Hints of hairspray, cigarette smoke, vintage clothes, freshly cut grass, tall trees, an aunt’s favorite perfume. Sometimes apparently haphazard, every so often romantically eerie, his vision seems to embrace multiple times and spaces at once. Photographer Zac Wilson has been observing the places and people of East Tennessee – his birthplace – through his sharp but affectionate gaze since he was a teenager. By the means of a camera lens, Wilson creates intimate and softly ambiguous images, which he spices up with his vivid imagination, a passion for discovery, and a careful, particular attitude towards staging.
Playing with cultural stereotypes and themes tied to the Appalachian identity, Wilson’s pictures spark with his inexhaustible curiosity towards the area’s social and geological diversity and, most significantly, a sincere love for the women in his family. He spoke with us about his latest ongoing series, We’re Gonna Have Hotdogs – the product of his rummaging through long forgotten hard drives – as he opened up about the complexities of his relationship to the motherland, as well as his fondness for Tweety, an icon of Southern culture and a key figure in his quest to achieve an unconditional sense of belonging.
You were born and raised in East TN. When did you first feel the need to photograph your surroundings?
One year when I was around 12 years old, I got a Polaroid camera for Christmas. The first photos I took were with that camera. The film had a “party” border and I took photos of all my family members and also of all the things that were important to me at the time, such as my collection of Trolls. I remember staring at the pictures I took with that camera for a long time. Luckily, I still have some of them (left).
How has that evolved into your current practice?
I still feel the urge to photograph things constantly, but real life is kind of boring to me sometimes, so I use my imagination a lot and put my subjects in scenarios that they wouldn’t normally find themselves in. Not that these scenarios are really bizarre, but they’re definitely not snapshots of real life. I still photograph my family members, when they are willing. My Aunt Linda is always a great model and is very responsive to my directions. She never asks to see the photos afterwards, which I think is interesting.
How do you turn an idea into a photograph?
I always seem to have random ideas for photos floating around in my head, and when I think up an image that I get excited about, I usually do lots of sketching and visualization before I set out to make the actual image. However, the final product rarely works out the way I had envisioned it, but that’s ok because I usually end up with something that I like even better. Other times, I don’t plan at all, I just have a location and subject in mind, and we go out and see what we can create together. I’ve always considered photography a very collaborative medium. A lot of my favorite work comes from these collaborations.
What’s the role of settings – of interiors, landscapes, the outdoors – in the images you create?
I think setting is one of the key aspects making a good photograph. I live in an area of the country that has an abundance of beautiful mountains, rivers, and forests, which I take full advantage of. I’m also constantly on the lookout for weird locations, which a lot of times end up being the homes of friend’s parents! I also shoot some in a garage apartment that I’ve turned into a little studio, but I prefer to shoot on location.
Could you speak about your approach to styling and staging?
I’m basically a one man show, unless my brother is in town, and when he is, I don’t mind relying on his genius for help with styling and staging. A lot of time goes into this, honestly. I spend a lot of time at Goodwill and other second-hand stores, looking for interesting clothes that I might be able to use. Luckily, I don’t have very expensive taste. It would be nice to have more money to spend on clothes and staging, but I make do. We found a very 80’s wedding dress for $20, and I’ve used it over and over again. Right now, I’m really interested in getting into more fashion editorial work.
What interests you about photography in comparison to other media?
I love photography because it’s like a form of therapy for me. It’s the one thing I can do where I’m completely focused and in the moment. I also love the instant gratification of it. I’m a very impatient person, and while I love many other art forms, I don’t think I have the patience for them.
Your latest series is called ‘We’re Gonna Have Hotdogs’. What was the process behind its creation?
I’m really bad about taking photographs and then never looking at them later. We’re Gonna Have Hotdogs came about when I finally did sit down and started digging through old hard drives that have accumulated thousands of images over the years. It was really fun to take images that, on the surface, seemed unrelated and make a cohesive, larger story out of them. This series is something that I plan on working on for years to come. I consider it a mix of southern culture and fashion, or at least fashion to the extent that I understand it!
How did you come up with the title for the series?
The title comes from a scene in a movie called What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, which my siblings and I watched over and over when we were little. There’s this throwaway line where Leonardo DiCaprio’s character is talking about his birthday party, and he desperately wants hot dogs, and his mother says “we’re gonna have hotdogs.” It’s not a big moment, but it’s one that we clung to for whatever reason, for all these years. I thought it was a very fitting title for this series.
I find your depiction of womanhood to be quite unique. It’s multifaceted, but also blunt, and there’s a tenderness to it. How do you think your upbringing influenced your way of portraying female subjects?
As a child, I was raised in a very happy environment and I was fortunate to have always felt loved. As I grew older, I found myself forming more close relationships with women than with men. A lot of the women I have photographed are people that I love immensely, whether they be family members or close friends, so I think the tenderness you mentioned comes naturally. As far as the blunt aspect, I usually set up the image in a way where the subject is standing in the middle of the frame, staring directly at the camera, with my only instruction being “look bored.” I’m very protective of the people I photograph, and I want to make sure they feel as proud of the final work as I am.
What catches your attention in people’s way of life, and in the day-to-day?
I’m drawn to people who lives their lives a little differently. I used to think the people of East Tennessee were all the same, and saw myself as an outsider, but in the past few years, I’ve formed a lot of friendships with all sorts of unique people in the area. There’s actually a lot of diversity and creativity in this area, but I was blind to it for a long time. Visually, the people that catch my eye are the ones that dress or behave in a way that demands attention. These are the people that I want to photograph, and I’m working on building up my courage to approach these types more often.
What’s your favorite thing about living in the Appalachian area?
My favorite thing about living here is that I am close to my family. My family is basically the only reason I am still in the area. That, and my close proximity to Dollywood. As soon as it opens back up, I will be first in line to ride the Wild Eagle!
Your Instagram profile picture is Tweety – I’d love to know why!
When I was a teenager, I rebelled against anything that was considered a staple of southern culture, such as country music. I don’t know if other people feel this way, but I’ve always associated Looney Tunes with the south because you can’t go to a water park here without seeing at least five Looney Tunes tattoos. Now that I’m older, I’ve learned to appreciate a lot of things about the south that I had always hated before. I’m very fond of Tweety in particular and actually plan on getting him tattooed on my arm eventually, as a kind of symbol of self-acceptance.
Imagine you could photograph anything or anyone, anywhere, and describe that picture.
My dream photo assignment would be to do a campaign for a big fashion name, using some of my favorite locations as backdrops. I’m thinking of the overlooks and mountains in Gatlinburg in particular. Maybe throw in a celebrity to pose with my aunt or Desiree (and by celebrity, I mean Jamie Lee Curtis.) Now I’ve got this strong mental image of JLC and Desiree on top of a foggy mountain, decked out in leather. How do I make this a reality?
Zac’s work can be found on his website: www.zac-wil.com