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Heroes & Villains, Tatiana Wills and Roman Cho's New Book of Badass Photos of Street Artists, Graphic Novelists, and Everyone in Between

Natalia Fabia, painter
Natalia Fabia, painter
Wills/Cho

Check out our slideshow of photos from the book: "Heroes & Villains: Los Angeles Painters, Street Artists and Graphic Novelists"

In looking at the portraiture that encompasses the sublime new coffee table book Heroes & Villains by Tatiana Wills and Roman Cho, you might notice that the photograph of illustrator Travis Milliard is so 2005. You would be right.

Released just last week, yet started six years ago as a personal photography project, Heroes & Villains may serve as a reference book on the alternative side of contemporary art, encompassing everyone from street artists to graphic novelists, with a few realist painters as well. Instead of the work, the photographs are of the actual artists, most of them taken when they were on the cusp of their current careers.

Being based in Los Angeles lent the project an important local flavor. In fact, the prints of the project first debuted at Corey Helford Gallery and the Beyond Eden contemporary art fair. Many of the people photographed for the book have since skyrocketed to the tops of curators lists' worldwide, like Retna and Liz McGrath, while it also reminds us of modern influences like Robert Williams, Matt Groening, Mark Ryden and Tony Millionaire.

As you page through the simple compositions and the strong visual personalities, one appreciates how much the artists actually remind you of their creations, kind of how people resemble their pets.

The photos in Heroes & Villains offer a unique look into the usually clandestine world of these creators. LA Weekly caught up to the two photographers on the eve of the book's release and asked them about how heroes and villains get made in the art world.

How long did you know your subjects before you shot them?

Tatiana Wills: It varies. A lot of times we would look at them via internet, check out their work, what people were saying about them. Many times we would meet them in person, but not always. We did our best to do a couple of phone calls with them before we ever got them in front of the lens. A majority of the time we saw the work first.

Roman Cho: Sometimes we had weeks to prepare and some of the people were on our list for a long time. Other times we would hear from a curator or a gallery owner, "You know, you should check him out or her out" and then that night we would photograph them. It spanned from knowing them for 15 minutes or stalking them.

TW: A lot of these people are who they are. They just sort of exude whatever it is that they put into their work...They kind of can't help themselves.

Is there anyone you didn't get? That you really regret not having in the book?

RC: As long as our wish list is, the list of people we didn't get might be longer. One person I really regret not photographing is Harvey Pekar.

TW: A lot of the people that were more established and get a lot of requests for stuff like this were much more difficult to get. Art Spiegelmann said, "I'm old, people don't want to see a picture of me." A lot of the comic book artists were the most challenging. They do what they do a lot of times especially in the indie comic world because they're recluses and that part of the appeal.

Is there a special trick to photographing a shy subject?

TW: Making someone comfortable. A lot of times they'd be very anxious and once they saw the images we were doing, then they would always say the same thing: "You guys are actually good"...and then they would relax. Persistence paid off.

Why did you pick artists?

RC: The project started after Tatiana hired me for a photo job when I was still assisting. She ran the photo department at a movie/advertising agency. We had fun working with each other and then she left to pursue her interest in her own photography and we're like, "Let's do a project."

First it was going to be about Vegas but we could never get our schedules together. Tatiana has a family and a kid, and I'm kinda busy, so you know, it was never going to happen. I noticed that the alt-comics artists were getting more and more prominent in our culture, and thought that'd be a cool thing to document.

TW: We were both looking for a personal project, something that incorporated more portraiture. My husband and I were always really into street art and he collected a lot of prints and had a lot of artist friends and I thought it be interesting to photograph them. Of course, I had to pick the most challenging thing I could possibly imagine. Impossible. Of course they were anxious about showing their faces, but they still let me do it, so I thought this would be really great 20 years down the road when they don't care anymore.

When the arrest warrants are null and void.

RC: Exactly.

TW: I figured it would take me that long to get something going. A labor or love. And that was something Roman and I had discussed, the accessibility and their colorful attitudes.

RC: We saw a lot of correlation between the two scenes, alternative art and comics. And their standing in the art world and the culture at large. Outcasts and misfits.

Who did you shoot first?

