interview by mahmoud mfinanga
"Where would the inspiration come from if everyone was doing the same thing?"
- 38 minute read
- Published Feb 6, 2017
- Portrait by Erin Sheffield
- I wouldn’t even call this an interview, but more so two friends having a conversation that happens to be recorded. And you know what? I have no problem with that. I hope that this brings a sense of variety to all the other interviews that can sometimes be a bit too serious.
- Interview contains nude photography and excessive mature language—specifically the word “fuck” 51 times.
Some use photography as a way to create a moment while others, such as Bryan Sheffield, use it to document one. And for Bryan, a Pennsylvania-based photographer, it’s usually non duplicable and fleeting. With photos that frame the untethered and vulnerable side of his subjects, whether it's Rick Rubin, a friend, a tree, or a zebra, no one is safe from Bryan’s effort to capture a candid scene. In this interview, Bryan and I talk about how he prepares for photoshoots, how his kids impact his creativity, and why bacon is ruining my dating life.
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Mahmoud: Is it me, or are a lot of people starting to go crazy over film? There's seems to a craze over shooting film right now.
Bryan: I noticed that a few years ago when there was this big film resurgence, but I haven't seen it too much lately. But then again, I haven't been paying too much attention. I've seen the opposite, actually. A lot of known film photographers have been using digital lately. Maybe not in the last month, but in the last couple of years I've seen it happen. A lot of Juergen Teller's stuff is digital these days, and Emily Shur was using a 4x5 and now she's digital-ing it up. McGinley’s latest projects are digital, too.
Mahmoud: I love Juergen's work. I've been eyeing so many photo books lately, and want to buy so many of his.
Bryan: Yeah, they're addicting. My Juergen Teller book collection is stupid. I've got every book he's put out including limited versions and stuff. They just sit there and collect dust and some aren't even taken out of their plastic wrap.
Mahmoud: You're kidding me.
Bryan: I told Erin [Bryan's wife] that when I die, "This is the book that you should sell first," and it was some book that was worth $1,100 or something. My mother-in-law was here and she was like, "What's this?" and I'm like, "It's a book," and she's like, "Why is it in bubble wrap?” and I'm like, "Ah, that's how it came. I didn't open it yet.” She's like, "Why do you have a book that's in bubblewrap sitting on your shelf?" For me, I probably know every photo that's in there. I bought it to have it and it’ll probably sit like that until my kids inherit it or I sell it one day.
Mahmoud: You're the first person who told me they don't open some of the photo books they buy.
Bryan: I do!
Mahmoud: No you don't. You just told me that you don't open some of them.
Bryan: There's certain books that I don't need to open.
Mahmoud: So you're buying them as investments?
Bryan: I don't know! I guess... its a collector thing. I do that, too, with albums and LP's. I'll have five different copies of the same album—different coloured vinyl or different pressings.
Mahmoud: I shouldn't judge you because I do that with magazines. I have a LIFE magazine from when Steve Jobs died and it's in mint condition.
Bryan: Yeah, that's the kind of thing you want to have 20 years from now. In 20 years you'll go, "Oh, look. I still have this fucking magazine that I bought in 2011."
Mahmoud: Have you ever met Juergen?
Bryan: No, but one of my ex-interns met him and got a book signed for me, which was really cool. She was freaking out, and was like, "I was trying to keep it a secret, but I'm in the place right now where Juergen's signing books," and she took a picture of him signing the book for me. It was really sweet of her.
Mahmoud: Was it in London?
Bryan: No, it was in New York. I'm sure he's done signings here, too, but yeah. When I've met people who I've really looked up to, it's either really awesome or it really fucking sucks, because it can change your opinion of them.
Mahmoud: Has that happened to anyone you've photographed? I know it's important to approach them candidly, but I think we all have a few people that we'd be excited about.
Bryan: Yeah, and there's some heroes that I've shot and I haven't really told anyone beforehand, because you don't want to freak out about it too much. But at the end of the day, you're there to do a job, and they don't want to be like, "Oh, I'm being photographed by a fucking fan today." No one wants that. You would loose the importance of your job so much, you know what I mean? If you're doing a shoot with this person, whether they hired you directly or if you're shooting for a magazine, they know your name. They approved you, their manager approved you, their publicist approved you, and the magazine hired you, so you're there to do a job.
