Faces dance with color, distortion, and detail. Lines in the skin become energy trails, mapping the history of a soul. The curling fronds of a fern are ethereal, and the textures and layers of a flower are heightened and deepened—turned to magic.
Happy Wilder’s photography has taken him around the globe. He works with long exposures and the organic manipulation of light to uncover what is hidden and express the power of each subject (whether human or not). And looks can be deceiving: because although his photographs appear to be digitally enhanced, they have received almost no editing.
Intrigued by Wilder’s focus on process over product, I asked him how he developed his creative methods—and what he strives to represent in the images he makes. His perspective on art, creativity, and being human is full of positivity and courage.
Read on to learn more about Wilder’s work, and step into the conversation that each of his photographs can open up.
“Fascination in combination with imagination…”
“I’ve always had a vivid imagination,” Wilder said, explaining that he was driven to turn the pictures in his mind into actual photographs. He felt “a longing to show what is hidden,” which made a slow, manual approach to photography appealing to him.
“Long shutter speeds can show us the stars between the stars or even the milky way. Merged with light paint the open shutter will show the movement of colors compressed into a single photograph…this fascinates me. So I think it’s the fascination in combination with imagination that’s been pushing me to try new things.”
Right now, Wilder is experimenting with acrylic colors, along with other mediums; exploring new ways to make photographs; with the creative process beginning well before he clicks the shutter.
The playfulness in Wilder’s approach is reflected in the photos he creates. They sing with a kind of unselfconsciousness and fearlessness. And that’s no accident. He says, “for me the experience of the photoshoot is as important as the photos that come out of it.”
This idea lights up my inner anthropologist. I remember reading Tim Ingold’s work about human creativity and the act of thinking through making. Wilder seems to be exploring his humanness, and his creativity, in every image.
The power of ritual
“I believe in the power of rituals,” Wilder says. And when photographing people in particular, “a ritual from my side…creates a space for the participant to feel safe and taken care of. That will generate an honest and calm expression,” which he values as a vital element to allow him to represent each person’s truth in front of the camera.
He wants each photo to represent a positive memory for the subject, too. This is a far cry from the world of commercial photography, where emotion is manufactured without much care for what a model is feeling. “I think the memories associated with the photos should symbolize something meaningful for the model,” Wilder explains, “so the ritual we create around the photoshoot is of great importance.”
He weaves aspects of meditative practices or mindfulness into this ritual process, guiding the subject into a state of stillness, and encouraging them to reflect on an experience or project an inner value out onto the image that model and photographer are creating together. In this way, the product—the image—is not so much a static thing but an active object. “As the photograph is unique, it’s a great subject for channeling intentions.” It becomes a reminder for the model, a personal totem to connect and reconnect them with an intention or experience that adds something to their life.
Ritual allows for connection
Wilder’s focus on ritual and process facilitates connection on several levels. It allows him to meet models—people—on a level, to build a collaborative experience with them, even if they begin without much common ground. And in doing so, he says that as well as feeling “the excitement of finding and portraying the true nature of a being,” he finds that his own experiences and history flow through the photographs he makes.
He understands that he’s not an impartial observer or an objective image-taker. And I think of another anthropologist, Clifford Geertz, who argued—in his book The Interpretation of Culture—that anthropologists shouldn’t try to become “native” or to mimic the communities they study, but to “to converse with them, a matter a great deal more difficult”.
Wilder’s photos feel like conversations. Even the ones that aren’t of people; the photographs of plants and flowers feel like conversations with those organisms. Going deeper than small talk, and drawing out the intensity and beauty that exists within.
He has learned that “the process is just as important for me as the model or setting. How beautiful and sacred the ritual can be, and how it shows in the pictures. The trust that must be given for someone to open up has to be present—even when we don’t talk the same language, or don’t have the same worldview.”
So the connection that Wilder creates with each subject enables connection beyond that moment. It’s the magic that makes you and I, looking at one of his photographs, feel as though we’re entering into the conversation. The experience of photographer and subject at the moment the image was taken continues and can be felt again and again.
Going slow in a fast world
Wilder’s light photography is made with fiber optic lamps, a tripod, and a long shutter speed that captures the movement of the lamps and colored light. He notes that the “sometimes universe-like lights and colors are made when the small microscopic lamps hit the surface. In a photoshoot, I usually take over five hundred photos, so the arsenal of colors and light that comes through is really interesting and every photograph is unique.”
And once created, these photographs are unedited. The complexity, the color and the movement all come about from that manual process. To me, the idea of making an image that looks as though it’s been made on a computer, without involving digital processes at all, feels a little subversive. It’s a subtle word in the global conversation about technology and lifestyle; a reminder that real life doesn’t always need to be perfected or enhanced, because it can be incredibly beautiful, just as it is.
“As a photographer,” Wilder says, “to be able to say that it is a single photograph and not a collage or digitally made is of big importance to me. I think it many ways the analog crafting is more exotic these days, and it shows in the visual media that there is a longing to go back to that genuine feel.”
“Don’t get me wrong,” he adds, “I love my Photoshop and the creations I make there. But in-camera is something different.”
“…stay calm and just breathe through the fireworks”
The optimism that feeds into every aspect of Wilder’s work is refreshing and infectious. He wants to facilitate confidence, peace, and presence—using photography as a tool for a meditative journey and a way to add a positive experience to the lives of others.
“I want to capture the raw human behind all those learned behaviors. I love the captured stillness within the surrounding chaos. It feels like a representation of the 21st century human with our ongoing mission—to stay calm and just breathe through the fireworks.”
If there’s one thing I took from exploring Wilder’s photographs, it’s this: don’t be afraid to have a real conversation. Trust others to hear you. And let that experience of connecting with someone—or something—become an uplifting reminder in your life: a reminder that you are meant to be here.