Why I do what I do…

William Toti, Fine Art Photographer

My name is William Toti, and I am passionate about fine art photography.  As a child, it never occurred to me I was missing out on the beauty of the world, because the world I knew looked pretty much like the photo below.

Growing up in the steel town of Campbell, Ohio, most of the scenery I was exposed to was what you see here.  I delivered newspapers on the street fronting this mill.  The mill was the focus of every life in Campbell.  The ugliness didn’t bother. Without that ugliness people couldn’t eat.  There was beauty in that ugliness.

Upon graduation from high school I joined the Navy, not to see the world, but to become an astronaut.  Annapolis was a much more visually stunning place than my any place I had ever been before, giving me my first glimpses into a more photogenic world.

Academically, my interests had always been torn between the arts and the sciences. Unable to decide on a major, I selected an unlikely pair of dual majors: English and physics.  The art was what I loved.  The science is what (I had hoped) would get me into space.

But life had a different plan….

My dreams of becoming an astronaut would eventually come crashing down. Although I was nominated for the astronaut program, I failed the entrance eye exam.

So I continued with my fallback Navy career path- submarine duty. (After all, submarines are much like the space station: same atmosphere control systems, same level of stress, same sense of isolation.  But submarines actually operate in a much harsher environment than the International Space Station.)

This required me to focus more on the technical than the artistic. Nevertheless, the collision of arts and sciences would continue to influence me throughout my life.

My submarining days:  long months staring at the inside of a steel ship.

Over the course of my Navy career I estimate that I spent more than four years actually, physically, underwater.  That’s four years enclosed in a steel tube, where your visual experience consists of pastel bulkheads, piping, instruments, a nuclear reactor, and weapons systems.  Occassionally I would get to look out the periscope– infrequently at first, then by the time I was captain of the submarine, quite often.

The point is that the visual experience throughout the first half of my life was, to be coy, “understated.”

“Although I was forced by the next phase of my life– submarine duty– to focus more on the technical than the artistic, the collision of arts and sciences would continue to influence me throughout my life.”

Then one day, after I was transferred to “shore duty” in the Pentagon, a life-changing event happened, not just for me, but for the entire nation:

9/11.

I was in the Pentagon on 9/11, about a hundred yards away from the point of impact. Although I survived, many of my friends did not.  (It would be four hours before I was able to communicate with my wife to tell her I made it out alive.)

That day, and for a few days that followed, the images I was exposed to ranged from shocking ugly to intensely brutal.  Those images were seared into my brain to the extent that I couldn’t erase them.  I had gone from visual “starvation” to visual repugnancy.

Over the ensuing years I tried many things to drive those memories into the background of my consciousness.  I retired from the Navy. I took up various hobbies. Nothing helped.

Until I discovered photography.

Photography isn’t just an art, it’s a different way of seeing the world.

When you train your eye to make photos, you begin to see the world differently. Light takes on a new look.  You see texture and detail in shadow that you never noticed before.  You start noticing the “temperature of light.”  You can’t help but reflect on how the clouds are modulating the rays, and how that might be captured in an image.  Even driving, you begin to image the range of tonalities in a scene in front of you, how many exposure values might be represented, whether the scene would be best served under- or over-exposed.

In actual practice, getting all this right in camera must be planned.  It doesn’t happen accidentally.  That takes study of the scene in front of you, translation onto the “coordinate set” of your specific type of camera, and contemplation about how what you might want the end product to look like.

And all of this requires, deep, immersive thought.

I discovered that when I was in the field, presented with God’s beauty, contemplating all of these factors, my mind was clear, my heart was at peace, and my troubles were forgotten.

Redemption?

I first took up photography because it saved me.  Instead of ugliness, my mind was consumed by this:

Serpentine Vapors at Yosemite

Creatively, I learned that photography also satisfied my life-long interest in the confluence between the arts and the sciences.  There were technical aspects of the discipline that needed to be mastered. This was well within my capability.  After all, it wasn’t exactly “rocket science” (my master’s degree).

But the technical aspects were just the “price of entry” for making a good image. Making a great image required a certain aesthetic approach, an eye for subject, composition, light, the ability to translate a three-dimensional subject effectively into a two-dimensional expression.

This is the part that really intrigued me.  It’s the part that I grew to love the most.

As my work achieved greater recognition, I realized that people were able to see things and “visit” places through my images that they might not otherwise be able to see or visit.  So the second thing that kept me going was the feedback I was receiving from others.  

When it was suggested that I needed to provide an artist’s statement, I settled on this:

Artist Statement

“I am inspired to create images that have the ability to draw the viewer out of the trials and tribulations of their everyday lives, into the magnificence of creation.  I search for that fine line in an image: creative, even slightIy surreal, but realistic enough to reach out and touch.  I  chase the “decisive moment” in landscape photography, and succeed when the viewer, if only for a moment, becomes lost in the image, is filled with wonder that a place such as this might actually exist, becomes immersed in thought or in reflection.  It’s my desire that viewers achieve the same sense of escape that I did when I created the image.  In essence, the ability to take a series of ‘twenty-second vacations’ throughout the day.”

I hope you enjoy my work.

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