Stepping into photographer William Ukoh’s 'WILLYVERSE' is like entering a fantastical dream. Inside you'll discover colorful images that fall somewhere between fantasy and reality. WILLYVERSE, a play on words based on “William’s Universe,” is Ukoh’s online space where he shares his recent works and photographic vision via Instagram and his website.
Although skilled across several creative mediums, Ukoh's fashion photography is where his talent shines brightest. He has been commissioned by the likes of Adidas Canada, GQ and Vogue, and also worked closely with The Folklore brands Andrea Iyamah, Loza Maléombho, and Orange Culture. Outside of his commissioned photography, Ukoh likewise ventures into portraiture and documentary photography, though he explains that fashion remains a key component in all of his work as an important storytelling device.
Though he is now based in Toronto, Canada, the Lagos-born Ukoh takes great inspiration from his childhood in Nigeria. His heritage often plays a central role in his personal work, such as a 2018 body of work entitled 'Okobo', which documented the experiences of a Nigerian couple whose style was inspired by his grandparents. Okobo is a region in southeastern Nigeria from which Ukoh’s grandfather hails. Ukoh also prefers to use Black models in his personal work, noting that it feels most authentic to tell his stories with people that look like him.
Growing up, Ukoh never sought to pursue photography. In school, he studied computer science, and later graduated from Ryerson University in Toronto with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in film. He knew early that he could best express himself through a more visual medium. During this time, he began to work with a DSLR camera after his sister had brought one home for a class, and it was there his fascination with photography was born. Ukoh’s technical, STEM-based background, combined with his training in film, are demonstrated through the highly symmetrical but theatrical quality of his images.
Since starting his career as a photographer, Ukoh’s personal and editorial photography has quickly gained popularity among the arts and fashion communities. So far this year, he has photographed designer Andrea Iyamah’s Spring Summer 2020 lookbook, exhibited his show 'The Prism Effect' at the Harbourfront Centre in Toronto, and shot Latin reggaeton phenom Maluma for the cover of GQ Spain. On Instagram, he boasts a following of 42,000 and counting, and often features fellow artists through photography and other short-form mediums to highlight their work.
When speaking with Ukoh, it is abundantly clear that he is a true artist. It's recognizable in the way he thinks, approaches his work, and makes visual statements. Through his photography, Ukoh has developed a unique style of his own. His bright, crisp images have a dreamlike and exaggerated quality almost reminiscent of a Salvador Dali painting. He favors soft colors to evoke a feeling of calm, plays with optical illusions of the body, and photographs on-site locations that prove challenging to exactly place since the backdrops are clouded with cotton candy skies.
As Ukoh invites the viewer into his world, rich with beauty and feeling, his photographs also offer thoughtful composition that satisfies the eye. Whether figural or architectural, each image is perfectly arranged with an acute level of symmetry and balance, a nod to Ukoh’s interest in Renaissance art as well as his formal education. But a modern da Vinci he is not; Ukoh’s WILLYVERSE is a one-of-a-kind feat of its own, with a distinctive look that’s hard to miss.
The Folklore spoke with photographer William Ukoh about his photographic inspiration, creative process, and purpose as an artist.
What photography equipment is a must-have for you? Do you play around with digital enhancement?
Across all the styles I utilize, my camera is the only constant. So I won't say any one thing is a must have. Photoshop is a go-to tool; not necessarily to alter the image, but to complete the vision.
Do you have a certain creative process leading up to a shoot?
Details may vary from shoot to shoot, but some non-negotiables exist. Going into the process would be a whole conversation on its own. But I strive for clear communication of the idea across all departments involved. That way everyone comes in with a unified vision and goal.
What challenges you about photography?
Communicating a story and message in the most efficient way. Because, unlike film, you are not afforded the luxury of 1000 frames to tell a story. I like to approach it how I imagine a painter would approach a piece; with careful thought and consideration for the details.
Are you inspired by other artists, whether photographers or those who explore other mediums? Who are they?
I'm always inspired by people who are driven, and aren't afraid of growth. I find that those qualities always present themselves in the works they produce. Right now, I'm inspired by Kanye West, Nick Knight, Andrea Iyamah, and the worlds and characters created by Hayao Miyazaki and Satoshi Kon.
What do you hope people feel when they view your work?
For my sake, I like to inject a sense of calm into my work through the poses, compositions, and colors. I can hope people feel the same, but the way they feel is entirely up to the individual. I think that encourages more conversations around any piece.
What is your relationship to fashion photography?
Fashion is part of everyone's life. We form identities around the ways we choose to dress. So the question "What do the clothes say about the person?" is something I often explore in my work. In this way, “fashion” is ubiquitous in my work.
What do you love about Africa’s rapidly evolving design industry?
It's in a place where it's rethinking everything that was 'expected' of African design. This has allowed for an outpour of courage, creativity and innovation.
What’s coming up next for you?
I am focused on building the world of WILLYVERSE. I'm interested in seeing what form it takes.
Words by Olivia Starr