Meet the Artist: A 23-Year-Old Photographer Whose Work Isn't Always What It Seems
Buzzing with profound wit and transformational energy, the photographs of 23-year-old artist Arielle Bobb-Willis are as original as they are vibrant. Carefully composing her palette, and directing her subjects to curl, flex, and tilt, she explores the depths of her own existentialism through the human body. A New York native with Louisiana ties, Bobb-Willis shoots almost exclusively on film, shifting the boundaries of portraiture, placing her subjects outside their everyday experience and into a world of odd angles and rainbow hues. After discovering (and falling in love with) her work, we invited Bobb-Willis to choose her favorite classic kicks and use them as inspiration for her unique vision, resulting in this series of electrifying images, which speak to struggle and celebration, to memory and momentum—in loud, full-spirited color.
Where are you living currently, are you in New York?
Arielle Bobb-Willis: "I live in Union City, New Jersey right now! My dad and I just moved here. I was born and raised in New York City until I was fourteen. Then my mom got remarried, so I moved to South Carolina for high school, and after that I went to New Orleans for college. New Orleans is one of my favorite cities, my mom’s family is from there, and so it’s definitely my second home."
There is a juxtaposition that happens, especially in some of your more industrial images, that speaks to the rawness but also the beauty and exuberance of New Orleans.
ABW: "Definitely. New Orleans is kind of decrepit in a physical sense. There are a lot of buildings that still haven’t been rebuilt [after the hurricane]. And just the heaviness of the city. It’s kind of spooky too—like a dark movie with bright colors."
Almost a post-apocalyptic vibe.
ABW: “Totally, but then everybody is celebrating, and happy, and colorful all around the city, so it is that contrast I really fell in love with, and I think you can see it in the color and composition of my work.”
You started this style of photography when you were in college in New Orleans—what got you into it?
ABW: "Well, I actually got hit by a car while riding my bike, which was horrible! I was out of work, and I was in bed for six weeks, so during that time I was just thinking about art a bunch. I was writing, sitting with myself, and listening to myself—trying to pinpoint how I was feeling. It was something really bad that happened to me, but it turned into something bigger and better than I expected. Then I was shooting while I had a sling, and I had so much time to start something new, it was actually pretty wonderful experience."
"I want people to take with them...how I see my work and my purpose—turning something destructive around and making it into something great."
- Arielle Bobb-Willis
It sounds really transformative.
ABW: "Definitely, it was amazing. But I tore a ligament in my shoulder so I am still always stretching. A theme in my work that I want people to take with them is how I see my work and my purpose—turning something destructive around and making it into something great."
You’ve spoken before about your struggle with depression and how it informs your work. How do you relate to the concept of creation as self care?
ABW: "I think everyone wants to find something that keeps them present. Depression and anxiety for me are about not being present, obsessing about the hypothetical future or the past—constant dissociation. Photography is therapeutic because it allows me to stay focused on one thing for a period of time. When I am shooting I’m focused on the person in front of me, and keeping them comfortable because the moves are really hard sometimes. Talking to my subjects about their lives and about their experiences—having that conversation and connection—is really important to me."
That really comes through in your images, the space you create for them within this image. On the other hand, there is a strong sense of “object-ness”—you very rarely show people's eyes or faces.
ABW: "Well first and foremost my pictures are a reflection of myself and the experiences I’ve had throughout my life. My depression was very existential. I developed a strong depersonalization, which is where you feel super dissociated from yourself. I felt like my body was something that I was renting, or something that was given to me."
"...my pictures are a reflection of myself and the experiences I’ve had throughout my life."
- Arielle Bobb-Willis
You design the entirety of each image—from the clothes, to the location, to the subject, and poses. What is that styling process like for you? Do you go thrift shopping? Pull stuff from your own wardrobe?
ABW: "It’s both; I do pull stuff from my own wardrobe, although I don't have a ton of colorful clothes. I have a second wardrobe for shoots that is way, way bigger than my own! A stream of ideas often comes from all the random stuff in thrift stores. It’s different for every image, I like to take long walks, so sometimes it starts with location, otherwise it’s the clothes, or the props, or just an image that I saw that was really inspiring—then I build around that."
How did you go about selecting the shoes for The_Ones shoot?
ABW: "I was thinking comfort and color. Color was a big thing, because usually I shoot people in white or black shoes. It was an experiment for me to keep the focus on the shoes, but also keep my art at the forefront too. I loved it! Working from a fashion lens is a whole new challenge for me."
In terms of your own style, are you personally a sneakers person?
ABW: "I usually wear Docs, I have had these oversize ones for like five years, but I am trying to get into sneakers more actually. I had a pair of New Balance back in the day! And I was just looking at a pair of Sketchers."
What is it about classic sneakers that keeps them timeless?
ABW: "I think it’s just the comfort and ease. I am not one to be super dressed up all the time so I like having go-to shoes that will always look good and feel good, especially if you live in a city, like New York. When I'm shooting, I’m walking around for hours, and I just want to be comfortable."
What was your favorite pair from the shoot?
ABW: "The yellow Pumas! My mom took them, she’s really excited. She said 'I'm going to wear these out!’ I'm like,’Okay do your thing!'"
"I think everyone wants to find something that keeps them present."
- Arielle Bobb-Willis
It’s said that color is a reflection of individual perspective and that everybody sees color slightly differently—i.e. that that guy’s purple is not your purple. How do you relate to this concept?
ABW: "I definitely think about it. I love the contrast of bright colors against an abstract, foreign form. I think that when people look at my work for the first time and see all the colors, they think it’s meant to be playful and funny. For me, it definitely has darker undertones—it’s very heavy to me because it runs so deep. I am using color as a remedy for such a horrible time in my life."
What is your earliest color memory?
ABW: "No one has ever asked me that! I remember that growing up my oldest brother would always have a red backpack, and I would have a yellow, and my middle brother would have a blue, and those were the colors I would associate with us. I remember running around my mom’s backyard, there were fireflies everywhere, and the sun was setting and the grass was SO green—that was probably one of the best memories."
Love that—do you feel like you have a favorite color?
ABW: "I think currently my favorite color is a muted blue."
A good transition color.
ABW: "Exactly. It’s where my life is right now."
We threw out a handful of colors and asked Bobb-Willis to tell us the first thing that came to mind.
"My dad framed this Romare Bearden painting that I keep in my room—the matting is burnt orange, and I wake up to it everyday."
"My prom dress, actually!"
"I don’t like lilacs."
"Painful, so bright that it hurts. Makes me feel too much."
"I used to have a journal when I was little that was chartreuse."
"Reminds me of the grassy hills in my old backyard."
"Calm. I feel at ease."
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