“My god, I have so much history! Don’t ask me how old I am,” says photographer Ricky Villabona. We are sitting in a cafe in Ortigas as he recalls how he did the very first test shots of veteran model-photographer Jo Ann Bitagcol when she was just starting out in the industry — just one of the moments Villabona has captured in his years-long career as a fashion photographer.
Both Villabona and his model/co-photographer Bitagcol are featured artists in this year’s Art Fair Philippines exhibit “Tattoos, Ternos & Couture, a Celebration of Philippine Fashion Photography.” Curated by stylist Michael Salientes and photographers Neal Oshima, Mark Nicdao, and Gio Panlilio, the exhibit also features work from Steve Tirona, Lilen Uy, and BJ Pascual. According to Art Philippines co-founder Dindin Araneta during the press conference last March, the exhibition hopes to present fashion photography as an art form beyond its attachment to fashion brands.
READ: The women fashion photographers at this year’s Art Fair Philippines
It’s also a documentation of local history — as far as Villabona’s photos are concerned, the ‘90s was a rich and dynamic era for Philippine fashion. Villabona started his photography career in the early ‘90s, unsure of what to do post-college, except that he greatly enjoyed his photography elective while studying communication arts at the Ateneo de Manila University. Though he sought out an alternative career in copywriting for an ad agency, he always found a way back to photography.
“I never really wanted to be a writer in advertising, but I could write well, and I did a lot of stuff,” Villabona says. “What I would do, when I was a writer, I would bring my camera along with me, and shoot behind the scenes. Kasi siyempre, pretty people. Mga cute, diba? Maraming magaganda at cute.”
He also recalled how he’d painstakingly look for the credits of ads and magazine photos that he admired, and anticipating the work of his favorite photographers like Jun De Leon. While he was apprenticing for his old photography teacher, he remembers how he longed to take on the kind of work that appealed to his artistic sensibilities. His then boss Pancho Escaler reminded him that it was ultimately a business that needed to keep going regardless of the clientele.
“That was my first job, and that was my first heartbreak as an artist who’s trying to… I think looking back on things, I really have this artist streak na kapag naging business ang something, it’s frustrating,” Villabona recalls.
The photographer soon switched hats and started doing commercial directing, and became known for his work on beauty brands — his first foray into commercial work was shooting hair test videos with Angel Aquino, back then an unknown model. He says that venturing into video was partly inspired by the work of photographers like the late Herb Ritts, who lent his distinct eye directing Madonna’s “Cherish” video in 1989. Villabona even directed an old music video for Ogie Alcasid for his song “Mahal Kita Walang Iba,” and attempted to evoke Ritts through editing and the black and white treatment.
“You’ll probably look for it [on YouTube] but I hope it’s not there,” he says with a laugh. “But I shouldn’t put myself down for that. It was a stepping stone.”
Through Villabona’s stories, the ‘90s feel like a period of exploration, a search for identity in a time that could not be defined by just one thing. It’s clear in his photos, in his work, that the provenance of his style is clear, but there’s always a note of vulnerability that turns that glamor and perfection into something more human. And that feels like the heart of Villabona’s work, seen in how he makes sure to remember the names of the people he’s encountered along the way, whether it’s the name of an artista’s manager or Janet, a printer at Fujifilm Megamall. (“She had a great eye eh. All the photographers then would talk about Janet. Nasaan na siya ngayon? Ang ganda ganda ng mata niya. I hope she’s doing something that [makes use of] her great sense of color.”)
The photographer recently sat down with CNN Philippines Life to go through his rich archive of work, and to learn more about what went on behind the scenes of the images that defined his career.
“I was writing PR work for Edd Fuentes [at the time]. I was there in their office, and he was complaining about the rates of a photographer whom he wanted to shoot Melanie Marquez for Sara Lee. Sabi ko, bakit hindi ka na lang kumuha ng young photographers? I don’t remember the budget we were given to put up an exhibit photographing Melanie Marquez. That was big for me, and that’s when Marlon Rivera started styling. And then si Juan Sarte was doing makeup. Juan was a casting director before he did makeup. Ang problema niya lagi, nagpapakita ‘yung talents na walang makeup, so he would do makeup on them para gumanda naman. So kinuha ko si Juan and Marlon. Wala pa akong studio noon, kinunan ko si Melanie sa bahay sa Mandaluyong. I had a background na nilagay namin sa labas.
