Nathan: Let’s begin with an obvious question: when did you first become interested in photography?
I was reintroduced to photography back in 2009, when a coworker mentioned that he would go out on the weekends and take pictures. Of course, I inadvertently asked the questions that insult pretty much any photographer: “Of what?” “And then what do you do with the pictures?” “Why?” A few conversations later, I was curious enough to go out and buy an entry-level DSLR. 3+ years, 6 or 7 cameras, dozens of books and tens of thousands of frames later, here I am.
“I’ve learned a couple of things from shooting everything in sight over the past year, but the most important thing I’ve learned is that, if you shoot long enough, you will have a confrontation of some sort.”
After reading these words, I am compelled to ask if this is how you began your first adventures into photography (shooting, as you say, everything in sight)?
Brian: It’s funny that you use the phrase “adventures” relating to photography; that’s certainly been my experience shooting in and around Detroit. I really did begin by shooting anything in sight, much to the dismay of my friends and family. I really had no clue what constituted a good photograph; I didn’t know a thing about composition, exposure, light, “post-processing” or any of the elements that are used to construct a visually appealing image, let alone concepts like”the zone system” and “the decisive moment.” Every camera I’d owned prior to this newfangled “DSLR” had only been shot in full Auto mode. The whole ball of wax was new to me. Shooting urban decay soon caught my eye, just because lots of the photographers I met early on were doing it, and it was fascinating to tap into what seemed like a hidden world of forgotten spaces. Urban decay in Detroit has probably been shot more extensively than the ruins of Rome at this point, but there are lots of guys that really produce some amazing stuff around here in that genre. Since I started shooting in 2009, however, I think my personal preferences and themes have evolved a bit as I’ve tried to understand what resonates with me and why. I consider myself a student of photography more than anything, so reading dozens of books and experimenting with just about any and everything within reach (formal studio portraiture, weddings, product/table top, macro, abstract, etc.), I’ve largely settled on black & white, and I mostly alternate between street photography, documentary, landscape, and conceptual work. I am acutely aware that I still have so much to learn, and so many areas to progress in. But, being an “amateur” definitely has its perks – no pressure to shoot whatever you desire. I love that.
Fortunately, I have a day job that covers the bills.
Nathan: I’d like to hear a little more about your early experiments with photographing urban decay. Detroit certainly seems, as you say, to be a place that has no shortage of opportunities to photograph “what remains.” What did you learn from photographing forgotten, abandoned places? It seems to me that a photograph is, in part, a way of preserving memories of what once was, but in this case you are truly capturing a memory that is well on its way to fading from the general consciousness of culture; in other words, the photograph, in this case, becomes, specifically, a preserved memory of faded memory. And black and white also seems the perfect medium for such things.
Brian: From a technical perspective, shooting abandoned structures with very drastic variances in light is a huge challenge for the novice. So … being new to photography and starting out in this particular genre, I quickly gravitated to HDR processing. The results were essentially gaudy cartoons, and for a while there I probably subliminally convinced myself that they were vivid masterpieces [laughs]. I was also convinced that this “new” technique was the only way to fly, so I wanted to bracket and tone map everything in sight.
Anyway, toward the end of my urban decay run, I eventually learned the value of understanding and applying fundamental techniques and using HDR sparingly … if at all. I learned to slow down and aim to make one or two really good photographs from a location rather than firing off 400 shots with wanton disregard for composition and exposure. Did I master the art of photography through urban decay? Nah, but I learned a lot from those epic mistakes, and I think that the mistakes I make today are significantly less epic as a result.