Bryan: I shoot fast and I like to get movement happening, but it’s very calculated. I like to have conversations and fluidity with people, too. That can involve sharing a lemonade with someone, or having a conversation about what they've been up to. But if you start off with, "Oh my god, I'm so happy about your new movie. I can't wait to see it. Tell me all about it!" They're going to be like, "Who the fuck is this guy? Is he a reporter? He's a photographer." They want to see you come in and be like, "Hey buddy, here's what we're doing. Here's this and that." Like, I've had people that I've looked up to say to me, "I've checked out your work. It's really good." And you're like, oh my god, that's fucking awesome! But at the same time, that's not going to make you put your guard down and not try as hard to make a great photo.
Bryan: Whoever you're shooting photos of, they've been photographed a million times. Any celebrity, musician, or whatever knows what they're doing. They know how to pose, and they know what looks good, and they know what they want to see in print. And you know what you want, and you know what you want to get out of them. You know the lighting, angles, composition, and shapes you want. So it's a good dance between the two of you
Mahmoud: You've been shooting a lot of editorials lately so how do you prepare for them?
Bryan: Do you mean physically prepare or logistically?
Mahmoud: I'm interested in both.
Bryan: It totally depends on the situation. If there's a lot of production then most of the time I'm very much involved in that, and sometimes I'm involved in that in a director kind of way—telling the actual producers what I want, overseeing it, and making sure that's happening. But if it's not a lot of production, then it's a matter of making sure things are in line, whether its locations, lighting, and assistants or figuring out what you need to get the photograph. But then once all that's done, everything runs pretty seamlessly. Everyone has a job to do.
Bryan: Every shoot I go into, I have a vision in my mind of what I want and what I'd love to get. But I also love how things change and adapt on set or when you're shooting. It's the same thing, too; like, I try not to say, "Cool, I got that shot. Let's move on now," until I have to, because as soon as you say "We're done," and put the camera away, something else happens that you could've photographed. There's been so many situations where I handed the camera to the assistant and then something fucking awesome just starts happening and you want to take photos of it.
Mahmoud: So how do you tactfully conclude the shoot while shooting?
Bryan: Generally, with celebrity stuff, they have a hard time that they need to be done. And I'll just have the publicist tell me the countdown. Like, you gotta get out of here in five minutes? Tell me when it's four minutes; tell me when it's two minutes; tell me when it’s fucking 30-seconds. There's been so many shots that I've taken with a person walking through a doorway or a song comes on and they all of a sudden start dancing. For example, they can have something in their eye and they have to run to the bathroom to get it out, and then there’s this awesome shot of a person getting a splinter out of their eye in a mirror. That's the kind of shit that I'm interested in. I'm not going, "Here's the square you stand on, here's where the light is, and do a few different poses." People know they're being photographed but I like to try to get these candid moments. And they're guided into positions by me, but I like to make it look like they're not being posed.
Mahmoud: It makes sense. My favourite type of photos are when the photographer creates this situation that the subject has to interact with. It's like you're building a mental playground and seeing how the subject plays in it.
Bryan: Yeah, and you can tell when the photographer put their hand on it and there's some kind of rapport going on there. The best photos are when you can see part of the photographer in the image. [Redacted] on Instagram posted this photo of Kanye because it was his birthday, and I was looking at it asking, "What the fuck am I looking at?” That guy takes good photos, but he's just sitting in a chair with his feet on an apple box staring at the camera. If the photo wasn't of Kanye no one would care about the photograph. And, like, that's cool, but that kind of photography doesn't do anything for me.
Mahmoud: Do you sometimes think that, oh, maybe the situation wasn't there. Like, in that situation someone higher up didn't allow the photographer to get the type of image they really wanted? Because there’s shoots were the photographer is just a gun for hire.
Bryan: No, I think that's just what the publication wanted. It was a fashion shoot and we're looking at the clothing. Kanye is wearing the clothing, so we're looking at Kanye, too. But that was what it was for. We’ve seen the Juergen, Kim and Kanye book where there's a close up of his face with fucking gunk in the corner of his mouth. And there's amazing photos that Daniel Arnold took of him at the Governors Ball. Like, that shit's fucking cool and Kanye certainly signed off on those images. But, I don't know. Different photographers have different things, and I'm sure that photo went through 20 hours of retouching, making everything perfect. I've done shoots like that before for clothing lines where it isn't about the person, it’s about the clothing, so we don't need any sweeping landscape photo of the person in a third of the photograph. That's cool and maybe they'll run one as a spread in the book but they want photos of the clothing. They want close-up details where you can see the knits in the sweater and their logo on the buttons.
Mahmoud: When it comes to commercial work, how comfortable is the client when shooting with film? Have you used film for any recent commercial work?
