Brian Finke

Extremes

Brian Finke is the man to go to if you need to photograph a barbeque- he has obsessively captured meat charring in Korea and all over the US. He is also the guy to send to the more challenging of shoots- his easy charm allowing him to dip in and out of worlds that not many of us have the option to know. 

Brian has photographed subcultures of US society such as high school cheerleaders and football players, the world of policing by US Marshalls, the men and women of competitive bodybuilding, legalised marijuana growers of Colorado and the women that work in the Rap and Hip Hop industry. His subject matter of contemporary US life shows a complex myriad diverse social groups existing  alongside each otherthe established and the alternative–different tribes – all equally fascinating.

It is his style and technique that treats every subject matter with an honesty that turns seeing something very sexual or vulnerable into a visual treat. The contrasts between crisp, bright colours juxtaposed against controversial content matter; sometimes utilising crops that take the uncomfortable or disturbing just outside of the viewers sight, make Brian’s work intriguing and beautiful yet very real. Other times, the uncomfortable is fully visible as with the very intense portrait of John McAfee playing Russian roulette seen below.

Most recently, Finke was commissioned to photograph a swingers lifestyle resort for Boston Magazine and spent a week in Jamaica doing so. Next he is off to Mexico to shoot a story about mezcal in Oaxaca… Nice work if you can get it… Interview by Olga Norman

It’s when I’m physically drawn to something, it’s like having a crush on it, it’s that curiosity that builds that makes me want me to explore it through photography.

You grew up in Texas, right?

I was born in Philadelphia and grew up in Spring, Texas, a suburb of Houston. Pretty typical childhood, I started making pictures in high school, I was the newspaper and yearbook photographer, also shamelessly the prom king. After high school I couldn’t wait to get to New York City and go to art school.

What were your high school years like growing up? I ask this because you photograph the jocks and the cheerleaders… two groups in American high school life that represent the “ideal” of teenage life… your thoughts ?

Both my sisters were cheerleaders in high school and cheerleading and football were familiar territory, it’s what I grew up around and became fascinated in it after having lived in NYC for several years. Cheerleaders and football players are very relatable subject matter, in high school everyone knew a cheerleader or football player, wanted to be a cheerleader or football player, or wanted to date a cheerleader or football player.  I photograph very everyday subjects that we can all relate to in some way.

I read that you spend years photographing different people for different projects. One year and half for Most Muscular, (your project on body builders) and two years flying different airlines and photographing flight attendants for your book on the same topic. Can you expand upon your mental state when you have different personal projects going on? Does it feel obsessive to you ? What drives you to focus and do this?

I work on personal book and exhibition projects over a period of a few years while at the same time doing assignment work. It’s the perfect creative balance between being introduced to new topics though assignment work, trying out new visual ideas with both, and having the constant personal project on the mind to explore. It’s a process I really enjoy, I like getting completely obsessed with an idea, having something to think about in the morning while having coffee, thinking about while chilling on a plane traveling somewhere, having an idea to mull around in my head all the time, then totally exhaust it and move onto the next project. It’s a process that really works for me.

Do your projects ever meld into your daily life? Is it difficult to divide your work life from your personal life?

Haha. My girlfriend and I are always talking about this. I am a complete workaholic. I love being out in the world photographing, meeting people, having experiences. One day I’ll be photographing the models on a Hip Hop video, the next a bounty hunter outside New Orleans, then farmers in Columbia. Work and life is all one.

What are you working on now?

My current project is about the models in hip hop videos, “Hip Hop Honeys, Video Vixens.” I’m hanging out on set of everything from B-level to high end stuff with Jay-Z and Busta Rhymes and 50-Cent, and photographing the women that are in the videos. The project came to me through a photo editor that I work with at D Magazine in Italy.  I love it when friends and people that I work with recommend things. It seems like story ideas come very naturally that way.  I started shooting a little while ago and it will be the next book and show.   When I’m photographing, I feel like I can never make anything up that’s better than discovering what’s actually happening; reality is the best.

A lot of time spent while shooting is just hanging out. I’m a pretty chilled person to be around, I’m a listener. I think my presence allows people to be themselves around me and that’s where the picture making begins.

What do your images say about American contemporary life?

They show the over the top indulgence of everyday life. The subject matter and also how the images are created, the use of flash to heighten and exaggerate the familiar. The photos feel larger than life.

Human bodies, human sexuality… This is a common theme in your work and can be seen in your personal projects and your commissions. This element is what makes your images alluring and very intriguing and although you sometimes are in very sexual situations such as in Sex Machine or Hip-Hop Honeys, there seems to be a continuity of this theme in a lot of your photography. It never seems gratuitous rather it expresses a natural curiosity and an element of vulnerability that is very evident in many aspects of life.

The US is a a contradiction of itself in many ways and this is very evident in its sexuality— do you think you comment on that? And what you are thinking and wanting to express when you put these images out into the world ?

Yes it is in both my personal projects, from starting to photograph the world of Hip Hop Honeys after ending my marriage and wanting to be surround by the all these beautiful models and how I’ve interpreted assignment subject matter. An example would be the John McAfee shoot, concentrating on his relationships with his girlfriends and making the portrait of him without a shirt-on standing there with a gun to his head. When I’m doing my job the best-it’s when I’m attracted to the subject matter, drawn to it. It’s when I’m physically drawn to something, it’s like having a crush on it, it’s that curiosity that builds that makes me want me to explore it through photography. What’s seen is what I want to keep looking at, it’s my curiosity, my vulnerability, my excitement. All of these subject matters in the US already exist, such as Frat Boys, Football Players, Cheerleaders, Bodybuilders, Sex Machine , US Marshalls. This sensibility is how I relate to them and how I want to share them.

How was it shooting at Hedonism 2 in Jamaica? Its a clothing optional swinging resort right?

Yes, you got it. A swinging resort with half of the resort clothing optional, called the Prude side and the other side is the Nude side (everyone must be nude)

Did you have to take your clothes off too?

Yes I got naked for the foam party but not while shooting, it would have been a bit awkward with the photo and lighting equipment and clip on battery pack.

In a non descriptive manner what exactly did people do in front of you? (you will have to be creative in your wording to be descriptive yet not specific!! )

I saw everything, people having sex and blow jobs (oops) around the hot tubs.

You did a shoot for Wired about John McAfee… what was he like?

John McAfee was a crazy ride… guns, girls friends, bodyguards, all the excess was there.  When I arrived, he said “You’re the king today”.  I got to do whatever I wanted, totally indulged, and shot a ton. It’s the great thing about being a documentary photographer is being introduced to all these unique situations, it’s always new, and interesting.  With all the travel, it’s a very addictive life style.

What’s up with all the BBQ images? Are you known as the guy to go to for BBQ photos? Is it a personal obsession? You’ve done Korean, Texas and North Carolina.

Hahah YES so many obsessions. Texas is a huge BBQ place. I have a smoker and do grilling here in Brooklyn where I throw BBQ’s and smoke tons of meat. Also shot many stories relating about BBQ and Texas BBQ.

I really love the images you did for the National Geographic story on the subject of meat. As you are an avid carnivore, how was it shooting the images in the slaughter house and just being around all of that animal flesh?

The first cow that I photographed being slaughtered was at a local butcher outside Amarillo, TX. It took 2 artisan butchers less then 30 minutes to kill the cow, skin it, drain the blood, cut it in half and hang it in the freezer to age. The butchers asked if seeing the process would turn me off eating meat … No way. It was an amazing experience, made for a deeper appreciation for meat.