By Edith Zimmerman @edithzimmerman
Photographer Brian Finke is known for his pictures of groups — of flight attendants, bodybuilders, and cheerleaders — and his latest project focuses on construction workers. “Construction” is currently on display at ClampArt gallery in Chelsea, and available in print from Decode Books. Brian and I talked recently about his projects over drinks in Brooklyn.
Brian Finke: So your favorite picture from “Construction” I know.
Edith Zimmerman: Right, the hot guy with the Mountain Dew. I want it for my apartment, but it might be weird to have a picture of a stranger looming so large in a studio. Maybe I’d put it in my bathroom.
BF: But you can’t put it your bathroom, because of the humidity.
EZ: Right, right. I’d find a way, though.
BF: [Laughs.] Any other ones you like?
EZ: Any pictures of hot guys. Also hot girls! I like your sensibility, because there’s a dirty-ish aspect: you give people the opportunity to look really closely at someone’s face — their pores, their sweat, the curve of their lips — and since that’s generally not acceptable in real life, you feel a little guilty, but it’s irresistible.
BF: It’s the same thing with the process of taking pictures — it gives you the chance to stare at people and be judgmental, because otherwise [without the camera] it’d be pretty awkward. But that kind of looking and seeing — to a certain extent I think I’m a very easy person to be around, because I can talk, but I’m not intrusive or intimidating.
EZ: I would agree with that. To what degree do you fall in love with the people you’re photographing? And does it happen when you’re there with the camera in their face, or later when you’re alone with the picture?
BF: I like that. To get so involved, and spend so much time, I really do have to fall in love with it that way.
EZ: But I mean the individuals. Flight attendants, football players.
BF: It’s kind of a love-hate with the individual pictures, because you see ‘em so much. And then some of the pictures that become popular — you could love them AND hate ‘em because you get kinda sick of reprinting them.
EZ: Like playing your greatest hit?
BF: Yeah. But about revisiting subject matter, and whether it’s boring — for instance, ESPN the magazine hired four photographers to cover different aspects of this giant pep rally at the University of Kansas called Midnight Madness. I was like, “I want to shoot the cheerleaders!” but they were like “The crowd.” So I took some picture of fans — but then I made some nice new, beautiful cheerleader pictures.
EZ: Well cheerleaders are very PRETTY, so there’s also that.
BF: Right. [Laughs.] There was this one picture I made, it felt so nice, and to me was totally different than all the other cheerleader pictures I’ve made. So they’re practicing on the basketball field before the game, and there was this one girl — also when I’m shooting I get crushes on people –
EZ: I asked that! Brian, I said, “Do you fall in love with the people you’re shooting?”
BF: [Laughs.] I was talking to a photo editor at a party a few months ago, I was totally drunk and talking a lot, saying that I really get crushes on people when I’m shooting — like you’re physically drawn to them –
EZ: This is what I ASKED. I just want to put that out there. Anyway, glad we’re coming around.
BF: So yeah, with this cheerleader, it was her blonde hair, and how it fell just below her ears, and there was this great red lipstick, and the royal blue of her uniform, and there was this one shot where she was staring at me, this deadpan stare, and the background went black, and it was just amazing. That look of indifference, and then the style and aesthetics. And yeah, the physical attraction, of course. It’s awesome. Such a good picture.
I think photography in general is very intuitive; it doesn’t have to make sense. I’m good at obsessing about things. I can commit to something, and stick with it, and delve into it, and I don’t get sick of it for a long time. And even when I do, it’s just like moving on to a slight variation, really. It’s very repetitive. And I mean even the books, they’re all the same size. They’re all square.
[His three photography books are stacked between us on the table, and he touches them on all sides.]
EZ: You’re making like your own Brian Finke totem.
BF: It’s my boxed set!
EZ: How did being drawn to more attractive people play out on the construction site?
BF: I was like, “This is going to be the hottest construction site ever!” It was a conscious decision; I want to take pictures of people I want to look at. It’s not necessarily like people always have to be, quote unquote, good looking, it’s just that there’s something about them.
EZ: Is it harder to photograph someone you know than to photograph a stranger?
