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This interview is Copyright 2006, James Morrissey, and may not, in part or in whole, be reproduced in any electronic or printed medium without prior permission from the author. The images in this article are the property of Alain Briot and have been licensed to James Morrissey and the NWP Photo Forum for the purpose of this interview.
Editor's Note: A link is at the end of the page if you wish to learn more about Alain Briot and his work.
Part I: About Alain Briot
JM: Would you be willing to give us a short social history of yourself, talking about your family and what life was like when you were growing up?
AB: I was born in France in 1959 and moved to the US in 1986. People often wonder why I left France. France is a wonderful country but it just didn't offer, and in my estimate still doesn't offer, the opportunities I was expecting.
Anyway, I was born near the Montparnasse district of Paris. Today, mostly immigrants live there. When I was born Artists lived in this district. Times change and with it a lot of the romance of Paris, though much survives. Stereotypes also survive. Montmartre was not, and is still not, the only haven for artists in Paris. Montmartre is where a lot of artists work and sell their work. The fact is, most of them cannot afford to live there. My parents, who were also artists, couldn't afford to live in Montmartre in 1959 already!
My mother was a trapeze artist. My father met her when he took a job as accountant for the Cirque Bouglione where she worked. She went on to work for Shepherdfields, in England, and since they didn't need an accountant --they already had one-- he studied magic and learned several tricks that he performed on stage for them in England. When they went back to Paris, and later when I was born, he returned to mathematics and became a world-renowned engineer in noise and vibration control. He made very good money and was able to pay my way through schooling in the US. That's how I came to live in the US.
JM: When and how did you first begin to photograph?
Let me change the question to "When did you first begin to create art?" Too often people make a difference between taking photographs and making art, be it painting, drawing, music, architecture, sculpting, ceramics, etc. That is fine if you don't consider the type of photography you do to be art. However, to me, the photographs I create are art. And if you must ask, yes, I believe that photography is art and I can prove it. In fact, I am doing just that in my new "Reflections on Photography and Art" series. If you have not read it yet here is the direct link to the series' introduction: beautiful-landscape.com/Thoughts_Intro.html. One of the upcoming essays in this series is about “Why photography is art”.
Anyway, I remember making art from as far back as I have memories. I used to look at my mothers paintings -watercolors, pastels and oils- as well as at the costumes she had made and wore for her trapeze acts. She had kept a large collection of loose sequins, beads and glass jewels. These were used on her costumes as decorations and embellishments, in part because they were beautiful, and in part because they were highly reflective and caught the light from the circus projectors. I also remember looking at photographs of her on the trapeze, all in black and white at the time. I suppose my first exposure to photography, to photographs that I could perceive as such, was with photographs of my mother.
I made my first painting when I was around 5 and continued to paint from then on. I got my first camera when I was around 7 or 8. It was a Polaroid Land 80 camera. I still have it. I remember going out with it in the winter and having to use the aluminum folding print warmer to keep the film warm enough so it would develop outdoors in the cold. We use to put it under our arms, under our clothes. There was a magical technical quality associated with making Polaroid photographs that somehow merged perfectly with the circus and mathematics ambiance in which I grew up. A mix of art and science was surrounding me from very early on! It has been sort of the thread I have followed from then on. I see photography today as being both an art and a science and my goal is to do both equally well. There are just too many people that do either one or the other well, but not both. Most of the time the science part is what people master to the exclusion of art but I also see some mastering the art part to the exclusion of the scientific aspect. Neither work. You have to have mastery of both. In a way my upbringing, my family, were metaphorically a living example of what my current profession requires me to do.
JM: Who were your photographic influences, personally and professionally?
AB: First my parents, as I just explained. Then my teachers at the Beaux Arts, since again I do not differentiate between studying art and studying photography, and finally Scott McLeay who was my first photography teacher. I attended classes with him at the American Center in Paris from 1980 to 1983. He was a fantastic teacher, and I find it often quite uncanny how my own experience as a professional photographer today mimics his own experience, in so far as the stories he was relating to us in his classes and during conversations. At the time, when I studied with him, these were enlightening stories. Now, they come back to me at times when specific incidents happen or specific situations develop and at these times I go back and remember what Scott told us and how accurate his assessment of what photography is as both a field of expression and a business really were. I wish I could find his whereabouts today but I lost track of him and I can't seem to find the thread back to him. So if you are reading this and you know something about Scott McLeay email me: firstname.lastname@example.org .
JM: Do you wish to cite any photographic resources that speak to you?
