format as my main tool. I traveled extensively with a mountain of equipment. I came to digital quite late, it has taken me years to feel comfortable with it. The large format view camera was made by hand, rosewood, nickel plated brass, ground glass. As I admire the technology of the new cameras, something I never thought I would see in my lifetime, but I am not remotely romanced by them.

Do you shoot only digitally now?

I shoot digitally now with the occasional polaroid luxury when the film is available. I miss the 8×10 format more than anything.

Photograph by Bill Phelps


Do you search for a photograph? Is simply being observant and taking in the world around you enough for taking a good photo?

Awareness is key, to life, to creative process, everything. Shadow and light, the weather, movement, even scent, can be a part of the process, they can all influence each other. When they are woven together they can tell a unique story I might not have thought of, but they are all tools to be honed. It can be somewhat symphonic, each element a part of the bigger narrative. Design is a conscious sensitivity for me. A naturally flowing experience of shooting in the street may very well lead to a meditation on a still life to be created later, a contribution to the narrative.

The photographer is much more a creator than he is a witness, right?

I think it again comes to awareness. I am constantly aware of what is inherent in the day to day, exceptionally aware of beauty, composition, design, balance, symmetry. It is all a part of my well being, my meditation, a vision, a plan for how I want to live. So, I think they work together. In the case of a journalist who takes it upon themselves to deliver the truth of a real life situation the approach might be different. In the case of the creator, there is also truth.

Calabria. Photographs by Bill Phelps


Calabria. Photograph by Bill Phelps


I find that your style of photography, the way you use the smoke that snakes from the bustling Tokyo streets as a way to manipulate the saturation of light, or your striking, abstract black and white photography, or the way you shoot colours that complement each other, or shooting through shadow a street scene in Calabria and showing just the face of a woman walking and concealing half of the scene, creates mystery and evokes a story, it leaves you with the desire to discover more. That’s not usual in photography because not all photographers are storytellers. Is this something you have been perfecting or has it come naturally to you from the beginning?

I love to get lost in spaces in-between, caught in light and shadow, or darkness, or in a space of shallow focus for example. I was immediately attracted to the focus field inherent to the 8 x 10 camera, different from anything else in my personal experience. It has such a otherworldly quality to it. I tended not to use its capabilities of manipulating focus, tilt, shift, swing, the movement of the standards. It already has a special poetry when used as is. It offers a unique meditative space as well. Pause, clarity, patience, privacy under the dark cloth, hidden in plain sight, are all a part of living with this tool. I suppose the “suspended space” I feel so strongly about has influenced the use of other elements, such as those you have mentioned. The story is often in the undefined, or in the blackness of the dark.

The set of pictures from Calabria is a good example. Not only of the approach, but also the
unique offerings of my client to engage in a conversation about narrative beforehand. My editor at Conde Nast Traveler brought some unusual and exciting references to the table, it’s always a gift to have this kind of communication. She threw both Homer’s Odyssey, as well as Alexander Rodchenko at me in our preproduction meetings. She talked about how Calabria, particularly Tropea, had a “built in” dichotomy similar to Naples. The shiny life of the beach front, contrasting the somewhat seedy backstreets. Tropea sits on the strait of Messina, the same waters Odysseus wandered in Homer’s tale. All of this came together in the thought of trying to illustrate this dichotomy visually, and with a kind of mythological twist. In Greek mythology the world is divided into three parts, the overworld, the underworld, and the heavens. I loved the idea. After giving it some careful thought, I realized there would be a challenge in the final edit, fearing it might be out of my hands, and possibly threatening the original idea. I decided to take it one step further, and try to capture the idea of these worlds in single frames. The woman in the triangle of light against the wall, the man walking on the edge of shadow along the beach, the dwelling on the cliff inverted in the prism of water, Mount Aetna releasing its power, the young girl at dusk – as though she’s trying to get home before the doors to her world are locked for the day. The whole experience was a truly special one for me, and I thank both Linda Denahan and Yolanda Edwards at Conde Nast.

Woman in Calabria. Photograph by Bill Phelps


I always sense that there is so much depth and history and meaning behind your photographs, as you have demonstrated above. Do you ever feel the need to add words to your photographs?

