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BEST OF 2013, Malcolm Brown
New York, NY
Project: Conceptual, environmental portraits of the Invisible Dog Artist Community in Brooklyn, NY.

© Malcolm Brown

© Malcolm Brown

Malcom Brown’s environmental portraits of artists from Brooklyn’s Invisible Dog Art Center evoke the personality and vision behind each artist’s work. Following lengthy conversations with every subject, Brown created a portrait that tells each artist’s unique story, while collectively, the series represents the creative energy of the community today.

“I didn’t want this to be a documentation of artist workspaces,” says Brown. “Instead, I wanted to visually connect the artists to their work, space and artistic processes in a conceptual way. The greatest challenge was to represent each artist truthfully. For me, this project showcases creative variety, a sense of humor and strategic vision.”

ASMP: How long have you been in business?

Malcolm Brown: Since 2007.

ASMP: How long have you been an ASMP member?

MB: Since 2011.

ASMP: What are your photographic specialties?

MB: Conceptual, environmental portraiture.

ASMP: What do you consider your most valuable tool or piece of equipment?

MB: My Canon 50mm f1.2 lens. It’s sharp, fast and solid.

ASMP: What is unique about your approach, or what sets you and your work apart from other photographers?

MB: My approach to creating a photograph is often very rational. I want to be able to explain why I took a portrait a certain way. I try hard to avoid esoteric solutions in favor of creating an image that is truly relevant to my subject. I often research my subjects and get a feel for their work, their personality and their environment. All of those elements inform my approach and guide me to the final product. I never go into a shoot with a solution locked in. I think this keeps my work thoughtful and multi-layered.

ASMP: How and when did you first encounter The Invisible Dog Art Center? How long after this did you start making these portraits?

MB: Back in October 2009, I walked into an old factory in Boerem Hill, Brooklyn and met a Frenchman named Lucien Zayan. The building had no heat or hot water, but Lucien had a wonderful vision for the space. Along with a small group of painters, illustrators and sculptors, we worked together to create a lively community that was collaborative, energetic and full of talent. It was not until 2011 that I took the first portrait for this series.

ASMP: Did you embark on this as a personal project? What was your initial motivation and expectations surrounding the work?

MB: It was not a project at first. I wanted to only photograph five artists who I thought were doing interesting work in interesting spaces. After completing the first five, Lucien, who is director of The Invisible Dog, said to me, “These are great, now you have to shoot the entire building.” 35 artists! At that point, I began to realize the impact of this project. The series would individually capture each character, while at the same time providing a visual roster of who and what the building was at a specific place in time.

ASMP: Before becoming an advertising and editorial photographer, you were trained as an anthropologist and spatial sociologist. Did your background in these other fields influence your process in documenting these artists and their work?

MB: Without a doubt. I studied Environment and Behavior Studies at Cornell. I focused on how the built environment affects human behavior. The places we work, live and play all have profound affects on our creativity, happiness, productivity and so on. While the wrong environment can certainly hinder a person or group from achieving its goals, the right environment can facilitate success and enable people in amazing ways. To create the right environment, you need to understand the user through an almost scientific study. Who are they? What are their patterns? How do they work and live? What are their goals? Does their current space help or hinder their daily life? Much in the same way, I researched each artist by studying their work, artistic process and work environment. Through lengthy discussions and a hands-on approach, I got a sense of their style and character. I listened for key words and themes. I also found good value in viewing a work in progress because it showed their thought process.

ASMP: You describe this as a yearlong project. Why one year? Did you plan for this timeframe at the outset or did the timing happen organically?

MB: Shortly after the series began, it was scheduled to be in a solo show, so I was bound by this deadline. When it comes to producing creative work, I have mixed feelings about imposing deadlines. While this created structure, it is often difficult to schedule creativity because many of my ideas do not develop on call.

ASMP: Did your process in making these portraits change or evolve over time or was it consistent throughout?