Bryan: I have a few times, but no. It scares the shit out of them. Why would they want that? One, they can't look at it right away and there's no computer screen for them. I mean, on a big commercial shoot, there's ten people crowded around a computer screen looking at every photo being taken as you take them. With film, they can't do that. I did a job where I had to convince them that part of the shoot should be done on film for the look we wanted, and it ended up being great, but they of course wanted me to do tests with digi [tech] so they could see it while they were on set. Pretty recently Lauren Dukoff did some rad Nike campaigns on film, I think. Maybe it was a smaller one, but she still convinced them that film was the way to go. But for the most part, no one wants to wait for that. They want to go back to their hotel room that night and look at selects from the day and send them to their boss. Just imagine the amount of money that's spent on that day between the models, locations, stylists, grooming, catering, and everyone else being there. What happens if you get the film back and they're like, "Oh, there's no photos we like here at all." [both laughing] Then you're doing another fucking $100,000 day the next day.
Bryan: One of my assistants worked on a shoot for a GQ, Vanity Fair, or one of those magazines, where they have a 20-page spread of all the Oscar nominees. It was a week long shoot in a studio in Hollywood where each day, all day, different celebrities would come in and do their photos. I forgot who the photographer was but he shoots a Pentax 67 and my dude was telling me that it was fucking insane. He had three bodies so he never had to wait—all three were always loaded. When we has shooting an assistant would grab a camera from his hands at his face and give him another, and he's just shooting, shooting, shooting; there's no stopping. And then, at the end of every day, the film was sent to three different labs via three different shippers. So say he shot a thousand rolls that day—333 would go to one lab with UPS, 333 would go to another via FedEx, and 333 to another one DHL or some shit—so if anything happened to the rolls in shipping or processing, the whole shoot wouldn't be lost. Like, if there was a fucking UPS hijacking that day, [both laughing] or if one lab burned down or something, there would still be something saved. They did that every day. Isn't that insane?
Mahmoud: That's fucking ridiculous.
Bryan: And, really, it's the same with hard drives. At the end of every shoot day, I have things on three different hard drives and they go in three different vehicles, if possible, because you never know what's going to happen.
Mahmoud: So the film was sent to labs in the city or what?
Bryan: I'm not sure. They probably were all in New York.
Mahmoud: I can just imagine guys with walkie-talkies and a big security team.
Bryan: Hell yeah, man. One of my friends works for Warner Brothers and one of her responsibilities is to hand deliver the audio masters to other Warners territories in Japan, Europe, and China. So she'll fly in a plane on first class, get off the plane, go into the building, give them the master, and then get back on a plane and go to the next location. And it's like, you can't fucking FedEx it? No, because you're not going to send the new Madonna album that hasn't been heard by anyone via FedEx to Europe. You're gonna bring that by hand and hand it off.
Mahmoud: She’s kind of a secret agent, in a way.
Bryan: I feel that way, too, but we're outsiders. She probably thinks it's ridiculous and a thankless job where she's on a plane for half the year.
Mahmoud: Yeah, it's funny in hindsight how certain things look like from an outsider's perspective. But when you're in the driver's seat, it's totally different.
Bryan: Dude, I was on a conference call this afternoon. Today is Wednesday and on Monday they were like, "Hey, let's do a call on Wednesday." I'm like, "Cool, how's 12:30?" and someone else is like, "No, that won't work for me. How's 2:30?" Everyone is like, "Cool," and then yesterday someone was like, "Oh, shit, sorry, can't do 2:30. Can we do 3:30?" And then everyone is like, "Yeah, cool." So, like, probably 20 emails went around about this conference call, and I get on today and it was seven minutes long, and about the kind of things that could've been decided Monday when this joint email went out.
Mahmoud: I don't understand it because if you're on a call, someone somewhere might forget about something, and there's going to be no reference point. With an email, you have a tangible reference about what he/she said.
Bryan: Well, it was cool because it was a nice creative call today, but we've already had some creative calls. This was just a quick follow-up one with something kinda important that we had to discuss. That's something I don't want to do over email, is have a big, long back-and-forth of thoughts and revisions. Those things should happen on phone calls where you can give ideas and bounce ideas off people, but today's call wasn't about that. It was just about things that were already set in motion. But yeah, Stangel and Weinberger are totally right.
Bryan: I don't have email alerts on my phone, because it would be nonstop and I would be pulling my phone out of my pocket all the time on shit that can wait.
