Interview with New York Based Photographer Brian W. Ferry
February 10th 2012
It seems quite fitting to us really that as we prepare to release our online shop we would revisit one of our favourite creatives, photographer Brian W Ferry. Having returned to New York permanently and recently decided to go full time on his own passion, it just felt like the perfect timing for us to put some questions to the fine fellow. Brian was really receptive to the idea and we set about throwing conversation back and forth, unearthing lots of details about both the photographer and the work he creates with his trusty film camera.
So as we all embark on new beginnings why not join us after a little inspiration via the interview below.
Photography of Brian W Ferry by Jördis Anderson
1) Given you’ve lived in both London and New York you’re pretty well placed to comment on the different creative scenes that each city harbours. So what elements differ in New York and how does this impact on the creative work that you do?
From my perspective, I think that the creative scene in New York reflects the intensity and faster pace of life in this city. In New York, people are aware that the stakes are really damn high. The main reason many people move to New York is to “make it” – everyone is hustling and you feel it. There is a lot going on in New York and it’s an incredibly stimulating and interesting place to live – but it is really tough to live here, too. It can be more difficult to block out the manic nature of the city. London never felt as intense to me – it was more forgiving. New York’s intensity can both feed and suppress your creative spirit.
2) Personally I find digital photography a little too clinical and lacking in any real sense of character, would you agree with this? Also, what was it that drew you to the analog format originally?
Well, I think digital photography has a place. It’s clearly the favored approach for many people, including most clients and many professional and amateur photographers. On a commercial shoot, many clients expect a digital output as the shoot is happening. But I do think that a digital photograph lacks a certain character that you get with a film photograph. For me, there is no comparison between film and digital – so I shoot film wherever possible. The depth of film infuses the subject with an inexplicable quality of light, color & texture. Film has a vibe and a “soul” that you cannot replicate with a digital camera. And I like the quirks, imperfections and surprises of film.
I want my photos to feel honest, organic and authentic. I want the viewer to stop and look and to feel something. The process of shooting film helps to do this – it’s slower, more deliberate and mindful. Plus, the look of film matches the aesthetic I look for in my photos.
3) We were pleased to see how well received your latest publication “Quality of Life” was both online and in terms of sales, but for those that didn’t catch a glimpse or a copy what did it entail and how did the idea for it come about?
“Quality of Life” is a small book of my photographs taken between January 2010 and January 2011. The book was released in November 2011 and sold out about 1 month later. It was published by Lawson’s Books in Edinburgh, a small independent publisher started by my good friends Christophe and Gemma. It was a very personal process – we are good friends and so we spent a lot of time discussing the book and the photos via email, Skype and in person in Edinburgh and London.
We shared a similar vision for the book – we wanted it to reflect a year of my photography and of my life. Many of the photos had been shared on my blog previously. So the challenge was to make a cohesive book that re-imagined these photos and told a story. We wanted to dwell on some of the themes in my photography from that year – finding the extraordinary in the mundane, the rhythms of a day, exploring and traveling, making sense of a new place. For me, it was such a rewarding process to talk about my work with Christophe and Gemma – their creative input was so valuable.
4) I enjoyed the independent feel you brought to Starbucks in your recent commercial work with them, were you given much creative freedom and how did this differ from your regular projects?
I collaborated with friends More & Co. and Stephanie Congdon Barnes for the shoot. We were given a lot of creative freedom; it was great that they trusted us. We were all involved in the styling and the direction of the photos and I think the work reflects this. They hired us because they liked our photography style – and they wanted us to bring this to the new ad campaign. So in that way, it was not too different from my regular projects because we were trying to shoot photos that we’d shoot for non-commercial purposes.
However, it was also wildly different from my normal projects in other ways – the scale of the shoot was so much bigger. But the team gave us the freedom to create an environment where we could take spontaneous photos that felt natural and intimate. It was an incredible experience, and I think it’s cool that Starbucks and BBDO did a campaign like this one – it’d be great to see this happen more often from big brands.
5) You’re fairly in tune with the menswear scene over here in England, working with Albam for example and the series you ran on London stores was also enjoyable. So do you have any particular favourite brands/designers and would you consider yourself a bit of a style connoisseur?
No, I definitely don’t consider myself a style connoisseur. People have encyclopedic knowledge these days – everyone seems to be an expert on the “menswear scene”. To be honest, I find it all a bit exhausting. But I do sit back and appreciate the aesthetics and vibe of a particular brand or collection – it appeals to my creative side.
Day-to-day, I usually wear pretty simple clothing that makes me feel comfortable and happy. I own a mind-boggling number of button-down shirts and navy blue coats. As for brands, I really like Oliver Spencer, Albam, UNIS, Our Legacy and Baron Wells. I also really like Folk and YMC. These last 2 brands have a sense of humor; they’re unique and their clothes always have 1 or 2 quirky details that I appreciate. I also like Margaret Howell but mostly from an aesthetic perspective – I don’t often wear her clothing (the fit is not very flattering on me) but I admire her vision.
