Photographer’s Q&A – Brian Howell
Brian Howell is an award-winning editorial photographer and artist who has exhibited both nationally and internationally. He holds a BFA from Ryerson Polytechnic University in Film & Photograph. Howell is a regular contributor to Geist, Maclean’s, and Vancouver Magazine, and has published a number of books including “Fame Us”, documenting celebrity impersonators, and “One Ring Circus”, following the minor leagues of professional wrestling. Brian Howell is now based in Delta, BC.
You can view more of Brian’s work at www.brianhowellphotography.com.
VANCOUVER, BC – Champion free-diver, Mandy-Rae Cruickshank, who holds the women’s world record for descending 88 meters (288 feet) on one breath. Mandy, who is able to hold her breath underwater for over 5 minutes, was instrumental in the filming of the movie “The Cove”. She planted a number of underwater cameras and sound recording devices at the bottom of the cove without using any scuba gear. Photo by Brian Howell.
What were your first steps in the industry? More specifically, describe your transition from being a student to becoming a full-time photographer.
Simply, it’s all about personal projects. I will elaborate.
My first steps in the industry began while I was still a student at Ryerson. I started looking for any kind of relative work. I did a ton of custom printing back in those days when we still used darkrooms. Even though I had little interest in fashion photography, I assisted a few fashion photographers in Toronto. I worked for the Ryerson schools newspaper. I also shot pictures for the Government of Ontario. I had friends who started a magazine and I became the photo editor. I still remember how nervous I was when they assigned me to shoot a portrait of Wendell Clark.
All of these experiences with paid gigs and volunteer gigs helped me gain confidence in my work and offered insightful experience into the industry. I worked extremely hard at learning as much about being a working photographer. I did all of this while developing and considering my own interests. It was always photojournalism.
While in school I had shot some huge, self-financed, personal projects in the Arctic, Newfoundland, Toronto, and Vancouver. I ended up back in Vancouver after my brother, a journalist, convinced me to seek freelance work at the local weekly papers.
I bought a 1966 Valiant and made the best of my two old film cameras. Soon, I had a number of contacts and began working at papers from Vancouver to Chilliwack. I met a great group of photographers here who inspired me to approach my community newspaper work as if I were shooting for Magnum.
I began shooting stories on my own and running them over multiple pages in the newspapers. This was a fantastic opportunity to learn and grow as well as make a little money. The personal projects demonstrated a serious commitment which eventually helped me land a staff job at a newspaper. The job was great and helped me finance my projects.
While working at The Record newspaper in New Westminster, I started working on my wrestling story. Two years later it was published as a book. Doors started to open and I made a number of contacts.
There is no direct way into this industry. Especially these days. I suggest that students do as much work as they can on their own to quantify their interest. Not only for a prospective employers but for themselves. I was a C student and certainly didn’t have god-given talent as a photographer. I had to work very hard.
The factors that enabled you to succeed early on in your career, do you feel they are more or less present today?
There are still stories that need to be told. It’s just more difficult to make a living at it, given the technological transformation. It is completely different. I believe that one major difference is that there is a general lack of individual style in the “photojournalism industry”.
When I began, there were b&w photographers and colour photographers. Many of us were working in a somewhat disciplined tradition, a concern for social justice and a style that was generated from magazines like Life and National Geographic. Many photographers would shoot b&w and continue the rich traditions of photographers like W. Eugene Smith, Robert Frank or more recently Sebastiao Salgado, Mary Ellen Mark or Eugene Richards.
New digital gear and the speed in which we are expected to do our job has compromised the poetry and the art of photojournalism, in my opinion. So I would say that the stories still need to be covered and we must find appropriate ways of presenting the work, whether it’s in galleries, books or web sites.
With regard to the “disciplined tradition” of photojournalism that you experienced early in your career, what organizations, publications or individuals do you feel are keeping those traditions alive today?
I like the weekend mag’s that the New York Times and The Guardian produce. I also think photographers like Edward Burtynsky and Chris Jordan are doing very important work that succeeds in promoting discussion while showing up in galleries and publications. Their work is widely discussed in both art and journalism circles.
