Professional Photographer Captured Ballet’s Beauty

Lovers of BalletMet and the company’s dancers know of Will Shively.

For 30 years, the name has been attached to stunning photographs of dancers caught midair in a leap, on perfect pointed toe or standing erect as a long drape floats away from the body.

Gerard Charles, a former artistic director for BalletMet, said it well: “Will captures these ephemeral points in time while adding his own dimension to create an image that did not exist before yet lives for all time.”

An exhibit of about 30 of Shively’s ballet photographs — taken between 1980 and 2010 — will open Friday at the Marcia Evans Gallery in the Short North.

“Will’s BalletMet photographs are just beautiful,” Evans said.

Perhaps even more beautiful, she noted: Shively wasn’t paid to capture the images; he shot them for the love of it.

“As a gallery owner,” Evans said, “I’m honored to do this show.”

Shively, 67, is tall and thin with long blond hair and unruly eyebrows. He wears more than 50 silver bracelets — souvenirs from his travels around the world.

He has photographed athletes (including Michael Jordan) and rock stars (the Rolling Stones, Michael Jackson and his favorite group, ZZ Top).

Ever since his boyhood in New York City, after his grandmother took him to the ballet, he has been enamored of “the elegance, grace and athletic ability of dancers,” he said.

As a student at Ohio State University, he thought he would be a painter but turned to photography when he was 24. He began shooting photographs for BalletMet in the early 1980s, when Wayne Soulant was artistic director, and continued shooting until a few years ago — working free, except for nominal pay the last year or so.

“People helped me out along the way — you know, pay it forward,” Shively said. “It was just so rewarding to be part of the team.”

During his tenure as artistic director, Charles would work with Shively to orchestrate informal photo sessions with the dancers.

“He’d grab costumes, and for four or five hours an afternoon, we’d just play,” Shively said. “It wasn’t tied to a specific production, but we ended up using every one of those photos.”

Longtime former BalletMet dancers Jimmy Orante and his wife, Sonia, recalled the “care and time in preparation” that Shively spent on shoots.

“It was a creative process between the dancer and the shooter,” Sonia Orante said.

Added her husband: “Who knows how he does it, but he sure has an eye.”

Shively, who maintains a studio in Milo Arts, an artists colony on E. 3rd Avenue, still works as a photographer but no longer shoots for BalletMet. A different administration has different intentions for company photographs.

But those 30 years, Shively said, “were terribly rewarding.”

“I’m a visual junkie, and I know how much time and work the dancers devote to their art. … The highlight for me was probably those sessions where there were no rules.

“There was no right or wrong; it was just all about the dancers’ form.”

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“The World is Beautiful. Not everyone can see that.”

Fine Art Photography He takes a photo off his wall and hands it to me–a framed sepia print of a naked woman lying on her side, half covering her chest, sensually looking into the camera. He developed it in his bathroom, which he converted into a darkroom the year he moved in. Looking into the eyes of the woman, who is staring back at me with elegance and grace, I recognize why Shively is considered one of the greatest photographers in Columbus. I ask him about that reputation:

“It just seems…really….me? Not because I have a low self-worth, but because I never really think about it that way. I am a behind-the-scenes guy. That’s all I need. These speak for me.” Shively says, gesturing to the photographs of dancers and Columbus nightlife hung with care across his walls.

Transplanted from New York City at a young age, Shively earned a fine arts degree from OSU. Deciding he would rather be a photographer than a draftsman, he taught himself how to use a camera. He was one of the early pioneers of the Short North–his talent, credibility, and artistic vision helping transform the small stretch of road from a troubled, crime-ridden neighborhood to a cultural epicenter. He became the chief photographer for BalletMet: his mesmerizing ballerina pictures still stand as the prevailing personality of the organization. He took on high-profile clients like Abercrombie, DSW, and Express, traveling all over the world and living the exciting life you might expect of a fashion photographer. He even shot the Rolling Stones back in the ‘80s–“The lighting was f*cking terrible,” he says with a laugh.

Bus as is often the case, the good times didn’t last. His first ex-wife disappeared without a trace, leaving behind three small children and a couple of dogs. With the loss of his Upper Arlington home and Short North gallery, he did what he could to provide for his gamily, even if that meant having to work in an office. Once his kids were grown, Shively spent more time traveling, living in Florida and California, saying that the ocean gave him peace. He tells me about his career and his gamily, about how he lost everything to four ex-wives and the downward spiral of the 2008 economy, and how he’s still trying to get it all back. He returned to Columbus, and he’s working on selling his prints and using his social capital to find new and exciting projects.

