December 23, 2011

michael w

photo by steve metz                                                                 michael sees something
"Don't you have something else you can show us?" The art director for Warner Bros. records dismissively handed the professional portfolio back to young photographer.

"I just have this book of personal stuff.  You probably wouldn't be interested.  They're just photos I take for me."

"Let's see it."

This is a story about stumbling into success by following your passion, doing what you love, and sharing it with other people. This is the story of Cincinnati photographer, Michael W.  You may not have heard of Michael, but, with a partial list of portraiture subjects which includes, musicians Robert Plant, Lyle Lovett, Emmylou Harris, BB King, Chet Atkins, Pattie Labelle, Paul Westerberg, and  David Byrne, writer Nick Hornby, actor Hugh Laurie, and artist Andy Warhol, it's very likely that you've seen his work.

michael's basement of memories
photo by steve metz

One Sunday in early winter, 1979, Michael chose to go on a solo photo excursion to Newport, Ky.  At the time, he was a student at NKU.  He wouldn't know until a decade later, how important the seemingly trivial decision to take photographs on a Sunday, would become.  He describes the day as "somewhere between rain and snow."

A turn down Brighton Street would reveal two dogs that day, huddled in the road.  Their vulnerable, yet unified and unbreakable form, the grey day, the grey and shimmering blacktop, the desolate road and buildings: these things told a story and Michael listened with his eyes.  One dog looked up.  The other looked away.  They stood in opposing directions, soaking from the freezing rain, seeking, yet refusing.  Should any of these small details have been slightly altered, how so, might the future have also changed?

Michael took a photograph.

He took it, not because he dreamed of acclaim he might some day receive or because he thought of some half-formed, unlikely possibility, but rather, because there was a picture to be taken and he was there to take it, in his own quiet, modest, and haunting way.  Click.

Now, fast forward to the late eighties.  Michael has achieved a modicum of success, but his career isn't where he would like it to be.  He's in L.A. to photograph a hair-metal-Christian-rock band for and independent label.  He's in search of something more substantive, and is using the trip as an opportunity to check in with Warner Bros.  He's in a meeting with the company's art director.

photo by michael wilson                                                                             the photo chosen as the cover for All Shook Down

"Don't you have something else you can show us? " she says.  The words resound as prophetic, now.  He hands the small book of eight or ten photographs to her.  She leafs through them.  She pauses.  She points to the dogs.

Moments later, Michael W., has been awarded the cover for the Replacements' pending release All Shook Down.  Flights are booked.  Michael is to fly to Minneapolis to photograph Paul Westerberg and company, for the rest of the album artwork.

photo by michael wilson                   the same dogs, a year later on Brighton
The Lovetts, the Warhols, the Plants, the critically acclaimed gallery exhibits, the four fine art photography books...all of these successes would follow for Michael, all in their own due time...all of them connecting back to a Sunday morning in Newport, Ky., to two wandering dogs, and to a decision to embrace a moment which others might have overlooked.  These successes are connected, as are all people, animals, and energies on earth: separate, yet, without the others, broken, incomplete.

It's been my privilege to know Michael W. for awhile now.  Anyone who knows him can testify to his unbounded kindness and generosity.  His work, his success, his spirit, they all inspire me.  Even as I write this I feel sheepish and uncertain about the idea of photographs taken by me, appearing on a page with photographs taken by him.  But I know that nothing good can come from doing nothing, and maybe there's a  connection I can't see yet.  Maybe it hasn't been made known to me.  Maybe ten years from now, I'll point back to this moment or another, spawned by this one.

As for Michael W., I know that he'll always be the wonderful person he had to be in order to have his own unique brand of success.  These things are bound indelibly together...the character of our person, our actions, and their outcomes.  I wish for Michael continued happiness and success, and I know that I am very glad that he is a fellow citizen of Porkopolis.

See Michael's beautiful work at

photo by steve metz                                                                                                                                michael w., photographer

film canisters, michael's basement
photo by steve metz


  1. When I first saw the dogs, the cover of All Shook Down, I was drawn in and fixated for the feeling that it had drawn out of me. It is a photograph with power for me, that I like to refer to as Art. As the "Mats" tour stopped at Cincinnati's Bogart's, my place of employment at the time, I was overjoyed at the prospect of letting the mats know just how much the cover art had effected me. It was one of the pleasures of my life while telling this bit of personal experience to Paul Westerberg that he looked at me and said "Here, you tell him yourself", he turned to his friend next to him and said, "Michael, this is nobody", and then i said something.

    1. "It was one of the pleasures of my life while telling this bit of personal experience to Paul Westerberg that he looked at me and said "Here, you tell him yourself", he turned to his friend next to him and said, "Michael, this is nobody", and then i said something."

      Haha! Charming. To some of us.

  2. inspiring article and photos...c

  3. Insightful article about one of my favorite people.

  4. 20 years ago seems like yesterday

  5. beautifully written. thank you. we are big fans of michael and have been grateful for his beautiful work on our own albums. good man. good eye.