Five Questions for You (5Qs4U) is an ongoing feature where we focus on influential artists and their art. This 5Qs4U showcases photographer, author, and teacher, Billy Howard. I met Billy on Twitter not long after I started my account. It’s been a pleasure getting to know him as an artist and a person.
Today’s 5Qs4U begins…………………………………… NOW!!!
Question #1: Over your career so far, you’ve been a world-traveling photographer, author of multiple books and photographic essays, and instructor. Are you one of those master planners who drew all of this out in advance, or have your interests taken you into some of these areas unexpectedly? I am the opposite of a master planner. Each project has led me to other opportunities. My early interest in issues of social justice led to a project on the homeless and then a project on HIV/AIDS which led to an interest in public health. A trip to Africa for The Carter Center got me interested in global health and poverty and I’ve been incredibly lucky to have the opportunity to work on issues that I have a passion for. The passion has developed alongside the photography. My original plan was to be a writer. That didn’t work out.
Question #2: Your masterful portraits on your website (http://www.billyhoward.com/) are a mix of color and black and white, with a few reflecting a feel of the earlier days of photography. Is “Monica” an image done using an alternative photographic process? I photographed my friend Monika with a medium format camera on tri-x. I guess the alt process look comes from the narrow depth of field and the high contrast. Plus, she just has a timeless look. I am working on a project using Type-55 Polaroid which is about as alternative as I get. Most of my work is pretty straight forward. I am more interested in my subjects than the photographic process and simply want to get a nice image that gives them the dignity they deserve.
Question #3: One of the most amazing things to me is how your work gives a voice to your subject and educates the viewer at the same time. Examples are your books, Portrait of Spirit: One Story at a Time, and Angels & Monsters: A Child’s Eye View of Cancer, and Let Not the Sinuous Worm Strike Me. Is this intentional or is it a by-product of your creative process and your interests? That is nice to hear. One of the most important goals I have in my work is to provide a voice to people who otherwise would not have that. I’ve found that it is incredibly important to people that they be able to share their stories. The most poignant example of this was the portraits I did in the late 80’s of People with HIV/AIDS. Most knew that death was imminent and they wanted to leave something behind of who they were. One subject told me, after taking almost a year to write his statement, that he felt like he was writing his epitaph, which led me to the title of the book, “Epitaphs for the Living: Words and Images in the Time of AIDS.”
Question #4: I love to explore the creative process, and what better subject than your book, Blind/Sight Conversations with the Visually Impaired. It is brilliant and I think should be mandatory reading. The book is a combination of your amazing large format portraits paired with information on each visually impaired person, and a visual representation of what each so-called “blind” person sees. It’s anything but darkness. How did this project morph from an initial idea to a completed book and permanent exhibit? Actually I am still working on the book, we printed a high end catalog of the exhibit thanks to a grant from the Elizabeth Firestone Foundation but we’re still working on the project. My wife, Laurie Shock, is a designer and illustrator and interviewed each subject so she could do the illustrations depicting their sight. One of our best friends is blind and his wife is the president of an organization supporting services for the visually impaired. When she took the position we told her we wanted to do a project for her organization, the Center for the Visually Impaired, CVI, in Atlanta. Laurie almost lost her sight a few years ago so it was an incredibly important project for her. We received a lot of support from the city, county and other organizations and individuals to complete the work, which is permanently displayed in Atlanta and Minneapolis and we are planning a series of exhibits in 2012 to mark the center’s fiftieth anniversary.
Question #5: Your “Science” website images are effective examples of breaking down barriers between the subject and viewer. They show science as fun and interactive, and it warms the heart of this engineer artist! 🙂 You’re a great photographer (That’s right. I said it. Now give me that $20!). Is the ability to become transparent: (1) something that can be taught, (2) a way of seeing that an artist either has or doesn’t, or (3) a result of years of photographic experience and tens of thousands of images? Your check is in the mail. I was an English major in college and love to relate to my subjects on a variety of interests. I think my liberal arts background (I never took any photography classes) led to a deep interest in the human condition. I am fascinated by the lives of all my subjects and spend a good bit of time talking to them about their work and lives which I hope breaks down some barriers and allows me to get meaningful portraits. My main advice to photographers starting out is to become intimately aware of their equipment so that when they are working they don’t have to think about it, it becomes intuitive so instead of concentrating on what f-stop or shutter speed or program, they can concentrate on the person they are with. Can it be taught? I think so. It is a psychological more than a technical lesson.
We rarely follow the rules around this place, so here’s pseudo-Question #5ish, Part II: Speaking of teaching, it’s not enough to be a great photographer, you had to become an internationally renowned teacher too. Where we can learn more about your classes and your photographic work, and follow you in the social media world? My classes are pretty sporadic now. I have a 2011-2012 Rosalynn Carter Fellowship in Mental Health Journalism and am spending all my free time working on a project documenting the lives of teenagers who have been diagnosed with a mental illness and actively participated in their treatment. It is a multi-media project and my wife has again partnered with me helping to produce the videos and assisting my interviews. The subjects have shared amazing, heartbreaking and in the end triumphant stories with us and it is an exciting and daunting project. One of the catalysts for these projects, once they start, is the incredible trust our subjects put in us. It makes us acutely aware of our responsibilities as artists to produce meaningful work. As for social media, I love the people and ideas I have been exposed to on twitter and tumblr and would love to connect with anyone on those sites.
Thanks again Billy!
Before we close, let’s look again at the last part of Billy’s answer to question 1: “My original plan was to be a writer. That didn’t work out.” That sounds like failure. It is anything but.
Those who know me know that I believe the written word is visual art. Combining images with text can produce effective work, but it is difficult to do well. It’s working out for Billy as a writer. He just writes visually using a beautiful blend of images and words.
In Billy’s final answer, he mentions a responsibility of artists to produce meaningful work. We on the receiving end of his work benefit because of Billy’s attitude toward making it.
We started out asking Billy Howard a series of questions, and he ends it with what seems like the best unspoken question of all. Do we dare put anything less than our best efforts into our own art? If we don’t, we fail more than ourselves.
Billy, the honor is mine!