From a creative, artistic perspective, there is a great sense of irony and contradiction to be found when photographing Detroit , specifically to your point of preserving that which has already expired from public consciousness. While I don’t believe that all photographers set out to sensationalize the sadness and misery of Detroit by keying in on financial collapse and urban decay, the visual impact is undeniable, even to the optimistic heads. Not to mention, a photographers near innate desire to document something that for better or for worse represents a snippet of our collective timeline is difficult to ignore, let alone to a complete newbie who’s just fascinated to see this previously unknown “underworld.” It’s an intoxicating cocktail for curiosity, and a blank canvas for creativity. I do believe that urban decay photography is relevant and should have a place in both the documentary and conceptual sense. Having tried my hand at it, I’ve simply found something that I like better, for now: scenes that tell stories about the resilience and presence of humanity rather than its absence. Here again, black and white as a creative choice just feels right. I’ve got no delusions of being the Ansel Adams or Henri Cartier-Bresson of Detroit. While their work (among many others) has certainly had some impact on my thought process at various stages, in terms of content and visual themes I might as well be living on an alien planet. But I do hope that someday I create a body of work that I can feel a great sense of accomplishment in, and that others appreciate and relate to in some way. Who knows, that may mean returning to urban decay if I can add something fresh and unique, or say something that hasn’t been said.
Nathan: I realize that the images tell the story … but I still must ask: is there a specific storyline you are considering or is it something you are improvising along the way? I ask, in part, because I am interested in hearing about how you have developed your vision over the past few years.
Brian: Honestly, the storyline is largely improvised, though I occasionally scout a location for a few days or even weeks before I take the photo. The “storyline” of the Time Traveler sort of revolves around a few simple thoughts: if time travel was possible and a single traveler was given the task of documenting our time, what observations would he make? Is the Time Traveler from the past or the future? Does it make any difference? Including and beyond the Time Traveler series, I’ve tried to stick to a quantum of subjects, even in my street photography. That doesn’t mean much to or resonate with everyone, but I like the potential for reflection and allowing whomever the viewer is to construct their own mental stories and values to the images.
Nathan: I have to ask about one particular image: “everything will be alright.” In all honesty, this is one of my favorite images by anyone. My initial question is a simple one: where did all the shoes come from? And let me also ask: is there anything else you can share about the making of the image?
Brian: Thanks. I’m happy that many people have enjoyed that photo. I work less than a mile from the location of that photo, and I usually hop in my car or take a walk with my camera at lunch time. On this particular day, as I drove past Edmund Street, I noticed these shoes in the street. Granted, there was a barricade blocking the street on one end, but there was no explanation as to why the shoes were there, and no organization to them at all. It was apparent that they had literally been dumped off the back of a truck. I got out of my car and walked the length of the block (which is sparsely inhabited), and there was no one. So, as is normally the case with the photos in my Time Traveler series, it was convenient that I was wearing a suit; I grabbed my fedora, briefcase, and camera gear, and went for it. Afterwards, I lingered in the area, waiting for anyone to show up, and eventually a little lady who identified herself as a teacher from a local school explained that there was going to be an exhibition organized in this spot by Tyree Guyton within a week. She mentioned that she would love to get a photo of all the children who donated shoes to the project on the day of the opening, so, of course, I volunteered.
The next week, I showed up and photographed the event, as well as the organizer and artist, Tyree Guyton. After taking the photograph, I gave him a copy first, and made sure he was cool with it before posting it online. I suppose I can take credit for the composition and moody processing, and of course for being the lone dude in the suit. Perhaps I just had good timing, too; if the shoes had already been organized for the event, the image wouldn’t have been nearly as interesting. But at the end of the day, Tyree’s event (intended to provide shoes for and raise awareness of the homeless) was the big story of that day. I have to make sure that any credit I get for the photographic value and impact of that shot, due respect goes to Mr. Guyton’s effort.
Nathan: Your response leads me to something else that I am curious about. Many photographers often talk about “vision,” that unique way each individual photographer sees and expresses his or her world. Vision, in this sense, seems to suggest that the photographer often has a feeling for what he or she wants to create—from the actual capturing of the image to the processing of the image. And this vision often stretches across all of the individual’s work. I have two questions about this. First– do you feel like you have a particular vision that you are trying to express? Second, do you bring that vision to all or most of your images?