MB: Overall, the process was pretty consistent. It did become more challenging over time, because it was increasingly difficult to make each portrait unique and fresh while still staying true to the subject.

ASMP: Were there any portrait sessions or discussions with an artist that particularly influenced or changed your vision or approach to the work?

MB: My portrait of Juan (an astronaut floating in a foggy machine shop) gave the project a boost. It was technically very difficult but creatively very rewarding. Juan is a metal worker with a strong architectural and design background. He has a deep fascination with outer space and handcrafted the astronaut suit out of padded moving blankets and patinaed plumbing parts. We rigged him up in a harness and hung him from the ceiling, welding torch in hand. On the day we shot him, it was the middle of the summer and 99 degrees. With the windows closed, we cranked up the fog machine and started shooting. After Juan’s portrait, I really started to push myself creatively and technically.

ASMP: How did you balance your advertising and editorial photography business with shooting and interviewing subjects? Did you devote specific block of time to this work, or was the time frame for this work more arbitrary or related to the schedules of others?

MB: Personal projects are rewarding. You do them because they energize you even after a long week of client work. To avoid getting burned out, I scheduled about three to four portraits a month. These shoots would happen in-between my paid work.

ASMP: How did you arrange the artist interviews and the portrait sessions?

MB: I created an online sign-up schedule and sent it around to the artists. I worked in the building with the artists so most people were already familiar with my work. They signed up on a first-come, first-served basis. I followed up individually and stayed very communicative about the intention of the project, the goals and the ongoing progress.

ASMP: How many artists did you approach? What were the initial reactions when they heard about the project? Did any of the artists decide not to participate?

MB: I was 34 for 34. Everybody seemed eager to participate, even though some were difficult to nail down. And as you can imagine, some artists were pumped to be involved and ready whenever, while others were less excited about being the center of attention, even though they were still interested in the project.

ASMP: How did you prepare for the interviews and how long, on average, did each interview take? Were all interviews done in the artists’ studios?

MB: To prepare, I reviewed the artist’s Web site, blog, reviews, press and curriculum vitae to get a feel for their work and their background. The studio visits lasted anywhere from 45 minutes to three hours. During the visit, I would ask the artists to tell me about their work. I often found that the work on their Web site did not always reflect their current state of mind, so it was helpful to see current projects in various stages.

ASMP: Did you record the interviews?

MB: I did not record any audio or video for the interviews, but I did take notes and make photographs for reference and inspiration.

ASMP: Did you complete the interviews before the photo session and, if so, how much time separated the two? Did you make use of the interview materials in planning the photo shoot?

MB: For most of the subjects, I would do interviews at least a week prior to the shoot. This would give me some time to let ideas percolate. Since I worked in the building with the artists, I could pop by their studios and run ideas by them. Throughout the week, I would e-mail the artists and send them visual references for inspiration. I was very open to exploring many options. This was both a liberating and overwhelming aspect of the project. We sometimes sketched ideas. It was fun and easy to brainstorm with an artist.

ASMP: What criteria did you consider when planning and creating the images? Please describe about how you applied your background in spatial sociology when photographing your subjects?

MB: Using information from the interviews and exploring the work, I started to compile an understanding of who they were as an artist. What inspired them? What were their patterns of behavior? What materials did they work with? Is there a sense of humor in their work? With my ‘data,’ I would prioritize what I felt was essential and core to that artist. I tried not to be overly clinical and I made sure not to reach a visual conclusion too early. I would map out how the elements might play together in order to deliver a central idea or story. As I converted written ideas into visual ideas, I reconfirmed that my direction was relevant. Is this use of texture and color fitting to the artist? Was the artist’s work about the physicality of something or more about an intangible concept? I knew I was finished with a portrait when by, adding or subtracting an element, I found that I was weakening the aesthetic and message of the piece. When I talked with Giles (the painter laying diagonally on the floor), he told me about his daily routine. He has stations in his studio that he visits sequentially in order to keep himself structured and focused. One station is for meditation and another is for making loose abstract sketches with a feather and ink. And when he paints on canvas, he uses every surface around him to test ideas, so his studio walls and floors are a constantly evolving piece of art that visually record his thought process. My research of each artist is also reflected in the image descriptions. Word choice and style of writing were meant to also reflect the character of the artist. A prime example of this is in the copy for Prune’s portrait (a woman’s face magnified atop a mannequin torso exposing the circulatory system).

