I have always found the work of photographer, Steven Brooks, to be instantly recognizable: The scenes of early morning misty darkness and fading American elements, always captured beautifully and effectively. Though much of Steven’s work is shot around his base in Seattle, it’s not the geographical clues that tip one off in identifying a Steven Brooks photo, it’s the presence of a mood setting darkness just preparing to let the light in, along with pieces of mid-20th century America struggling to exist in a new era that has little use for atomic-age asthetic. Steven’s photography may sometimes evoke another time in America’s culture but, make no mistake, it is completely of the here and now.
Aurora Auto Wrecking
Steven, can you tell us a bit about your background and what led you to becoming a photographer?
My oldest brother and my dad were both into photography and we had a darkroom at home so I had plenty of exposure and access. My obsession with the medium began when I was about 14. I would often shoot a roll of film in the morning, and have 8x10s drying on the rack that night. We were even set up to process color prints which, of course, was pretty unique. It was all a marvel to me. By that time, I had both developed a fascination with the built world and begun to recognize my urge to roam, so photography was a natural fit and the timing was perfect. I was pretty serious about it until my mid-20s, when circumstances and distractions took me away for an extended period. It was my first digital camera—bought for work and family snapshots—that rekindled my interest in “serious” photography. The discovery of Flickr a couple years ago sealed the deal.
Could you explain your methodology when it comes to your hunt for the “right” shot?
I have a habit of not watching where I’m going, but seeing everything I pass. (That applies to all areas of my life, unfortunately). Basically, I see things that interest me when I’m out and about. I’ll often take a placeholder shot or make a mental note of the location. I always work in series, and typically work on several series at a time, so am always on the lookout for a variety of subject matter. Sometimes I’m in the right place at the right time, but more often than not, I check back in with the scenes that stand out to me. I have several scenes that I’ve been “working on” for a long time. Ideally, I would spend half my time on the road, in different cities and towns, photographing with a visceral approach, but life keeps me close to home most of the time, so I make the most of it. When I feel like I’m running out of subject matter, I just start a new series and it breathes new life into the familiar.
There are certain hallmarks in a portion of your work, such as the early morning atmosphere and what, some would say, are uniquely American elements. Where does your vision come from and do you have a particular objective?
The early morning atmospheres are happenstance, really. I started shooting in the pre-dawn hours as an attempt to embrace my chronic insomnia, but quickly became addicted to the light and quiet solitude prevalent during that brief period between night and day. So much so that even when I’m in a decent sleeping phase, I can’t resist heading out ridiculously early on a Sunday morning, which is when I take a majority of my photos. The American cultural elements, however, have a definite objective. To me the photos are, simply put, a study in American pride and cynicism. This is something I’ve only recently begun to understand. I’ll elaborate:
I try to avoid being overtly political or biased with my work but sometimes that’s a futile effort. The moment George W. Bush was “elected” in 2000 was one of dismay for me and—many will argue—a majority of Americans. Having spent most of my life in my liberal corner of the country and feeling very confident in my beliefs and worldview, I had to reassess what it meant to be an American. Whom was I among? A natural response was increased cynicism, which lingered and infiltrated my photos early on. Some time later, however, it occurred to me that I had consistently begun to walk away from the most dire scenes without having taken a single photo. I discovered that I was looking for redemption—something to believe in—and photographing scenes without humor or other redeeming details seemed either sickly earnest or downright depressing, at least in my hands. This realization caused me to view what I had done up until then in a different light and, consequently, caused me to question my cynicism. I suddenly saw redemption in many of my “cynical” photos. Most importantly, I was reminded that our individual attitudes dictate how and what we see.
I recently became enamored of a photo, taken in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, by an excellent photographer named Chuck Patch. In the photo, a battered car sits in front of two destroyed houses, among debris. Inside the car, a stuffed reindeer sits in the driver’s seat and the words “Merry Christmas” are spray painted across the car. The irony left an indelible impression on me. I think having a sense of humor amid such desolation and tragedy is the most hopeful of all emotions. Of course I still see irony and cynicism in the world, but I also see redemption everywhere. I guess what it comes down to is that I want to believe in my country and sometimes I actually do, if only for fleeting moments.
There is an element of loneliness that inhabits your work, which is enforced by the atmosphere and subjects you tend to shoot. Is that an intended response or are those elements of your work based more purely in aesthetics?
Aesthetics are certainly important to me, but first and foremost, I hope to evoke human emotion, whether loneliness, anticipation, a sense of loss, or something more abstract. I recently created a body of work for an exhibition about the role of fear in the American psyche. To me my photos are essentially about people, despite the lack of them in a majority of my work, but I try to avoid purely anthropological documentation. From my general statement: “I am interested in the relationships between our built and natural environments, and how they relate to us. Sometimes people appear in the frame, but mostly just the clues they leave behind. I see the scenes I photograph as sets, embedded with and awaiting human drama.” The morning atmosphere, a combination of natural and artificial light, certainly enhances the pending drama.
What photographers have influenced you?
When people ask me what kind of music I listen to, I usually spare them an hour long monologue and just name a few records I’m currently listening to. In that vein, I’m spending a lot of time with books by Peter Brown, Adam Bartos, Wim Wenders, and Jeff Brouws. I love photography books and my library is always growing, but I spend even more time online, pouring over the seemingly endless pool of talent. I find it incredibly humbling and inspiring.
Open Late (from The Matter of Fact series)
If you don’t mind, could you discuss the equipment you typically favor?
Sure, I shoot both film and digital, and a lot of cameras have come in to and out of my possession over the years. I’m still looking for the perfect combination of medium format film camera and lightweight digital, but am currently using a Bronica SQ and a Leica DLUX 4. They’re serving me pretty well, though there are certain limitations that drive me crazy at times. I’m hoping to start shooting 6×7 format at some point down the road. I’m also excited about the large sensor compact and mirror-less DSLRs hitting the market, so will likely be making some equipment changes in the near future. I’m really not much of a gear guy. I like to travel as light as possible as I spend a lot of time on foot. I think film and digital compliment one another well and I think the “film vs. digital” argument is unnecessary and hollow. For me, it comes down to the image and whether or not it is interesting beyond the sum of its parts. I like photos that are honest and memorable, no matter what processes factored into their creation.
What are you currently working on and what can we expect down the line?
I’m currently working on several series. One of them—The Matter of Fact—is coming together nicely and I plan to start making it public soon. My objective with this series is to blur the line between the subjects in the frame and the incidental elements. It’s a departure for me and has been incredibly challenging, but I’m excited about it nonetheless. Aside from that, I have a couple dozen photos currently part of a group exhibition in Spain that I hope to post online this summer, and I’m in the early stages of planning a series of small, affordable books.
Between 11 and 7
Steven, where is the best place for our readers to see your work?
My online portfolio www.stevenbrooksphoto.com is a pretty good introduction to what I do and I’m always happy to make new contacts on Flickr.
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