Shively and I sit in his studio home at the Milo Arts Center, a repurposed elementary school build in 1894. The building holds a sort of timeless whimsy–the type of place you might expect to see in a Wes Anderson short about model trains. It sits on a vacant thoroughfare in Milo-Grogan–large bulldozers across the road wait almost mockingly. Though disheveled from the outside, the interior of the building offers a home to the vibrant aesthetic of a blooming art collective–large murals decorate the cinderblock walls, the delicate clutter of posters and antiques site idly by.
Shively lives on the top floor with his two black poodles, Sissone and Lete´. He lets me in with a smile. Classical music plays softly in the background. Expensive lighting equipment inhabits most of his space, the walls neatly decorated with his framed photos. A modest loft bed is nestled in the corner, and below is a desk from which he works. He looks typical of a man of fashion–the long, tangled mane sitting atop his 67-year-old head, the jingle of the 40-some silver bangle bracelets chiming against his petite writs, the type of style that protests a world of normalcy. He wears an extra-small, metal-studded Harley Davidson T-shirt and a pair of fuzzy slippers, which make a light scuffing sound on the wooden floor as he pulls up a stool.

Why did you choose to become a photographer? Well, more so, I decided to become an artist, but being an artist is sometimes a slow boat to china. So I thought, Okay, I need to find something where I am not sitting at a desk all day. So, in 1973, I just said, “Well, maybe Ill be a photographer.” Photography is a representation of how I see things, how my brain translates them, and what it looks like. How can I make this thing look just as I want to–as scary, as ugly, or maybe as beautiful? It is so much wrapped up into the human psyche of what you do, and what you are given physically in order to express that.

How is the photography industry different today than when you started? With the advent of Photoshop and digital photography, do you think the skills you have now are archaic and outdated? Everybody who wants to retain being a photographer has to switch it over. You have to do digital, or you are just a fine arts photographer. That can be a very bumpy road, even at the beginning. You just have to agree that that is the way it’s gonna be. Digital has its advantages, because nowadays the art director expects your work on his desk the next morning–on a jump drive or on a CD. The computer age has changed everything. We live in a world of instant mashed potatoes, of the instant hamburger. It’s the same thing with photography–I take a picture, and in three seconds I can see it. It’s just an extension of every other thing the computer age has brought. America has turned into the land of “more is more.”

What inspires you to create? Oh, lots of things–fashion, people dancing. I love dance. It kind of has an asterisk on it though. To dance with freedom–that I like–to be a part of that aesthetic freedom. I have a lot of fun memories doing fashion and dance because it always involves people–I hardly just do, you know, stuff, anymore, thought I can still do really good stuff. But [his pop art photos of] potato chip bags and bottles of alcohol became boring, though it was a learning experience. I like working with people because they are more expressive. There is always some beautiful moment that I am able to capture with people.
A while back you had a line of work where your models all wore masks. What was the series representative of for you> It represents to me what I found out whn I got married, and I have been married four times. Everybody wears a mask. I can pretend that I am the greatest photographer ever born, or that I am handsome, or dashing. Anybody can create a new persona. In life there are really great victories, and there are sobering defeats; sometimes you just have to start over.

There was a time when you were crippled with debt due to your divorce, living in your car and in your studio with no money, three kids, and a couple dogs, and yet you still made it work. What advice do you have for artists who are down and out? The only thing I can say is that it is time to contemplate what you are doing, how you are doing, and how it might apply to the world’s ecological condition. Are you outdated? Are there things that are taking place that are a lot faster and easier? Sometimes you just need to hold the line, and just say “okay” [and] embrace the world in front of you.

Many of your recent photos have aesthetically dissonant qualities. Why do you think you deviated from your earlier types of work, back when you were photographing ballerinas? I think it has got to do with my emotional reaction towards what the world has become–which is dissonant. There are all of these conflicts in the world. Greed. More, more, more, and more. We are a country built on more and more. It doesn’t seem like anything is peacefully and logically done anymore. So I wanted to represent that in my photos.

You were once quoted as saying, “You are only as good as your last photography.” Would you like to expound on that? It is a motivational tool for me. Even thought I am at this age, the work has got to be the same. I can’t slack off. It’s got to be just as good or better than I have ever done. It has got to be, or then I just say that I can’t do it anymore. I take a lot of pride in the way that I see, and the pictures that I do. I can’t settle for subpar. I refuse.

I ask him about his regrets. Shively pauses for a long moment, stands up, and wonders to the back of the studio. He soon returns with a framed black-and-white photo of his son as a toddler in front of the OSU library. In the photo, his son is wearing a Christmas sweater, sweatpants, and a pair of cowboy boots, and he’s sticking out his tongue.

I have regrets that I have worked so much, and I missed so much of this stage of my life. I missed it because I needed to be a success, because family life was expensive. It is a big dilemma. I do regret. But I do have to say that when I became the only parent, I had a blast. I got to go to all the cross-country meets, all the track meets, and all the art shows. But I am very fortunate. I have had a very interesting and varied live. God has been very fortunate to me, if that is what you want to call it.

View Will Shively’s professional photography work here.