Brian: Hmm, vision. Well, I think it depends on subject matter for me. I can say that my self-portraits and conceptual photos have a structured thought process in mind, even if it’s figured out on site – I know what kind of mood I want the photo to have, and can visualize what the photo should look like in its final form (usually black and white). The general “vision” for all of my photos is that I want each one to convey some sort of narrative. While abstractions are great in their own right, I want my work to have an easily identifiable story line. Again, that works out nicely for conceptual work, where I’m able to set up methodically and manipulate the stage, so to speak. For street photography, I’d be foolish to dare claim any sort of vision. Vision implies a measure of control; while a photographer does decide on his exposure and composition, the “story” writes itself. On the street, I would argue that the most a photographer can master is the art of anticipating the confluence of random elements. None of the characters on this stage intend on cooperating with the director. I think one just learns to pay attention to human behavior and look for that fraction of a second where there is a spark. You make your best effort at composition and exposure, and frankly, HOPE that your intuition is correct, and that the entire frame has fallen into place. I’m not suggesting that it’s easy to do, but I certainly can’t dare claim that I personally have “vision” in that area. If you ever catch me saying something like that, slap some sense into me.
Nathan: This seems like a good time to ask you about your very moving and powerful series of firemen images. These strike me as a combination of the storytelling that you have described and the grit of street photography and the reportage of documentary. They remind me of the very real intensity of the job— as well as the almost universal fascination and draw to watching fire burn down a building. I’d love to hear your thoughts about these images (and how you came upon the opportunity to photograph them).
Brian: The firefighting series is really personal for me. A number of my closest friends currently work for the Detroit Fire Department (DFD). I have deep respect for these guys, but I also worry about their well being. We hang out regularly; my wife is close friends with their wives, and some of them I consider to be as close as a brother. Shooting fires is not just a curiosity for me. Ironically, however, as it turns out, the DFD is also one of the most active group of firefighters in the country. Very rarely am I interested in shooting the actual fire; I am interested in the quiet courage and unspeakable risk that these guys face on a daily basis. Way back in the day, Weegee used to listen to a police radio, and often arrived on crime scenes before the cops got there. I also take advantage of different resources to get the jump on some of the major fires around town, and I am drawn to the activities of my friends and their comrades, as well as the behavior of the community during such events. There’s always, always a story to be found at these scenes. If anyone in the city deserves a pay raise, it’s these guys and the police. I have such respect for them and their work, and I truly appreciate them allowing me to document their courage and determination.
Nathan: I’ve avoided the subject of “street” until now because I think you are clearly involved with a variety of subjects and, as you say, narratives, but I’d like to hear a few words about your thoughts on “street photography” and how you think your work fits into such a category.
Brian: I don’t think of myself as being married to street photography, because my camera is unfaithful. I realize that such designations serve the purpose of helping organize work into discrete categories, but I try to avoid getting hung up on what “street photography” is and isn’t. There are so many opinions about street photography that it’s really an exercise in frustration to argue with people over whether my own work fits into a specific category. I go out and shoot, simple as that. Sometimes I use a film camera. Sometimes I use a digital camera. Sometimes I use my camera phone. Sometimes I use a tripod; sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I crop the image; sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I apply some sort of post-processing; sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I love the term street photography. Sometimes I hate it. I realize this sounds like a reluctant answer, but I guess my point is, in the end, I just want to make images that are interesting or compelling to me in some way. While I do post my work online and look at the work of many others, and sporadically contribute to a discussion, I don’t participate heavily in the communities. Not that all of them are trite, snarky and exhausting. Some are quite insightful. Still, at the end of the day, I’d rather have spent my extra time shooting without an inhibiting notion of what’s acceptable and current, and what’s not. Whatever category the images ultimately land in is anybody’s guess.
