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Christopher Wilson, itinerary of a gifted man

Christopher Wilson is a highly talented, multifaceted photographer who shoots a variety of subjects. His strong visual style unifies many disparate genres. After 15 years in the advertising world as a writer and art director, Christopher Wilson jumped off a cliff to start Photography. As an advertising creative, Christopher Wilson created a vast portfolio of powerful campaigns for some of the most recognized luxury brands there are, including Audi, Infiniti, Jaguar, Nikon and Ritz-Carlton to mention only a few. During his career as Audi’s creative director, Wilson was responsible for some of the most beautiful and compelling pieces.

Pursuing an atypical path, he has been a ballet dancer in a previous life. He danced 8 hours a day, made no money, survived on bread and coffee, lost 20 pounds he didn’t have, looked like hell and broke his ankle twice…. And prior to that time, he was at Dartmouth College where he studied Ancient Greek and Latin Literature. Good stuff to know, he says, if you ever want to work in the Vatican.

Why did a man well into his advertising career move into photography ? The answer is more interesting than the question : he is an artist, not just an ad man, and his experience informs both his art and his vocation.

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1. Do you consider yourself as a figure of contemporary photography ?

Christopher Wilson : If the question is do I consider myself a contemporary photographer, the answer would be no. The word “contemporary” is not a word I’d use to describe my work. If anything, I’d love my imagery to be feel more timeless, more classical. It’s really quite simple for me: I just want to create something that resonates with the heart. Robert Frank once wrote, “When people look at my photographs I want them to feel the way they do when they want to read a line of a poem twice.” I love that, as that is exactly the way I would love my photographs to be “read,” if you will – as a beautiful poem.

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2. How would you describe your style ?

Christopher Wilson : “Style” is a funny word for me, as I feel it implies that there is a conscious decision on my part to impose a look on my imagery. There isn’t. Not at all. I know people say I do have a style, and use words such as graphic and clean to describe my work, but I never start out intending to make my images fit within a certain style. They just often end up looking a certain way as the result of an intention just to get to the heart of the matter – which, for me, usually means a lot of editing out in terms of elements within a composition. There is a lot of forethought that goes into every project I shoot, and my framing is very considered, and that I suppose plays into my “style.” People often say all my work – regardless of what I am shooting – hangs together, and speaks with a certain and distinct voice. And I can see that, but, again, if this is so, it all happens unconsciously. There is no plan on my part to have my imagery fit within a look. That would be horrible, I think, and very limiting in the end.

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3. Dancer, writer, art director, photographer. Tell us about your several faces.

Christopher Wilson : Well, life is funny, isn’t it ? You start off thinking you’re going down a certain path and you’re going to do this thing, and then the path twists and turns and you end up going down another path, and before you know it, years have passed and you’re doing something you never imagined you would be doing. That’s the way life has been for me. I never ever imagined I’d be a professional photographer. There was no intention, ever, of being one. One thing just led to another which led to another. And now, looking back at my life, it all makes sense to me. Everything I’ve done in my life, whether I succeeded at it or failed miserably, has informed who I am now as a human being and as a photographer, and I’m grateful for it all. I don’t have several faces. It’s just one face on one path that has a lot of twists and turns.

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4. What about your jump into photography ?

Christopher Wilson : To be honest, I didn’t make a conscious decision, ever, to become a photographer. There was no jumping into photography on my part. What is more true is that I fell into photography. I was working as an art director at Team One in L.A., helping them create a new campaign for Ritz-Carlton. I shot some images for my layouts. The campaign died, but the agency liked my imagery enough that they asked me to photograph another campaign for Ritz-Carlton in Vietnam. And that was the beginning. I had no idea what I was doing. I couldn’t have told you the difference between an f-stop and an ISO for the life of me. But somehow, wonder of wonders, it all worked out. And it led to another project. And then another. And then I woke up a year or two later, and discovered I was making more money shooting than I was art directing or writing.

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5. Is capturing the world a way of marking history in your own way ?

Christopher Wilson : No, I’ve never thought of my work in this way. But this is what I believe. I believe a great image can have the power to restore faith and heal, and that is what motivates me now as a photographer. The question I live in now is: How can I be a counterweight to the divisiveness in this world ? Seamus Henley, the Irish poet who won the Nobel Prize for Literature, once wrote that poetry can be exactly that – a powerful counterweight to the evil in the world. And I feel, as silly as it may sound, my job as a human being is to be a counterweight to hate. It is the only way I know how to be a part of the antidote to violence. I fail way more often than not, of course, but it is THE driving force in me now, and it has allowed me to be a better father, a better husband, a better friend, a better human being really. And unquestionably, it is the driving force for me as a photographer. I don’t care what I’m shooting, or if I’m shooting for a client or not, I am always looking for something that could live as a counterweight to hate.

