Michael Wilson Is More Than Just A Photographer.
He’s a Master. A storyteller. A record-keeper. A history maker.
Michael Wilson has been making pictures* for nearly 40 years, and in that time he’s developed a look and feel that is instantly recognizable. When you see a Michael Wilson photo, on an album cover, in a magazine, or from across the room, you know that it’s Michael’s work – even if you don’t know why you know. Yes, the technical precision in his work is unmistakable. He mostly shoots black and white, and almost entirely in natural light, so there’s a consistency about his style. And sure, he shoots almost entirely with film, and processes his own film and prints in his darkroom. And yet…there’s still something indescribable about what Michael captures on film, that goes beyond just expertise or style.
Perhaps that same ineffable quality is the same thing that makes it hard for Michael to describe his work or the arc of his career. Because it just seems like something that had to happen. From “stumbling” into photography in high school (after deciding the french horn wasn’t quite his thing) to finding himself with an academic scholarship as an art major at Northern Kentucky University. Michael’s career arc has guided him as much as he has guided it. And lucky for us, he’s been willing to follow, or as he calls it “be shepherded by” that arc. And with a singularity of focus (no pun intended), Michael has perfected his particular approach to his craft over those nearly 40 years into something that can truly be considered art.
You can see it in the photos he shoots around his Price Hill neighborhood on the west side of Cincinnati. It’s in the occasional (and obligatory) corporate work that often pays the bills. And it’s unmistakable in the work he’s best known for: musical portraiture and album artwork, including iconic photos of a seemingly endless list of artists (click the links to see Michael’s photos):
- B.B. King
- David Byrne
- John Hiatt
- Jason Isbell
- The Replacements
- Shawn Colvin
- Emmylou Harris
- Rodney Crowell
- Steve Earle
- Sarah McLachlan
- The Black Keys
- Aaron Neville
- Alan Toussaint
- Robert Plant
- Dr. John
- Randy Newman…
And the list goes on. Oh, and just about every photo taken of his friend Lyle Lovett since 1992’s Joshua Judges Ruth album.
He’d never put it this way, but Michael’s photographs are just as integral to the American musical landscape as the American photography landscape.
An American Icon, at An American Landmark
And as if this episode of The Distiller wasn’t already packed with enough Cincinnati history, we recorded this show on location at maybe the most “Cincinnati” of all places: Arnold’s Bar & Grill. As mentioned in the episode, Arnold’s is one of the oldest continually operating bars in America. Lauded by Esquire magazine as one of the best bars in America, it’s been in business since 1838. And Arnold’s remains one of the best places in town to meet up with friends and to make friends of strangers.
We’re grateful to the owners and staff of Arnold’s for being endlessly patient and accommodating, even as the Friday lunch crowd rolled in. Check out the photos of this episode for a taste of an American treasure. And of course, if you’re ever in town, don’t miss a visit to Arnold’s while you’re here.
And Speaking of Photos…
Obviously, a photographer like Michael has a lot of photographer friends. But Michael’s other “work” is his endless generosity in teaching and mentoring photographers who are still honing and perfecting their craft. One of those photographers, Kyle Wolff, joined us at Arnold’s for this interview and got some wonderful photos of our time with Michael.
We are immensely grateful to Michael, to Kyle, to Arnold’s, and to the Queen City herself, for arranging such a perfect day. We hope you enjoy this episode as much as we did.
*As discussed in the episode, Michael prefers to talk of “making pictures” rather than “taking” pictures. We find that both charming and illustrative of his approach and personality.
Michael Wilson at Arnold’s Bar & Grill
Photos for this episode by Kyle Wolff.