Will Shively to Jury 2nd Annual Columbus Arts Festival Photo Contest

Columbus, Ohio – The Greater Columbus Arts Council (GCAC) and the Columbus Arts Festival invite festival goers to submit their favorite 2010 Columbus Arts Festival photo online and win prizes! This year’s photo contest participants will have the opportunity for their photos to be viewed by acclaimed local photographer Will Shively.

Creative Illustration PhotographyGCAC, which produces the Festival, is looking for photos that represent the best photos taken during the 2010 Columbus Arts Festival presented by Time Warner Cable for the second annual Columbus Arts Festival Photo Contest.

Photos must be taken during the 2010 Columbus Arts Festival, held June 4, 5 & 6 in the Discovery District, surrounded by the Columbus College of Art & Design, Columbus State Community College and the Columbus Museum of Art.

To submit a photo, participants join the Columbus Arts Festival’s Flickr group ( and contribute their best shot for consideration by official contest juror Will Shively. One winner will be chosen and will receive a Midwest Photo Exchange gift certificate, Festival merchandise and a chance to have the photo used in future promotions, with photographer credit.

Will Shively has spent more than 20 years as a professional photographer and operates one of Columbus’ most successful commercial and fashion photography studios. His commercial work includes clients such as Express, Abercrombie & Fitch, Huntington Bank, The Body Shop, American Electric Power and Designer Shoe Warehouse. As one of the principal photographers for BalletMet, his images of dancers in motion captivate everyone who sees them. His work can be seen at

The deadline for submitting photos is June 30. The winner will be announced on July 7.

For more information on the Columbus Arts Festival, including full details on how to participate and submit photos for the contest, go to

The three-day event will be held June 4-6. Hours will be 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m., June 4 and 5 (Fri. & Sat.), and 11:30 a.m. to 6 p.m., June 6 (Sun.).

The Columbus Arts Festival is easy to get to and parking is plentiful. Columbus’ downtown offers cheap, accessible meter parking, dozens of above ground lots and parking garages close by – all inexpensive and within walking distance of the Festival.

The Columbus Arts Festival is presented by Time Warner Cable. Additional sponsors include: American Electric Power, State Auto Insurance Companies, The Motorists Insurance Group, Giant Eagle and The Westin. Media sponsors are WOSU and alive! Additional media support provided by CD101, Classic Hits 103.9/WMNI and Ohio Magazine.

About the Greater Columbus Arts Council: Through vision and leadership, advocacy and collaboration, the Greater Columbus Arts Council supports art and advances the culture of the region. A catalyst for excellence and innovation, we fund exemplary artists and arts organizations and provide programs, events and services of public value that educate and engage all audiences in our community. GCAC thanks the City of Columbus, Franklin County and the Ohio Arts Council for their continued support.

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When Will Shively lost his job at a downtown Columbus design firm in 1975, he had a pregnant wife, a bachelor’s degree in painting and a desire to be a photographer. “If you don’t know there are limitations, you are free to do what you want,” 
says Shively.

Axed from the design company and faced with first-time fatherhood, Shively had grave choices to make. In spite of the odds stacked against him, he resolved to become a photographer. Until that point in his life, Shively had only toyed around with a camera when he wasn’t painting at night, but with his increasing responsibilities, he did what he could to remain in the creative field. It wouldn’t be easy.

Music photographerAgainst the odds, Shively climbed to top-notch status here in town as a fashion photographer. He has done a tremendous amount of work for the various Limited companies, shot for Abercrombie & Fitch and traveled to Mexico City, Vancouver, Hawaii and Montreal (among other various destinations in the Western Hemisphere) for photoshoots. He’s also one of DSW’s go-to photographers, and even local and state politicians have put their images in his trusted hands. (If you see campaign pictures of Maryellen O’Shaughnessy and Jennifer Brunner during this election year, Shively likely took them.) “I’ve never had a photo lesson,” Shively says. “So much of photography is about rules. [I’ve] never been big on rules, anyway.”

“I would [photograph] anything people would pay me for, [including] dogs [and] kids. Politicians were always looking for someone that would work inexpensively. You do a lot of different things,” he tells. “It all adds up to techniques you can use for the fashion industry.” Shively’s persistence eventually paid off. After a decade, he had three kids and a 6-bedroom house in Upper Arlington, and was traveling internationally for business.

“I like fashion work – maybe it’s the color, the texture, the glamour. I like that it’s a teamwork kind of thing. Everyone does their part – hair, makeup – and you accomplish something really nice,” says Shively.

Things weren’t always picture perfect. Shively struggled with alcohol, divorce and acquiring custody of his children. Fortunately, he turned it all around. Shively remarried, began teaching photography classes at the Columbus College of Art and Design and opened a Short North studio and gallery (which is now the location of Sandbox on Pearl Alley).

Shively continues his work in the fashion industry but still makes time for politicians. He’s also got a new studio in Grandview. “Photography is an art in which you are thinking and doing at the same time,” he says. “It’s active. I want to create photography for people and companies that is as creative and artistic as it can possibly be.”

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Will Shively’s Camera Captures Good Fortune

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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