Today we share the work and words of Brian Kosoff. His portfolio was one of the selections in the 2017 Call for Entry.
“I am impressed with the surreal quality of this work. Each has a focal point and ‘something else’ that draws my eye. I also appreciate the ritual of making the images involving travel, exploration and discovery. The B&W quality is excellent and the images, while arresting have an ‘other world’ quality to them.” Willie Osterman
Would you please tell a little us about yourself?
I was born in New York City in 1957 and raised in Brooklyn NY. I had a very early start in the professional world of photography. At eighteen I already completed photographic assignments for a NY newspaper, and had my first solo NY gallery exhibition. I assisted many photographers at this time but also kept pursuing assignment work and by age twenty I had already photographed for national magazines, my work even appearing on their covers. Within a year I had a photo studio in Manhattan where I eventually specialized in still life. I can’t imagine this scenario today as the photography world has changed so much but at the time it seemed like one opportunity just led to another. Then I made a big change. At the end of 2002, after twenty-five years of producing photographs for advertising and editorial clients I closed my studio so that I could devote myself full-time to my personal photography, and have not accepted any commercial assignments since.
I now live on the west coast of the U.S., dividing my time between homes in Portland Oregon and Pacifica California.
How did you get started in photography?
My first experience with photography was on a vacation in Florida when I was about ten. For this trip my parents gave me a Kodak Instamatic camera, with which I shot countless photos, but not the usual photos of family or sights that one takes on vacation. My photos were of the sky, rocks, trees, very much the kind of work I do today. My uncle Frank was an avid photographer. He owned a Nikkormat, which he brought to every family get together, and he’d also give slide shows when we visited his home. He was a bit of a role model for me so I followed in his footsteps. At age fifteen I bought my first 35mm camera and started to dabble in photography. My high school had a great art program, especially in sculpture and while I had some interest in photography at the time I was just as interested in sculpture. Our sculpture program was quite successful as every year we had at least one winner in the National Scholastics art competitions, which was a big deal among high school art departments. I entered a sculpture and won a gold medal, that further encouraged my pursuit of art. During my junior year of high school I was accepted to attend the School of Visual Arts in New York City. I was still considering sculpture as my main study so I was not sure if my major would be fine art or photography. The answer became clear when in my last year of high school I enrolled in an internship program that allowed me to assist some NYC advertising and magazine photographers. I loved the work. It was all about problem solving, coming up with creative solutions and creating beauty. What I also discovered was that being a photographer was more than a job but a lifestyle. Photographers lived differently it seemed. One of the photographers I assisted played softball every Tuesday and I thought to myself any job that allows you to play softball on Tuesdays was the job for me! At that point I decided that photography was going to be my career. (for what it’s worth I never ended up playing softball on Tuesday mornings)
Would you share with us one image (not your own) that has stayed with you over time?
There are many images that have stayed with me and many photographers who I greatly admire. I’ll point out three photographers and some of their images that influenced me, but there are so many more. The first is Arnold Newman’s portrait of Stravinsky at the piano. The graphic and minimal composition, the tonalities, the compelling negative space and the similarity between Stravinky’s pose and the open piano top is perfection to me. The second image is Penn’s portrait of “Saul Steinberg in Nose Mask”. I am in awe of Penn so pinning down his work to this image is hard, but what blows me away is just how he came up with this concept for the photo. It’s full of wit and whimsy and yet one can project all sorts of other meanings behind it. And finally, Ansel Adams and “Winter Sunrise”. Like many photographers I have been to this scene near Lone Pine California and photographed it. Over time and having seen many beautiful landscape locations first hand. I would have become less enamored with this image if it were not for the horse in the field. The horse, that small detail, just adds so much life to this scene.
What has been your most memorable experience as far as your photographic work is concerned?
There have been many memorable moments, I get to see a lot of beautiful scenes, but a few experiences stand out like close encounters with wild animals, a stray bullet that narrowly missed me while I was photographing in Utah (that incident ignited my “Warning Signs” series and why I usually wear bright red jackets while working to avoid being shot accidentally by a hunter, though It didn’t work that time!), but I have to go with my first attempt re-introducing myself to landscape photography.
It was a “fish out of water” story. It was my first attempt at landscape photography after having spent a couple of decades in the studio. I decided to travel to Colorado in 1998 and do some landscape photography. I heard there was an interesting place called the Great Sand Dunes so I figured that would it be a great place to start. I arrived at the parking lot and started to hike to the base of the dunes, which I assumed were at most 100 yards from the lot. I learned a little lesson there, it’s hard to judge distances in the desert. What I thought was 100 yards turned out to be much further. Ordinarily walking 100 yards or 500 yards is not that big a difference, unless you are carrying two suitcase type camera cases, one in each hand, weighing about 60-70 pounds total, and are being choked by a heavy, metal studio tripod strapped around your neck and shoulder.
