interview by mo
"It's either there or it isn't and that has its own stress."
- 19 minute read
- Published March 13, 2017
- Portrait by Mo
Steven Brahms, a Brooklyn-based photographer and director, and I talk about the dichotomy between finding your works signature while simultaneously getting away from that. His films and photographs embrace how we understand the world, which he's been able to explore through personal projects and commissioned pieces from clients such as Nike and Hermès. Below, Steven shares with us his approach towards creating work that embraces the journey of creating rather than the destination.
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Mo: One thing I've noticed in your films is how energetic and explorative they are. What are a few attributes you try to place in your films?
Steven: Filmmaking, in general, is a very collaborative experience. You're working with writers, cinematographers, gaffers, grips, and there's so many people involved. What's great about it is that you can pregame with that team and say, "Hey, this is the vibe we're going for," especially with the pure energy of it. I worked with Garrett Hardy Davis who's a really talented cinematographer. I mean, cinematography is so physical, you know? I'm drawn to that energy because the camera is always moving. And so he has this innate ability to sense the movement and it’s my job as the director to be a cheerleader. You're basically there anticipating the action and exploring how you can amp up each moment. He's [focused] on making the moment more pronouncing and that's what's great with working with different people.
Steven: [Since] there's so many things happening, it's almost impossible to think about everything all at the same time. I mean you kind of sense it and go, "Hey, I think the camera should be doing something here," but it’s always nice when you have someone who's dedicated since their job is to think about one thing. You'll have the gaffer who's like, "Oh, we're in this hallway, the light should feel a certain way," and then the camera operator is like, "What if we push the camera this way?" [For me] I'm focused on the performance and energy. Everyone has their own job, [so] when it's working really well, it all comes together and brings an amazing energy.
Mo: I think you're able to achieve that when you're creating a scenario around that where you're allowing room for everyone to have input [on set].
Steven: Oh yeah! I think my style is very open to that collaborative spirit. At the end of the day I'll make the decision whether I like something or not, but for me it's so important to be open to everyone's ideas and all the possibilities. Usually, you can set the stage but what comes out of that, in the best circumstances, is unexpected in a great way—be open to that serendipity.
Mo: That's really important, and one thing I'm curious about is your involvement with the treatment throughout working with the client.
Steven: Every job is different, but usually the client will send you a brief and sometimes it could be a video; sometimes it could be a one page written document; sometimes it could be some tears or references, but it's very loose and it's your job to come back and re-explaining it through your eyes. But they should be able to read that treatment and get a sense of what they're going to get, and that's what I spend a lot of my time doing now.
Mo: What’s a situation where the initial treatment became skewed away from what you originally were aiming for?
Steven: I think that when its advertising, that doesn't really happen, unless there's a catastrophe, because everything has to be set in stone and preordained—everyone needs to know exactly what they're gonna get. So luckily that hasn't really happened to me from an advertising standpoint. But from an editorial standpoint... I mean, I haven't really had a huge amount of nightmare scenarios. I think that it just comes down to what you can get access to; just the reality of like, "Oh, it's supposed to be a sunny day but it's a fucking thunderstorm!" And then you play that out and you find the humour and the levity in the rain. Instead of it being about getting sunburned, it's about getting soaked. So those, I guess, would be the situations where that would take place, but luckily there hasn't been any major horrible things happen to me.
Mo: What's the most challenging thing in your career now compared to when you started out?
Steven: The most challenging thing before was when I first started working. One of the first assignments I got were for XXL, Vibe, and Blender. I was young, I had just moved to New York, I was still assisting, and I was just psyched to be working. But you get one assignment from XXL, which is a hip-hop magazine, and all of a sudden you're a hip-hop photographer; it's like, "Here you go, this is what you do." [laughing] To me, I was just taking a job and doing what I wanted to do. So then I would get assignments from non hip-hop magazines but I would only get hired to photograph rappers or hip-hop artists. It was great but I had to make a conscious decision to be like, "You know what, I love hip-hop but I don't want to be a music photographer." So I pulled out of that whole world, reworked my entire portfolio, and came back with a whole new set of pictures where I, in a sense, rebranded myself to do what I wanted to do.
Mo: Was that personal work, or were you lucky enough to have a few jobs that gave a new language to your portfolio?
Steven: When I started to do projects that I wanted to do, it was derived from personal work. I mean, [clients] had kind of seen my portrait work so they knew that they could trust me to go somewhere and come back with a project or portraits. You know, I feel like so much of it is just like, "Can this guy rent a car, show up at a certain time? Does his light work? Can he not make us look like idiots? And if he comes back with a great photo, then amazing," you know what I mean? So, I think with that's part of it—just proving yourself.
Steven: With the video work, there's so many more moving parts that I think there's a lot more at stake than with photography, but photography has its own challenges, too. I mean, it's one image; either you got it or you didn't. Whereas with video there's a little more leeway.
Mo: You have so much footage with video. There's b-roll and such. With photos, nothing is really b-roll.