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6. How do you manage to unify many disparate genres in your work ?

Christopher Wilson : I never think about unifying anything. I’m only interested in shooting what’s in front of the camera to the best of my ability, with the hope of capturing something compelling. It’s always about solving a problem. What can I do to make this image interesting ? Where should the light come from ? What would make for a great background or location ? That sort of thing. There is no “managing disparate genres” involved at all. No conscious intent to make all my work, regardless of genre, hang together. That all happens unconsciously. My feeling on this matter is, since it’s all coming from me, it all looks like my work. It’s odd. I’m always looking to break out, and do something different than what I do, but somehow, no matter what I do, it always ends up looking like what I do. 


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7. What other artists influence you ?

Christopher Wilson : I’m not sure I’m influenced by any artists. I do look at many artists, however, for inspiration. Some artists, whether they be photographers or painters, I look at for composition, and points of view. Others I love because of their use of color. Others for their use of light and darkness. Sometimes it’s just their spirit I love. Nadav Kander, for example, I love for his restlessness. I feel he is constantly searching to create something fresh. I don’t always love his imagery, but I love his spirit of experimentation. I also love Irving Penn, for the same reason. He could photograph anything and make it art. I love Albert Watson for his black and white portraiture. There is an edge to his work that I am always drawn to. None of my imagery could ever be compared to any of these photographic giants. Never. And I have no desire to be them. It’s their spirit and passion that inspires me. My only desire is to somehow be me, whatever that may mean. It’s a constant trying to stripe away to be as authentic as possible. Mostly I fail. Sigh. But I keep working at it. Maybe when I’m old and decrepit.

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8. Do you think photography perpetuates the figurative fiction of painting ?

Christopher Wilson : That is an interesting question, as, coincidentally enough, it’s one I am living in right now. I want to do more portraiture, and I find myself looking much more at figurative paintings than photography now for inspiration. Just recently I discovered the figurative work of Francis Bacon, and I absolutely loved it. I also am a huge fan of the drawings of Useless Arm, a contemporary artist. Somehow, I would like to take my photographer, and particularly my portraiture, in a more painterly direction. I’m not sure what that means yet, but it’s really what interests me most right now.

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As an example of this, over the last few months I’ve been reworking portraits I photographed of indigenous tribes in Tanzania, trying to make them feel more painterly, if you will.

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These profile images of a Maasai warrior, in particular, reminds me of the early Renaissance portraits of Piero della Francesca – which was completely unintentional on my part. But I did study Renaissance Art in college, so it must have come out unconsciously in this image.

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9. What about your passion for bikers and races ?

Christopher Wilson : Again, as with the photographers that inspire me, I love photographing people who are passionate about what they do, whether they be race car drivers, bespoke bike builders, surfers, cowboys, what have you. None of these things are my passions, but there is something about people who are up to stuff, who push their limits, who dare, who are in love with life, that I find absolutely compelling. In some ways, photographing them is easy, as the camera loves their spirits and energy. All of them inspire me, and expand my life immensely.

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10. What are you most proud of ?

Christopher Wilson : That’s easy. My wife, and my two daughters. My wife, Cathy, is everything to me. My wife, my partner, my life. This woman rocks in so many way I can’t even begin to list them. Not only is she my wife, she is the best producer I’ve ever worked with, and the business end of my company. She is my fifth Beatle – the one that gets no credit, but actually deserves most of the credit. I can’t imagine my life with her in it. Why she said yes to me I have no idea. And my two daughters? What can I say. They are, by far, the best things I’ve ever created.

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11. Do you travel often ?

Christopher Wilson : Yes. All the time. It’s part of the job of being a photographer. And I feel very blessed that what I do for a living has allowed me to see so much of this beautiful planet. I pinch myself all the time, as I can’t believe it’s happening.

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12. What about your future plans ?

Christopher Wilson : My list of potential projects is endless. When I’m not working for a client, I’m always working on personal projects. Right now, I have three that are consuming me. One, going back to Jamaica and photographing more formal portraits of Rastafarians. Not the rent-a-dreads, as the locals call them, that you’d see on the beach. But the real gurus, if you will, who live in the mountains. I find their disciplined, sparse lifestyles fascinating. Secondly, I’m working on a journal that I hope to publish quarterly. It would include my photography, of course. But I want to include other artists, as well – particularly writers and poets. I want this publication to be a printed community, if you will, for visual inspiration. And lastly, I’m working on project with a dear friend of mine who is a passionate biker and bespoke bike builder. I want to document his personal offroad odyssey through Bolivia, where the journey through these barren landscapes becomes the outward manifestation of an inward journey of self-discovery. I’m very excited about all these projects.

More about Christopher Wilson

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