Much has (deservedly) been made of Tyler Mitchell, the 23-year-old photographer seemingly whisked from obscurity after he was tapped to shoot Beyoncé’s 2018 September cover story for American Vogue. But while Mitchell is indeed a talent, he is far from the only young black photographic phenom on the rise today.
There are scores of talented shooters, including Arielle Bobb-Willis, a sharp up-and-comer who in the last year was named by W as one of “The 10 Young Photographers to Follow in 2018,” was featured in the New Yorker and who shot the cover of the relaunched L’Uomo Vogue.
“The revival of L’Uomo Vogue gave us the opportunity to select some of the most promising talents of a new generation,” says Andrea Tenerani, fashion director of L’Uomo Vogue and creative and style director of GQ.
“Arielle made an important contribution to the relaunch of this historical publication, creating images with great chromatic impact where movement and composition generate emotionally new images for the fashion world.”
The 24-year-old Bobb-Willis, whose very specific style typically relies on anonymous contorted bodies swathed in color, had already been shooting for many years. As a teen, she had fallen into a deep depression after moving from the heart of New York City to rural South Carolina after the remarriage of her fashionista mother. Photography became a part of Bobb-Willis’ therapeutic redemption song, which, she admits is still ongoing. A true millennial, after several years of posting her unique shots on Instagram (all captured on film with a Nikon N80), it makes perfect sense that she was “discovered” online. In fact, it was through her IG work that L’Uomo Vogue initially reached out.
“Photography is where I feel like my utmost self … I feel so confident,” says Bobb-Willis in an interview with The Glow Up. “This [cover] is about me doing something that I love and photography has definitely been a therapeutic practice for me. Some people have yoga or whatever to remain present, and for me, photography has been that. It’s about me focusing on what’s going on right now, so it’s not [about] ego or what’s going on with other people but it’s more just about coming together and having a conversation on what works and what doesn’t. I know it’s good to learn about working with people because I’ve always worked alone. It was a great shoot and it was fun.”
Bobb-Willis’ father, a record industry executive who instilled her with a strong appreciation for the visual arts, can perhaps take some credit for her oeuvre. Her work, with its broad strokes of bright color, is influenced by African-American artists such as Jacob Lawrence.
“I’m very inspired by painters,” she muses, reminiscing on how her parents would take her to art museums when she was a child. “My father is really, really big on painters. He grew up in the era of Basquiat and Warhol in the city, because he’s from Brooklyn, and so he would always talk about that. But growing up, he would always show me Jacob Lawrence and William H. Johnson and Romare Bearden. Those are the people I looked up to as a kid, and still do.”
When asked why she doesn’t typically show faces in her images, Bobb-Willis explains the three markers that make her work unique. The first is that she herself does not like to be the center of attention.
“Not having faces [shown] is a reflection of me. And online it’s all about the face everywhere—selfies. So I wanted to break that down and do the opposite. So when I’m shooting with someone and their face is not in it, it’s not about them, it’s about them becoming part of the bigger composition the art, so it’s very egoless.”
Second, there is the acrobatics of her subjects. Bobb-Willis explains thus: “The contortions are directly linked to all the uncomfortable positions I’ve been in in my life. Working through depression when I was 14 … The feeling of just being super, super uncomfortable for a long time and having to express that.”
As for the neon colors of her compositions, she says, “I think the bright colors make it seem very happy and upbeat—but then there’s like, this weird undertone of maybe tension that comes from that place in my life.”
While Bobb-Willis shares that her photography reflects a very dark time in her life, she notes that the camera wasn’t some magic bullet that brought her to a healthy place. In fact, the difference was made by a combination of therapy, medication and opening up about her struggles with depression.
“For a long time, I felt like my body was something that I was renting,” she explains. “Like, I didn’t feel like my body was mine. It got to that point where I wasn’t really present. So it was very deep and that’s why I tell people these photos are really personal.”
She says at the time that it was happening, she didn’t tell anyone, “which made it worse.” But since she has opened up, people have reached out to her to talk to her about their own battles. Tellingly, she’s clear that the paradox of depression is that it can block you from the very things that you do love.
“The thing with depression and anxiety and depersonalization, during that time … I didn’t shoot every day, because depression takes you away from all the things you love. So I couldn’t even do that as much as I wanted, and it was a long, long struggle of neglecting all of the things that make me happy. It was like, not thinking of the camera and continuing to push through and knowing that I wasn’t myself.”
When asked how she comes to compose her photos, Bobb-Willis responds with the perfect answer: “It’s like, how do you make a song?”
“It comes from emotion and really having an emotion about something and having the need to release that. And everyone has that need—whether it’s through conversation, whether it’s through dance. Some people clean their house to get that out. I just chose to show my emotions through photography, so that’s the main inspiration and again, it’s very personal.”
When asked if she thinks her style will continue to evolve, Bobb-Willis breathlessly answers, “Yes. Oh my gosh. Definitely. It’s changing now. I’m just living and learning and creating and I’m just really happy about that.”