I took a very untraditional route to becoming a photographer, receiving a BA in Economics from the University of California at Berkeley, and a Juris Doctor from UC Hastings College of Law in San Francisco. After years as a criminal lawyer in Los Angeles, I happily waived goodbye to the law and devoted my full time to writing lyrics with some wonderful and talented musicians, got signed to Warner-Chappell Music, and somehow got into producing through no real talent of my own.
During lulls in my music career (which were all too frequent), I kept grabbing my camera and shooting more and more, and it became obvious to me that it was what I really loved. The wonder of photography, which I first learned from my father, never left me. The ability to freeze a moment, and to go back again and again to that moment, still fills me with a quiet sense of reverence. There are mysteries contained in every photograph. Though the photo doesn’t change, my reaction to it does, and so a still photograph can remain fresh and interesting – even illuminating – over time. That’s the mystery of it.
What I always loved became what I did. I get to shoot a lot of interesting, beautiful people. There’s something special in the way a person being photographed gives himself or herself so completely to the photographer, often revealing what is not revealed to the world at large. In that way, and for that period of time, an intimate relationship is formed – and in that relationship between photographer and subject, the photo is created, an artifact of our existence and humanity that lives on beyond us.
from my father:
My father was an optometrist, and in his field quite prominent. But he was interested in more than simply correcting people’s vision. Vision was, for him, a means of seeing. And, so, he was a photographer. He loved photography. I still remember the weight and size of his Speed Graphic, the bellows that allowed the lens to be pulled out from the camera body, the sheet film holders, and the large negatives drying in a closet, suspended from wires with wooden clothespins he got from my mother. I remember the red safelight in his darkroom, and the smell of the chemicals. I can still see his images emerging from white paper in the developer. But most of all, I remember the photos – pictures of my brother and me as babies, and as small children, of our dog Patsy, and of my mother with her radiant smile and the ever-present gardenia in her rich dark brown hair. These photos were mostly in black and white, full of tonality and shadows and highlights. He was a good photographer, and his photographs displayed a thousand moments of love, composed with great care. My father was not a man who easily spoke of love – he was too formal and reserved for that – but the photographs were the testimony of his love.
From my father I not only learned my first lessons in the craft of photography, but also the mystery and wonder of it. From him I learned that photographs aren’t a simple depiction of what’s in them, but of the world in which they live, and of the photographer’s soul. For me, a photograph empty of emotion is uninteresting, and so I always shoot from my heart. It’s funny – I never saw my father as an emotional man until later in life, and after studying his work. It’s sad that it takes so long to understand one’s parents completely.
It’s said that pictures speak a thousand words. I think that is true, but they are more. At their best, they are a gift of understanding - they are a window into thoughts and worlds and feelings we might never have otherwise known. They teach us about beauty, compassion, kindness, injustice, sorrow, joy, love, and God’s grace. And in this way, my father, the optometrist, taught me to see.
getting back into it:
In my last year of law school I got back into photography. I can’t say why, but it became a mandate from some higher force. I’d fallen out of it for years because of college, jobs, no time and no money for film, but in that year I decided to live in a $36/month hotel room in the Tenderloin district of San Francisco so that I could buy a new camera. At that time all I knew was that I couldn’t afford both a decent place to live and the camera. I wasn’t aware that the camera was just a part of what I needed to get, and that my life would change forever in that year.
My room was down an extremely dingy, decaying hallway, and I had a small window that looked out on an alley. There was a bare light bulb hanging from a wire in the middle of the ceiling, over an old iron bed that creaked with any movement. Against one wall was an inset area containing a sink, and on the floor below it was a piece of tattered linoleum covering the threadbare carpeting. When I stepped on it cockroaches would scurry out. The bathroom down the hall was so grimy I never used it. Instead, I got up early in the morning, went to the Y to work out and shower, and then continued on to school. Outside of the hotel at night there were a lot of hookers on the street and hanging out on the stoop, and an after-hours nightclub next-door with very dangerous looking bouncers. Needless to say, I took my life and health in my hands in order to get that camera. In return, my life began to improve.