RC: Our first official shoot was Travis Milliard and Mel Kadel. Although the portrait of Mel actually used in the book is from a later session.

TW: Sometimes we were able to photograph people several times to get where we wanted to be with the project.

Who did you shoot last?

RC: Eric White. Last year we did a New York trip and got a lot of the New York artists. It was fun. Eric White on a rooftop -- an overcast day, about to storm.

TW: We thought we were going to get struck by lightning. It was 104 degrees.

How did you split the workload? What's the benefit of working as a team?

RC: We took turns photographing, but we always came up with the ideas together. In the six years that we worked on this, we shot about 250 artists. That's a lot of work for one person. Especially when you're coordinating everything. There's no crew behind this, no production managers, just us.

TW: Behind the scenes, I would do a lot of the contacting and Roman did a lot of the post work. We used our strengths.

In the commercial world, we work as teams on every single thing. Sometimes the photographer would bring a crew and there was never a question whether the art director would be there. I would work on a film for two years before we got the poster -- a huge collaboration. In the fine art world, if you're working as a team, it's like, oh, they must be either married or they can't do good work independently. Our situation seems unique to a lot of people.

Is there a formula that you guys follow to keep the work looking consistent?

TW: It happened relatively easily. We had to be very streamlined. One light, simple. Classic, We kept it mostly about the person. Elaborate sets didn't feel right. Both of us are purists that way.

What did showing the work first in the gallery do for you?

RC: It made us known to the subjects and their world. At first, we would call the artists and explain the project and they'd be like, "what is this about?" Right after the Corey Helford show, it was, "Oh yeah! That's you? I'll definitely be part of it." It became easier.

What kind of feedback have you gotten from the subjects?

RC: The only other comments are "Wow I looked so different then." It's gratifying for me to see everyone finally being validated by other people.

TW: They're proud to be part of it. I think it makes them feel good. I know that Lori Early was really flattered that we asked her -- and she's huge. We all kind of came up together and the book feels real and not forced. We were documenting the scene as it was happening...It reinforced what all of us were feeling but was never affirmed.

Was there something about being in Los Angeles that allowed you to nurture your project and make it successful?

TW: Yeah. It's the main reason it happened the way it did. The art community was very different six years ago from what it is now. Galleries were popping up and a lot of sponsorship was happening. Very exciting and fringe. We could document what was already happening, and what we thought was going to happen.

RC: A lot of the important artists worked here in L.A. or would come to show here. It made it easier for us to get artists from France or New York. It definitely says something about L.A., without making it a specific L.A. project.

Do you each have a favorite photo in the book?

TW: Anders [Nilsen]. I like it as a picture, what happened at the shoot, his art. That has a lot to do with it.

RC: I have lots. Lori Early, Liz McGrath, Gabrielle Bell. She's beautiful. I love the Kozyanddan. Dave Kinsey. I still find BBs -- Kozyanddan, we shot at my place, and I use my living room as a studio. If you notice in the photo, there are balloons near the ceiling and balloons on the ground. It would have killed us if we had to blow up all the balloons with our lungs, so we had to use helium. And how do you get a helium filled balloon to stay on the ground? So the day before the shoot we were filling balloons up with BBs.

TW: We had to fill up the balloon with just the right amount of helium to fulfill helium to BB ratio.

RC: Every once in awhile, we'd fill one up and it would blow -- and the BBs went everywhere! We broke lights, the landlord screamed at us. Of course it was 11 p.m. That was 2006 and to this day I'm still finding BBs under a camera cart or under the couch.

Does the book spell the end to the project? What's next?

TW: In order for this to remain what it is, it's done. We don't want to stay too long at the party. This is a time capsule. I'm anxious to work on some other projects, I know Roman probably is as well.

RC: People who make film, by the time the film comes out, they've moved on. That's where we are right now. If we were to do another installation of Heroes and Villains, it would definitely be very different.

TW: All the gallery owners have asked why we have done one on them yet; I literally got asked that question yesterday!

What's hanging on your walls right now?

TW: Our entire living room is all Shepard Fairey prints. It sounds psychotic, but it looks pretty cool. We put our money where our mouth is -- supporting the scene.

RC: My work from a previous project about carnivals. I should probably bring out the Heroes and Villains prints -- they're pretty inspirational.

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