“I think my conceptual frameworks usually come from something very personal, like working out past traumas,” says photographer Michelle Watt to the Phoblographer about how she gets her ideas. “…I’m constantly curious about how people use visuals to express what they express.” Staring into Michelle’s work is synonymous to staring into the soul of a complex human being. It has layers, skin, and its own wardrobe on top of it. And in that way, Michelle’s work is captivating and endlessly fascinating.
Ms. Watt’s work is a reprieve from much of the work that we see circling around the most popular Instagram hashtags and other social media. Instead, her photography is actually art. Lots of photographers make content for a short-term thrill. But few make art that’s worthy of lasting a long time beyond the short life of a double-tap. That’s what I see when I stare into Michelle’s photography. This is evident in her meticulous set-building, lighting, the direction of subjects, and even into the post-production stage. She’s a rarity these days who creates images that can hold their own with Annie Leibovitz and Mark Seliger. Give it some time, and I have all faith that her already fantastic resume of work will be studied by art schools in the future.
The Essential Camera Gear of Photographer Michelle Watt
“For the camera, I shoot with a Sony A7R3. Getting the color right is a huge part of my work, and I love the rich colors that the Sony sensor provides as a starting point. For lighting, I use Profoto strobes with various modifiers, sometimes mixed with ambient depending on the kind of light I want to achieve. I’m a sucker for a diffused book light, a hard box and Photek softlighters.”
Phoblographer: Talk to us about how you got into photography.
Michelle Watt: I took a photography class in 5th grade and fell in love with working in the darkroom. I think I was drawn to the process of doing something that tapped into both my creative side and technical side simultaneously. At the time, I don’t even think I was that interested in the pictures I made; just the process and the ritual of it was so satisfying to me. And it was such a tranquil space for the introvert that I am. Sadly I haven’t been back in a chemical darkroom for over a decade.
Phoblographer: Your work is first off, mentally stimulating! You’ve got some really cool conceptual ideas that find a balance of light, color, and emotion. What made you get into surrealist portraiture?
Michelle Watt: Thank you for your kind words! I love combining unexpected elements to create something that transcends those individual elements alone. I often use photography as a way to grapple with past traumas, and I find the surrealist space to be a very healing space because you can deconstruct things that are confusing or difficult to talk about in real life in a safe way.
Phoblographer: Typically I ask photographers if they feel they’re more of a creator than a documenter. But it’s very clear that you’re a creator. So instead, let’s focus on personality! Do you feel that you’re more introverted or extroverted? And how do you feel that helps you creatively if at all?
Michelle Watt: I’m definitely more introverted. Of course, this can be complicated when most of my pictures require loads of people and collaboration to make happen. Social interaction is fun but distracting, as it takes away from the energy I need to access creative ideas, so I usually have all the creative stuff laid out before having to go into social mode.
“I think I was drawn to the process of doing something that tapped into both my creative side and technical side simultaneously. At the time, I don’t even think I was that interested in the pictures I made; just the process and the ritual of it was so satisfying to me.”
Phoblographer: Do you feel like you’re channeling your own emotions and feelings into your photos or that each scene you shoot becomes its own living thing with its own sort of emotions, thoughts, and identity?
Michelle Watt: Great question! The work begins with my own emotions which act like seeds and are usually convoluted, and then by trying to work them out through the process of making pictures, the scenes take on a life of their own, embodying emotions greater than the ones I initially started with.
Phoblographer: Do you feel the magic in your photos happens mostly in the pre-production stage, production, or post-production? Like, for the Eat Me Drink Me series, was there a lot of post-production and Photoshopping involved?
Michelle Watt: I think it depends on the project. Post-production can be a huge part of making the ideas come to life in affordable ways, and because of that, there’s a lot of space to play there too. If there is space to play, there is space for magic to show up. But without the initial foundation of the pre-pro and production aspects, the post wouldn’t matter. So I guess the magic is in all three. For the Eat Me / Drink Me series, there was definitely some post involved for enhancement purposes, but a lot of the magic and charm also comes from the analog set we built for it.
Phoblographer: How do your ideas come about? Where do you draw influence from? Or whom?
Michelle Watt: Everywhere! I think my conceptual frameworks usually come from something very personal, like working out past traumas. But for visuals, I look at other people’s pictures, paintings, sculptures, films, fiction, architecture renderings, music experiences, real-life relationships, and travel. I’m constantly curious about how people use visuals to express what they express.
Phoblographer: If I were to look at the Sand Castle series and the The Wait series, I wouldn’t necessarily think they were from the same photographer. Do you feel you’re in a constant state of rapid evolution as an artist?
Michelle Watt: Yes, absolutely. Although funny enough, the message behind both those series is the same.
Phoblographer: How did the pandemic change you as an artist?
Michelle Watt: I learned how to market myself as a photographer and position my voice for the commercial industry. Since then, the amount of commercial work has been gratifying, but sadly I’ve had less time and energy to create personal work that I used to put out more frequently.
Phoblographer: We talked a bit about color before. But as I look through your portfolio, I can’t really find any Black and White work. Has the medium never really appealed to you?
Michelle Watt: I don’t show any of it, but one of my first jobs in New York was shooting live music and portraits of jazz musicians for a jazz label. All of those were shot in Black and White. Black and White relies on visual movement and contrast a lot more to convey anything. It’s a great way to learn the technical aspects of photography.
It’s a bit like giving someone a really shitty violin to learn violin. They have to learn all the nuances of playing in order to get that shitty violin to sound good. So much so that when they eventually pick up a quality violin, the music they play will be more effortless and mellifluous than it would have been had they learned on a quality violin.
Color allows for a whole level of emotion that Black and White cannot achieve. But in order for it to really sing, having that deft access to the skilled language of visual movement and contrast is invaluable for creating strong photographs.
“Black and White relies on visual movement and contrast a lot more to convey anything. It’s a great way to learn the technical aspects of photography. It’s a bit like giving someone a really shitty violin to learn violin. They have to learn all the nuances of playing in order to get that shitty violin to sound good.”
More About Michelle Watt
Michelle Watt is a fashion and portrait photographer based in New York. She specializes in staging conceptual narratives with a whimsical flair, often addressing themes of freedom and restriction within cultural identity.
Her work engenders stories about the female minority experience, with the aim of giving life to unique standards of beauty and culture, including ones informed by her Chinese American background. She finds joy in assembling tiny discrete pieces to create vast meaningful worlds, embedding hidden ‘Easter eggs’ as varying social commentary throughout her work.
Her photographs have been published in TIME, The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Vogue Arabia and Blanc Magazine. Her commercial clients include Sony, Rémy Martin, Cadillac, The North Face, LG, Scotch & Soda and Arcteryx.