The Fairfax Hotel, itself, provided some wonderful photographic opportunities. One weekend morning I awoke early and walked out of the hotel to brilliant sunshine. The early light struck the old doorknob against the battered blood red door in a way that made it look like abstract art. I ran back up to the room to get the camera, and shot the picture before that light was lost moments later. The next day the door was painted black, and I knew that the light on the previous morning had directed me to take the photo before this humble, beautiful composition was lost forever. Another morning I awoke and looked out to the alley. There, before me, was a simple scene – a man dozing in his kitchen beside his stove. But it wasn’t a kitchen. It was an alley. Someone had disposed of an old stove and a chair, and a homeless man in the night had gone to sleep on the chair.
I’m a believer that opportunities are given to us when we are ready for them, and I was meant to start seeing in that year, the last year of my law school education.
It was the weekend of the San Francisco Art Festival, and my brother, Jeff, came to visit me from Fort Ord in Monterey, California, where he was stationed. We went together to the festival. At one booth was a photographer, who also did framing – lovely, individual, hand-made frames. One of his photos was startling because the light seemed to jump out of it. I commented on it to my brother. It was a small photograph – about 5 inches square, in a wormwood frame. Later, I decided my dingy hotel room needed some life on the walls, and decided to go to that photographer – Robert Leverant -- to have a couple of my photos framed. It was time to hang my first show. I called him, and was directed to his flat, where I went to see him one evening. It was a long climb up several flights of rickety wooden stairs to his front door. I knocked. There was a glass panel in the door, and I could see up more stairs inside, which Robert had to descend to get to the door. He was backlit, so all I could see was a silhouette – a body, a head, a lot of hair and a beard. It was the Age of Aquarius and hair – this was Haight-Ashbury in the late 60’s. Robert opened the door, and after a moment said in his quiet, gentle voice, “I remember you. You were with another man at the art festival and you said some very nice things about one of my photographs. I really appreciated that.” When we got around to looking at my photographs for framing, Robert said, “Do you know what you’ve done here?” I didn’t. He then said he would like to work with me. He told me he had a gallery on Union Street, and that, if I liked, I could bring in my film as I had it developed and we’d talk about what I was shooting. That was the beginning of a close and important friendship. He became one of those generous mentors who comes into one’s life when he is needed, and helps to shape that life. Robert couldn’t understand why I wanted to be a lawyer. He once said to me, “Brian, you should see the difference in your face when you talk about law and when you talk about photography. When you talk about law your face is dead. When you talk about photography your eyes dance and your face is animated. You need to be a photographer.” For Christmas he and his wife made me a very beautiful card that said, “Do your own thing and bring peace to yourself and joy to the world.”
Despite Robert’s love and advice, I finished law school and practiced law for years. Eventually, however, I found my way back. I’m doing my own thing now. I’m at peace. Hopefully I’m bringing some joy to the world. It’s a journey that has taken many years. It began at the Fairfax Hotel on Eddy Street in San Francisco.
different ways of seeing:
Sean was about two or three when he, his mother and I walked into a large and densely stocked electronics showroom of a major department store. There were glass cases everywhere, filled with a vast array of items, as well as racks and shelves containing thousands of things. Sean immediately began shouting, “Daddy!” repeating it over and over again. Joanie and I looked everywhere for Kevin, but couldn’t see him. What was Sean looking at? We finally figured it out. About 20 feet in front of us was a glass cabinet containing every imaginable electric shaver, and, as Sean pulled us to it, we realized that he had seen the one his dad used every morning. He saw it the moment we walked into the room.
