Street Photography Interview: Brian Gilbreath
Updated: Apr 9, 2019
Street Photography Interview: Brian Gilbreath(@briangilbreath)
New York City to a street photographer is what I imagine Disney Land is to a child. Brian Gilbreath(@briangilbreath) takes us to the streets of the big apple highlighting what makes New York, New York - the people. In his work we see the ordinary (to New Yorkers) unordinary characters, the lively parades, and those at the core of NYC - NYPD (New York Police Department) and FDNY (Fire Department New York). Brian's also recently released a book 'Cny Slnd' compiling 35mm shots documenting life in 2018 on the famous Coney Island Boardwalk.
1. Tell us a little about yourself, what got you in to shooting street photography and what do you arm yourself with on the street?
I moved to New York City almost 10 years ago to pursue a career in the entertainment industry. At my first job, I found myself toying around with digital SLR cameras. This sparked a renewed interest with me in photography, as I always had a passive interest growing up. So on a whim, I picked up a cheap DSLR camera to pursue personal projects. I photographed static objects, friends and cityscapes around me as I explored the city, but I never fell in love with any of the photos. In all honesty, I found my digital photos too clean, trite, and actually quite uninteresting.
Six years go by and I make nothing of it. A few photos here and there, a few experiments and thats it. Then one day for my birthday, my wife gets me a class in film photography, and that was the start of my love for film.
After the class, I picked up a cheap Pentax K1000 and started experimenting with different types of film and different lenses. I enjoyed the gritty quality film gave me, and the surprise reveal of seeing the photos develop. I tried photographing people with it as suggested by the instructor, but I found it hard to get close, and the camera and lenses just didn't give me the proximity or style I wanted.
Around same the time, a co-worker saw the Pentax camera on my desk and gave me his old water-damaged Nikon F3 with a wide angle lens. I didn't think I would ever use it ... yet I stared at it. I stared at this hunk-of-junk, beat up camera for 8 months until one day I got fed up with not being able to "get close" and wanted to go out with the wide angle lens on the F3. Armed with only one roll of black and white film, I had mission that I would only take photos of people up close, something I had never been able to achieve in my past photos.
It was on this self-driven mission where I would take a photograph that changed everything for me. After scanning it, I was awestruck at the image on my computer. It was of a woman rushing by me with an expression of worry. I was so consumed by it cause it had one thing I had never captured before: emotion. By all accounts the photo is mediocre at best, but to me at the time, it looked like a photograph a well established photographer would take, not one I would. It was at this moment I fell in love with street photography.
A few months later after that beat up Nikon F3 died, I bought a less beat up one, and that's the camera I use today with a similar 20mm wide angle lens with the same type of black and white film, Ilford HP5 Plus.
2. What do you enjoy most about street photography and what inspires you to keep out on the hunt?
I enjoy walking and exploring the city and getting up as close as possible to strange and interesting people. The closer I can get, the more happy I am. If you look through my photo archive, you'll notice I get closer and closer as the months go by. If I can get to know a few people along the way, that is also a great experience. You'll see I do street portraits as well as candid shots, so I might just pass by someone and take a quick pic, or stop and get to know them.
I also wouldn't enjoy street photography as much if I wasn't shooting film. Film hones my skill and instincts and forces me have my camera ready to go: in focus, and set at the proper F stop for the lighting that day, lens cap is always off. Additionally, I have to mention the delight and surprise of seeing my photos develop. Or for that matter, the disappointment in seeing that amazing shot you thought you got, come out blank; it all adds to the excitement!
3. How does your day start? Where do you like to shoot, what are you looking for?
I only go out a photograph in my free time as I still work during the day, but usually I'll head out on the weekends or during lunch. I start around the Flatiron or Penn Station area and zip down to Canal Street and back, taking care of errands in the process. That will work in a few miles of walking. While I really enjoy photographing in Manhattan because I can take care of other things at the same time, I will often make an effort head out to other parts of the city, like Coney Island for example.
I make it a mission to capture a wide range of people I encounter in New York, showing off the full the diversity in the city. This separates me from some photographers who tend to photograph a certain type of demographic; I try to capture ALL interesting people I see. I also stray from photographing homeless people, the disadvantaged or folks that are struggling as I just don't feel right about that.
Additionally, I'm not just relegated to NYC - I'm also exploring outside the confines of urban life and trying to photograph new people in different parts of the United States as I travel around the country.
4. In many of your photos the subject is the main focus and well aware you're taking the shot. How do you approach your subjects? Are you working the scene or are many of these shots just taken on the fly?