Mahmoud: The only apps with notification sounds enabled are—
Mahmoud: [laughing] Nope. My notifications are only on for phone calls, texts, and work email. But if it was for every single app I had, I'd be pulling my hair.
Bryan: It takes away from whatever else you're doing, too. I know a lot of older people that have set times when they return emails. Like, they won't be sitting at their computer, editing pictures, and then respond to an email as soon as it comes in. They'll wait and say, "4 o'clock is email time. We're gonna go through emails and respond then." But obviously there's certain stuff that needs to be addressed right away but other stuff can wait.
Mahmoud: When you first had Alden, how did he impact you creatively? Do you find yourself in a different vibe while creating work?
Bryan: Yeah, for sure. It was mostly positive. I've gone through my whole life being so selfish, and now it's about someone else. That drives me and makes me want to be creative. You see everything new… the fucking mountains, the trees, and the sunset in a new way. When he was real young, he was discovering everything. But even now, we'll still walk around and he'll want to look at a flower and talk about it for way longer than anyone should talk about a flower. That's cool because I haven't talked about a flower like that since I was his age! So, you do see little common things in life in a more detailed way. There's a lot of inspiration from that which leads to creativity and a lot of drive.
Bryan: The things that impacted me negatively were the lack of sleep. I've always been a night person; I'd go to bed at two or three in the morning and sleep till ten and just grind away. Before I had kids I was at work until midnight or two in the morning. I just can't do that anymore. I want to be home for them. I love coming home for dinner time and putting them to bed, if I can; if I'm not shooting.
Bryan: Before, everything revolved around work for me. Well, not everything, because there's work, food, travel, awesome blowjobs [both laughing], but now with kids, they are the importance in my life. So yes, I have to work, and yes, I love the job that I do, but I spend less time at the office for sure.
Mahmoud: Throughout your entire career have you learned anything recently that's changed your outlook on the industry, your work, or anything related to photography?
Bryan: I guess nothing I can think of off the top of my head. I’ve been learning stupid things lately, though; I learned Capture One this year. I still think it's annoying but my digital tech makes it easier to use for me. Are you looking for a different answer I don't have?
Mahmoud: Not really. I'm young so every week there's something that makes me go, "Oh shit. I didn't know that!"
Bryan: That's cool! That's exciting; embrace that. This is your time to learn those things and to make mistakes. Fuck up and try again.
Mahmoud: Sometimes I feel like I've gotten more pessimistic, but maybe it's just reality settling in and realising how tough shit is. I feel like I went into photography with flowers and roses, but now I'm left with burnt dandelions.
Bryan: Oh yeah, for sure. I get that way all the time. I had a freak-out-fest with my agent in the beginning of May. And she was like, "What the fuck, dude? Why are you freaking out? Everything is awesome. Look at this work you just made, look at these shoots coming up, look at this, look at this, and look at all these billings we have. Like, what the fuck is wrong?" And I'm like, "Ah yeah, you're right. I don't know. I guess I'm just having a bad day." It's just one of those things. There's always certain points where you're like, fuck, really dude? This or that fell through, or this person said they were going to send a payment last Friday and now it's a week later and I still haven't received it.
Mahmoud: I don't think we've talked about this on record, but didn’t you assist when you started out?
Bryan: Yeah, I assisted a couple of times for mostly people I already knew. It was less than a handful of times of random stuff. I left college—which I went to for photography—and then I started managing a record label right out of college. So during that, I was still shooting. I would shoot twice a month of bands or stuff for magazines. As that went on, I was shooting more and more and then it probably took about five years where I figured I could quit my job at the label and do photography full time and have enough money. I had to get my feet wet first and show people my work. And since everyone's a fucking photographer, you have to have something that stands out and gives a person a reason to call you.
Mahmoud: The pool has never been easier to get in, so when you get in you have to make a fucking wave. It's so easy to be lost in it.
Bryan: Yeah, and on Instagram, every time I get a new follower, 90 percent of the time I click on them to see who they are. And in their bio thing up top, it's like, "Photographer: Brighton, England. Photographer: Alabama. Photographer: New York." Like, oh, you're a fucking photographer? Why do you think you have to tell people that?
Mahmoud: Maybe it's something they want to be defined by.
Bryan: Yeah, I get that. Like, if you're blind emailing Rolling Stone and you want to send your Instagram link. I get that, but I don't know.
