Michael Wilson, Picture Taker From These Parts

Iris BookCafé, Michael Wilson, For Musicmakers from These Parts, visual art

Jul 22, 2014 at 1:00 pm
Daniel Martin Moore, February 2012, Mehring Way, Cincinnati
Daniel Martin Moore, February 2012, Mehring Way, Cincinnati

“I don’t know the people, but I like the way they look,” says longtime Cincinnati Post photojournalist Melvin Grier. 

Grier is at Iris BookCafé, surveying black-and-white photos of local musicians. Some are national names, others up-and-comers. All were shot by fellow photographer Michael Wilson, who should be a national name but isn’t.

“I was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1959 and never moved away,” Wilson’s artist bio begins. As a Norwood High School senior, he bought a camera instead of a French horn, and then received free tuition to the fledgling Northern Kentucky University. Looking at album covers gave Wilson the idea he could make a living combining his two loves. 

Grier met Wilson about four years ago. “He was not what I expected. I expected Annie Leibovitz with an entourage,” Grier says.

The misconception is understandable. Wilson is the go-to photographer for Lyle Lovett, and he has shot portraits and album covers for the Replacements, John Prine, Emmylou Harris, John Hiatt, B.B. King and Randy Newman.  

The Iris exhibit celebrates local talent, though, and is titled Michael Wilson, for Musicmakers from These Parts. Wilson clearly is a picture-maker from these parts, with a Midwestern humility that belies his portfolio. 

The retrospective spans more than 35 years. It includes established acts past and present (Wussy, Over the Rhine, Peter Frampton) and new names (Aaron Collins, Adam Petersen/ADM).  There are musicians who died too young (Katie Reider), and also those who we thought might live forever (Pigmeat Jarrett).  

Most striking are the quiet portraits you’d swear were carefully posed and imagined days in advance, only to learn that each was ultimately a candid shot — the organic result of intuition, talent, trust and luck.

“They represent an intersection of where friendships yielded some good pictures,” Wilson says. Ever humble, he adds, “Some of the friendships are greater than the pictures.”

A picture of Daniel Martin Moore and Joan Shelley is arresting because of what we don’t see: Shelley’s raised arms hide her face. Wilson captured the shot as the two took a break while recording in Oldham County, Ky. He compares the image to a “fleeting family snapshot, where something ‘wrong’ went right.”

“If there’s something that’s nice that happens, it’s accidental,” Wilson insists. 

An exception is his amazing use of light. “I’m highly tuned-in, always trying to see what the light is doing,” he says. 

Wilson’s instincts developed early. A nighttime shot from the late ’70s of garage rockers the Customs, full of punk swagger in a Covington, Ky., alley, conveys a New York vibe that feels Warholesque. 

Wilson declines to pick favorite photos but does have favorite stories. Sometimes he and a subject drive around “these parts” until serendipity strikes, such as when he and Honky Tonk singer Jeremy Pinnell saw some goats standing on cinderblocks along Kentucky Route 8. Wilson found his inspiration and photographed Pinnell likewise perched in a Campbell County field with hills in the distance. The photo creates a perfect sense of place for a musician who has Ohio and Kentucky tattoos on his head. 

Wilson also likes a shadowy portrait of Pop Empire (featuring son Henry) because it was shot with a pinhole camera. “It was made with pure guesswork,” he says. 

There was a time when Wilson would set up strobes and ensure a photo was fully lit. “But those are never as interesting as when I’m boxed into a corner,” he says.

A tightly cropped portrait of bluesman Jarrett was taken a few months before his death at age 95. 

“It truly was a candid, resting moment, rather than him engaging the camera,” Wilson says. There was poor light and no objects in Jarrett’s room that would have “propelled” the image forward, Wilson says. But he found all he needed in Jarrett’s eyes and lined face.

A photo of Daniel Martin Moore standing atop coal along Mehring Way is a wider portrait but equally stark. Speaking about his preference for black and white film, Wilson refers to the “distillation” of a moment, or stripping a photo to the essential elements. (Moore is an advocate against mountaintop-removal mining.)

“That most of these pictures work is due to something beyond me — the light or an interesting setting to be in. It’s not like I know what will work,” Wilson claims.  

These parts just happen to be in the right place.

MICHAEL WILSON, FOR MUSICMAKERS FROM THESE PARTS continues through Sept. 28 at Iris BookCafé, 1331 Main St., Over-the-Rhine, irisbookcafe.com.