Jeffrey Lamont Brown never attended any photography school nor did he study with masters of the medium, but that hasn’t stopped him from building a successful career
The French existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre described the state of authenticity as the ultimate consummation of freedom, as drawing your purpose for being out of nothingness and creating something free from the bonds that restrain you to your past. If this is the case, Sartre would describe Jeffrey Lamont Brown’s career as a tour de force of authenticity. An engineer with no prior knowledge of the photography industry, Brown plunged into photography authentically, yearning to connect with people and portray their stories on film. Void of expectation, he opened an exciting and wide aperture to his future.
Raised on a Kansas farm, Brown knew professional photography to be merely shooting weddings and portraits. Years later, and thousands of miles away rock climbing in the South American Andes, his vision of what photography could be found a toehold. In the mountains of Ecuador, a passion for photography was set free.
“I had more fun photographing the locals than I did rock climbing,” recalls Brown. “I liked connecting with them. I kept thinking ‘How can this be a career?’”
That ability to connect with people drives Brown’s passion to capture some of the magic in the lives and faces of his subjects.
Unaware of the harsh reception that greets aspiring photographers, Brown called on National Geographic‘s Rich Clarkson. Uncharacteristically, Clarkson met with Brown, who was eager to show his photographs of Ecuador. With mom in tow, the young photographer met with Clarkson at his office. Although he wasn’t offered a job, Brown gained valuable insight on the rough-and-tumble photo industry and the steps he needed to take in order to be considered seriously in the world of photography.
Fueled by the new knowledge that he could make a living doing something he found enjoyable, Brown walked away from a hard-won engineering degree from the Colorado School of Mines for an internship at a local newspaper as a photojournalist. He worked for Fort Collins’ The Coloradoan under Michael Madrid, who now holds the title of senior photo editor at USA Today. Brown keeps in contact with his former employer to this day, shooting for him whenever his schedule permits. During his stint as a newspaper photographer, Brown nurtured his aptitude for capturing people on film in addition to traveling and honing his photographic talent. He was also given the opportunity to interface with the people and events that drew him to photography in the first place.
The Extraordinary From The Ordinary
It’s Brown’s ability to connect and see the authenticity not only in his own work, but also in the people he’s photographing that makes his work so enticing.
“It’s the ability to capture something authentic—my B.S. radar goes off quickly,” Brown admits. “Human interaction and enjoying the people is the key to making them feel comfortable in front of the camera.”
The effect grabs the viewer. Whether a Nike advertisement or a photo documentary on the scourge of AIDS in India, it’s Brown’s knack for reaching beyond the obvious and capturing something transcendent that makes the images so appealing. Documentaries in Brown’s early days as a photojournalist not only fed his creative appetite and allowed him to connect, but also set the groundwork for his advertising career.
The transition from photojournalism to advertising didn’t come easy. After moving to San Diego, Brown struggled like many photographers to find advertising work. Armed with a full repertoire of documentary work, but not much advertising, he found himself struggling to make ends meet. His first advertising break came from Road Runner Sports. Much of sports advertising revolves around the larger-than-life image of sports figures, the modern-day superhero and the ability to find the champion within. Brown’s ability to capture grandiose images was a natural fit for such a campaign. His inherent propensity to pull big skies, rich colors and grand images out of an otherwise ordinary photograph drew the attention of sporting companies. It continues to be one of his most recognizable qualities.
A Documentarian: Passion For People
Although Brown’s advertising career commands the lion’s share of his photographic efforts, his documentary work continues. Notwithstanding the substantially more lucrative appeal of advertising, Brown dedicates at least 20 percent of his time and resources to humanitarian and environmental documentaries. Spending any time at all talking with Brown about his documentary work reveals his boundless enthusiasm. He describes his documentary work as being fueled by passion, empathy and wanting to change the way people think about the world. When so many of us tend to shy away and pretend not to see the myriad of horrors that afflict our world, Brown frames his images to help us understand a little better and face the world head on. His photographs reveal the complex mix of life’s beauty and pain. They reveal what’s real that might be overlooked. They’re images that don’t sensationalize, that don’t exaggerate. They tell a story through the lens of an unquenchable love for being with people. He admits that it’s his desire to be with people and befriend them that pushes him to continue his work.