AB: My website is a powerful resource in regards to what interests me today which is photography as an art form. I now publish several series of essays on photography as art, and in a sense they border on philosophy at times. It is interesting how I am returning to philosophy and also to rhetoric after a long time focusing on photography for photography's sake. Eventually my studies have become part of my art. They are merging. I was trying to achieve that through academia, merging my PhD studies with my photographic work, but realized I couldn't do it in an academic environment for several reasons, so I decided to stop that and do what I really wanted to do which was create images and make my income from photography. Eventually, it turned out that through that decision -to do exactly what I wanted- I was able to achieve my original goal. The moral? Do what you love. I tell people that all the time and they look at me like I'm insane. The fact is, I know exactly what I am talking about because I did just that and I have been extremely successful because of it, both in financial terms and in terms of doing exactly what I want with my art, be it writing, photography, teaching, and more.
Another resource which I think is fantastic is Luminous-landscape.com. I have worked with Michael Reichmann since 1998, I have seen his site grow over the years, and I think that what he has achieved with luminous-landscape is nothing less than remarkable. Michael gave me the idea for my first series of essays published on his site: “Photography and Aesthetics.” This is a 12 part series which is now completed, except for the final essay “Being an Artist in Business” which is proving to be extremely difficult to write, in part, I believe, because this is a subject that I am still working out in terms of my understanding of it. This month, in November 2005, I created a new multi-part series titled “Reflections on Photography as Art” which Michael will also publish on luminous-landscape and which will be announced in mid-December, when Michael returns from his photographic expedition to Antarctica.
Celestial Star Trails
JM: How were you educated photographically? I know you mention on your website the fact that you went to Michigan to get your PhD. However, it does not mention what you were going for or if you completed (or are still completing).
AB: I touched upon this above so I won't repeat what I already said. I had a lot of formal education. In fact, up to the end of my PhD studies, I had been a student for nearly my whole life. I never had a formal regular job, or any job that one could consider a career. I worked for my father in France, and did a few things for money here and there, and then worked as a teaching assistant, teaching English 101, photography, digital photography and technical writing, during my Master’s and PhD studies. In a sense teaching was my first real job, but it was so close to studying, I was paid so little for it, and I enjoyed it so much that I have a hard time thinking of it as work. So, in a sense, it is when I decided to make a living as a photographer that I got my first job. And then I was the boss. So maybe, I never really was an employee. I'd like to think of it that way. It makes me feel better. I fare quite poorly as an employee, so thinking that I may never have been one for real makes me feel quite good.
But I digress. Let's go back to education. So what I was saying is that I have been a student all my life up to when I ended my PhD studies. After High School in France, or the equivalent of High School which in France is called the Lycee, I went to a private art school - The Atelier Baudry, located at Rue D'Enfer in Paris- to prepare for the entrance exam for the Beaux Arts. Having passed this exam, which consists solely of painting and drawing tests, over several days, I attended the Beaux Arts. After graduating I studied photography with Scott McLeay, then traveled in Europe and the United states extensively, for up to 6 months at a time. I made my first visit to the US in 83, traveling throughout the West for 6 months.
In fact that is what got me hooked, so much so that I came back in 86 as a student. I applied to, was accepted, and attended Northern Arizona University (NAU) in Flagstaff. At first I was enrolled as a photography major, but I soon realized that I preferred to learn landscape photography in the field and changed my major to Journalism. After a year, I realized journalism didn't have a substantial theoretical component, and since I didn't want to become an active journalist, the practical part of it did not interest me. So I thought "what could be the most challenging major I could choose?" and I decided it had to be English since excelling in a language that is not your native language is very difficult. So I transferred my major to English and graduated with a BA in English in 1990. I immediately followed up with a Masters in Rhetoric.
There is a lot of confusion about what rhetoric really is, so just to set the record straight rhetoric is the study of language from the perspective of motives. Aristotle defined it as the art of language, and in Greece, at his time, rhetoricians were also philosophers. So rhetoric and philosophy have a lot in common, but I like rhetoric better because it is, in a sense, the practical application of philosophy. It is focused on the study of motives -why we say what we say- and can be applied to any form of language, not just verbal, but also musical or visual. As such, it can be applied to the study of photography as a form of visual rhetoric.
After getting my Masters I went on to apply to a PhD program, and what I just described is exactly what I proposed in my letter of intent. I was accepted at Michigan Technological University (MTU), in Houghton, in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, also called the Copper Country or the Keweenaw Peninsula. It was the only university at the time that offered a PhD program in Visual Communication.
My emphasis was on landscape photography as visual rhetoric. I actually had to make the point to the chair of my PhD committee that visual rhetoric is a reality so that they would agree that this is what I was going to study in their program. You would have thought that since they accepted me on the basis that I was going to study visual rhetoric they would know what it is! Fact is, they had no idea what visual rhetoric was. That should have sent a signal that something was amuck, but at the time I just thought it was glorifying that I had to explain something to the Chair of my PhD committee, that I knew something that he didn’t know or didn’t understand.