Mahmoud: But then again, sometimes people do things that mess it up for anyone. For instance, doing spec work. You'll have iPhone photographers, and I'm not saying that they aren't photographers, but they take these nice pictures with their phone and [redacted] goes, "Oh, hey! We'll give you this car for four days, give you a place to stay, if you can take pictures of the car for us!" And the iPhone photographer will go, "Oh, yeah, sure!" But dude, that's a lot of money you're throwing away. You're going to let them use your stuff for free because you never shot for a notable client before? Now those companies feel like they can do that with anyone because they already did it to a few people. But the people who really want to do it are offered way less that they could get because the budget is slashed since they can get away with murder, in a way.
Bryan: Yeah, I hear what you're saying, and hey, it's been going on for a couple of years. Most of those iPhone photographer celebrities get paid pretty handsomely, and they're getting hired because they have 250,000 followers. Whether it’s $1,000 per post, or whatever, they're making money doing it and they're having a good time doing it, and great for them. Undoubtedly though, that bubble will burst soon just like any style of photography.
Bryan: Advertising agencies kind of set the trend of what they want the public to respond to, but they're also following what the public is looking for from response to previous campaigns. Like, oh, we need a Jaguar during sunset in this cove in Malibu and this Instagram photographer is a perfect person to do it and this shoot is only going to cost us $10,000 because there's low overhead and just someone with their iPhone. And great; that's great because a year ago they'd pay a million dollars for the same photoshoot, so why wouldn't they do it this way now? The work reaches a younger and different audience, client saves money, agency makes more money.
Bryan: But that bubble is going to burst, I think, because these photographers that are getting paid little for these shoots are going to start wanting more money and turn down the smaller things. That's just American commerce, though. You're just going to want to sell your craft, whatever that is, for the worth that you give it, while the client works to set the price.
Bryan: I've heard from art directors that have worked with some of these people—which we'll call Instagram photographers for the sake of argument—and they don't like it. It's not fun for them because, for the most part, there's no creativity for the art director. They're just like, “Send in 3,000 photos a day and we'll pick one.” These shoots work for now with inanimate objects like landscapes and soda and juice and beer and cars and purses, but they're not going to do a shoot like this with a celebrity. There's no way they'll use an Instagram photographer to shoot Tom Cruise with Rolex watches, because, A, no celebrity is going to sign off on that. They don't want to be photographed by some young kid and his iPhone. And then, B, it's how they'll act around these people, too. And I'm sure you've seen it too, but I've heard from people about that unprofessionalism around celebrities that we were talking about earlier. You have a job to do and play it cool. I mean, how would you feel if you were some celebrity where the client you work with calls you and says, "We hired this photographer that you've never fucking heard of, their camera is also their telephone, but they have 250,000 followers on Instagram, and they're 20 years-old, and they wear shirts that they bought at Hot Topic." [both laughing]
Bryan: A client I worked with a couple of months ago was telling me that they used one of these Instagram photographers for some social media posts for a weekend of parties they did at Coachella. And they were like, "It's horrible. Everyone was complaining about the photographer. They got hyped up on Red Bull and became annoying to the VIP guests and other people." It wasn't a good thing.
Mahmoud: Yeah, there's a fine line between professionalism and having fun. Sure, you have to put your personality out into a shoot, but there's a guard you have to place. You're there to produce a certain type of imagery that the client wants that you like to capture.
Bryan: Yeah! I have a lot of friends who shoot models and I hear that models won't even test with photographers now unless they have 10,000 followers.
Mahmoud: Ugh, it's... I understand that but it's hard to get through that barrier. I've talked to models with 60,000 followers and they barely talked to me. And it's the same thing with reaching out to certain people for interviews. Some of them will ask about how many views the interviews get, and I used to give them a number, which would be followed by radio silence! [laughing] I feel like a number isn't mutually exclusive to quality or whatever else.
Bryan: Yeah, I assume they’d love quality images, but feel it's a waste of their time if no one is going to see those photographs. It's not going to be as fruitful to them if they're not getting paid and if the photos aren't getting out there to a broader audience. And it's the same thing when you call up Dax Shepard and you say that you want to interview him. He'll ask how many views your shit gets. And you can say 300 and it's not worth his time because he can sit by the pool and drink daiquiris. [both laughing]
Mahmoud: Oh yeah. I understand the reality of why it is what it is. I almost interviewed Mario Testino for this collection. I had some back-and-forth conversations with his people but it didn't pan out. However, it was cool that they even considered the idea of me interviewing him. Most of the time when I'd email someone of that "status" they won't even reply at all. But hey, no hard feelings.