When I arrived at the base of the dune I noticed small, dark, indecipherable shapes atop the dune, which I assumed were very small bushes. I started to climb the dune, an action similar to climbing up a down escalator, for every step I took it seemed to only get me a half step closer because my feet sank into the sand. After some fifteen minutes of exhausting climbing, I was barely half way up the dune, and my heart racing so fast I had to stop. At this point I was finally able to observe that those tiny dark shapes at the top of the dune were people who were still very far away. It now dawned on me the enormous size of this dune. I eventually reached the top, but by now the sun was high and the light was awful. After a pointless hour of baking under the sun, (it was July and very hot), I called it a day and headed back.
As I later discovered the Great Sand Dunes got their name because they are as much as seven hundred feet high. I was basically climbing up the down escalator of a seventy story building, carrying suitcases! The only accomplishment from this exercise was that I realized how inexperienced and poorly equipped I was for this sort of work. I vowed never to let that happen again and for all trips after this I did a great deal of research into the locations and the proper gear, and I even started to read books on weather. This attention to detail and preparedness is the basis of my work process today. Work in an extremely deliberate manner.
Please tell us about the portfolio of work you submitted to our call.
The work I submitted was part of my night series. I’m interested in shooting at night because our perceptions change. In the physical sense our vision is less effective, our perception of color is impaired and we literally see the world differently than we do during the day. We’re not nocturnal creatures and maybe because of that there’s inherently an uneasiness. Some degree of fear is instilled upon by the night so there’s a psychological change as well. Once a person can get past the shift into night, and one is in a vast open area away from city lights and with the full night sky visible there’s a further realization that we just live in a giant bubble floating in space. During the day the Sun’s illumination of our atmosphere limits our view and our perceptions, but at night the reality of our existence is more visible. I am reminded of this by a recent opportunity to view Jupiter through a telescope. While I am well aware of the existence of Jupiter and have seen many photos of it, actually seeing it firsthand was a completely different experience. It made it real and it made me wonder about our own existence in the Universe. As significant as the stars are they are not the point of this series, even though they can tend to steal the scene. To me the stars are a background, one that also clearly communicates that it’s night. It is the content on the land that is the subject, and then the way that subject relates to the background as with any photograph. I’m focused on creating a relationship between the earth-bound scene and the heavens above.
What Image of yours would you say taught you an important lesson?
I could answer this by referring to the stray bullet incident, where the lesson then was that composition is critical. If I had composed the scene more from the left I might not be here writing this! The reality is that each image teaches me something and that after more than forty years of producing photographs I am still learning photography. I think you learn from every image whether that image succeeds or fails, and I think you possibly learn more from the failures.
What makes a good day for you creatively speaking?
It’s not too hard to make a beautiful photo of a beautiful scene if the conditions are right. Granted, consistently being there at the right place and the right time is pretty darn hard and takes a surprising amount of homework. But when there’s a day that I come across a scene that most people would just fly right by without a second look. A scene not obviously beautiful or compelling, and I can see and create something there that others haven’t, that’s a pretty good day.
Do you have any favorite pieces of equipment that you find essential in the making of your work?
Since I come from a studio and commercial background I’m used to having a vast amount of gear available to me and to being able to use the perfect tool required for the project, Because of this approach I tend to work heavy. I’ve had to compromise because I can’t haul all my gear with me on location. The amount of gear changes depending on whether it’s a road trip in the US or Canada, or an international trip that requires me to fly. On the foreign trips I currently carry a 6×6/6×7 combined system, a Mamiya 7II and a Hasselblad. I carry both because there’s a gap in the Mamiya lens lineup, between the 80mm and 150mm, to remedy this I carry a Hasselblad with the 100mm to fill that gap. I also bring the 180mm Zeiss because it’s a great lens and the framing of the 150mm on the Mamiya is not precise. I also carry a Nikon system, which I use for color work. When I don’t have to fly, I bring all of the above and also add a Fotoman 6x12cm or Linhof MT3000 system. Sometimes though I just crack open an equipment safe and pull out a whole different camera system just to shake things up.
What is on the horizon?
I will continue to add to my existing series of work, (the day and night landscape, warning signs, end of the road, and blurred lines) because I feel there’s more to explore and that some series are never complete. However I am going to step back in time and start to produce some still life work again. I’m curious to see if a fifteen year absence from that genre will have changed my perception and approach. As still life has influenced my landscape work I want to see if landscape work has influenced my still life work.
Thank you for sharing your work. To learn more about the work of Brian Kosoff please visit his site at Brian Kosoff.