ASMP: What influenced your decision to not include a live subject in a couple of your images (e.g, Gabe, Mac)?

MB: Actually, there is a live subject in both of those images. I first shot Mac Premo on turquoise seamless paper in the studio and made a hard copy print of the image. Mac Premo then adhered that image to a wooden block and encased it in resin. I then took that object and placed it in his wood shop and photographed the entire scene again. Great collaboration there. As for Gabe, if you look closely, he is actually sitting there on the surface of the rocky planet. The portrait of Dillon DeWaters and Sarah Palmer (an orange abstract circle), who are both photographers and married to each other, is the most abstract. Sarah is not featured as a live subject in this image, but her work and work style are referenced through the abstract nature of the image, the objects pictured and their arrangement.

ASMP: Please describe the setups used during the shoots — equipment, lighting, etc. Were there any other people on set besides you and the artist?

MB: The lighting on this project varies greatly. A few portraits were natural light, but the majority were two-light strobe setups. As for light modifiers, I used a beauty dish and softbox. Some of the portraits required photo assistants but for the most part, it was just the subject and me. I wanted there to be a comfortable setting where the subject and I could talk and collaborate.

ASMP: On average, how long did each shoot take? And, on average, how many different concepts did you shoot for each artist?

MB: The first few portraits took hours. For example, shooting with Oliver Jeffers (artist in blue shirt talking on the red phone) took at least four hours because we must have tried six different concepts. I wanted to give myself some options. As the project progressed, I was able to make creative decisions more quickly because I understood exactly where things were going. Still, I often shot at least two concepts per person and the average session was probably 2.5 hours.

ASMP: Which shoot was the most challenging and why?

MB: The most challenging portrait was definitely Chong Gon Byun (guy lying down in a room of perfectly organized objects) because my head exploded with too many ideas. Byun is a very well known artist in Korea and he has an immense body of work. He also has an incredibly creative mind. Byun is the oldest artist in the building, but he has more energy than the youngest. His sculptures pair seemingly incongruous objects in very deliberate and relevant assemblages. He is cluttered but impeccably organized. He is serious but completely whimsical. What do you do for a guy like that? I shot him on two occasions and we worked for hours exploring ideas. I found it very difficult to distill what I learned down to just one image.

ASMP: Which shoot was the most enjoyable or unexpected and why?

MB: The most unexpected portrait was Nancy (close-up portrait with the textured face). She works with gesso paint and creates abstract images that are layered with a cracked texture. I was against just shooting her working because it seemed too straightforward. We decided to recreate the texture of her work directly on her face. She was a great sport about it. She applied a mud mask and waited a few hours until it completely cracked. I photographed her close-up and digitally layered one of her paintings over her face. After creating a few variations, she and I went back and forth both agreeing that it just wasn’t there yet. One felt too dark and dramatic and that didn’t match her work. Another one revealed the mud mask and it looked too cartoonish. Ultimately, we both loved the final product because it is rich and perfectly layered. The texture of her face became indiscernible from the texture of her painting.

ASMP: How much direct input did the artists have before or during the shoot? Was there any collaboration?

MB: I strongly encouraged collaboration and I asked a lot of questions about specific pieces of work. I wanted to know why certain colors were used, how their education affected their work or why they chose a certain medium. I allowed the artists to veto my ideas if they felt they were not representative of their work. After the shoot, I would run the image by the artist because it was important to me that they liked the portrait. A few did try to micromanage the outcome, so I had to be careful with how much control I was willing to share. I was open to their input, but also unwilling to cave if I felt strongly about an idea.