Steven: It's either there or it isn't, and that has it's own stress.
Mo: What's a healthy balance for you when it comes to doing both photo and video?
Steven: I always want to keep them both moving forward. Photography was always really personal to me, and I'm happy to keep it as a more personal process. It's more of a fine art practice whereas I want to move more into the video world for surviving and paying for the photography. I just wasn't passionate about getting hired to photograph something... the assignments weren't captivating.
Mo: There's this one quote from a past guest, Helena Price, who said that, "You have to different from the projects that fuel you and the projects that are made for others"
Steven: Yeah, because if you're not inspired then you won't do a good job. It's all about the vibe you create and if the energy is right and you're excited then it shows. Even on set if you're working with people who are laughing and in a good mood then the work is going to reflect that.
Mo: And it can be so fucking hard to create that environment. It's shown through your work that you're able to nurture that environment through both mediums.
Steven: It comes back to that collaborative experience. It's about working with people who you get along with, and working with people that see eye-to-eye whether it's the same sense of humour or same personality.
Mo: How did you find those people?
Steven: I think it's an organic process—just working with your friends. There's so many talented people. And as you're working people you find out everyone’s strengths. No one is great at everything, but some people are really good at some things.
Mo: So were you born and raised in Wisconsin, or just raised there?
Steven: I was born in Louisiana but I don't remember anything. I was in Wisconsin from my earliest memories up until I graduated high school. The day I graduated, I moved to New York to go to RIT.
Mo: And you went there for photojournalism, right?
Steven: Yeah, and then I got an internship at Bloomberg News on the photo desk—the wire service.
Mo: What's the wire service?
Steven: It's straight-up financial journalism news that would go in the newspaper. So you'd get photos of factories in Brazil and soybeans from China, and headshots of investment bankers. I would go on assignment and photograph people going to jail for financial white-collar crimes, and quickly realised that I didn't want to do that anymore.
Mo: How quickly?
Steven: Three months, maybe. So then I just started as a commercial assistant in New York for seven or eight years. I slowly transitioned out of that and eventually made enough money where I didn't have to take on assisting jobs.
Mo: One thing I hear often is how hard it can be to transition from assisting to freelance jobs because you can easily be comfortable with the consistent pay and such.
Steven: Yeah! You show up, you do your thing, you hang out with your friends, you're being creative, but you have no stress. You leave at the end of the day and it’s over. But I was always cognisant of the fact that I didn't want to be a first assistant, because it would take over [my life]. So I was always second or third [assistant] and that allowed me to release a little bit from that crew and also have the ability to not be on call all the time and do my own work in conjunction.
Mo: When you transitioned to freelance jobs, what was something you were mindful of from the photographers you assisted for?
Steven: That was kind of the hardest part—just separating yourself from them. A lot of photographers have a very specific style and you're the one lighting that style and you know it inside and out, and you have to think, "Okay, well, I could approach this like so-and-so or light this like whoever," but you realise that you're not them. It takes a long time to realise how you see the world and how you want to take this picture. It takes a lot of confidence in yourself to approach it how you want to approach it, because it's so much easier to throw up that soft-box how someone else does. I think everyone has that little transition from when they were assisting a certain photographer to when they kind of found their voice, because that's what people hire you on: They hire you on a specific kind of thing. You just have to make sure that you're putting out what you would provide. I think that's what allowed me to become a little busier with video stuff because there's a sort of consistency [to it], and I think that's what people want to see. Also, it's not like you're telling the same joke or you have the same frame, but there's a consistency of style and vision, where you're like, "Oh, Mo did that," you know what I mean? And I think that's good.
Mo: It's good and it's hard to find, but when you find that then you can capitalise on it. It's like making a certain album and people recognising you for creating it.
Steven: But you're always trying to get away from it. [laughing] You're trying to find your signature but, at the same time, you're always struggling to get away from that.
Mo: It's a funny dichotomy.
Steven: Yeah, and I think that with photography, it's a lot easier to trap yourself in just because it's one image—it's flat, it's a box. That limitation is kind of incredible but, at the same time, you're making a series of decisions. Like, "Oh, I'm going to shoot this with black and white film," or, "I'm going to use a medium format camera." Those help along.
Mo: Even if you're typecast, it's fine. Regardless the medium, it's all about the approach.
Steven: Yeah, and I think there's a difference between talking about your personal vision and then also if you're getting hired to do something. For instance, like, if your personal work is large format portraits of people then that's your thing. But if you're hired to do a... Like, I love the challenge of coming up with a set of tools, people, and skills that can create a specific look that someone needs. I think that, that's as gratifying as anything else. So that's kind of what I learned through assisting—all these different tricks and tools, whether it's picking the right kind of camera or learning how to talk to somebody or learning when to shut up.
Mo: When you were assisting, was there a foresight towards being a director?
