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Photographer Profile: Willis Bretz
Photographer Profile, Profiles

Photographer Profile: Willis Bretz

Our philosophy has always been to serve the global community of photographers and storytellers. Willis Bretz is a portrait and documentary photographer based in Washington, DC, that we have been inspired by. We took the time to get to know him a little better, to learn more about his passion for photography and how he can tell a story through his portraits.


Go to gear: 

Phase One XF with IQ1 50MP digital back paired with my Schneider Kreuznach 55mm f/2.8 LS lens or Mamiya 35mm f/3.5 and a Profoto B10 strobe that all fit perfectly in my Camps Bay backpack.

How did you choose photography as your creative medium?

In high school, I was a total computer nerd and got a job at Staples working in their computer department.  That is when I got my very first digital camera, a Sony Mavica that used 3.5” floppy disks.  I would take that camera with me everywhere.  Later in college, I had to take an art class and took a black and white photography course in the darkroom.  That’s when I was hooked.  I started shooting for my college newspaper and then for my local newspaper after I graduated.  And yes, I still have the Sony Mavica.

What goes into your creative process?

With a degree in history, I cannot stress enough how important research is when it comes to my work. I find that proper research for any size project can heavily impact how successful it will be.  I like to learn about the topic or people so that I have a full understanding of what it is I hope to photograph.  I will also look to see how similar projects or subjects have been photographed in the past so that I may create something different than what has already been done.  Whether it is personal work or an assignment I have been commissioned to photograph, going in blind without relevant knowledge is never a wise choice.

What project are you most proud of and why?

I would have to say that the project I am most proud of is my Bucktail project that I recently finished photographing.  For six years, I photographed fine art portraits of a group of U.S. Civil War reenactors known as the Pennsylvania Bucktails.  This project is the strongest work I have created thus far in my career as a photographer, and it was full of challenges.  The project eventually took on a whole new meaning as I eventually learned that some of the reenactors I photographed were descendants of the Bucktail soldiers who fought in the Civil War.  With the project finished, I feel incredibly proud when looking back at the collection of portraits I photographed and cherish the new friendships I’ve been blessed with along the way.  It doesn’t completely end there though.  I’m currently in the process of publishing a book of the portraits along with a brief history about the Bucktails.  When I started the project in 2016, I would have never imagined it becoming what it is today. 

Who / what is your biggest creative influence?

Current events and history are where I get a lot of my ideas for my personal work.  There is so much going on in the world today, and I love the idea of using photographs to help convey a message.  I am also captivated by the average person and always enjoy telling their story through photographs whether it be portraiture or documentary work.  Two photographers who truly inspire me are Maddie McGarvey who I believe creates extremely insightful work and Joey Lawrence (Joey L.) who captures such beautiful and meaningful portraits.

How have you navigated life -- in general and as a photographer -- during the pandemic?

I am generally a very positive person, and I think that is a direct result of the people I surround myself with.  My wife, family, and friends are a massive part of my life who only make me stronger.  As a photographer, I think having a healthy work-life balance is vital.  I love working as a photographer, but it is good to step away and enjoy other things in life.  For me, it helps to avoid burnout and keeps my mind creative by experiencing different things.

Navigating life during the pandemic was a wild ride.  Work obviously came to a standstill for me, which turned out to be a blessing.  My wife, Shannon, is a nurse, and her unit became the hospital’s designated covid unit at the very beginning.  Since I wasn’t working, I was able to pour every ounce of myself into being there for Shannon when she got home after each shift.  She tirelessly supported me when I made the jump to full-time freelance, and it was time for me to do the same and so much more for her.  

What has the past 3 years taught you about yourself?

These past three years I have really started to focus more on my health.  I typically walk at least five miles a week in my neighborhood and play soccer once a week.  I took that a step further in 2021 when I started riding a stationary bike almost daily.  The results have given me a new sense of accomplishment and dedication while also strengthening my mental health.

Advice you would give to someone looking to get into photography?

Learn at your own pace, have fun with it, and don’t get discouraged.  When starting out, you might catch yourself comparing your work to that of photographers who have been at it for years.  Just remember that they all started out as new photographers too.


You can check out Willis's work here: 

His review of us:

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