Columbus, Ohio USA
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Will Shively
Starting over at 64
By Jory Farr
July/August 2013 Issue

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Will Shively © Photo | Larry Hamill

A year after I moved from California to Ohio, shell-shocked from a divorce with kids, stranded in the vapid village of Worthington, I found myself broken and lonely. Then, one Gallery Hop night that winter I met Somali photographer Abdi Roble and my life took a turn for the better. Roble took me to all the important stops for those in thrall to the lens. Stop one was Midwest Photo Exchange, the great, sprawling camera shop in Clintonville. Stop two was Roble’s basement, a holy destination for camera aficionados, where film was developed day and night. And stop three, a pilgrimage on Hop night, was a visit to Gallery 853 on Pearl Street, just off High, and its founder, photographer Will Shively.

Tall and slim, with long frizzy hair, piercing blue eyes, wild, bushy eyebrows, three earrings hanging from each lobe and dozens of shiny silver bracelets covering his tattooed wrists, Shively cut an exotic figure. With his irrepressible smile and style, he looked more like a rock star than a photographer.

“Can I intern with you, Will?” Roble said jokingly one Gallery Hop night. Roble wasn’t serious; he was up to his neck leading the Somali Documentary Project. But Will’s studio was the bomb.

The gallery was sleek and white, modeled after New York standards, renovated to Shively’s meticulous specifications. It wasn’t just a photography studio; it had a gallery. By day, Shively shot architecture, models, corporate work – the full gamut of commercial photography. But on a Gallery Hop night, Gallery 853 showed photographs by promising amateurs and advanced students who perhaps didn’t have an adequate chance to show. Meanwhile, playing live at Gallery 853 each month was a different, in-your-face rock band. For Shively loved rock and roll.

Gallery 853 became a go-to destination for me. When I needed copies of vintage family photos, I went to Shively who, to my surprise, refused to charge me any money. I’m sure I saved hundreds of dollars and I couldn’t have been the only recipient of his kindness.

“When I bought the Pearl Avenue building in 1999 I went in with the intention of being a part of the community,” Shively told me when I finally caught up with him recently at Cup o’ Joe in the Short North. “I wanted pristine spaces to shoot and show photographs. I hung to gallery standards. I never thought, ‘I want to make $10,000 for this show.’ But we did sell many photographs.”

Storms of change lay on the horizon. Digital photography would be taken up by millions of amateurs in the mid-2000s and undercut the profit of studios like Shively’s. And then came the housing nightmare.

In fact, I had lost track of Shively after he lost his Grandview studio –– the successor to Gallery 853, which had to be sold in a divorce – to Huntington Bank. This was around 2010, and like many business owners, he fell innocent victim to the toxic mortgages that swept though the country, decimating the housing industry and sending aftershocks throughout the economy.

“When the housing market crashed, my business crashed,” Shively said. “People stopped advertising. Homes were repossessed. Everyone was scared shitless. There was nothing I could do.”

Shively had fallen behind two months on the mortgage when the bank called one day to say he had two days to bring in the full amount due on the studio or they would call the loan.”

“That meant I had to come up with all the money I owed them – $375,000,” says Shively. “I had an attorney, but the bank wouldn’t work with us. They had me by the short hairs. I had to make an itemized list of what I had for the bank: computers, cameras, furniture, lighting equipment, everything. And when the liquidators came they seized it all, down to the last camera. And turned around and sold the studio for far less than it was worth.”

“What did you do that night?” I asked.

Shively shook his head. I slept in my car for two nights. It was December. And I was with my two poodles and my two cats. Then I went to see Eliza Blue, my oldest daughter, in Saint Augustine, Florida. And I became a beach bum for a year and a half, helping them out with an architectural project and chores.”

More troubles lay ahead for Shively. When he moved back to Columbus last year, he managed to secure a studio in the Milo Arts Center, located on East Third Avenue in Columbus. The space needed work and Shively addressed it with gusto, putting in rock maple floors, giving attention to every detail.

But one day, while he was renovating the studio’s loft, Shively fell 14 feet, landing on his head. Though he got lucky – if he fell at a slightly different angle he might have died or become a paraplegic – he nevertheless broke vertebrae and bones and suffered a severe concussion, creating a situation where certain messages to his brain aren’t getting through.

“The impact of the fall created massive fatigue, depression and anxiety. And I also suffer from PTSD,” says Shively, who visits doctors at OSU under a special program for indigents.

Shively, 64, was born in South Queens, Long Island and moved to Columbus with his family in 1964. He majored in art at OSU, but when he realized he couldn’t make a living as a studio artist – he had kids and a wife to support – he decided to become a photographer. He devoured photography books, experimented with film and cameras ceaselessly.

“At the beginning I knew nothing about photography; I had no clue. But when I had gained knowledge, I told my friends, neighbors, people in the art and design industry that I was available for hire. I was fortunate to know a lot of people and have a low enough price. And gradually work came my way.”

These days, Shively says he has some clients, but problems stemming from the concussion are preventing him from being fully employed. He takes his fall from grace philosophically. For years he ran a successful business. But a twist of fate has him starting over at 64.

“Do you ever dream of opening up another photography business like Gallery 853?” I asked. Shively grinned.

“No, nothing like that again. But I do dream of publishing a book of photographs from Ballet Met where I’ve been shooting for 36 years. Ballet is a moving subject and the dancers form a dynamic image. It will be a beautiful book some day, and I’ll design it.”

© 2013 Short North Gazette, Columbus, Ohio. All rights reserved.

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