Steven: I think the video stuff kind of happened organically. That wasn't really on the horizon for me when I was an assistant. I think that I just started making videos, and at some point you have to realise when people are responding to something. In a sense, you roll with it. So I ended up finding enjoyment out of it and then you're like, "Oh, I'm going this way and I'm cool with that. Let's just steer it a little bit."
Mo: Is there something now that you're seeking to pursue in the future?
Steven: I think it's an organic process and keeping cognisant of what projects that you dedicate your time to, because that seems to be the most important thing right now—what you spend your time on. So it's just about moving forwards and not getting stuck in a rut doing the same thing over and over again.
Mo: Do you scan your film on that scanner? [points to the scanner behind Steven]
Steven: I don't scan on this but I still shoot film and usually just have lab drum scans. There's a couple of scanners in the studio that we all share, but it depends on the project. My personal work is usually a bit more conceptual so there's usually less images; it's more about focusing on those few images.
Mo: I remember watching the Amanda Seyfried Vogue video you did and I kept thinking about how it had this 35mm feel to it.
Steven: Yeah, I think that's something you learn more through working in the film world—just the choice of lenses are so much more available. You know, with still photography, if you're using a Phase camera then you have to use their Schneider lenses; if you use a Canon camera, you kind of have to use Canon lenses. But what's great about cinematography is you can use vintage Russian lenses from the 70s on a digital camera.
Mo: Are these anamorphic lenses?
Steven: All sorts of stuff. It just depends on what you want. If you want a really sharp look, you can get Master primes which are so fucking sharp, or you can get Cooke's which we used for that Vogue video. It's fun to make that choice.
Mo: It's a really cool experience and sometimes we can get crazy over what lens or camera someone is using.
Steven: Yeah, I still nerd out on all stuff but I'm a little less obsessive about it than I used to be. Technology is crazy and I make a conscious decision to keep up on it, and it's important to know what's out there, but I also think at the end of the day, you need to forget about it when you're shooting. Sure, if you need to have the camera in a certain position, then you need to have a certain tool to help you do that, but after that you don't need to think about it anymore.
Seinfeld GIFs for Vogue.com
Click to enlarge
Mo: Is there an overarching concept that revolves around your personal and commissioned work or is it case-by-case?
Steven: I think that there's a humour—that's something that I'm interested in. I don't think it has to be slapstick humour but I think there's a comedic element, or I look at the world in that way. Maybe it’s an Irreverent attitude and I think that, that is spread throughout.
Mo: As a viewer, I also find your work to have an explorative nature, especially the film you made in France. But then again, the word "explorative" is somewhat interchangeable.
Steven: Yeah, like "curious". That and just that I want it to look good. I want it to be cinematic; that's just always going to be there for me.
Mo: What do you think the purpose of your work is?
Steven: I think the idea is that you have ideas in your head and your purpose is to get them out somehow and to show them to people. I mean, it sounds really simple, but that's it, right? It's like you have all this stuff floating around in there that keeps you up at night and you gotta get it out somehow. The easiest way for me to get it out, in the way that I see it, is through photography and film—through lenses.
Mo: Yeah, and it's probably like that for others where they've found their purpose but they haven't realised it yet.
Steven: Yeah, I think when I was a kid I was really fascinated by the process. I'd build a darkroom in my closet from scratch when I was in eighth grade. The ceiling was so low so I had to put pillows on the floor and there was a sink around the corner.
Mo: How did you manage that without YouTube?
Steven: Just books! I took a photo class at summer camp in sixth grade. And the next year, I went to Barnes & Nobles and bought books. I got really into the process of it all and mixed all my chemicals from scratch. I was really fascinated by that. And like everyone else says—same shit for me—watching the photo appear in the developer is magical.
Steven: But yeah, about the purpose of my work is inside and it's just trying to get out somehow, and you're trying to explain it. I'm not a great writer; I have trouble explaining myself through words, but I feel like I can see everything in front of me, you know. So it's about getting those visions out and putting them down on film.
Mo: What do you define success as in your life?
Steven: I think if you're busy, you're making things that you feel good about, and if you can get a little bit money from that, then I think that's success. But it's something I don't think about, really. Going back to the darkroom in eighth grade, it's just about process for me. You finish a job and you go, "What's next?" As soon as it’s over, then you have the stress of the next one. The work is the gratifying part.
Mo: And, for you, the most gratifying part about the work is the collaboration, yes?
Steven: Oh, definitely. When you're working with someone, you can have something appear that's better than what you would do on your own—that, to me, is amazing. When you can raise the level—that's what I like. And I think that's the same with a photo editor hiring a photographer. They want you to come back with something unexpectedly better than what they had in mind in the first place. It's the same with us as the people that they hire.
Steven on how he encourages creativity:
I think we all have a little community here [in New York] and that's kind of what we're building, whether that's in this room or in the neighbourhood. I think we're always forcing each other to push it a little bit and help each other on their projects. That community of creativity is really important and it helps everyone raise their level. And at the end of the day it's kind of one big conversation that we're all having.