ASMP: Please describe your post-production processes. You used Photoshop to create Anne’s portrait. Please elaborate on your decision for this.

MB: To be honest, I wanted this series to use as little digital manipulation as possible. I wanted the images to reflect what actually happened in real life rather than on the computer screen. However, Anne was working a lot with miniature scenes and playing with the idea of scale. Her work is very intimate, personal and rich in meaning and it seemed appropriate and relevant to scale her down and put her within her work for her portrait. As far as technique, I photographed both the glass dome and Anne in the exact same lighting conditions ensuring that the camera height produced comparable perspectives when the elements were combined. Then it was simple to silhouette Anne and add shadows and reflections on the glass to give the impression that she was inside the dome.

ASMP: At what point in the project did you decide to publish a book with the images? Was this one of your initial goals or did the book idea come later?

MB: I knew I wanted this to be a book halfway through. Each image stands alone but I wanted my viewers to have the opportunity to own the full set of characters in order to get a feel for the entire community of artists. I published the book through a small print shop in Hoboken called Conveyor Print Space. This was a way to give a legacy to the project after the exhibition.

ASMP: When did you start editing the images from each shoot? How long did it take to edit the entire project and prepare it for publishing?

MB: I edited immediately after each shoot. As a rough estimate, it easily took over 150 hours to edit, retouch and prepare for publishing. And that does not include the interviews or the shoots.

ASMP: Did you design the Invisible Dog book yourself? If not, whom did you work with as a designer? How did you determine the publishing specs (number of images, pages, layout, print run etc.) and price?

MB: Yes, I designed the book myself — layout, design, flow, structure, size, paper type, book jacket, book construction and copy. Initially I reached out to a copywriter at an ad firm in New York who was very interested in working with me. I wanted him to help me create descriptions for each image, but he was busy and my deadline was approaching. In the end, I was very happy that I was personally able to write the copy because the product felt more authentic.

ASMP: Your first book did not include text but Artists of the Invisible Dog has accompanying text about each artist and image. Why did you decide to include text for this book but not your first publication?

MB: My first book was a wild visual journey of fashion week in New York. I had full access to front row, backstage, runway, parties — but no space or time to stage anything, so it was all lighting fast and reacting quickly. I personally did not have a lot to say about the images because I felt that the cadence of just images fit the craziness of the week perfectly. My images for The Artists of The Invisible Dog were staged and individually crafted, and I felt that the rationale and stories behind the images were a large part of understanding the images.

ASMP: Artists of the Invisible Dog was awarded Best in Show in the Davis Orton Gallery’s Photobook Exhibition & Sale in 2012. Why did you decide to enter the book in this exhibition?

MB: I was very happy with the product and so were the artists. And it’s easy to convince yourself that what you’re doing is interesting when you fish for feedback from those close to you. I wanted to see how it would be received from a more objective viewer, so I sent it to the Davis Orton Gallery.

ASMP: How have you marketed the book?

MB: Through my Web site, blog and The Invisible Dog.

ASMP: Looking back on the Invisible Dog project, what would you have done differently?

MB: I could have done a better job reaching out to editors and bloggers who could have expanded the reach of this project. This always seems like a difficult task to do effectively.

ASMP: How has this project affected you personally and professionally? Are you interested in doing similar projects in the future?

MB: Personally, it has introduced me a to handful of very talented artists. Professionally, it definitely gave me a boost. I received excellent exposure through my book and the exhibition. I believe that it gave me some serious momentum that landed me at least two solid ongoing gigs from new clients.

ASMP: What projects, personal or professional, are you currently planning? Where do you see yourself in five years’ time?

MB: I am working on a personal portrait series that deals with the hidden effects of war. I have recently done some work with a non-profit that focuses on helping vets after returning home. I want to be honest about the emotional struggles that some veterans face when they return from war, but I also aim to show a very positive side of their reconnection to life after war. At this point, I’m interviewing vets and working with them to set goals and refine my idea. In five years, I hope to have representation with an agency.