I have never been one to title my pictures, only when pushed by a gallery to do so, I think the work should speak for itself. I would like to at some point mix text and pictures in a storytelling way. I am however curious to hear what the work inspires in other people. I do find it a personal responsibility to find a way to communicate, to speak about my work, as we are doing here. I find great satisfaction in conversation, I feel it to be a lost art in itself.

Your portraits capture beauty in so many forms and go beyond physical beauty. Do you try to get to know someone a little before you do a portrait? How close do you have to get, physically, emotionally, mentally, in order to be able to tell a story through your portraits?

It is always a luxury to have a connection to the subject. Chance, spontaneity, and luck can all be helpful elements. On one assignment in Mexico City, I was moving through the streets as an afternoon storm was building. There was a pressure in the air, and a kinetic energy among the people. There seemed to be so much electricity in the air, and I was feeling it all. The light was shifting, the wind was shifting, it was all very cinematic, nothing was planned. I came upon an outdoor art installation, a garden of vertical metal poles, white in color against a black wall. I noticed a woman through the forest of metal. I could feel something, and wanted to make a photo. I approached her and simply asked. She was immediately open to it, and I could tell she was no stranger to a camera, though I was not sure what she did in her life. There was a sense of urgency, the rain was starting, and the wind was blowing harder. We simply aligned, and made a strong connection in a fraction of a second. I can feel that day, the moment, in the photo, in her eyes.

Woman in Mexico City. Photograph by Bill Phelps


It is incredible the power a photograph has to transport you back in time to a precise moment. But do you ever feel that an ever changing interpretation of a memory of a moment is more favorable, in the long run, than that of a photographic image?

Yes, I do. I feel a photographic image can have a similar trigger effect, as does scent for example, or music. For me, inspiration can come from a memory just as powerfully as it can come from having another sensory experience. As photographers, making memories is kind of built into our craft, but we are also storytellers. Sometimes without preconception we can find ourselves in worlds of surrealism, or magical realism. This is part of the experience as a member of the audience as well as the creator. When a work of art offers me options or ways of thinking, or even living, it is alive, and forever changing.

Do people usually respond well to the camera, as the woman in Mexico City did?

For the most part, yes. I have had wonderful experiences with people who are strangers to me. I find that taking my time, integrating myself with their environment when I have the luxury to do so, creating a curiosity, can often be an invitation. If they sense you are safe, and are involved in a creative process, they sometimes want to be a part of it. I can feel when there is a connection.

John Malkovich photographed by Bill Phelps


Does your process differ when you are photographing actors? How much directing is involved, how much do you have to work to get them into a body attitude and language?

This is always a tricky space. Again, I can feel when there is a connection, everyone is different. It is much easier to work with actors one on one, rather than in a group, especially if they are high profile. There is often an unspoken tribal energy among them. This can work for and against me. Sometimes it creates an exciting atmosphere, when other times it only takes one person to bring the morale down for the whole room. There is an incredible amount of ego involved, and it is not always positive. Again, everyone is different. I have found my best experiences to be without anyone else around, no publicists, stylists, personal assistants. When I first shot Bradley Cooper, I shot him in my own cafe bar, which I had designed and built myself. He arrived by subway with a backpack, alone. I used my own clothes, my own motorbike as a prop, shooting in my own bar, it was a rare and wonderful experience, we got great shots. This is not always the case. Usually it’s ten minutes, and six hands on the artist at any given time. It also can have something to do with why you are making the pictures in the first place, who you are shooting for. I have had photo editors show great trust in me, this is often a key element. Most of my experiences have been with men, I am eager to work with more women, it’s quite different and suits me well.

Bradley Cooper photographed by Bill Phelps


You say this was your first time when you photographed Bradley Cooper. Are there people you have photographed many times over the years? Is your process different when you shoot someone you know well?

There have been periods in my life when I have felt the power of a muse. There have been a very small handful of women mainly, who have been truly inspirational to me in this way. Where they are a part of the concept from the beginning. They appear to me as I am thinking about the picture I want to craft. Sometimes I am surprised by someone, the unexpected happens with someone I don’t know. A picture is made and their spirit rushes to the front to introduce itself.

