DigitalReport030507

Photography: Byll Williams

By Published on .

Byll Williams didn't even know how to load film into his camera when he decided he was going to be a photographer. In fact, he didn't even have a camera. A decade ago, as he tells it, the L.A.-based shooter was sitting at a desk, dressed in a suit and tie, making cold calls for a temp agency, when he noticed a picture in a magazine of a photographer on a shoot, wearing shorts and a T-shirt and surrounded by models. He promptly quit his job and moved out of his apartment and into his Buick Skylark. The next stop was the local camera shop, where, with the money he saved on rent, he bought a $288 twin-lens Yashica and a flash. "I want to be a photographer," he announced - then the salesman showed him how to insert the film.

Williams, now 37, is a high school dropout who was no shutterbug in his youth, never had any formal training in his craft and never assisted. But after years of "falling on his face," as he puts it, he now handles every aspect of his projects from set design to retouching, all of which he conducts out of his studio, off the beaten path in Chatsworth, Calif., where clients are starting to beat a path to him. He's shot for the likes of Compaq, Sony, Dell and Kellogg's, and his most recent projects (see Byllwilliams.com) include chimerical photographs for Eclipse, in which anthropomorphic stinkers like a leek and an onion flee from the halitosis-fighting gum, and for Kawasaki, where we see an ATV preparing to do wheelies on a roller coaster.

But such jobs are a far cry from his dues-paying origins. He spent his formative years shooting mugshots of insurance salesmen for business cards. Williams eventually graduated to product photography for local businesses out of a tiny studio in an industrial section of the San Fernando Valley, better known for housing skinflick productions than high-end advertising shoots. Williams never dipped into any of that, but ironically enough, he started to get some action with a blowup doll. "Mandy" was the star of a gritty documentary-style series of mailers he sent to agents and ad agencies while building his portfolio. The promo quietly situates the rubber babe in various scenarios - standing in line, sitting at a bar, having sex. With no real client base or even an agent, he devoured the sourcebooks, attempting to identify a lucrative niche, which turned out to be that of a set specialist with a flair for the inconspicuously absurd, or what he describes as "fake done well." Now represented by Lisa Ellison, Williams' portfolio is replete with bizarre scenes like Mandy's that appear to be absurd film stills, brimming with details that encourage scrutiny. "I shove as much information into one frame as in a 30-second commercial," he claims. The insertion of a ludicrous element - as in an ad for Kellogg's, where a box of Corn Pops gets high security in a python's embrace, or for Wienerschnitzel, where a racehorse inserts itself through a doggy door - shows Williams' darkly comic bent, but also hints that the photographs are unmistakably products of his precise design.

Simple lighting techniques, semi-maniacal attention to building his sets (he glued down every piece of trash on a post-Mardi Gras Bourbon Street set for Extra gum), as well as his own digital work, go into crafting his single-frame cinema. His setups look so real that one of his biggest problems is being mistaken for a location shooter. Moreover, he photographs only actors, to whom he gives very specific directions. He says the guy who played the Eclipse hot dog shredded his vocal chords in an effort to comply with instructions to scream like he was about to get snuffed. "A lot of photographers like to build everything up to the final frame," Williams explains. "I like the camera to be completely anonymous. I want to shoot through the idea. There's a story there. It was going on before you got there, it continues when you leave, but you got to see one frame in the middle."

Williams' style seems to have great potential for a crossover into TV. "I do have my eyes on directing," he says, "but it would have to be the right spot. I so thoroughly enjoy being a slightly bigger fish in a slightly smaller pond, as opposed to the much larger pond of TV."

Most Popular