by Jennifer Hambrick for The Short North Gazette
From the looks of it, you might call it a back-alley photo studio, tucked away as it is in the warren of Short North side streets and alleys, at the bleak intersection of N. Pearl and Prescott.
But behind the burned brick facade and Soviet-era steel door of Shively Photography/Studio 853, creativity happens, art happens.
After more than 20 years as a professional photographer, Studio 853 owner and lead photographer Will Shively now operates one of Columbus’ most successful commercial and fashion photography studios. But his success came from the humble beginnings of a self-taught photographer and with the struggles of alcohol and drug addiction and single parenting. These struggles have only made Shively stronger. And they’ve given him a cause to help other artists enjoy similarly good fortune.
Although Shively is now a fixture in Columbus photography circles, he began his life in New York City. His father moved the family to Columbus when Shively was 5 to escape the commute between Long Island and Manhattan.
After graduating from Ohio State University with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in painting, Shively got a job doing commercial graphic and interior design work at Design Collective, a small firm run by fellow North High School graduates. His two years there taught him that he wasn’t desk job material.
“I just wasn’t cut out for a job like that,” Shively said. “I couldn’t stay in my seat.”
Out of a job and with a child on the way, Shively needed to make some money. Fine art painting wouldn’t pay the bills, so he turned to photography, aiming to parlay his aesthetic sensibilities into a viable career.
“It looked like fun, and to me it seemed like it was the same sort of process as art. It was as silly and as simple as that. I knew nothing about it at all. I thought, if I have to work at something, I want to do something that’s fun. It can be very trying and stressful to have an idea and not know how to get there lighting-wise, but on the other hand, necessity is the mother of invention. For as stressful as it was, not really knowing too much about what I was doing, it was really fun,” Shively said.
Shively began his self-education in photography by experimenting with posing, lighting and other variables of exposure while taking pictures of anything that wouldn’t run away.
“You talk people into letting you take pictures of anything, whether it’s their pet parrot or their children or anything,” Shively said. “I did a lot of pictures of just everything, just to get some things that I could show so that I would have at least some credibility.”
What emerged from his years of experiential learning was an ability to achieve the artistic results he envisioned, though not necessarily a classical photographic technique.
“I’m not a big rules guy,” Shively said. “I wanted to be an artist who did photography, to combine the two. If it has aesthetic pleasingness to me and it goes somewhere that that other stuff doesn’t, and if it has more of a meaning than just being a nice picture, then that’s what I try to do. If you don’t know all these sorts of rules and things that they teach you at places like RIT (Rochester Institute of Technology) and Brooks (Institute of Photography), it sort of opens up avenues for doing crazy stuff with the medium.”
Crazy stuff like his recent prints of flowers. He shot a picture of a ranunculus bloom on print film five years past its expiration date, processed the film like slide film, scanned the slide and printed it on large paper. The result was a larger-than-life bloom chilled by cool blues, lavenders and pinks, suggesting at once a florist’s cooler and morgue-like frigidity.
Or other crazy stuff like his most recent collection of fine art prints, bound together in an unpublished book called Women From My Dreams. Only a vestige of traditional portrait photography remains in these images, which show the female form out of focus, in sensual poses, in cool, hazy blues, with faces “blown out” by piercing white light.
In fact, women figure prominently in Shively’s fine art photography, often in eerie poses. In one image, a woman in a sheer black dress looks as though hanged on a white wall criss-crossed with the shadows of a window pane. One foot is crossed over the other, her arms are by her side. Another image shows a nude lying down with one foot crossed over the other, but with her arms stretched out to the sides, shoulder height. In a third image stands a nude woman, arms outstretched, one leg bent, head thrown back as though in final submission.
Shively says he’s aware this female crucifixion imagery permeates his work with women, one of his favorite photographic subjects, but doesn’t know precisely what it means. In large part he believes it’s an emotional reaction against the stiff-upper-lip construct of masculinity and the resulting paternalistic social order that held sway after World War II, during the time of his own youth and adolescence. What is more patriarchal in the Weltanschauung of the son of a dyed-in-the-wool Presbyterian than the Christian Church? But, Shively asks, how do we really know God is a man, especially when, he says, women are so much more emotionally in tune than men?
“Women are a much more universal symbol for our humanity,” Shively said. “I think that women are more well rounded, they’re more interesting, they’re more in touch with their emotional center, they’re more capable of putting different degrees of emotional response out there for the camera to capture. Therefore, if you want to express something about, maybe relationships or fear, love, hate, whatever, then they are a much, much more wonderful medium than most guys are.”
