When Will Sullivan was young his father called him “Eagle Eye” for his ability to see things that others couldn’t.
“I was always able to pick out little details within a scene. Like sharks’ teeth for example. I could always find sharks’ teeth on the beach when nobody else did. One time my mom lost a diamond out of her ring and I found the diamond in a bed of rocks. So early on a realized I had a visual skill that was a little bit different.”
Will was able to turn that visual skill into a career in photography. He has done work for the likes of Architectural Digest, Coastal Living, Outdoor Photographer, Better Homes and Gardens, Time, People. He has collaborated with some big names in the industry, like famous nature photographer John Shaw and National Geographic’s underwater photographer David Doubilet. His experience has ranged from the microscopic to the panoramic, including upwards of 4500 flight hours in a Cessna 172.
“I did 10-years of aerial photography for Aerial Innovations in Nashville. Now, every time I fly, I’ve got to take pictures out the window. I always get the window seat.”
He is now based here in Santa Rosa Beach.
“I still work for Aerial Innovations, for a couple magazines, and for Emerald Coast Real Estate Photography. I met the owners of that company in Nashville. That’s what brought me down here. I bought a house sight-unseen in Aug 2013 and moved here.”
Will grew up in Knoxville, Tennessee, just down the road from Oak Ridge, birthplace of the atomic bomb. All four of his grandparents, on both sides of the family, were involved in the top-secret Manhattan Project. His mom’s step-dad, Alvin Weinberg, was a top administrator at Oak Ridge National Laboratory during and after the development of the first atomic weapons and later became its director. His paternal grandfather and namesake, William H. Sullivan, was the Lab’s chief chemist. The family still has in its possession letters of correspondence from Albert Einstein, Neils Bohr and Robert Oppenheimer.
The next generation of the family also pursued scientific careers. Will’s dad became an industrial engineer. His mom got a degree in psychology. His uncles were all doctors – a plastic surgeon, a radiologist, an anesthesiologist.
“We had these parties growing up where basically you’d have all these scientists from all over Oak Ridge there at the party talking about physics and nuclear power and green energy and all that kind of stuff. These guys were all about saving the world.”
Will enrolled in the biology program at the University of Tennessee. His plan was to eventually go to medical school.
“I was doing very well at first. And then I took a couple classes like organic chemistry and I kind of bombed out. I didn’t fail it. I dropped it. I was like ‘yeah, I don’t think I want to be a doctor.’ The irony with the chemistry is that my grandfather rewrote the periodic table and I can’t even get past organic chemistry.”
His grandfather, the nuclear chemist, died the year before Will was born. So he never met the man who, ironically, had always himself wanted to be a photographer.
The Dark Room
Will got his first professional style SLR camera before he was a teenager.
“I remember picking up a camera and being fascinated that you could just push a button and record a moment in time. Then you get it back a week later at Walgreens or Super X or whatever the drugstore was at the time. And I just loved that. The permanence of the moment.”
During summer breaks the family would visit national parks.
“I had that love for the American West. The desert, the mountains. And I still do. Some of the pictures I took when I was that age I still sell. They were good. I realized right away that I had a talent for it. It was in my blood. I went back to the University of Tennessee and continued on with biology. I thought maybe I should go into conservation. But at the same time I wanted to help with the cause, you know? To contribute to the future. I realized I could do that with photography. I could help preserve the world with the pictures I took.”
Will enrolled in the professional photography program at the Colorado Mountain College, high in the Rockies.
“I spent about two years in a dark room. I really dove into it and graduated with about a 3.82. I was the first one to graduate within that timeframe with Phi Theta Kappa honors. So I nailed it. I loved it. No organic chemistry.”
Cotton and Silk
Armed with his new credentials Will went to California to look for a job. The Los Angeles Times made him an offer. He declined. He would have been photographing celebrities and red-carpet events. Not the kind of thing he was interested in preserving for posterity. He was with a high school friend at the time. They literally flipped a coin. It was either San Francisco or Fort Collins.
In Colorado, after the coin toss, Will met Mark Lukes, founder of the North American Nature Photography Association, and he was hired.
“That company did all the reproduction for National Geographic photographers and for all these different artists. We did oil paintings, pastels, watercolors. I became an expert in reproducing somebody’s art on whatever media it was. I got to meet and establish a relationship with Timothy Treadwell, ‘The Grizzly Man.’ They made a movie about him. It was pretty sad what happened to him. He was a really great guy.
“We did some reproductions for the Denver Natural History Museum. We remastered all of Edward Curtis’s pieces. In my mind he’s probably the most important photographer that’s lived so far. He documented Native American cultures before they were gone forever.”
How did you reproduce these things?
“We start with the original photogravure, which is printed on silk. They had this kind of golden brown tint to them. Beautiful. Kind of a warm chocolate brown. That was the goal. To reproduce that warm, beautiful, golden chocolate-brown tone. We were able to remaster them digitally. We’d take an original from the museum and photograph it using a large format camera and then drum-scan the film. Then we would go in and clean up all the damaged areas and then reproduce them with all the same tone and texture and life that they would have originally had 100 years before. We were printing them onto 100% acid-free cotton or silk-cotton blend with hundreds of years of archivability.”
Ice and Fire
After years of preserving the work of other artists Will was ready for a change.
“We would get these original slides from photographers and we would get original paintings from all these great artists. Some of these artists, Scott Fraser for example, were selling their pencil sketches for around $50,000. They would actually send their originals to us. And we would reproduce them as accurately as we could on an archival substrate. I would see these slide sheets from all these expeditions around the world. About eight years into the job I caught the bug. I was like, I have to go do this myself.
“I bought an RV, printed out my own stuff, started a website, www.willsullivan.com. I printed 50 different images in five different sizes, put them in a trailer. Had them all framed and matted and mounted. I registered to a bunch of art shows, all juried, difficult to get into. I did this for about three years. I did pretty well. Sold a lot of pictures.”
Soon after arriving in Walton County Will was on the beach, taking sunset pictures, when he happened upon Haruko Shi, who was doing the same thing. They now own a home together and take annual photography excursions.
“We do these big trips every year. We go to special places and photograph them before they’re gone. For example, we went to Canada to photograph the glaciers last year. All we got was fire, from all the wildfires. We went to photograph ice and we got fire. So we photographed that instead.
“This year we did a trip to Jacob Hamblin Arch in the Escalante National Monument in southern Utah. We went down an 800-ft cliff which required some repelling and free climbing. We had full packs on for three days. I’ve been doing this my whole life. First time for Haruko. Another trip was Hwy 101. Started in Portland and drove all the way down to Trinidad, California, then back again.”
You seem to be drawn to the West. Why the Gulf Coast?
“This is a great place to come back to. This is a beautiful place to live. You should see what she and I have photographed here. There’s interesting real estate here, architecture, design. A lot of love, thought and passion goes into these things. And I get to photograph that stuff.”
Where do you see yourself in five years?
“I would like to start a gallery someday. We have some of the best stock footage of the 30A area. I’d like to think it could be the best gallery this area has ever seen.”