What inspired you to start taking photographs, and what is the primary inspiration for you to keep working in this field?
I had always been drawn to the arts growing up- drawing, piecing things together, painting, gluing together handmade books and collages, making things with my hands that came out of thoughts or emotions in my head. I was sort of a loner and spent a lot of time throughout my childhood riding my bike or walking around with amplified thoughts and daydreams racing about in my head. Los Angeles was sort of an isolating place to grow up. It was too big to go off and explore too often. Friends from school lived scattered across the city. My parents lived in two apartments, one in Santa Monica and one in Venice Beach. So I escaped in ways I knew how.. I liked the way I could transform things in my head onto paper. My father had studied art and has always been making and inventing things (from polarized plastic art to massive collages), his mother had been an eccentric painter who later became obsessed with Egyptian art. My mother has always played music and uses her hands to create things that way, the same way that her father had with a mandolin and my brother continues to do with many instruments. I suppose these things get passed down. I had always been very curious about photography growing up. My father had bought the entire 19-volume set of Time-Life Photography books from a thrift store when I was really young. I would lay around engrossed in the photographs for hours. Even then I was more drawn to photographs of people. A little later I ended up getting a red 35mm camera for my 8th birthday, which I used often. Years later, when I first started taking photography classes in college I was also studying life drawing, print making and various courses in psychology and cultural anthropology. I kept leaning heavier towards photography, eventually abandoning most other studies for it. I guess you could say I connected more with photography and its ability to represent things in a way that I didn’t find so much in other mediums.
What lured me back then, still lures me. I use photography as a means of looking into people’s lives in a way that I simply wouldn’t be able to, let alone have the nerve to do, in any other way. I draw often from an interest in psychology and a desire to connect with others, tending to work extensively on one subject/project at a time to try and understand it better before moving to the next. I consider myself a fine art portrait photographer and have always worked very slowly and formally with each subject. That curiosity, sometimes obsession, regarding the lives of others remains a constant source of inspiration.
In your opinion and experience, how can emerging photographers evaluate themselves as ready to start promoting their works and seek broader exposure for their photographs? What is one vital action you would recommend photographers undertake to find their audience, be included in exhibitions, and gain professional representation?
While faith in one’s own work goes a long way, it has always been helpful in my experience to have a network of friends/peers that are photographers or artists, perhaps a professor or mentor or someone within the blogging community to be able to show work to and get feedback from. This really can help an artist ready themselves for how to talk about/think about new work, polish up a statement, put together a final presentation, figure out print size or output or sort out who would be interested in their work. While in school, this feedback is ongoing and easy to come by but once out of school it becomes harder to keep that dialogue going. While in my last year at School of Visual Arts I reached out to several photographers I had a great deal of respect for and we would meet from time to time in person to talk about photography and maybe look over the work I was making. These mentors that I was so fortunate to have really pushed and encouraged me continue making work, to enter competitions, build a website and get my work out there.
The Internet also creates a very accessible community. My first experiences with showing photography in New York came through Joerg Colberg, who runs the website Conscientious. I had emailed him and eventually when I had a website up he featured my work on the site, later doing my first interview. Roughly a year later he put me in my first New York exhibition with Todd Hido and Alec Soth, two photographers that I had tremendous respect for. There’s simply no real way of knowing what can unfold by simply contacting somebody or by putting your work out there to be seen. And it seems now it’s easier to do so than ever through reviews, competitions, grants, blogs, group shows, fairs, publications and d.i.y. project spaces.
How did it come about that you achieved the status of successful, professional photographer? What steps were involved in reaching your level of success?
I do have quite a long way to go before achieving the status you mention here. In fact, I’m not sure I’ll ever get all the way there, but I’m ok with this. I realize that this field is very competitive and challenging. I would like to get to a point where I can let go of my day job and make my entire living off of my art. Like most artists early in their careers, I still struggle to fund shooting and producing my projects as well as finding the time to work on them.
In terms of what I have achieved so far- none of it has come without working hard, being persistent and continuing to make new work. I feel like when one does these things and the right opportunity presents itself things fall naturally into place. Without all of the hard work and persistence, without working on projects for yourself, those opportunities can fall flat. It seems the photo world is very small and that many things within it are deeply connected. Six degrees of separation, especially using the internet as a tool to reach people beyond your physical location. Being involved in a few group shows in New York very early on definitely unfolded into many other unpredicted opportunities for me. The exposure lead to my first private commission, my first editorial job with New York Times Magazine and introduced my work to Yancey Richardson, whom I’m currently represented by. When Yancey Richardson gave me a solo show of my Wallflower portraits in the project room, a curator from Vienna happened to see it and selected 5 of my images (from Wallflower and Gray) to be included in a history of portraiture show at Kunsthalle Wien, a contemporary art museum in Vienna. At the press conference for that museum show in Vienna I was introduced to a gallery owner in Frankfurt who ended up taking several Wallflower works to Pulse Miami during Basel. The work then sold to a gallery owner from Montreal, who curated it into a portraiture show that is currently on display at Pierre-François Ouellette art Contemporain. The way these sort of events unfold constantly surprises me and makes me feel very fortunate and grateful. Not only for the opportunities that have come up, but for the support of those who believe in my work and get it out there. It hasn’t always been as graceful an experience as those mentioned, and quite often it is far more challenging than that. There is simply no predictable path in this field. But I suppose if there were, it wouldn’t be quite as interesting.
Bon, Brooklyn, NY, 2008, from the series Wallflower
Brendan, Brooklyn, NY, 2008, from the series Wallflower