‘Lyrics for a New Century’ is a love letter to the everyday

In a new photo exhibit at 934 Gallery, Benjamin Willis and Julian Foglietti turn a lens on often overlooked communities

Andy Downing
Columbus Alive
Benjamin Willis (left) and Julian Foglietti

The black-and-white photographs by Benjamin Willis on display in “Lyrics for a New Century,” a duo show with Julian Foglietti that opens at 934 Gallery today (Friday, May 7), were all taken within blocks of the Milo-Grogan art space, Willis intent on capturing powerful images of seemingly everyday lives.

“The point of the photographs is to show you that Black people and the lives that we live don’t have to be extraordinary,” Willis said during a recent interview at 934, where he was joined by Foglietti, an occasional photo contributor to Alive. “I think the old style of photography, or those older images, they’re almost predatory, in a sense. They’re going into these neighborhoods that they don’t live in, that they don’t have any connection with, and then showing these extremes, whether it’s gangsters or really poor children. There’s not any regular life. These portraits, these photographs, they were all made in this neighborhood.”

Willis, who also lives in Milo-Grogan, said he learned to train his eye on these often-overlooked people and moments by walking, which forced him to slow down, absorbing scenes that others could easily breeze past. “A lot of it is just becoming familiar with the subject, whether it’s your neighborhood, or the city you’re from,” Willis said. “I know what time the buses come, and who’s leaving down the street, and what it looks like at a particular time of day, and at this particular time of the season. Taking that into account is how you become familiar with a place.”

The photographs on display from Foglietti are the result of a similarly immersive process, with one series shot at Local Bar in the Short North resulting from a three-week stretch in which the photographer visited the dive nightly, and another series, taken at the Fox Hollow Rodeo outside of Waynesville, Ohio, requiring weekly weekend visits for the better part of 18 months.

“I think you can never underestimate the importance of time with any project or with any community,” Foglietti said. “With the rodeo, that was about being in the space and getting to know everyone, getting to know the riders, getting to know the sport through them. I really believe in allowing the subject, to an extent, to choose the direction the narrative starts to go in, just through talking with them and existing with them. … Building that connection, really getting to know the people in space, is really incredibly important to the body of work.”

For both photographers, this also meant adapting their approaches to each setting and subject, whether arriving with a smaller, less-conspicuous camera in order to heighten comfort, or allowing the subject to examine the equipment, showing them the different functions as a means of heightening their overall ease with being in front of it.

“It’s not, ‘Can I take your photo?’ and then [immediately take the picture],” said Willis, whose photographs of neighborhood children are often composed like would-be oil portraits, owing to Willis’ roots as a painter. “It’s, ‘Can I take your photo? What have you been up to today?’ You’re moving, you’re mimicking. A lot of times it’s giving off the energy that someone is giving off to you. One thing I found often early on is a lot of people don’t think that they are worth the consideration, so a lot of the way I frame photographs when I’m composing the image, it’s the opposite of that. I’m going to show you that you are.”

While some photographers hold to the idea that it’s possible to exist at a remove from a subject, capturing scenes without affecting them, both Willis and Foglietti work with an awareness that the photographer is an active part of the image-making process.

“A lot of times in photography there’s this myth of being an outsider, and I think the reality is that, in this situation, you’re complacent with what is going on around you,” said Foglietti, pointing to Japanese photographer Nobuyoshi Araki, who famously captured his existence within the fetish community in his work, as one example of this mindset being put into practice. “So rather than trying to force some degree of this outside perspective, it’s far better to just accept you are in this, you are in this space, and you are at this moment a part of this community.”

“And in that process, a transfiguration will start to take place,” Willis said. “You start to look at things in a different way, frame them differently, and you gain a different appreciation for it, and begin to love this space you’re in. You look at it and see it and feel it differently. That’s how I feel about most of the work. … It’s supposed to be a love letter.”