EZ: And are friends ever disappointed that you don’t take pictures of them? Or maybe I’m just shedding light on my own –
BF: You want your picture taken?
EZ: No! Well –
BF: There we go! [Laughs.] Last night I went out with my agent from Milan, and we were taking pictures at dinner, and she was like “YES” — she was being sincere — like, “Ahh you took my picture!”
BF: I was just like — it didn’t really cross my mind. She just had these great red nails, this great red phone, and this great red lipstick. So, maybe if you put some makeup on?
EZ: Fuck you! [Laughs.] I HAVE makeup on. I have eyeliner on. Shit. Okay.
BF: See, now you know my fetish, the red thing, the red lipstick. It’s a fetish thing, really, photography.
EZ: That should be your next book, Women in Red Lipstick. But no, actually your next series is on the US Marshals. How’s that going?
BF: This past weekend I went to Texas, and one of the pictures I got there was of these two Marshals who look like they’re 15. But they have these giant guns, and one of them looks like Steve Urkel, with this little awkward giggle, and they’re in this person’s home. It’s just very awkward and wonderful. Being physically WITH people when I take their picture, being very close to them — I like that proximity. You can see how the person holds himself.
EZ: Can you give me a picture of that hot guy from the construction site?
BF: [Laughs.] I’m happy to.
the editor’s vision of brian finke
by Luca Marotta
It was about a decade ago that I began my observation of a photographer like none other that I ever come across. Following him through the years, I recognized an undefined power that produced a magnetic grip on the viewer. He portrays life and people in synonyms that make even the tiniest element in his compositions come alive with passionate force. You can almost say that each protagonist in the photo is, in itself, an icon.
A New Yorker, Brian Finke is sort of a documentary photographer and uses the American sports scene to illustrate life in the States. His reality goes beyond the exterior image, and captures how the personages in his photos react: stress, fatigue, virility of the sportsmen, etc., all hit you in the face with the same force as the colors and themes. Sometimes his photos are calm and soft; others are hard and violent. His work often reminds me of the plastic era of American society in the 50s; it gives me the impression that he is a psychic voyeur, exploring and exposing the fabric, drama and trauma of society. What you see is not what is shown; it takes a very insightful extraterrestrial to do this via photography.
When we started MONACO FORCE ONE magazine, I searched far and wide for photos that talked. Brian Finke graciously responded to the challenge and has shared his work with us generously ever since. His clients read like a Whose Who of society: Nike, Heineken, Ikea, the New Yorker, Time magazine, D di Repubblica, are just a few. His awards include the World Press Photo Masterclass Award in 2001; the Young Photo Journalism award in 2003; and the New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship in 2004.
The entire world now celebrates Brian’s success. You can see his work on display at the Houston’s Museum of Fine Art; Worcester Museum of art, the National Library in Paris, ClampArt, New York, and the Kiyosato Museum of Photographic Art in Japan.
At the end of last year, Brian Finke began a new photo essay that gave the world a chance to see how he does what he does. The Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge – known as the toughest rowing race on the planet. Brian usually follows an event from start to finish to get the emotionally charged photos that he shoots, and this proved an excellent challenge to the celebrated photographer.
It is said that more people have been into space than have rowed the Atlantic. Since 1997, this ocean-rowing race has attracted the brave and the intrepid to pit themselves against the elements and race the 2,550 miles from La Gomera, Tenerife, to Port St Charles, Barbados.
In 2013, seventeen teams from around the world will fight for their charities by rowing the route of Christopher Columbus for 40-50 days. The various teams include: an all female team who are looking to break the record in female trans-Atlantic racing; a husband and wife team; a team of 6 rowers who are all veterans of the Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts; a team of firefighters from Worcester; a father and son duo from Canada, a two-man team from Norway who are raising money for a heart disease charity, plus other altruistic skippers from around the world.
Rowers have to cope with blisters, salt rashes, sleep deprivation and rowing in two-hour shifts around the clock for weeks on end. Boats are seven meters long and just under two meters wide, with only a small cabin for protection against storms. All boats are equipped at the race start, and cannot take any repair, help or food and water during the crossing.
View Slideshow, reFramed article: In conversation with Brian Finke.
