Johannesburg-based photographer, Brett Rubin, speaks to us about the necessity of experimentation, the cultural paradigms inherent in everything we create, the politics of portraiture and taking photos in the ‘first person’. Brett is one half of the creative consultancy VATIC, is a highly regarded fashion and commercial photographer, and an artist pushing the boundaries of what the photographic ‘medium’ means.
Did you always know that you wanted to take photographs, or was it a journey of finding your way there?
Knowing you want to do something and actually getting to a point of doing it, as a career, is always a journey.
Growing up I always loved music, but I was particularly drawn to the photographs inside all my favourite album’s sleeves. After school I studied a degree in film, during which I decided to study a night course in darkroom printing. After finishing my studies I pursued photography as a career. Every day since then has been a part of that journey.
How has your style and approach developed and changed over time?
Over time I have tried to create work that shows my own way of seeing the world. I am not particularly interested in trying to copy contemporary styles and trends, but do often like to pay homage to those who have inspired me.
Is there any single image that has profoundly impacted your work, and if so, how and why?
There have been countless images that have captured and inspired my imagination … too many to mention.
However when I saw Melvin Sokolsky’s exquisite image of a woman in a bubble on the River Seine in Paris from 1963 I instantly got this overwhelming feeling that anything in photography is possible.
Anton Corbijn is someone whose work I have always admired greatly for his visionary and pioneering approach to portraiture.
In a local context I remember seeing Crispian Plunkett’s work for the first time and marveling at the balance between his masterful technique and a truly post-punk approach – this was a great inspiration to me.
What role do colour, shape and form play in your work?
They are all vital to convey or enhance a certain mood or narrative in an image. The best work sometimes uses these devices to defy the predictable and (hopefully) make the viewer think about what that is actually saying.
Architectural pattern recurs in your personal work and becomes a kind of visual language. Can you tell us a bit about your interest here…
The precise geometry and design found in nature is a constant source of inspiration, so perhaps architectural pattern is a form that communicates human nature.
I have always been fascinated with how we as a society constantly construct and display the cultural paradigms of our times into visual identity in everything we do from architecture to fashion to art, packaging and design – all of these are inadvertently political, historical and sometimes even sexual statements…
Your approach – is everything pre-planned in detail and then executed with precision, or do you embrace the element of chance and spontaneous experimentation?
I find both can be equally important to achieving a successful image. Chance and spontaneity is always present if you are able to remain flexible enough in your approach to spot and capture it. But a well thought out and executed idea is equally satisfying. Experimentation is always crucial as it’s the best way to expand the vocabulary of visual communication.
How does your personal work influence your commercial work and vise versa, and more specifically, how do you interpret this ‘divide’ between these two areas of photography?
My personal work is often created in the ‘first person’, based on my own experiences, thoughts, feelings etc. This is therefore always driven by a free approach, free from any client or brief, apart from what I assign to myself, free of any deadlines of course, which is also why it can sometimes take so long to produce and release a finished series…
When working for a client there is often a very different dynamic at play… The idea being: you are hired, based on your style and skill, to execute a brief that is often defined by various factors of commerce. Helmut Newton called himself ‘a gun for hire’, because much like a professional assassin, he too saw himself as trying to fulfill an assignment in the most professional manner possible, although I think he ultimately managed to successfully subvert this.
It doesn’t however mean you can’t create more beautiful and creative images in a commercial sphere than in a personal one, so long as you are aware of the paradigms.
When taking a portrait of someone, what are you looking to try and capture?
The romantic notion of a photographer holding up a mirror to the world to show a ‘true reflection’ is in my opinion, often least applicable to portraiture. People regularly try to portray themselves to you in a considered, even curated manner when having their portrait taken. It therefore becomes my decision whether to accept and help co-author that portrayal, or whether to create my own work of fiction based on my interactions with that person.
What themes or ideas are you currently working with, and how are you exploring these in your work?
Over the last 4 years I have been exploring the idea of our ability to interact with and remember the spaces we move through at high speed when travelling from one place to another.
I approached this in an experimental way in order to create images that emphasize the relationship of motion to the still image and also how it affects our ability to remember clear details of the people and places we pass through at high speed.
This has resulted in some of the works being shown at the Nirox 2014 Winter Sculpture show (opening this weekend). I decided to exhibit these as large outdoor photographs printed on glass, which for me seemed the right approach as it hints at the important role the car window plays, but also because I think it is important for photography to be seen outside instead of always trying to capture people’s attention from behind a frame on the white wall of a gallery.
What do you enjoy about the process of working collaboratively on a project?
I really enjoy collaboration, especially when working with people whose skills you respect and admire. It’s a brave new way of working, which often results in exploring unexpected ideas and approaches beyond your comfort zone that challenge you, while at the same time allowing you time to focus more on what you can add to the collaboration to further enhance the project.
Nicole Van Heerden and I run a company called VATIC which applies a philosophy of foreseeing future trends to offer selectively produced and conceptualized collaborative efforts across a variety of mediums.
VATIC recently produced a music video for Hugh Masekela of his version of the Bob Dylan song ‘It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue’. We decided to make this video a tribute to photographer Alf Kumalo and his iconic and important archive of work during our country’s arduous transition into democracy. Kumalo, who passed away in 2012 was a close friend of Hugh’s since he took a portrait for the cover of DRUM magazine of a teenage Masekela jumping in the air with a trumpet that Louis Armstrong sent. By collaborating with a very skilled and passionate cinematographer in Robert Wilson, we were offered the use of footage he had previously filmed of Alf working in a dark room, on the train and walking the streets of Alexander taking photographs. This footage added a completely different dimension to the project and proved to be invaluable.
What are you reading, watching, listening to right now?
I am currently reading a book called Digital Vertigo, about social media’s ability to divide, diminish and disorientate us, followed by Franz Kafka’s personal diary for good measure. I recently watched the Spike Jonze film HER, which I really enjoyed, and always listen to a wide variety of music but locally I am really enjoying Givan Lotz and Motel Mari’s music.
What can we look forward to seeing from you soon?
Apart from the works I am exhibiting at NIROX in May, I am spending 2 months in Europe, which will give me a great opportunity to do more of my own work.
I am also releasing a new shoot in collaboration with Cameron Foden, a South African menswear designer based in Amsterdam, who I have been working with on an ongoing basis since 2009.
See more of Brett’s work here.