New York-based photographer Arielle Bobb-Willis initially turned to photography to help manage her depression and it has been her art form of choice ever since.
Using bold, monochromatic clothing and atypical poses, her work has a distinct painterly influence. In fact, she views her models more as shapes than anything else, showing the deep influence of a childhood spent appreciating abstract artists with her father. Her contemporary photography is at once playful, uncomfortable, and rule-breaking.
Above: Bobb-Willis often uses atypical photo orientation to force the viewer to look at the figures in a different way.
Bobb-Willis thinks of her models more as shapes than anything else.
Tell us a little about your background—has photography always been your medium of choice?
I was born and raised in NYC and moved to a very small town in South Carolina when I was fourteen. The transition was extremely tough which led to a five year depression. I discovered photography as a way to gain control of something in my life at the time. It was just the healthiest way to deal with depression, and from then on it has always been very therapeutic! I haven’t really gained the same emotion out of other mediums as I do with photography, but I have actually started drawing my ideas out more—I love using big sheets of paper and oil pastels to jot down my visuals. It helps to save all of the ideas that come to my head!
Does NYC shape or influence your art in any way?
Yes! Growing up in the city was a great experience. I would go to school about 45 minutes outside the city and when I would come back it was always a sigh of relief! My Dad would bring me to all of the museums and galleries, so that’s where I first learned about Basquiat, Picasso, Rothko and many other artists. My Dad is also extremely interested in art so I feel like abstract painters have always been a part of my life. I went to college in New Orleans and lived there for about 4 years. I feel like it had the same impact on me as being in the [NY] city did. It’s just a place where inspiration is everywhere, there are people to work with, and there’s always a chance to learn and see something creative. I owe a lot to both places!
The use of monochromatic clothing reflects Bobb-Willis’ love of abstract painting.
Where or to whom do you go for inspiration?
I find most if not all of my inspiration in painters. I feel like they have a similar method of creating as I do. When I’m shooting I try to see my subjects as shapes … a red square, a green circle, a blue rectangle … I want the person to become a part of the composition rather than their face be the main focus. Some of my biggest influencers are Jacob Lawrence, Milton Avery, Kazimir Malevich, Joan Miró and of course Matisse and Picasso. Living in South Carolina, I was mainly surrounded by my little siblings (they were about 3 and 5) which was amazing because they would create these great drawings and just the T.V. shows they would watch actually influenced me. It was all very colorful, egoless, simple, and stimulating. Children are constantly curious and I respect that. I think with my work I love to mix certain aspects of kid culture with the maturity that comes with contemporary art.
Your subjects often hold amazing poses, wearing amazing clothes and props—what is a typical shoot like?
Thank you so much! I usually plan maybe the day before what I want to express, and I draw it out or write it down. Sometimes I might have a photo in my head and it takes weeks or months before I even get it out … so it depends. I usually buy some new clothing before the shoot and just roam around in 99 cent stores and thrift shops like Unique or Goodwill. I like to go to places that have a ton of different items so I can get a full range of props. There’s this teacher’s supply store called Barclays School Supplies that I love as well. I love going to these places because there’s always something new and I feel like I’m able to really dig deep and explore the aisles as visuals come to my head. I like to meet the models where they live because it’s a great chance for improvising; I also have shoots where I choose the specific location! The shoots can last from one to four hours and I try to get in as many shots as possible. I always feel very nervous before a shoot. I hate it at the time, but it’s actually a very good thing. I care a lot about my work and I shoot with film so I want to get the most out of each shot!
Bobb-Wills cites children’s drawings and TV shows as a source of inspiration.
Color, props, and setting all seem to play major parts in each photo. Are you on a constant hunt for locations and materials?
Definitely! I would say color, shape, and movement are what I look for the most. I am constantly seeing things just walking around the city and I try to look at how people move and turn and position themselves in the real world. Like the other day, there was this person wearing a hood that created this shadow that covered their face. Their clothes were baggy and they were kicking a small white ball sluggishly around this bright green park. I love saving these moments in my head for later. Again, I always try to write down or draw the visions I come across!
“Comfort from discomfort” is a common theme.
What messages do you want viewers to take away from your art?
I want my photos to showcase that out of discomfort can come comfort or something positive. I put many of my subjects in situations that are very far from their day-to-day routines. Even the poses are difficult at times! I want to be able to push people to let go of that comfort blanket for a little and be able to be a part of something that you would never do otherwise. I think knowing who you are and what you want is always a plus because it allows you to continue to do all the things that scare you.
What’s next for you, or how do you see your photography evolving?
I want to just create more and more and more. I feel like the more I get to know myself and grow, my work will do the same. I want to collaborate with artists that I look up to. I have many goals that I’ve been working diligently towards. There’s always a constant stream of visuals, room for improvement, and bigger goals to accomplish! I’m buying a medium format camera soon and I’m so excited to get big beautiful prints made!
Bobb-Willis tries to come up with poses that are far outside her models’ everyday routine.
Is your personal art your full-time gig?
I shoot other things as well, photo assist, and I’m also a photo editor at Musée Magazine! All of these other ventures help my work in some way, so I’m thankful.
What is something about you that would surprise our readers?
Personally I wear a lot of black and I have very few colorful articles of clothing! I love my living space to be very white, black, grey. Haha, I have an expansive and very separate wardrobe for shooting. But I’m starting to wear more and more color as my work grows!
Photos © Joanne Leah