Shively’s fine art photography doesn’t pay the bills – his work in commercial photography for a client list that includes Express, Abercrombie & Fitch, Huntington Bank, The Body Shop, American Electric Power, Designer Shoe Warehouse and the Columbus Chill is what keeps him in business. But he says sometimes the artist must be unleashed, and the haunting images of women and flowers are some of the results.
“I look at it as exorcism,” Shively said. “If one is compelled, then one is compelled. In doing that, it puts my mind in the realm of creative thought, it keeps my mind off myself.”
Although more often than not commercial clients require Shively to follow a tight script, he brings his fine art sensibility to his work in commercial and fashion photography whenever possible. Perhaps ironically, the only thing that is consistent about Shively’s work in these areas is the technical quality of his exposures; it is impossible to pinpoint a Shively Style because he never does the same thing twice. His fashion images all have a certain edginess, achieved differently for nearly every situation. Here, a statuesque woman stands erect beneath a bold, columnar spotlight, features blown out, skin turned alabaster. There, a palette of conflicting colors and off-side lighting create a chiaroscuro effect on a heavily made-up face that can only be described as “cocaine chic.” The chameleon-like quality of Shively’s work suggests precisely the type of technical expertise that Shively himself plays down.
Maybe Shively’s fine art photography also helps keep his mind off the demons he has struggled to fight for most of his life. In addition to the undiagnosed Attention Deficit Disorder that cost him his job at Design Collective, Shively has struggled with dyslexia and has been an alcoholic in recovery for over 20 years. He sees addiction as a way for sensitive, creative people to “tone down” their hypersensitivity to a world that is indifferent to their life’s work.
“In artists in particular, I think a lot of times we turn to substance, which turns into substance abuse, especially if you’re compelled to create or have something to say through writing or playing music or doing art or being a playwright, and you don’t get any response,” Shively said. “There’s nothing like having something to say and nobody wants to hear it, unless you understand that this is the way life is.”
Alcoholics Anonymous has taught Shively since 1988 to accept that life is unjust. Even so, Shively has not sat idly by in a defeatist funk. He’s tried to help make things a little better for his fellow artists by opening Gallery 853 in 2001.
A non-profit venture, Gallery 853 was established to create space in Columbus’ art district dedicated to displaying the work of emerging professional artists. The designated gallery space is off to the side of Shively’s photographic studio at 853 N. Pearl Street, beneath his apartment home.
“I created (the studio) with the idea of this gallery space,” Shively said. “Most of my things I can put away and the whole space can be opened. And it became, I’m here in the Short North, it’s the arts district, let’s be a part of that whole thing. And this was the way to do it, to have a gallery.”
Featured artists have hailed from as far away as Colombia and Canada, and have specialized in a wide array of media, from quilting to painting to photography.
“I don’t have a certain narrow idea of what I should put up,” Shively said of the eclectic mix of artwork his gallery has shown. “Many photo galleries are so narrow in scope that a lot of good work will never get shown. The idea is to show (the artists’) work in a nice place and be pleased that they’re part of the art community of the Short North.”
Shively says Gallery 853 is “payback” to all the people who helped him establish himself as a photographer. He also hopes it may help launch other artists’ careers.
“I didn’t get to what you see and where I am by myself. It’s been collaborations, people who’ve been really swell to me and taken a chance on me through the years,” Shively said. “I choose to take the time and make the effort to show the work. It’s nice to be a vehicle in maybe someone else’s success.”
Shively had gotten plenty of experience as a vehicle in his childrens’ success by the time he opened Gallery 853 five years ago. A single parent since 1988, he reflects on the goals that motivated all three of his now-grown children to successful lives. When in high school Shively’s oldest daughter decided she wanted to join her school’s rowing team, he took her to early morning practices and today admires the dedication that led her to setting still-unbeaten rowing records at Upper Arlington High School and winning an athletic scholarship to Brown University.
He also marvels at being able to support his kids financially and emotionally on their journeys toward adulthood, even as his kids came to AA meetings with him. Shively credits Providence, not his own will or talents, with everything that’s come his way.
“All I can say is that God has been very good to me. I’ve always been taken care of. That’s all I can say. And as bad or as good as it’s seemed it’s always come out on the positive side.”
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