+ By Emmy Nicklin  + Photos by John Bildahl

You’ve probably seen it—a line of legs, dressed in crisp, Navy whites, all in a row, all with neatly laced shoes, all male, save one. There, in the middle, bare and crossed with just the right tilt, is a pair of female cadet legs. Navy Legs is a striking and powerful image with a nod to refined pop and curiosity, a trademark of John Bildahl photography.

With more than 40 years of experience shooting everything from products to yachts to fashion to fine art, it’s hard to believe that Bildahl’s photography career began serendipitously, in the Fiji duty-free shop, while he was en route to Australia. There, the 18-year-old bought his very first camera, a Mamiya-Sekor 35mm, before enrolling at the University of Sydney and taking pictures for the school newspaper. “I did more of that than go to class, actually,” he says.

Eventually, Bildahl finished his undergraduate and graduate degrees stateside before heading to New York City to work with fashion photographer megastars Hiro and Dick Frank while shooting product still life—that is, creatively depicting inanimate subject matter—for 10 years. “That was back when New York was raw,” says Bildahl with a glint in his eye, “dangerous and fun.” When asked why he left, Bildahl laughs. “I wanted to live to be older . . . I saw a limit to my capacity to endure the concrete, the jungle there.”

And so he left the concrete in favor of water—an element he’d always been drawn to ever since spending childhood summers on the Rappahannock River near Montross, Virginia. When he moved to Annapolis, more than 30 years ago, Bildahl immediately started taking pictures of yachts. “I’ve always loved being on the water. I grew up with boats. Little boats, big boats, boats with motors, boats without motors.” His work has appeared in almost every boating magazine imaginable—Yachting, Sail, Cruising World, Power & Motoryacht, PassageMaker, Boating, Chesapeake Bay Magazine, Soundings, WoodenBoat . . . the list goes on. He estimates that he’s shot more than 100 covers for Chesapeake Bay Magazine alone.

When he’s not on the water, Bildahl shoots events and people. More recently, he’s been collaborating on creative projects such as his latest with advertising legend Alan Weitzman (Up.St.ART spring 2017 issue). With Bildahl as photographer and Weitzman as the subject clad in dusty cowboy attire, the two have created another, grittier world through a photo series featuring a character of their own creation: Alamo Joe. In one image, Alamo Joe is presented in dramatic light on a dilapidated chair in the old abandoned barbershop of Philadelphia’s Eastern State Penitentiary. “It’s an amazing image,” says Weitzman. “You can’t see the face in it. It becomes the archetypal image of the American cowboy.”

Bildahl draws inspiration from photo icons Walker Evans and Richard Avedon, and their straightforward way of looking at things. “Pictures don’t always have to be pretty,” he says, “but they just have to be really desirable and suck you in . . . I have a taste for the bizarre and the grit and the underbelly.” 

Weitzman adds, with affection and admiration for his friend, “John has an acute sense of curiosity. Creative people always do.” That curiosity and the need to explore are fundamental to Bildahl’s work. “I’m going out with my radar for curiosity wide open,” he says of his creative process, which he later refers to as “trolling for serendipity.” “I’m receptive to people I see and open to new situations that I never thought would be presented to me. And this can come in different forms and different ways . . . Can just be something when you get back home—you go, ‘Man, I’m glad I went out because that happened.’”

In all his years of shooting, Bildahl has not lost his wonder of and joy for the craft. If anything, he is even more curious, more energized, and more inspired than ever before. “I wake up every day and think about the same thing: photography. I think about it now, more than I ever have. And I’m really excited about that . . . I don’t know where it’s all going, but [I know] it’ll be a good trip.”

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