James Brown is one of the rising stars of British fashion photography. In that highly stylized industry, he creates worlds that stretch well beyond the mundaneness of everyday life. Artists create fantasy, inspire and stimulate the human mind. Brown weaves fantasies from seemingly uninspired surroundings. No matter the project, he brings the disparate elements together in a cohesive image of beauty.
Entrance into the beau monde of fashion photography lures many young, talented photographers internationally. Filled with glamorous women and striking men draped in haute couture, it’s a world that appears to be as sculpted as the bodies upon which it’s draped.
The In Crowd
Brown always has been drawn to the allure of beauty in all aspects of his life. Working at a local paper at the age of 18, Brown had his own column, “The In Crowd.” There, he was able to nurture his budding interest in photography and hone the skills that would shape his career. Reviewing swank nightclubs filled with some of London’s sexiest people, Brown was exposed to a bevy of beautiful women donned in the hippest attire.
Recalls Brown, “I started taking pictures of beautiful women all dressed up. I loved it, not to mention the attention I got, although I think it was just because they wanted to get in the paper! From then on, I wanted to get into fashion photography.”
At a young age, it was Brown’s tenacity and determination to shape his future that landed him the job at the newspaper, a step he admits was critical in developing his career. Unfulfilled as a novice furniture builder, Brown knew that change was imminent. Pouring over newspapers, he finally found a position as a junior photographer for a local paper.
“At first, I didn’t get the job, but I realized it was all I wanted to do, so I kept calling,” says Brown. “I said I would do anything, just give me a job! After about six months of hassling them, I got a job as a scanner. I was over the moon!”
Since then, Brown’s career has been a virtual whirlwind. His staunch resolution to work with none but the best photographers has put him miles ahead of his competition.
“You have to be trained by the best to become the best,” he says. “I met Rankin at a party and said, ‘I want to assist you!’ Two weeks later, I’m in his studio. Jon Gray is the master in my eyes. He’s the one who gave me all of the opportunities I have today. I still learn so much from him. If it weren’t for other photographers, I wouldn’t have the skills I’ve developed now. When you look at the work of a Rankin or a Jon Gray, you know instantly that it’s them.”
Lighting The Look
In fashion photography, as in all other aspects of that profession, nothing is as important as developing your own style and, over the years, Brown has worked hard to accomplish that. Whether his photographs bring to mind the bold energized youth of London nightlife or his stark lighting creates a world reminiscent of the seductive film noir, his lighting is instrumental in shaping his images.
“To me, lighting is the most important tool to understand as a photographer,” says Brown, “because if you don’t understand the basic principles, it’s easy to make huge mistakes later on. I tried to develop my style around something that I like—moody images. I think they have more of an impact. I like to play on the borderline of dark and clean. I never shoot perfectly clean shots. I prefer to have a few shadows here and there to give it more life and not be so flat.”
Adds Brown, “I’ve used all makes of lighting equipment over the past few years, and I do like to mix and match lights. My day-to-day gear, Bowens, never lets me down. They’re so well made and durable, which is something that gives me peace of mind while I’m working. My kit can be used in the studio or on location, which is great because I can just throw them in a bag and off I go. Bowens has started to develop all sorts of attachments, which have given me the chance to expand my creative skills. And I’m always in anticipation of the next new attachment, so I can play around and offer clients something different with my lighting. I use the super-soft reflector and diffuser kit and the grid diffuser for quite a lot of my work, as they provide such nice effects, and I can mix and match them to give me even more effects.”
Says Brown of a recent shoot at an abandoned WWII air force base, “It was very strange and had a mellow, dramatic feel to it. I was shooting for a designer who’s making a huge name for himself in London. I was on location and had a million things on my mind. I knew I didn’t have to worry one bit about the lights, as they’re very durable. Once I had the generator started, the lights pinged on and didn’t give me any trouble throughout the shoot, which went on well into the night.”