Bryan: Well, we all know what our time is worth… and I think certain people think that about us when they call and ask us to do a photoshoot but they only have ‘x’ amount of money. So you're like, "Get the fuck out of here," because they want you to shoot for three days for $600. That doesn’t make any sense to me.
Mahmoud: So, do you have anything exciting that you're working towards in 2016?
Bryan: Yeah, I'm still working on that animal-at-night series.
Mahmoud: Dude, when are you going to make it a book?
Bryan: I don't know, man. I need to get to a point where I feel like it's finished. There's certain animals that I want to get. So until I get to that point, it's not even going to get close to being finished. But I'm going to do some family vacation traveling soon. We're gonna go to Colorado later, which'll be a great place for some bike rides. I want to go to Yosemite this Summer too, but I don't think that's going to happen. One of my friends just got back from there this weekend. That place is fucking magical.
Mahmoud: They have bike trails there, right?
Bryan: Yeah, for sure, but in most national parks, you can't ride off paved road. My buddy brought his bike when he went up there in the Winter, but he didn't ride it much because it's an insane place; it's not the kind of place you want to blast through on a bicycle. You'd want to just hike or walk gently with nature. Did you see that documentary on Netflix called Valley Uprising?
Mahmoud: I haven't. What is it about?
Bryan: Put it in your queue; it's fucking epic. It's about rock climbing in Yosemite. So, it starts in the 60s and 70s with these dudes and then goes up to right now. It had this part that showed how it took two days for the first dude to climb Half Dome. And it took two months or some shit for the first guy to climb El Capitan, and now these guys are doing both of them in a single day. Now they're tree climbing without ropes, where before they'd hammer their hooks into the cracks and string their ropes up—it's just insane. Some of these dudes have lived in Yosemite since the mid 90s and they're still there today. Although you can't stay there for more than 14 days, they'd pack all their stuff, drive out to find a place to stay for a night, and then come right back.
Mahmoud: Have you done that before?
Bryan: No way, get the fuck out of here! I've climbed mountains and repelled off some rocks but I haven't done rock climbing like these motherfuckers. You need to watch this shit, man, it's insane. They're grabbing on rocks with their finger tips, lifting their feet above their fingers, and then just pulling themselves up with their feet. They then put more chalk on their hands and do it again. When you see Dean, google him afterwards because his story is nuts. I wanna hear what you think about it.
Mahmoud: I will. I remember talking to a photographer about the idea of a club of photographers who were cyclists. Imagine what you could do with that.
Bryan: Yeah, that's kind of interesting, but I don't know. I have different groups of friends where there's photography friends and then there's cycling friends, and other friends. There's just different groups of friends that sometimes intermix or don't, but it can get too much if you have them all together. Where would the inspiration come from if everyone was doing the same thing? Like, if all my cyclist friends were photographers, too, I think I'd get annoyed. During a ride, I love discussing something I have no fucking idea about. I’ll ride with one guy who's in medical school, another guy who works at a casting agency, and another guy who is a ceramicist, an illustrator at Dreamworks, and then another guy who doesn't have a job but he's making taco's and selling them to people. It's fucking cool to hear their stories. I don't want to talk to a photographer when I'm riding a bike all the time.
Mahmoud: It's interesting because when you're surrounded by a certain group of people too much, there becomes a confirmation bias there. And as you said, you're not going to get inspired.
Bryan: Yeah, if you do that then you won't be able to know what's outside of that group.
Mahmoud: Who wants to always talk about gear and clients? It's gets tiresome after a while.
Bryan: Oh, for sure.
Mahmoud: So, what are you really fascinated by recently?
Bryan: It sounds weird but I've been really interested in rocks lately.
Mahmoud: Is it because of the texture? What's up with rocks?
Bryan: Yeah, like, different types of rocks and how they got there. Over the last couple of months while riding on the San Gabriel Mountains—which are right up the road from here—they’re some of the fastest growing mountains in the entire world. I think they grow around an inch-and-a-half every year. The third part of the Lord God and Please Be With Us series is really glacial erratics at night called How Great Thou Art, which I'm still working on. We kind of take these things for granted—the trees and rocks around us. They're right there in front of us. And we don't really pay attention to them because there's so many of them, and they're there, and we've seen 'em our whole lives. So it's kind of a thing where I'm like, let's look at them one at a time and see how fucking cool these things are.