Joanie and I were dumbstruck. How had he seen that particular shaver so fast? Some time after that I was driving through a mountain pass at dusk, and was enchanted by how the light fell on the crevices and folds of the hills, almost translucent at the top, and getting deeper and richer as it fell further down into the canyon, with shadows like rich dark chocolate. It was sublime, and caused me to think of how I react to light, and it’s emotional impact on me. Then I thought of Sean and his delight in seeing his daddy in one small detail in a crowded department store.
Sean saw detail as a good detective does, while I see the world more in impressionistic washes. It’s not that I don’t see detail, but it’s not where I go first. Until I’ve had an emotional response first to the light, a feeling – until I’ve heard the music – I have no interest in photographing the detail.
I spend a lot of time looking at photographs, and am always fascinated by the different and extraordinary vision of so many very talented photographers. From the sublime poetry of Keith Carter’s images of rural Texas, to the wildly colorful and energetic fashion photography of David LaChapelle, to the dark, disturbing nightmares created by Joel-Peter Witkin. From the carefully crafted majestic Yosemite photographs shot with a large view camera and printed by the master Ansel Adams to the “decisive moments” caught instantly and unerringly with a Leica by Henri Cartier-Bresson, it’s hard not to appreciate how different we are, how we see the world, and how individual we are in our approach to it.
I do what I do. It’s neither right nor wrong. It’s simply what I have to offer, and I’m grateful to be able to do it. But I’m also filled with gratitude for the exceptional talents of so many other people who fill my world with inspiration, ideas, understanding, and extraordinary beauty.
who takes the photograph?
It would be nice to believe that I have taken all of the photographs that have come out of the camera in my hands. After all, I chose the camera, the film or digital parameters, the lens, the f-stop and shutter speed. I aimed the camera and composed the photo. In fact, didn’t I do everything to make the picture? Of course it’s my photo. Or is it?
I’ve also written lyrics, and have a very clear memory of looking at one of them some time ago, months after it was written, and not being able to comprehend that it was mine. It was a love song, and the expression of love was so beautiful and pure and poetic that I knew I couldn’t possibly have written it, though, in fact, I had. I’d been trained as a lawyer, and knew I could write legal briefs. I also saw myself as being a little stiff and withholding in the area of emotions, like my father. And, yet, here were these words that very openly and eloquently spoke of an emotion I wasn’t really comfortable talking about in my life.
So who wrote the words, and who takes the photographs? I’ve spoken to friends who are artists – painters, photographers, writers – and they all describe the same experience: It’s as if they are simply conduits. The brush moves on the canvas, the words are written on the page - by some force coming through them. It’s an unconscious thing. It doesn’t always happen, but it’s very good when it does. It’s being “in the zone,” and it’s an exhilarating experience. In that place art creates itself effortlessly, without thought. It’s an ineffable, powerful magic.
When I wrote a lyric, I found that the best way for me to get there was to lie down, close my eyes, and let myself drift. If I tried to force the words, they wouldn’t come, or, perhaps worse, they came but sounded like a legal brief. But often, when I was in that state between awake and sleep, the words were suddenly there, clean, honest, unadorned by any calculation, compromise or cleverness. Similarly, there are times I need to shoot, so I pick up a camera and walk out onto the streets of some town or city. But I can’t shoot. The camera is just a weight, a burden, because I feel empty of any thought or ideas. It’s frustrating to feel stupid and untalented, and those self-judgments make it even harder. Then I remind myself to relax, just let the judgments and expectations go, and enjoy the walk - breath the air, watch people being people – to use a cliché, just be in the moment. And that’s when, very often, the alchemy will begin to happen. The camera almost lifts itself as that force inside connects with something outside of me – the way the light falls on something, an emotion exchanged between two people, the transformation of a functional object into a graphic shape. In fact, it's in that transformation that the creative impulse is happening - when what is seen becomes the essence of what is seen. It’s so hard to describe without sounding pretentious, and that is why I so often dislike discussions of art and the creative process.
What I know is that I’m not doing this alone. Is God speaking through me? I don’t know. But it’s as good an explanation as I can think of.