About the Photographer
American, b. 1958
Between the years of 1998 and 2001 John Willis photographed at a paper mill in the hills of western Massachusetts to create the series Recycled Realities, a collaboration with fellow New England-based photographer Tom Young. Stacked up on the mill's two-acre outdoor platform at any given time are innumerable bales of compacted paper, purchased from recycling companies and destined to be transformed into tissue paper. For his contributions to the series, Willis photographed the bales up close in black and white, eliminating the context around them and filling the frame with dense but chaotic layers, which variously encompass office scraps, religious leaflets, magazine pages, sheet music, and even discarded family photos.
This reservoir of paper goods is suprisingly forthcoming as a subject for cultural and aesthetic scrutiny. "The variety of images one can find in these bales by searching through the random placement of paper scraps continues to amaze me on formal and conceptual terms," Willis states. "As I search for visual and communicative breadth in my images, I am constantly viewing these found still life images as a personal contemporary archeological dig, everything which goes on in our society seems to turn up in these bales of discarded waste. It is magical how the juxtaposition of imagery presents individual and cultural voices of the past, whispering, calling out, validating both wonderful and sad memories."
Willis's images at times verge on abstraction, but figurative elements typically emerge from the sea of paper. In one of his photographs an image of a shadowed hand floats above a partially covered picture of two children. In another, an illustration of a woman from an anatomy book has slipped into view above almost geological-looking layers of marbled paper. A third photograph reveals a repeating print of a monk, his eyes raised to the heavens. These fragments collectively evoke the endless currents of culture and the fleeting nature of life while individually providing entry points for the imagination. Yet while there are poetic and archeological aspects to Willis's collaborative project with Young, there is also a critical side as well. The seemingly endless reams of paper before our eyes accumulate as a vision of excess, suggesting the scope of our wastefulness as a society. Nevertheless, the vitality of Willis's images and the knowledge that an act of recycling awaits introduce notes of redemption and hope.
Willis completed an Associate of Arts degree at Franconia College in New Hampshire (1977), a BA at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington (1979), and an MFA in Photography at the Rhode Island School of Design (1986). Willis resides in Vermont, where he is a tenured professor at Marlboro College.