Si Melanie was funny, game na game. Niloloko pa niya si Juan, ‘Juan baka magaspang yung makeup mong 'yan ha.’ Hindi pa siyempre sobrang sosyal yung makeup ni Juan. Nag-start palang sa cheaper brands. That was seminal, because the three of us worked there and we did big things later on.”
“Sabi ni Michael [Salientes,] gusto ni Neal [Oshima] isama yung Eric Fructuoso pictures. Alam mo, dinededma lang namin noon yun. Kasi for Agenda Magazine, it was just one of those stories inside. Eh crush ko naman si Eric, so nag-invest ako na pagandahin yung pictures niya. Sabi niya, ‘Meron akong tattoo dito sa pwet.’ I asked, ‘Are you willing to show it?’ ‘Okay!’
Sabi ni Neal, “Let’s show the contact prints with the notes, kasi nobody does that anymore!” So we were supposed to sell stuff online. All the photographers were requested to sell prints. I was thinking I’ll submit the contact prints. Because sabi ko, if I sell photographs, how would that stand out?”
“When my friends heard that I was dabbling in cinematography, my friend Boboy Consunji, he got me to direct hair demo videos that they can present to P&G for their commercial. Tapos ang talent ko noon si Angel Aquino. Hindi pa sikat si Angel noon. Inayusan siya ni Willie Montojo, so we did a library of hair shots. So we did flips and tumbles, whatever. They kept that as a library. Ako yung nag-ilaw, I directed it. They presented it to their client. And then, okay, at least nagamit ko yung natutunan ko sa cinematography. A few months later, Boboy asks me, ‘Do you want to direct a commercial?’ Ako naman, ano? Para sa Pantene.
I think my advantage is I have a malanding eye. (Laughs). Iba ang tingin ko sa hair flip ko sa iba. I mean, I grew up with “Charlie’s Angels” and Farrah Fawcett. “Charlie’s Angels” was about hair. When I saw the later “Charlie’s Angels,” [I said] ‘Where’s the hair?’”
Couture for Metro Magazine
“What I realized, I was discussing it with Michael, is not a lot of couture is being shot here. Usually, [with] fashion show photographs, but they’re not being documented in magazines. Because magazines show casualwear most of the time. Hindi naman tayo gaya ng Vogue, that we would feature couture in magazines kasi, sinong bibili? I was lucky to have shot couture for Metro Magazine. I don’t have the original transparency, so I submitted outtakes. Dati pa nga hindi ko sinubmit yung may mali sa processing. Na-appreciate ko na siya ngayon, pati yung may blur.”
“Am I back in fashion photography? How do I answer that? (Laughs). Now, I’m back in a way because I got reenergized to do fashion again. I haven’t done really anything since I started posting my stuff [on Instagram.] Si Veron, my friend who’s a stylist, sabi niya, ‘Sige, halika, maglaro-laro tayo. The shoot is with Ara Arida the beauty queen, but we’re shooting her in a fashion way. I’m excited about that. (Laughs).”
“I was lucky, fashion magazines started when I was [getting into fashion photography.] I shot for SM Boutique Square, Preview… Preview was much later but they remembered me naman. I shot for Preview, I shot for Mega, and Metro. So dati Metro lang yung glossy eh, tapos nagkaroon ng Mega, Preview. So it was a good time for photographers to get featured in glossy magazines and lifestyle magazines. Kasi dati, pangit yung magazines noon eh. (Laughs) Newsprint.”
“[My photos are] mostly ‘90s stuff because that’s when I was active in fashion photography. And I started posting them kasi natuwa ako. I was happy… I just got followed by younger people on Instagram. Yung mga kilala ko lang na followers sa Instagram mga ka-age ko. Si @90skabaklaan, may nakita siyang picture I posted a year or two ago of Matthew Mendoza na crush niya. I think they reposted it. Tapos yung ibang stuff ko, noong naglabas ako, nirerepost niya.”