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Looking through an Affirming Lens

Steven Tilotta found his calling with body-positive portrait photography.

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Steven Tilotta (photos by Steven Tilotta)

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and for photographer Steven Tilotta, that beauty is found everywhere he looks. Armed with a camera and determination, he’s been capturing people’s best sides for six years now.

“I see beauty in everything. I find it in [things as ordinary as] oil stains on cement or textures. It is all around us,” his website reads. “I want to change the way we see ourselves.”

Tilotta’s portrait images have indeed changed the way people perceive their less-than-ideal physiques.

“I feel that we’ve been force-fed [ideas about] what is attractive by advertisers and marketers. It’s wonderful if someone spends all that time in the gym [to get the perfect body], but most guys don’t look like that. I want to show ‘real’ men. That’s how all of this started,” he says.

“A lot of my work deals with lighting and color grading. I believe that everyone has a light and a dark side. Most people stay in the middle, not wanting to go too good or too bad. I’m captivated by shadows and light, and how they play across people,” he says.

Considering all of the time and energy he has invested in his business, it’s shocking to think that this was a career path he almost didn’t take.

Tilotta always had a passion for working behind the camera. But in his first photography class in college, his instructor told him that he was not good at it. Tilotta immediately stopped shooting, and he wouldn’t pick up a camera again until he was in his 40s.

“It’s horrible for an educator to tell someone they’re not good at it. When it comes to art, there aren’t any rules,” he says.

It was when he started caring for his father, who was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, that his interest in photography was rekindled as a way to keep busy. Now, his days are filled with photo shoots and conversations with people volunteering as models for his upcoming projects.

Tilotta has his fair share of muscled men who pose for him, but he likes to feature all shapes and sizes in his work.

“I mostly photograph guys who are bigger and heavier. It’s an amazing feeling when they say, ‘Wow, I didn’t know I could look like that.’ It’s a great feeling to make them see themselves as attractive or beautiful,” he adds.

Several years ago, he started assembling his images to create annual calendars. It was mostly a passion project, but the calendars caught on and some of his best images are now immortalized annually. The limited-run editions sell fast and have become somewhat of a collector’s item. They also show Tilotta’s growth through the years, both in terms of talent and notoriety.

“It’s funny for me to look at an old calendar and see how my work has evolved. When I first started doing photography, I pretty much begged people to let me photograph them. I’m also very shy. It was hard at first to find models, but as time went on, people found me,” he says. “I had someone fly in from Australia to work with me. [Another model] found me on Instagram. I think guys are just seeking me out through word of mouth. I’m glad I have that problem.”

While Tilotta says his 2021 calendar will be his last one, he leaves open the possibility of a 2022 edition. After all, he swore off making the 2021 calendar that is currently being published.

One project his fans can count on is his book AS IS, to be released this month. The 210-page publication, featuring a forward by his friend O.T. Porter-Fisher, is true to the Tilotta aesthetic and filled with a variety of body-positive images.

“We should accept people ‘as is.’ It’s not just women who have body dysmorphia issues; men do, too. I photograph guys with six-pack abs, and they’re just as sensitive as guys who are overweight. In a time of inclusivity, it’s wrong to focus on just one body type,” he notes. “I hope it’s motivational. I hope everyone will find something they can relate to.”

Never one to let the dust settle, Tilotta is already in the planning stages for a book he hopes to release in 2021.

“What I want to do next is themed ‘red chair confessions.’ Everyone will pose with a red chair at different locations, and it won’t just be men. There will also be women, drag performers, and transgender people,” he says. “In each portrait, they’ll confess something. It can be funny, dark, or something they’ve never told anyone.”

For information on Tilotta’s limited-edition 2021 calendars, as well as his book AS IS and his portrait sessions, visit tilottaimages.com.

This article appears in the December 2020 edition of OutSmart magazine.

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Sam Byrd

Sam Byrd is a freelance contributor to Outsmart who loves to take in all of Houston’s sights, sounds, food and fun. He also loves helping others to discover Houston’s rich culture. Speaking of Houston, he's never heard a Whitney Houston song he didn't like.

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