For the random people on the streets, I'm in and out super quickly, so for those definitely on the fly. But for some people, events or projects, I am way slower and more methodical. Sometimes I'll just start photographing and other times I'll just ask 'Do you mind if I take your photo'? I think it depends on the type of person, and what's going on around you, but I do read the situation and guess how the person, or other persons around will react.
Obviously, I will always aim for candid photos, cause the expressions and situations are that much better, but sometimes you just can't pass up a photo or portrait person, and need to stop them and ask. 49 out of 50 times people don't mind having their photo taken, and are even excited by it, but I've definitely been chased off by irate folks in the past a handful of times, so I always wear sneakers!
5. Coney island is the subject of your new book 'Cny Slnd.' What's the abbreviation about? It seems like a favourite location for the New York street heads. What's it like down there?
Available to buy here: 'Cny Slnd'
Coney Island is all about the people. The outgoing folks that reside in and visit Coney Island to me exude the last vestiges of weirdness and creative expression in the city. I thought why not express a little weirdness in the title!
In the summer, you have the funky bars, classic hot dogs, and a ice-cream stained boardwalk that acts as a great launching pad for New Yorkers to express themselves. The yearly Mermaid Parade is the pinnacle of Coney Island in the summer. In the winter, you have the Polar Bear plunge on New Year's Day which attracts another type of person willing to jump into the frigid Atlantic with a few thousand other folks!
6. The 'Last Harvest series' puts a pleasant spin on your portfolio page. How did you end up shooting that series?
This series I photographed in late 2017 in Anita, Iowa, and is my first attempt at a focused project. After nearly four decades of being a farmer my wife's uncle was farming his land for the last time before retirement. I thought it would be great to capture his last harvest which was the culmination of years of expertise. We stayed with him for a few days and learned a few things about farming corn and soybeans and took a ride on the combine. I brought with me dozens of rolls of black and white film, and different lenses than I normally use. I spent the days in the cold wind experimenting photographing his equipment and farmland, and that project is the result. I learned on the shoot that American farmers have been at the forefront of technology. They pioneered weather reports and GPS automated driving systems for their tractors. This use of technology enabled farmers like him to farm hundreds of acres of farmland by themselves.
Additionally, I think this series meant something to me as an American photographer as it is a project that shows another way of life and another side of America that not everyone in the world is familiar with.
7. I love your series 'NYPD-FDNY.' We get a scary image of American police in the UK but that doesn't come across in your images. How do you approach capturing public servicemen / woman?
Living in New York, you quickly learn that the police and firemen are everywhere. People are always amazed when I tell them there's ~40,000 NYPD officers. You see them on patrol in the subways, and you hear the truck sirens as the FDNY whisk by you to a fire. Naturally to me, they are just another interesting aspect of the city for me to photograph, and I feel they also they are a part what makes up the diversity of the city.
Most of the time I encounter them, they are busy working, solving problems; so I tend to stay quiet and approach slowly and carefully. I've been asked to leave situations before, but they are usually upfront and direct about that. If they are working events, and they don't look to pre-occupied, I'll ask them for a portrait.
One interesting story I have is around this photograph
There had been an abandoned building down the street from me I saw caught fire and noticed there were dozens of fire trucks around. It was a six alarm fire and I started weaving through some of the groups of FDNY that were resting and watching the fire as it burned out of control. Among the photos I took that day, I snapped this photo of these three gentlemen all looking up at the fire behind me. After posting to social media, I was contacted by one of their spouses who told me these firefighters were long time friends who worked out of different fire houses in the city and never saw each other on the job together until this fire. I thought that was pretty cool that I was able to capture their little moment. The spouse told me she gave the photo to her husband as a gift which I thought was pretty neat.
8. Do you have anycurrent projects and where can we keep up to date with your work?
My most up-to-date work is on my Instagram @briangilbreath where I post daily. As for new projects, I'm hoping to travel out to more parts of the USA and capture more unique folks!
I'm also working on an idea for a new book of 'controversial' street photographs that all follow these themes: Photos I am not allowed to post to Instagram, photos I'm not comfortable posting to Instagram, or photos I've posted have actually been banned on Instagram. I think instead of pure photos in this book, I'll comment on why each of the photos is controversial. I have a few dozen of these photos that fit this bill, but I'm not quite there yet with the collection, I'll keep you all posted!
BOOK AVAILABLE HERE: http://www.blurb.com/b/9269374-cny-slnd
Thanks very much to Brian(@briangilbreath) for be willing and taking the time to go ahead with the interview. Checkout his Instagram feed for daily updates and his website for full resolution project images. Thoroughly enjoyed checking out all Brian's work and hearing what makes him tick.
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