Brown’s photojournalism past has left its imprint on his advertising style as well. While shooting out in the field, he gained no real studio experience. This remains true with his work today. His work is done entirely on location and with very little equipment. Brown uses natural light to shoot. He reserves the studio for catalog work only. Flipping though Brown’s portfolio, you can’t help but be moved by his delicate use of natural light, which deliciously bathes the subject. He often uses muted or softened light tones to underline the beauty of the true focus of the image. When he does opt for a more pinpointed, sharpened light source, it’s to highlight and intensify the image’s message, keeping it always appropriate and never exaggerated.
A Digital Minimalist
Brown’s transition to digital led to a revamping of his shop in November 2003. “It [digital technology] helped articulate the vision I had in my head.”
With no real educational background in photography, he was able to experiment and explore new possibilities that weren’t achievable with celluloid film. As a young photographer, he was never exposed to the darkroom and admits it was a drawback to what he could construct with his photography. “I didn’t have any darkroom experience,” says Brown. “Everything was scanned and edited in Photoshop. I never had any experience printing with a master printer and learning all of the intricacies of that art.”
Photoshop allowed him to emulate the darkroom process without first having the technical skills required to work directly with film. However, he has never relied entirely on Photoshop to create his highly stylized photographs.
A self-described equipment minimalist, Brown’s tools are simple. He carries with him a single case with a pair of camera bodies and a few lenses. He uses homemade reflectors to bring out the deep contrast ratio of his photographs. Brown now exclusively uses Canon EOS-1Ds Mark II cameras.
“I enjoy the freedom that camera gives me,” says Brown. “Shooting in exotic places throughout the world, I need a camera that gives me freedom of movement and maneuverability and allows me to get more involved with the locations. I can get these cameras dirty, salty and grimy and not worry about their structural integrity.” These are traits crucial for Brown’s spontaneous style of shooting.
One constant that has remained from film to digital is Brown’s low-tech, capture-in-the-raw style of shooting. Without the necessary darkroom experience, he tried to capture most darkroom techniques in the camera. He describes his work as being “the dodge and burn version of capture.” Much of his advertising work is high-energy, impulsive or off-the-cuff. The ability to shoot in the same manner is crucial.
“[Digital photography] enables us to bring a high production value to a very spontaneous situation,” Brown explains.
Brown also can see a downside to such instant gratification. He believes the heavy reliance on the immediate appearance of the image lends to a laziness in art direction and concepts. It’s all too easy to rely heavily on what’s seen after the image is shot, developing your project on the fly. Brown’s approach is in complete contrast to such a method. Shooting 1,000 to 2,000 frames a day, digital photography allows him to accurately translate a carefully thought-out idea to print. He can see the direction of a shoot and make alterations as needed.
Digital photography also has inspired Brown to stretch his creativity and experiment far more than he was normally apt to do, something he attributes to his commercial success. It wasn’t until he went beyond the paid jobs and started shooting and developing a large repertoire of images on his own that his advertising career really took off.
“I can’t stress enough the importance of test shooting and developing a portfolio beyond the level of the paid commercial work,” says Brown. “I firmly believe, and I’m living proof, that people aren’t going to hire a photographer based on past commercial work, but for the work one puts one’s heart into on his or her own time.”
Adds Brown, “I think the path to success for a photographer—or any creative, for that matter—is to develop one’s own point of view/style/look/feel with test/portfolio/self-assigned shoots. Lots of them. It’s a hard process because you have to believe in yourself and be motivated to produce photo shoots. Once that style is well developed, market that work to creatives by Website, promo mailer, sourcebook, etc. I don’t put anything in my book that doesn’t advance my vision.
“I can’t overly stress the importance of the struggle,” says Brown. “The jobs you shoot aren’t what you want in your book. It’s what you shoot and experiment with on your own time. Push yourself far beyond what you think you can do. All people care about is really amazing pictures.” And that’s exactly what Brown delivers—passionate, well-designed, authentic pictures.
To see more of Jeffrey Lamont Brown’s photography, visit www.jeffreybrown.com.
Article written for Digital Photo Pro, www.digitalphotopro.com