Nathan: I’d like to shift in a different direction and talk about your processing next. What can you tell us about your general approach …
Brian: My general approach to processing is pretty basic, in my mind. While I have done a handful of surrealist images that were thoroughly manipulated, I generally apply little to no image manipulation to my images, even the conceptual and studio images. I will clone out sensor dust where necessary, or crop to my liking, but that’s about it. I believe in letting the quality of light be the baseline for the emotional element of most of my images, and then crafting the b/w tones dynamically to my interpretation of the original scene. That’s a subject for debate, I know, as some feel that black and white should be a simple desaturation rather than a translation of RGB value, or that color images should be “straight out of camera.” I think the SOOC [straight out of camera] argument is nonsense, by the way. No photo, whether its setting is real or contrived, can ever offer more than a suggestion of truth. While I consider my own processing style to be rather minimal, that doesn’t mean I’m opposed to creative approaches of interpreting scenes within reason. In my opinion, a viewer is forever at the mercy of the photographers’ integrity, and his interpretation of the subject in question. Choosing a shutter speed is choosing a method of interpretation. So is choosing aperture, ISO, film type, or the paper you decide to print on. A Canon sensor interprets colors differently than one used by Nikon, Sony, Fuji or Kodak. In the end, the viewer has to trust the photographer.
Nathan: The majority of your compositions are based around the square composition. I’d like to hear your thoughts about that preference.
Brian: I was always a big fan of the square format in medium format film. I appreciate the symmetry of the square frame, and how that can be used creatively with certain compositions. Particularly for my conceptual and long exposure work, I compose the shot with square in mind. For street photography, I’m working toward uncropped frames. I’m not quite there yet – I still tend to straighten the verticals and crop a bit in post – but as my street photography matures, I think I’ll get there soon.
Nathan: I’d like to shift gears again and ask who some of your influences are (and how they have influenced you)?
Brian: Most of my influences are guys who were way before my time. The list is so long, but I always start with Ansel Adams, because he rocked his images from cradle to grave. What I mean is, his craftsmanship was thorough and he took pride in creating images that stimulated the senses. I’ve got no real interest in shooting rocks, but he was the Michael Jordan of photography in my mind. There’s Steichen, who’s moody, rich images were incomprehensibly brilliant. Stieglitz. Cartier-Bresson, who is frequently lauded for his impeccable timing, but who’s sense of geometry (like Kertesz) and play on surrealist influences was off the charts. Walker Evans. Gordon Parks, who mastered anything he dared to dabble in. Matt Stuart. Steve McCurry. David Gibson. Stephen Shore. Gregory Crewdson. Winogrand. I could name painters. Jazz musicians. Poets. Online, there are so many cool outlets for photographic inspiration, like Flickr and 500px. I believe that you pick up inspiration like loose change – wherever you can find it. Put it in your pocket and hopefully it adds up.
Ironically, however, I spend a lot of my loose change on photography books.
Nathan: How important is the right equipment to you? What cameras and lenses (and other equipment) do you currently use?
Brian: I do believe that there are optimal tools for specific jobs. I’m very fortunate to be able to own more than one camera. I love my full frame DSLR for landscape and studio type work. It’s a Sony a850, and I use several Zeiss lenses, ND and color filters as a part of that toolkit, including the standard punch list of studio strobes, triggers, etc. For street photography, right now I’m using the Fuji X-Pro1 with the 18mm and 35mm lenses. I also own a Fuji x100 that’s sort of in purgatory at the moment, I guess, because the XP1 is turning out to be a masterpiece of a camera. However, no one ultimately cares what I went through to make a photograph, or even what gear I used, and I try to keep that in mind when I share or discuss my work. What I do care most about in choosing any gear is the quality of the RAW digital files. That far exceeds my gripes about minor technical shortcomings or quirks, or the so-called professional consensus about a particular piece of kit. I shoot with a Holga and an iPhone occasionally, too. That being said, I’m frequently humbled by the amazing work folks are doing with “lo-fi” gear; cell phones, and old Frankenstein film cameras.
Nathan: Where are you hoping to take your photography in the years to come?