6) You must have had some adverse reactions to actually taking photos in certain places and of people at times, so how do you tend to avoid this scenario and do you have any funny stories for us on that front?
You know, I don’t get adverse reactions – sometimes people will look at me like I’m crazy when I’ve stopped on the street to take a photo of something otherwise unnoticeable to passers-by. I barely take note of that anymore because I’m used to it. I don’t shoot many photos of complete strangers unless I ask them permission first, and I always ask before shooting photos in a shop. If anything, people will see that I’m shooting film on an older camera and they will excitedly stop me to chat about it.
7) Had you always wanted to be a photographer, and what other job would you do if you could do anything just for one day?
Well, I used to be a lawyer! So photography was not always my goal. To be honest, photography is my dream job so I feel very lucky to be doing it.
But if I had to choose another job for 1 day, I’d like to design furniture, use my hands to make stuff.
8) If I’m in New York for a weekend, where should I go, what should I do, and what should I eat?
For a classic NY experience, go to Grand Central Terminal in midtown and then head downstairs to eat lunch at the Oyster Bar. Sit at the counter and order oysters or chowder, a fish sandwich and a cold beer.
In Manhattan, I like wandering around Nolita – stop into UNIS and Steven Alan or any of the shops around here. For a really nice coffee, visit La Colombe. Browse nice photography and art books in Dashwood Books and Printed Matter.
But I would suggest walking across the Brooklyn Bridge on a sunny day to explore Brooklyn. Some of my favorite shops are Hickoree’s Floor Two and Brook Farm General Store on S. 6th St. in Williamsburg, Smith & Butler in Cobble Hill and Stuart & Wright in Fort Greene (where I live). On Atlantic Avenue, I like Bright Lyons for incredible vintage furniture and books and Goose Barnacle for menswear.
To eat, absolutely get the mind-blowing sandwiches at Saltie. Go to Marlow & Sons in Williamsburg for dinner, which is one of my all-time favorites (order the salad of the day, whatever it is – trust me).
9) You seem to be the kind of photographer that thrives off collaboration and finding new lifestyle elements to document, so do you have anything coming up in the pipeline that you can tell us about?
I did a shoot for the incredible website Freunde von Freunden just before leaving London – that should be out soon and I hope to work with them more often this year. I’m also working with the shop ST&NDARD GOODS in L.A. on an exhibition of my photographs in April. I’m always looking for new work and collaborations and would love to hear from people who are interested in working together.
10) Who are the folks that influenced you as you developed your own style of photography, I know there’s lots of inspiration out there but you must have a handful of favourites?
Joel Meyerowitz has been a big influence on me – he is able to capture the essence of a place and the emotion of a particular moment. Uta Barth has influenced me in her use of light and form and the way she makes abstract photographs in domestic scenes. Jason Lowe’s food photography in Fergus Henderson’s second St. John cookbook, Beyond Nose to Tail: A Kind of British Cooking Part II, is my absolute favorite of the genre. It’s humorous, unique and beautifully shot.
11) Tell us something about Brian W Ferry that the internet doesn’t already know?
I have number-form synesthesia and so does my father.
12) Do you have a particular photograph that you are most fond of, if so what is this and why do you feel so drawn to it?
I could never pick one particular photograph – I have a handful of favorites. But this photograph by Eggleston (Untitled (Glass on Airplane)) is on that list of favorites. To me, it shows the mundane and the extraordinary existing together, and illustrates how Eggleston had an ability to bring these two opposing things together in his photos. It’s something I strive to do.
13) With so much competition on the internet, how hard is it to stay ahead of the pack and get yourself noticed?
I don’t think the competition is on the internet, per se – although it might seem like it is because everyone shares their work on the internet and uses it for publicity. The only way I know to get noticed is to create interesting work on a consistent basis.
With that said, it’s really important for me to create work that is interesting to me, first and foremost. I am my own toughest critic. If I created work while constantly worrying about “the pack” and how others will receive my photography, it would be paralyzing (and I think my photos would be lifeless and dull). Instead, I try to stay curious. I keep my head down and work hard to improve and push myself. Opening myself up to new experiences allows me to search out new ways of capturing what I see. I think this results in more honest work that feels authentic and full of life. Then, I hope someone else is moved by it, too. PR and pitching your work is important, but if the photography isn’t good, it won’t matter.
14) What we enjoy most about the work you do is the candid approach you take and the natural feel of each series. So how do you avoid going down the path of staging photos and continually providing authentic looks?
Well, most of my personal work is not staged – I prefer to shoot things as I encounter them. Therefore, being observant and mindful of everything around me is really important to my photographic process. It doesn’t feel staged because it’s not.
Of course, I often tweak and style things a bit before shooting a photo (opening the blinds wider to let in more light, or moving something to get the right composition, for example). But I don’t like to meddle too much. Even for a shoot on location, I make sure to leave room for spontaneity and surprises and I keep my eyes open to see these opportunities. I think it makes the work more interesting, candid and honest.