Mahmoud: It's so funny how you were talking about something we've kind of ignored, like a rock, because you're right—we do take these little things for granted. We'll see a cool photo of someone jumping off of a tree, but hey, what about that tree? What makes that tree so cool to jump off of? I've been going crazy for grass, floors, and the back of people's heads recently. You start to realise how the back of people's heads can sometimes be more interesting than the front.
Bryan: Yeah, sometimes it is. It's cool because you don't see that, you know? That Rolling Stone issue that had Bernie [Sanders] on the cover has an intro spread with the back of Bernie's head. And it's pretty fucking rad. Like, yeah, obviously it reads as Bernie because he has a bald spot and white hair, but beyond that it's cool. You see that a lot in rock band photography, too, where there's a shot from behind the stage and it's a silhouette of a guy with a guitar, but there's more to it than that because there's a crowd in front of them, dramatic stage lighting, and the photographer is showing this whole experience. I thought about all this when I shot those photos of Rick Rubin's ear.
Mahmoud: I really liked those. I sometimes find myself more interested in the parts of something rather than the entire thing, and I think you feel the same way, judging by what you've been putting out lately. It's interesting finding different ways to approach a familiar thing, but I think that's kind of what photography is about.
Bryan: It's the same thing with how people want to see themselves, too. I went a long time where I didn't even have a mirror in my studio. I mean, I had one in the bathroom, but beyond that I didn't have a full-length mirror in the shooting space. I was doing a shoot once and the person asked for mirror and on purpose I handed them the makeup person's close-up mirror, and they're like, "No, I need a full-length mirror," and I'm like, "You look fucking fine! Settle down, but here, open the door, there's the bathroom mirror." If you want to see everything, go ahead, but I'm more interested in these close-up sections of you.
Bryan: Over the weekend Shawshank Redemption was on my recommended list so I was like, oh, I'll put this movie one, this movie is great. And I remember the last time I watched it, ten years ago, I was so enthralled with Tim Robbins' character when he was talking about music, how he felt about music, and that it’s in his heart. There was some podcast my agent turned me onto a couple months ago about how certain people treat music in different ways. For instance, when I hear a song from the 90s it brings me back to a certain memory, whether it was a good time or bad time, it brings back these emotions, but other people don’t have that feeling about music at all. They're just like, "Oh, it's a song. Cool, great song. I can dance to it. I don't know who sings this but it's a good song."
So anyway, this time, when I was watching Shawshank I was obsessed with the rock stuff, because the whole thing is about rocks. Tim Robbins fucking loves rocks and has the rock hammer, and their hardened time in prison, and their solid friendship, and blah blah... and I was so enthralled by that. So the next day I was telling Erin about how the movie is so fucking good, and she was like, "What did you love about it?" And I was like, "The rocks!" and she's like, "What the fuck are you talking about?" while laughing at me. All I was talking about were these rocks rather than what I saw when I last watched the movie.
Bryan: So lately, those are the things that have gotten me going.
Mahmoud: Do you think it's because you're already so exposed to them?
Bryan: I think so for sure. I had to work on a travel project recently and they wanted a certain set of images. Most of the personal images I have from travelling are nature. And they're like, "Do you have some London, New York, or Paris stuff?" And I'm like, "Nothing that doesn't look like a stupid tourist shot." I have tourist shots in my head of me standing next to the Eiffel Tower doing the peace sign, but there's no artsy shit of that because it doesn't interest me. So yeah, I'm definitely drawn to nature and that's where I like to be around. I don't know my way around Downtown LA, but it's two fucking miles away from where I live.
Bryan: So I saw Mark Hunter while I was driving through West Hollywood, and he was on the corner with some fancy Press Juice in his hand photographing some girl.
Mahmoud: [laughing] Yep, that's Mark.
Bryan: You guys and your $12 juices.
Mahmoud: Dude, I went to lunch with Mark once and bought two slices of bread with almond crust and banana slices for eight fucking bucks. [Bryan laughing]
Bryan: [Sarcastically] But it's healthy, organic, and good for you! Not for me. I eat Subway for $5 and drink day-old coffee.
Mahmoud: [laughing] Are you vegan?
Bryan: I was vegan for nine years but not any more. I'm still a vegetarian, though.
Mahmoud: What made you want to become vegan?
Bryan: For animal rights issues. I was vegan from age 16 to 24 and I did it again for a year in my early 30s. But I never really talked about it too much. Who gives a fuck? One of my cycling buddies just decided to go vegan so of course for the first month he started to tell everyone he's vegan. You know, the profile photo and everything. I'm like, dude, just chill the fuck out. But then he got into the memes. I'm sure you saw the meme where it showed a woman in a restaurant choking, and her date asks, "Is anyone a doctor?" and someone yells out, "No, but I'm vegan!" [both laughing] One of my relatives, who will remain nameless, is vegan and just brings it up all the time. Like, yeah, we know, we get it. You're vegan.