Brown’s seductive, moody imagery is influenced by his love for the Italian style. “I love everything about Italy,” he says. “I think the Italians set the trend throughout the world—the designs have so much class about them and still have a classic look that never seems too dry. If you look at any campaign, such as Gucci or Armani, they really play with ideas and style and, to me, give such an impact visually. I like nothing more than looking through Italian Vogue to help me with ideas and inspiration. I think Italian women are the most beautiful people to photograph; they have such passion and fire in everything they do.”
Preparation And Inspiration
Brown’s perfectly sculpted photographs start long before he enters the studio or sets up a single light. His passion for his work consumes much of his daily life.
Says Brown, “I’m always working in my mind, always doing 100 miles an hour. I’m one of those people who has to get things right all the time, so if I’m working on an image, I’ll have to make sure everything is perfect before I even pick up my camera. Most of my inspiration also comes from everyday situations. I think being creative is a constant development, so I’m always switched on with my surroundings and people around me. You never know when something or someone will just hit you right in the face, which could then generate a big idea.”
Although much of Brown’s work is mapped out well before it’s actually shot, he’s a self-described “on-the-spot thinker.” From his early days working at the newspaper and throughout his professional career with clients, Brown has been faced with having to make split-second creative decisions that would please a variety of people. Where he used to grow nervous, he’s now able to feel at ease and under control of the situation, even under pressure.
It’s this level of comfort that makes Brown so easy to work with. His rapport with his models makes his images dynamic. Says Brown, “I tend to get them on set and let them get used to the surroundings and have a chat—make a few jokes and then just ease into the shoot slowly. I also show them what I’m doing so they feel more relaxed. I sometimes will just stop throughout the shoot and have a 10-minute conversation and then—click—I take a picture and think, ‘Got ya!’”
Adds Brown, “I tend to have the image in my head, but I like the spontaneity that everyone has. I like to have models who know what they’re doing, but I like the fact that each shoot, whether it’s a person or a company, is going to have a different outcome. If I see a model, I usually know as soon as I meet her if I’m going to be able to get what I want; if not, then I like the challenge, sometimes getting an even better result than I first anticipated. That’s the fun part! My best friend always says, ‘You are your situation.'”
Brown’s ability to adapt easily to his environment makes it easy for him to transition between a studio setting and locations. “I love the studio,” he says. “It’s my playground. But location has something special about it. It does take ages to organize a location shoot, but the results can be outstanding. I try to have everything I need on location, so it almost becomes a mobile studio. I love the fact of having the option and I feel comfortable shooting either.”
This type of versatility carries over to his equipment as well. Brown switches regularly between medium format, film and digital. “I use all sorts of cameras,” he says, “from 4×5 to the Mamiya RZ67 to the Canon [EOS] 5D—anything I can get my hands on. Jon Gray, who trained me, uses all the above equipment, so I got used to working with them on a daily basis.”
Adds Brown, “I was lucky enough to be trained on film. This gave me an understanding that if you don’t get it right the first time, there’s little you can do to correct the image. It was a fast learning curve—you mess up, there’s no going back. While I shoot digital, I don’t often look at the screen. I know if I’ve got everything correct before I start, but it’s a godsend.”
Brown is a firm believer in capturing his images in the camera without much touchup. He relies on his creative lighting and bold composition to speak for itself.
“I’ve always been taught to have the image you want before any postproduction,” says Brown. “I use Photoshop to enhance what’s already there and not rebuild the shoot from scratch. Some photographers also use digital and get away with murder as they overwork the images, making them look totally different to what the original was. That’s not my style.”
Through his technical know-how and creative spontaneity, James Brown has been able to create his own look and has arrived on the scene with a freshness that’s resonating with designers and magazine art directors. He has tackled the nearly impenetrable world of the elite fashion society and made his own mark. Of course, in Brown’s eyes, his career has just begun. From album covers to music videos and Hollywood stars, he has his sights set on much more than the cover of a fashion magazine.
“I’ve been all over the world and have been on some amazing shoots,” reflects Brown. “My passion has turned to obsession, so I have to keep going to fulfill my desires. I always look forward to the next shoot, but once it has been shot, I’m ready for the next!”
To see more of James Brown’s photography, visit www.jamesbrownphotography.com.
Article written for DigitalPhotoPro, www.digitalphotopro.com