Born in 1955, Jeff Brouws has had a long and successful career, with several books published and a body of work that is represented in several collections and museums. In his photographs one can find the great american unknown, the large highways, the freshly painted houses, those subjects we use and see everyday but don’t catch our attention just for that same reason we like to see them in his photographs: they are just too familiar and when Jeff Brouws just takes them out of their familiarity and out of their original context, the subjects look unusual in a strange but comfortable way.
Without a doubt, Jeff Brouws is a great photographer, one of the best contemporary photographers out there, and his photography touches us in a unique way; those empty spaces, freed of people, suddenly full of meanings and silence, are they just a reflection of our lives? I don´t know…but you can always feel a human presence like in a ghost place, a presence of someone, a life that was lived or a road that was traveled and you want to know who, why and where, just like a good photograph should be: posing questions and not giving the answers back.
So let’s hear Jeff Brouws:
How did you start taking photographs and why?
I started at the age of thirteen, and initially my attraction was to trains and railroading. On a psychological level something else must have been going on too: my mother was going blind. I’ve often wondered if me picking up the camera was a child-like response to her loss of vision?
In your opinion, what makes a good photo?
I think the best photographs are a balance between information and aesthetics. This was a notion put forth by Garry Winogrand. If you have too much information the picture is merely documentation; if it relies too much on the aesthetics side, it simply becomes a graphic composition, without making reference to the world. I want my pictures to be about something, to be a part of the world we inhabit.
What makes you want to take a photo? What must you see in a subject to make you release the shutter?
This is harder to answer. It’s very intuitive. I might drive by a location that looks promising, especially if the light is the kind I prefer (stormy, overcast, gray and flat). I sense something and begin working, Ten years ago I sometimes only made 1-2 frames of any such scene. I tend to shoot more now in any one location and edit the results after seeing the contacts. Since my subject matter is always changing, there isn’t any one type of subject that causes me to stop the car. Again twenty years ago when I started my HIGHWAY project I had definite subjects that drew me—older elements of American roadside culture. Now it’s contemporary elements of that same consumer / car culture plus inner city America (sometimes reading about subjects I’m interested in helps me conceptualize the photography I want to do, so this process is not always visual, sometimes it’s intellectual).
Do you have a routine to take the photos for your projects or you just let it happen and see where it takes you?
It’s a combination of things. After 1986, when I began hanging out with other artists who had academic art-school training, it became apparent to me that they were working in “series.” They had an idea and would elaborate on that idea, or make variations on that idea. Prior to this I had a very scattered approach, and really wasn’t terribly sophisticated, grappling to figure out how to proceed as “a photographer.” When I stumbled upon the revelation that I should work in series as well an “a-ha!” moment occurred (this seems to be such an apparent methodology but I was really quite naive). It thus became very liberating to focus on one particular subject for awhile. My carnival series was the result of this intentional direction.
I subsequently also started a Highway series (which resulted in the book HIGHWAY: AMERICA’S ENDLESS DREAM, 1997) and also began another series about nuclear weapons, which hasn’t been published as of yet. I worked on these series simultaneously. I still tend to work on three or four projects at once and simply allow the editing process, over time, to shake out the images that seem to go together. In the work I’ve been doing over the last ten years (since moving to the eastern United States) I’ve simply shot what interested me and allowed my contact sheets to be the “tell” as to my direction. About three years ago I read a very important essay called “What We Think About When We Talk About Landscapes” in a cultural geography book I had purchased and it completely solidified what I was up to these past 8-10 years. It helped me discover a “reason” for being out there taking photographs. As a photographer matures you eventually get to this spot: just making aesthetically-pleasing images doesn’t cut it, you want meaning behind what you’re doing.
Over the last ten years I’ve developed the idea of photography as visual anthropology, which has also been a notion that has helped direct my work.
At the end of a shooting session how do you choose the photos that are worth showing in your portfolio?
When I return from a trip there are usually a few pictures that get scanned and printed immediately, but generally I let photos sit in my file for one to two years before pulling them out again for analysis. I like the idea of shooting, creating a backlog, and then when the urge to do a book or an exhibition hits, you do an edit that refines the ideas you’ve been working with. Lee Friedlander had a great suggestion he gave to students he periodically worked with. He told them to have individual 11 x 14 boxes for each project they were working on. So let’s say you come back from a trip, and you’ve got three pictures for project A, 4 for project B, 6 for project C. After 5 years of doing this type of activity you go to any individual box and you probably have 30-40 pictures in each series ready to go. While I admire very project-driven photographers, who get in and get out in a short time span when doing their work, I personally need to take more time for it all to make sense to me.
Name a few photographers that inspired you and your work and why they inspired you.
The list is endless; there are and have been a lot of great image-makers out there. Lewis Baltz, Robert Adams, Richard Misrach, Lee Friedlander, Paul Graham, Todd Hido, William Eggleston, Stephen Shore, William Christenberry and Richard Steinheimer to name a few. I like a lot of the Europeans, too, like the Bechers. Ed Ruscha (while not technically considered a photographer) has also been a significant influence. I think it fair to say his early books of photographs (Some Real Estate Opportunities and Twentysix Gasoline Stations) might have been the impetus behind the whole New Topographics movement.
And why have they inspired me? For myriad reasons: their work had a subtle political tinge, some of it was visually very tough and not traditionally considered beautiful, they all seemed extremely dedicated to their work, some dealt with aesthetic issues in very interesting ways, or I liked the subject matter they photographed and felt a kinship to that. Some embraced the mundane and declared art could be made from it.
How digital technology changed the way we look at photography as art?
I think this is a question where the answers are still being formulated. The digital revolution has significantly furthered the democratization of photography as an art form, just as George Eastman’s introduction of dry film and small, affordable cameras did in the late 1880s. All of a sudden everybody could do a craft that only a handful of individuals had mastered. Photography became easier and wasn’t such a cumbersome and time-consuming process. No more coating wet-plates and processing them in the field, which took real dedication and determination. You could send it all back to Kodak or eventually take it to the corner drugstore for processing. Today, further barriers have fallen in terms of craft. No need to know about the mechanics of photography (f-stops, shutter speeds and proper exposures), no time lag between taking the pictures and seeing the results, no need to know special techniques if you shoot in low-light, or something other than daylight (digital cameras correct for fluorescent lighting for instance). On one hand this is probably all good: the photographer can merely focus on aesthetic issues without worrying about technical aspects. But I worry that perhaps the ease with which it can all occur now might not create a lot of superficial work. I think the world is flooded with too many images, and this latest development may make it more difficult to sift out important work an audience needs to see. Admittedly, I’m a bit old school and probably secretly envious of how easy it now all is. I should qualify this comment though: at this time I still shoot film but scan my negs that are printed on archival pigment printers…so half my process is digital. It’s made making work a lot easier, which I’m grateful for.
Exit 24 off I-90, near Erie, Pennsylvania (2005) ©Jeff Brouws.