An example of someone I have worked with on several occasions is the musical artist DESSA. I have shot three albums for her, and there is definitely trust, an inspiration, an electricity between us.

DESSA photographed by Bill Phelps


Is that why you say you would like to work more with women, because of those inspirational times you have experienced? How is it different working with women?

My experiences collaborating with women are something unto themselves, very different form working with men. It is a more “spiritual” experience. I think one of the most powerful things about working with, or living with for that matter, that spiritual energy is that everything seems possible. I find women are connected to the world, the universe, in a way that is truly special and incredibly powerful.

I perceive your photography as a microcosm of human experiences. And that the woman has a special place there, as you remarked, it just makes perfect sense. In photography, as in life, the eyes are not enough, you have to feel, to free yourself, to go with intuition, to hold your breath. A way of understanding, living, and expressing it visually. That’s how I see your photography.

Bill Phelps and his daughter, Hazel. Photograph by Bill Phelps


Do you often find yourself turning your camera to your daughter, eager to capture moments, or do you keep your most precious shared experiences just to yourself?

I am always wanting to photograph her, she is stubborn like I am, and can be very convincing, so it’s not always smooth. The older she gets, the more sensitive it is. I’m always hoping for a bridge, a comfort level to be found, I’m so inspired by her.

Does Hazel share any of your enthusiasm when it comes to photography?

She does, she loves it, along with many other forms of artistic expression, she is innately sensitive to the power it holds. She often surprises me with her storytelling through image.

Maybe it’s just me, but I feel that at the moment women have monopolized the discussion about their daughters, about being parents of daughters, and I have to admit I have a little problem with that, as someone who has always had a great relationship with my father, grandfather, brother and husband, have always been admired and treated admirably and equally, protected and given total freedom, and I, in turn, admired back. And because I am a mother of a boy, I would really want to hear the point of view of a father in regard to his daughter.

I grew up with two very strong women. With fire and strength comes a conviction, but can also come with feeling conflicted. My mother always showed us both, my sister and I, that “art will set you free” and she is right. She raised us alone, I have never met my father. I do believe that my sister (also an artist) and myself are two of the most intense people I know. It has never been easy for either of us, in many ways – especially with each other. I believe I had a good window into what the possible options could be for me, as an adult, through my mother. She was direct, caring, honest, kind, but most of all trusting. I feel there is no greater bond you can create with your child than trust. My mother trusted me in ways I can hardly believe now that I am a parent, but I am unbelievably grateful. As selfish as it sounds, I always wanted a daughter, it was easy for me to imagine a lifetime with a girl. I believe I have a great deal to give to a boy also, but the idea of a friendship with a daughter has always been truly, deeply inspiring. There is a depth I can see in her very naturally, and I stare into her eyes often seeking her wisdom, I simply don’t find this as naturally with men.

How has fatherhood changed you as an artist?

Having children is unquestionably a powerful creative process in itself. I have wanted children for as long as I can remember. I can say it has made me a better person in that it has given me a new sense of purpose. It has given permission, and in many cases urgency, to use everything I have inside of me. I no longer have the option to push aside uncomfortable or inconvenient distractions or discomforts when the safety and nourishment of a child depends on moving through them, rather than around them. In this, I am forced to live in the present, to use every bit of my imagination, my sensitivity, my courage, to get to the next moment.

In my life as a working photographer, I spent a great deal of energy, most of it wasted, imagining the next job or accomplishment. I knew deep down that what I really wanted was to slow down and simply listen to myself. I’m more closer to that now than I have ever been. I dream in shapes and shadows, messages, truths, stories, light. We are much too concerned with our audience, especially now, in this age of desensitization, and the ever powerful platforms of social media. I find now that I am letting my own truths rise to the surface in a more fluid way. My relationship to them has always been there, but the conversation is different now. I will continue to hear my mother’s words that “art will set you free” and speak it truthfully to Hazel along the way.

I hope your next journey will take you to the North-West coast of France, with Hazel, in wander and tranquility.

Website: | Instagram: @billphelpsstudio



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