Eye to the Sky
Architectural photographer Brian Vanden Brinkís decision to use the sun as his lightbox makes his work very challenging, uniquely beautiful, and in high demand.
By Annaliese Jakimides.
Reprinted by permission from the April 2007 issue of Bangor Metro magazine. Copyright 2007. All rights reserved.
Like so many young people, Nebraska-born and raised Brian Vanden Brink had no idea what his lifeís work could be, no sense of any kind of directionóuntil he borrowed his fatherís 35 mm camera, and ďseeingĒ became the focus of his life. A self-taught photographer, his only training has been a three-month stint at the Maine Photographic Workshops in Rockport in the late 1970s. That is what brought him to Maine, and specifically the Camden/ Rockport area, where heís made his life, raised his family, traveling all over the Western Hemisphere, shooting the architectural photographs for which he has gained an international reputation. He still lives in the simple two-story, 1,500 SF frame house heís lived in for decades. A quick wit, Vanden Brink exudes an openness, a simple generosity and ease of spirit, a gratitude for life, which imbues his photographs. In 1978, he started his business, knocking on local architectsí doors, and as he shot one project, heíd add it to his portfolio and call on another potential client, until he was knocking on doors in Belfast, Bangor, Portland, Boston, New York, and beyond, and they were opening. Today Vanden Brinkís photographs appear in many books and magazines, including Architectural Digest, Metropolitan Home, Elle Dťcor, Fine Homebuilding, The New York Times Magazine, Coastal Living, and Down East, which gave him his first opportunities in publishing.
All of Vanden Brinkís photographs are composed and created on-site, in the moment, at the camera, with no adjustments or manipulations after the fact. He doesnít even own a light meter. In this physically and emotionally demanding work, he creates images that both transport us and infuse us with longing. Without tricks or staging, he has taken a genre called architectural photography, something people see as staid and traditional, and turned it into something that, like the man, projects honesty, depth, and quiet surprises.
Do you still use a 35 mm camera?
No, but I shot a lot of pictures with that camera, making mistakesóa lot of mistakes trying to figure out what happens. Before I left Nebraska, I began shooting with a four-by-five camera, and I still do. It really changed my whole direction in photography.
In what way?
Itís a tripod-mounted camera, and you have to put your head under a focusing cloth. Itís very deliberate, very precise. I saw things differently. Even though mine is a much more sophisticated camera, itís basically the way Matthew Brady would have shot, or Jean Atget or Daguerre or any of the other pioneers in photography.
How did you get from photographer to architectural photographer?
When I decided to make my living as a photographer, I had to look at how in the world I was going to do that. I looked at my portfolio, and they were mostly architecture - grain elevators, farm buildings, abandoned houses, that kind of thing. Iíd never met an architectural photographer, never knew such a career existed. I didnít know anything about the marketplace. I didnít know anything. But I started calling on architects in the area and got work immediately.
You have an enormous magazine and book publishing career. How did that occur?
Developing this business was really laborious and time-consuming and expensive. We were pretty broke at the time. I thought, well, if I began to shoot for magazines,
theyíd be paying me to publish my work and to put it out in the marketplace. Thereís a proverb in the Bible that says, Let another man praise you and not yourself. I think thatís great wisdom.
Youíre on the road a lot! Am I lucky I caught you home?
Itís all location work, and Iíll be out on the road again soon. In the winter Iím home. Unless, of course, I get an opportunity to shoot something in the Caribbean! I say Iím restingófrom shooting, but Iím supplying magazines with photos for feature stories. Itís busy. The demand is intense. We work with magazines in New Zealand, Japan, Germany, Russia, Mexico, Canada, all over the world. If they like your work, the way you capture things, theyíre at your door.
Do you think growing up in Nebraska shaped your way of capturing things?
Definitely. Thereís something about the light. Are you familiar with Giorgio de Chirico [Greek-born Italian painter, 1888Ė1978]? I love his work. He liked hard light. Heíd paint these piazzas, plazas, strange surrealist pictures with hard, deep shadows, and always a sense of melancholy and foreboding. I think thatís how I like to shoot.
That hard light. Does that have anything to do with the fact that you primarily work with natural light?
Yes. I try not to light things. I think what people consistently respond to is the sense of light in my pictures. I think I learned that in Nebraska. I love the idea that Iím working with God lighting my projects. And if Iíd been able to afford strobes early in my career, I would have lost out on all of this. What I thought was a failing, a loss, was a great gift.
What do you think is a misconception people have about architectural photography?
Well, if they think about it at all, they often think it looks unbelievably simple. It looks like, Whatís the big deal?
What is the big deal? What do you have to consider to make an image jump from ordinary to exceptional?
Much of it has to do with being obsessive and compulsive about small details. Itís all about the details, details produced under pressure, under fleeting light situations, and many times in great haste. Youíve always got one eye looking up at the sky. Iíve got maybe five minutes to set the shot up. Youíve got to move, move, move. Youíve got to be anticipatory and see exactly whatís going to unfold in three or six or more hours. Youíve got to be ready.
So youíre dealing with the light thatís going and the light thatís coming, simultaneously.
Exactly! Thatís what my life consists of day in and day out, from April to December. Itís torture, and yet I love it.
Is the story you tell sometimes different from the story that your client may have envisioned you telling?
Absolutely. Itís important to say here that doing work on assignment is a very different kettle of fish, and definitely not for everyone. When you go out on assignment youíve got to come back with the goods, in a reasonable period of time that the client can afford, and youíve got to tell the story. And if the story is different, as you suggest, if your client says, ďThatís a great shot. I didnít ever even see that,Ē thatís a sign of success.
It seems that no one could take the photos you take. That itís your way of observing, of catching the core of a time, a place, a corner.
I hadnít thought about that, but youíre probably right. When I see someone elseís images of a project Iíve shot, I am struck by their choices, the angles, what they even saw as interesting. It is a different story they tell.
What do you love to shoot? What woos you?
Right now Iíd love to be able to take a month in early summer and just drive across the country with my wife and shoot what I wantóindustrial buildings or farm buildings, just weird stuff, funny stuff that is interesting to me.
What draws you to a subject?
You mean, why do I have such a strong feeling when I see something I feel compelled to shoot? What is that? I really donít know. Iím mystified, and it disturbs me when I see long-winded descriptions about what a painting or a photograph means, the symbolism and the metaphors. I only know that I have to do it, and that Iím grateful for that. Very grateful.