Arielle Bobb-Willis explores the complexities of the human form through her arresting and commanding photographs. Her models pose unapologetically and playfully, contorting their bodies confidently in the boldly colored garments they wear.
I chatted with her about why she chose photography as her medium, the benefits of film over digital technology, and expressing oneself unapologetically.
MINNA GILLIGAN: How old are you, Arielle? And are you currently studying, or simply existing and making work out in the big wide world?
ARIELLE BOBB-WILLIS: I’m 22-years-old, and I am currently shooting, creating, and photo assisting out in the big wide world! Specifically in New York City and New Orleans.
What drew you to photography as a medium? Do you remember a particular press of the shutter or resulting photograph that was kind of a light-bulb moment in regards to your ensuing relationship with photography?
Growing up in New York City, my dad would always take me to galleries and all of the museums. That’s where I first learned a lot about Picasso, Basquiat, and Keith Haring. I moved to South Carolina from New York in 2008. It was an extremely difficult transition for me, which led to a five-year depression. But [at that time], I was randomly placed in a digital imaging class. I started to learn about f-stop, shutter speed, and aperture and just fell head over heels in love [with photography]. It was a space for me to go to where I could forget about everything and focus. All I would do after school was take pictures of things in my room and of my friends just to learn, create, and feel purposeful. My history teacher at the time saw I was shooting a lot and saw how happy it made me, so he gave me my first film camera. The first roll of film I took in my room was the best roll I’ve ever taken. It was that light-bulb moment! The colors were so bright and just meshed together in surprising and soft ways…it turned my room into something great. That was the moment when I was like, Yes, oh yes, I can do this forever! Photography was and remains the greatest source of happiness in my life. It’s just very therapeutic for me.
Your work appears to explore the fluidity of the human body, and spotlights the human form in commanding, arresting, and sometimes confronting ways. Are you inspired or influenced by contemporary dance, gymnastics, or any specific ways that people express themselves via their physicality?
I’m constantly looking for new ways to distort the human form, and I do get a lot from contemporary dancers and dancers in general! I’m not very interested in taking a picture of a girl standing on a beach. I want that girl upside down with her leg behind her head on a beach! The positions I put people in are how I wish people looked all the time. Abstract painters, illustrators, and kids’ art inspire me the most, though. I make similar compositions and move the body to create shape. The models usually compare the positions to yoga—it’s tough!
At the same time, your works highlight the relationship between the body and the world around it. Clothing is contorted in uncomfortable yet elegant ways. The red of a jumper can bounce off a golden green patch of grass. These nuances seem almost playful. Are you conscious of this subtle humor or play in your work?
Thank you! I don’t seek to create images that are humorous, but definitely playful. I have three siblings under ten, so the colors and the characters that they have painted push me to see the body and our world in a different light. I ask them to draw for me sometimes because I respect their ideas. I want to mirror that time because as a kid the ego isn’t there, and I find that so refreshing.
What do you seek to express via your photographs?
I want to express myself unapologetically. I want my pictures to showcase what it feels like when one is comfortable with being uncomfortable. I hope to show people that the moment you take the time to learn about who you are, listen to your gut, and stay true to your creative goals, your work can flourish. I want to express that people of color should be seen in abstract art more. I want to express that you should think for yourself and value what you have to say. My work is expressing a world that I would very much love to live in.
What is your relationship with your models, and how do you convey instructions to them in regards to posing and making use of props? Have you ever found this challenging?
Yes, it’s challenging but I wouldn’t want it any other way. I take pictures of friends, ask people who seem open and are aware of my style, or people ask me to be a part of my work. I have a vision in my head of what I want the picture to look like, but I love to improvise as well. There’s no self-censoring during improv, so it’s always great. I like to run around the location looking for color and using the props provided in that specific area. Like a shopping cart, painted lines on concrete, old hotel room doors, or an office chair! Its fun to find things that I can put people in. I either try to express the opposite function of the prop or have them mimic it!
Do you ever use yourself as a model? If so, in what ways does this differ from photographing other people?
Yes, I do! Not very often but I have before. I’ve done shape studies in my room where I wrapped tons of string around my face and smashed clay to create a mask that I wore. After I buy new clothing for a shoot, I usually take pictures on Photo Booth of myself to see which ways I can stretch and create shapes out of them! So with a lot of the pictures I‘ve taken, I have some of myself doing similar things. It’s more of a preparation tactic than anything else.
Do you prefer to shoot digitally or with film? What qualities does your chosen favorite offer that you can’t get elsewhere?
FILM! Film has more surprises with light than digital [photography]. Digital is too real and too harsh for me. Film is soft and hazy and sweet. I have shot digital before but only for convenience. It doesn’t feel as special to me, though. I just love the anxious and curious feeling of not seeing the pictures right away and finally picking up the film. I really want to learn more about medium and large format cameras in the future.
Do you have your own studio, or do you shoot most of your photographs on location? Do you prefer to work in either? I suppose the unpredictability of street shooting could be a variable that you could use to your advantage!
Yes, definitely! I shoot on location! I recently worked in a studio and it was fun, but I love the sun. I love the SUNNNNN. And again, I like using the location to find things in the real world and improvise with the area. I love meeting up with the models around where they live so I can explore new territory!
Are there any artists you are particular inspired or influenced by at the moment?
Many! Erwin Wurm, Picasso, Cy Twombly, Matisse, Stephane Salvi, Marcus Bartos, Issey Miyake, Joan Miró, Kazimir Malevich, Sargy Mann, Mark Jenkins, Vincent Hawkins, Phyllis Galembo, Sonia Delaunay, Аna Kraš, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Imi Knoebel, Gunther Forg…et cetera!
What are your aims and ambitions for your artistic practice in the future?
To shoot more and more. I want to expand my vision and allow it to continue to grow with me. I want to keep allowing myself to accept change. I want to be able to collaborate with more artists and shoot for different magazines. I want to travel with my work and have more gallery exhibitions. I want to create a space for other abstract and contemporary photographers to come together and showcase. I want to learn more about videography and I’ve always wondered what my pictures would sound like!
Three words to describe your artwork?
Physical, vivid, stimulating. ♦