Mahmoud: I think the only thing I get really vocal about, regarding food, is bacon. It can talk about it to death, unfortunately.
Bryan: You love your bacon, huh?
Mahmoud: There was this one time where this girl told me that she didn't like bacon. I looked at her and knew in my head that it was a deal breaker. I know, it's shallow.
Bryan: [laughing] What was the deal that you had to break with her?
Mahmoud: I was on a date or whatever and she talked about food and then she hit me with the I-don't-like-bacon line. So I was curious, asked her why, and she told me, "Ah, I just don't like it." There was no reason behind it.
Bryan: That's stupid! It's her opinion. Leave her alone. Like, I don't like fucking eating coffee grinds, but you know, it's her taste buds.
Mahmoud: No, no, I respect that. But for me? I can't...
Bryan: You're so pro-bacon that you couldn't deal with it?
Mahmoud: Yeah, and it really sucks that it's that important to me. I'm not gonna hate you for it, but I don't know if it’s something I can compromise on.
Bryan: So you were on a date with this girl and then you just said, "That's it. Date over."? [both laughing]
Mahmoud: Yeah, you just get the hell out of there. But no, I persevered through it. We never talked again, though.
Bryan: Yeah, she didn't call you back because you're a fucking weirdo who talks about bacon too much.
Mahmoud: No! I didn't talk about it a lot. It organically came up when we were talking about potential places to eat.
Bryan: And you're like, "How about Bacon Hut?" and she's like, "Nah," and you're like, "How about Bacon R Us?" and she's like, "Nah." So then you probably went, "Well, why don't you like bacon you fucking idiot?!" [both laughing]
Mahmoud: It wasn't that bad! I wasn't entitled to a reason, but I hoped for one. Like, did someone in her family die from eating a piece of bacon and it's now this enemy of hers?
Bryan: Why? You just wanted a reason so you could argue with her about it. She didn't like bacon. Leave her alone. Actually, call her up right now and apologise, because she's probably really upset still. Besides me, how many people did you tell this story to?
Mahmoud: Just you.
Bryan: But now everyone is going to read it in this interview. Have you heard that example where if someone makes you happy, you tell one person, but if someone pisses you off, you tell ten people? So she's definitely told everyone. She probably wrote about you on Facebook and Snapchatted bacon memes. [both laughing]
Mahmoud: That wasn't the main reason why things didn't pan out.
Bryan: That wasn't your main reason, but that was definitely hers. I'm not going on another date with some motherfucker talking about bacon.
Mahmoud: When I'm around close friends, sure, I'll get defensive about bacon, but with someone new? My bacon craze doesn't reveal itself.
Bryan: How about next time don't mention bacon. If she mentions something you don't like, for instance: If she goes, "Oh my god, I love the fucking new DJ Khaled record," don't go, "Are you fucking kidding me?"
Mahmoud: I've never done that before.
Bryan: Good. Make sure you're like, "That shit is fucking awesome. I fucking love it. Track number three is my favourite. Let's stop eating dinner and go straight to fuck-town while listening to it."
Mahmoud: I remember being in a girls car and she turned on this album she loved and asked me about. So, I lied and said that I loved it, too. And she asked what my favourite song was. So I continued my lie and told her that the current song playing was my favourite, because I didn’t know the names to the other songs.
Bryan: So when we get off this phone call you're going to text her and apologise to bacon-baby.
Mahmoud: I don't have her number anymore.
Bryan: You deleted her number? Bullshit. We need to talk about your dating life.
Mahmoud: [laughing] No thanks!
Where can we follow you?
Website and Instagram
Last thing you googled?
- Loudon Wainwright 'Surviving Twin'
My agent used to make fun of me saying that I ate breakfast at CVS every day. It was all trail mix and Red Bull. I am better now, though. Today I had a kale and tofu salad, chips and guacamole, espresso, and Clif Bars.
I've been listened to Bruce Springsteen, Anderson Paak, and the new Weeknd album that has Daft Punk on it.
What are your hotspots?
Yosemite National Park, Valley Forge National Park, and Acadia National Park.
What gear do you like using?
I have 200+ rolls of expired Fuji 1600 film in my fridge. I bought a few cases in 2010 when they stopped making it.
National Geographic and Facebook.