As a photographer, you produce both editorial and fine art work. Do you feel one is more important than the other? Why motivates you to work in such different capacities?
They are equally important. I put the same amount of effort into both areas. I finance my art projects from what I earn in editorial. Both allow for expression. I don’t see what I do as being any different from the photographers that I mentioned in the previous paragraphs. Each one of them made photographs that were relevant, became books and shows. What I’m doing isn’t new. I’m simply looking for an appropriate venue to present my ideas. My art work has evolved alongside technological and global transformation.
What is important is to consider why we take pictures. I started taking pictures out of a genuine concern to understand and experience human beings. This remains true to this day and continues to motivate me. It doesn’t really matter where pictures appear.
For me, it has always been about the journey. I don’t get as excited about published work or exhibited work as I do when I actually experience making the pictures. Being there when Shaun White won his gold medal and hanging out in wrestler dressing rooms is really all that it’s about for me.
What do you look for when shooting a photo series? What do you look for when shooting editorial work? Do they share similar criteria?
Well, editorial is assignment based. I generally shoot portraits these days. The shoots take place at an arranged time and location determined by an editor or art director. I do what I can to make pictures that I feel comfortable making. I try to be original and generally reject the first three ideas that come into my head. They come in to my head because I’ve seen them before. Clichés. I try not to over-think the assignments. It’s dangerous to have an idea before I meet the subject. I like the process to be more organic.
A series is much more complex. I usually start on a series after a great deal of consideration and research. It is a process. Especially now that I am working more conceptually than I ever have. My Shopping Carts project took many months to figure out an approach/camera/budget/concept etc.
I look for projects that respond to my particular thoughts. For instance, I did Fame Us as an anti-celebrity series. It was in response to the news holes shrinking and making more room for celebrity news. The question became: How do I find a project that can express this? It’s not literal. I wanted to photograph celebrity obsession and shooting impersonators seemed to be a great way to explore the idea.
What influence, if any, does equipment have in your work? Do you have a favourite format or camera system that you naturally gravitate toward, or do you simply choose your equipment based on the needs and challenges of the shoot at hand?
I have used a variety of cameras over the years. It was great to work at newspapers that provided high quality digital gear. I use the basic SLR’s that everyone uses for my editorial work. Nothing fancy. I have shot most of my artwork on an older Hasselblad that I bought after graduating from Ryerson in 1994. It is my favourite camera. My earlier photojournalism work was shot on Canon F1’s and a Leica M6. I never used to use a zoomer. I was into wide lenses.
I have recently switched to medium format digital and am shooting on a Hasselblad with a 65 megapixel Phase One back, which I rent. The shopping cart series was made on this camera and I made high quality prints that are 5 X 7 feet. I typically assess the subject matter and determine the right camera for the job. There are almost too many options. My instinct is to keep my kit as simple as possible. It’s dangerous to get bogged down with too much gear.
You seem to place great value on mentorship. Why is mentorship important to you?
Quite simply because I have a great deal that I want to learn.
You have numerous mentors listed on your CV – some pretty big names too. On a personal level, who were some of the most influential and what made them a good mentor?
My greatest mentor was my beloved professor John Solowski from Ryerson. While teaching me a great deal, he also instilled professionalism in all his students. He was the first person who made me believe that I could make something happen with my work.
I have also enjoyed a life long education in art from Paul Wong. I met him when I was very young and he has shown me the ropes and has been a tremendous supporter of my artistic pursuits.
Most recently, Douglas Coupland. He got behind the cart series and offered valuable support and insight. In the end, he wrote an essay for the catalogue that we produced. His generosity and work ethic are inspiring, to say the least.
How do you ensure that you are constantly progressing as a photographer?
By not limiting myself and having a willingness to learn.
What are you currently working on?
I continue to work for my editorial clients. I am exploring and planning a new project as a follow up to “Shopping Carts”.
The monthly Photographer’s Q&A focuses on Canadian photographers and visual journalists. Is there a Canadian photographer you want to know more about, or want to make a submission? e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.