“Based as we are in a city of perpetual renewal (New York City), the sight of construction projects is nothing new to us. Yet through Brian Finke’s new book, succinctly titled Construction, we see the craft of building large edifices in a way we never can through the cracks in the plywood barriers that commonly protect construction areas. Finke’s look is all-access, and his brightly lit, almost hyper-real images make the workers and the work quite beautiful. Finke’s sense of color and composition—the results of which are often playful and intriguing—engage us with patterns of I-beams, dotted with workers, reaching into cerulean skies; with bright blue valves and tangles of yellow ropes; with muscular (and not-so-muscular) workers sporting well-decorated and -worn hardhats; with yellow earth movers and green re-bar; and even piles of rock and fill. As he has with previous projects on flight attendants and on high school cheerleaders and football players, Finke encourages us to look again at something quintessentially American that we think we know. Finke’s construction is not the loud, gritty, dirty, traffic-menacing headache we experience from the outside. It’s a world of wonder, and it’s actually quite lovely.”
reFramed: In conversation with Brian Finke
By: Barbara Davidson
“reFramed” is a feature showcasing fine art photography and vision-forward photojournalism. It is curated by Los Angeles Times staff photographer Barbara Davidson.
Brian Finke is a photographer living and working in Brooklyn, NY. He is the author of 2-4-6-8: American Cheerleaders and Football Players (Umbrage Editions, 2003), Flight Attendants (powerhouse Books and Filigrane Editions 2008), and Construction, DECODE Books 2012. Recent editorial clients include The New York Times Magazine, GQ, ESPN the Magazine, and Wired.
Q: How did you get started in photography?
A: Been making pictures forever. It started back in the day with high school photo classes, with the idealistic motivations of social awareness and from reading about the amazing life and work of photojournalist W. Eugene Smith. While my projects are still documentary in approach, I’m much more interested in making a social comment about my own culture.
Q: Your work comes from a perspective of observer, much like the world of documentary photography. Can you tell me about your photographic approach and why you are drawn to team cultures and groups of people, and how you are able to find diversity in uniformity?
A: I want my images to be straightforward and honest about the characters I photograph, to see the subtleties of the small gestures whether it be squinting eyes or the way someone holds themselves, describing them through their body language.
Q: Your “Flight Attendants” series was born out of two years of crisscrossing the globe on assignment. Can you tell me how, and why, this project came to be?
A: When I started working for magazines and traveling a bunch is when the project presented itself, the flight attendants were right there in front of me. I come to projects many different ways. My previous body of work was about cheerleaders and football players. From that I started becoming interested in costuming and uniforms. I was also interested in the challenge of photographing on planes in a post-9/11 world. But for me photography is so much about the process, I love the experience of making images, being out in the world, and making pictures at 40,000 feet.
Q: I love that you not only capture the high-flying profession in the air but you also capture behind the scenes of flight attendants’ daily life. Can you tell me about getting such well-rounded access – especially at the flight attendant school?
A: To produce the project, I pitched various fashion and travel stories to editorial clients I shoot for, then we’d approach the airlines together and they’d either be totally into the idea or want nothing to do with it. My subject matter is very relatable. With flight attendants we’re used of course to seeing them on planes, but I wanted to also take them out of that context and show them in the everyday, at home, in the store, picking up their kid after school. After photographing in-flight, the schools were another aspect of their jobs.
Q: Your most recent series, “Construction,” explores building sites in New York City. Again, like your other series, you have a wonderful way of visually championing the ordinary. Can you tell me what inspired this project and how the financial crisis of 2008 impacted the work?
A: I’d been living in NYC for many years, and simply all this construction was going on all around me. When I began working on access, I first approached the contractors but without any success. Then I started contacting the architects, them being the creatives, they got my project and that’s how I began gaining access to the various sites. It had been a long process gaining access, the toughest of any of my projects. By the time I started photographing, the financial crisis had begun.
Q: Both of these essays were shot using film, flash and a Hasselblad. Why film, flash and medium format?
A: I use the various tools to create images that heighten the everyday, to create a reality that is larger than life and through the use of the medium format Hasselblad, and adding flash to saturate the scene with light.