Brian: Well, I’ve been really fortunate to have received some favorable recognition for my work, and some pretty significant engagements are in the pipeline that I never could have anticipated, so I feel I’m already way ahead of my expectations of photography as a replacement to video games and basketball as my main hobbies. I think in my dreams I’d love to shoot for Magnum someday. Short of that, however, I’d simply like to put together more cohesive projects, and an overall body of work that I can be proud of. I’m hungry to learn more, see more, and shoot more.
Nathan: Any interest in pursuing film photography?
Brian: Yes, indeed. I’ve been quietly shooting film for about 2 years now, none of which has been posted online or really shown anywhere. I’ve owned and shot with a Mamiya 645 m1000s, a Holga 120N, and a Yashica-D. I’m working on a color street photography project, being shot only in film. Because I started learning photography only a few years ago, naturally I began with digital. While there are obvious benefits to digital, taking a step back into film really helps me be more judicious in the shots I take. It also helps me “self-curate” a bit better, as I sometimes wait months before developing the film. It’s really unfortunate, however, that the price of film continues to rise; just this week, prices for Kodak Portra went up yet again. Every time the price increases, it becomes tougher to justify continuing with film, but for now it’s a labor of love.
Nathan: Do you listen to music while you process? If yes, (a) what do you listen to and (b) how, if at all, does it shape your processing?
Brian: Music is a huge YES. I’m all over the map with my musical choices. Hip-Hop, Jazz, R&B, electronic/techno, and pop stays in frequent rotation. But specifically when it comes to editing, I like dramatic movie soundtracks and classical music. Ansel Adams was a big time Vladimir Ashkenazy fan; I like his stuff, too. Don’t ask me why, but it’s not unusual for me to rock some Drake in the morning and Debussy in the afternoon. I’m a big time Chopin fan. I also love John Williams‘ soundtracks, Michael Nyman‘s Gattaca soundtrack, Hans Zimmer‘s Inception soundtrack, stuff like that. The Cinematic Orchestra, Flying Lotus, Melaz Cosmo. Dramatic, well crafted music gets me hyped, and I definitely think it plays a part in some of my processing choices.
Nathan: Do you have any tips for those that really like your work?
Brian: Tips for those who like my work? When you first start out, shoot everything in sight; shoot indiscriminately. Fall in love with the process of photography, whether you’re using a DSLR, a Leica, or a camera phone; go crazy with it. Once you’re in love, however, at some point step back and take the time to really study the fundamentals of photography; explore the principles of composition and exposure, and experiment with as many techniques as you can (even burn a little HDR if you wanna, who cares?). Find out who the masters are, new school and old, and study their work. Read not only the technical books, but also some of the biographies and commentaries on various genres of photography. Develop a hunger for good craftsmanship; whether your game is film or digital. Share your work, but take both criticism and compliments with a grain of salt. Accept the phases of both loving and hating your own work. At some point, your preferences and style will begin to emerge. Eventually, hopefully, your eye and your approach will mature. That’s about the point where you’ll realize that as much as you’ve learned, you still know very little. In the end, though, photography becomes a new language, and hopefully you can start to appreciate it as a powerful tool of communication. Treat it accordingly.
Nathan: And, finally, is there anything else you would like to say or add?
Brian: Well, I’d just like to thank you for this interview, and for your active support of the online photography community, both by sharing your own amazing work and by highlighting other photographers. Your love for photography is undeniable and contagious. Photography has always had sort of an uphill battle; back in the day it had to contend with paintings and the art world, and today it has to contend with video and mixed media. But the still image has endured and I think it will continue to thrive as long as we have folks like you out there fighting the good fight. Rock on, Professor.
Nathan: I am a big fan of your work, Brian– and I am very grateful that you agreed to take part in this interview. Thank you for taking the time to answer the questions so thoughtfully.
Image Gallery – Selected by Nathan Wirth
The Time Traveler Series
More than a Job
A Few More Images