At the time I saw this as a positive event while in fact they were quite doubtful of the validity of the whole concept. Just as an aside, in the same department, a second member of my PhD committee was teaching French Postmodern Theory using texts she not only had never read before, and was actually reading during the class as she was teaching, but also texts that she actually admitted not understanding at all, and admitting this in the classroom on top of it! That was the measure of it. I had read the same texts several times before as a master's student, in the original version, and felt very confident about my understanding of them. By attending this specific class at MTU I expected to further my understanding. In fact, I ended up explaining these texts to the "teacher"! The fact is, when it comes to assessing the two different universities I studied in, NAU and MTU, that NAU was head and shoulders above MTU, even though I was a Bachelor and a Master student at NAU and a PhD candidate at MTU. The fact a PhD is more work than a Masters is not an accurate gauge of the quality of a university program. If I had to make a comment about MTU today, in regards to the Rhetoric & Communications Department, I'd say they didn't know what the heck they were doing!
In fact, when I try to think of who in the MTU faculty had a lasting influence on me, I can hardly think of anyone. Certainly, when I was there, they had an importance. They were running my ass around! But now that this is over, I am unable to say that I think of them as those who helped me make breakthroughs in my thinking, or helped me along on my way.
The only person I can think of as having had a lasting influence is Joe Kirkish. Joe was the previous Photography professor at MTU. When I came in he had just retired, and I took up his job, so to speak, except I got the pay of a Teaching assistant, which is virtually nothing, had to teach English 101 on top of teaching photography 101 and running the darkroom, and had to complete all the requirements for my PhD program, which involved taking 3 PhD level classes per semester and completing all the requirements towards the PhD, which are many such as forming a committee, writing a detailed program of study, taking written and oral exams, presenting papers at conferences, meeting with my committee, and much more that I either forgot or repressed. Anyway, Joe was still working as a photographer, and I visited him several times at his house that was nearby. He was selling his work at shows around Michigan and particularly the Upper Peninsula since this is where he lived. Joe was an interesting example of someone who had gone through an academic career, had retired, and still pursued his passion for the arts and for photography. Somehow, academia had not rooted this passion out of him as it does for so many others. I was so busy back then that I didn’t have time to really look at how and why this happened in depth, but I did understand that he never quite merged with the academic community. In fact, as a photographer, he probably was not perceived as a full-fledged academic. For that, you have to do research. All what Joe was doing was create photographs, run the darkroom (which was a complete mess when I got there) and teach photography. He was focused on the practical aspect of things, not on the theoretical. He’s still around, I think he’s about 80 years old now, so he also managed not to die of a heart attack or of some other disease induced by a lifestyle were research comes first and health second, an occurrence which is quite common in academia, that and alcoholism which is rampant, at least at the time I was there, in Humanities departments, especially in English departments, and that across the country.
Notice how in all of my studies I managed to live in some of the most photogenic and beautiful locations in the world: Paris, The Grand Canyon, the Colorado Plateau (Flagstaff is 75 miles away from the Grand Canyon and is located on the Colorado Plateau, which is why I chose to study there in fact), the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, and later (we'll come to that later on I am sure) Navajoland. It doesn't get any better than that and it sure made my life a lot more enjoyable both in terms of where I lived and in terms of photography.
So, anyway, I moved on to doing a PhD. My goal was to merge my studies with my love of photography. I thought this was my last chance to do so. But, as it turned out, that didn’t work. I realized after 3 years of PhD studies that it was either academia or photography, but not both. At least not both in the sense of being both an academic and a professional photographer. I was either going to become a great academic or a great photographer, but not at the same time. And the way things were going, it was clear that academia was taking over big time. So I made a choice, moved back to Arizona and started a photography business. In retrospect that was the best decision I could have ever made.
JM: This may seem like a silly question, but do you feel that having grown up in Europe that you have a different perspective on your photography than if you had grown up here in the US?
AB: Yes, in the sense that studying the arts, and developing an appreciation for the arts, is a lot more common in France than in the US. In the US some schools don't even have an art program at all. Also, US cities don't always have a budget for purchasing art. In Paris, you find art in the streets, just about anywhere you go. Just about every city in France has some form of public art. It is usually sculptures, but it also extends to architecture, public concerts, theater plays, festivals, and more. Art is part of life. It's not something you find only in museums, or something that one focuses on after reaching a certain income level. Art isn't associated with income as much as it is in the US because having access to art is a lot easier and in many instances it is free. So yes, I think it made me who I am really, by having contact with art since as far as I can remember, and also by being able to create art without having to worry about making money from art.
JM: What motivates you in your photographic work? What are you looking for in your photography?
AB: Beauty, and more specifically natural beauty. Beauty in nature, in the trees, the rocks, the sand, the canyons, the skies. Beauty above me and under me. Beauty all around me as the Navajos sing in the Beauty Way Ceremony.
JM: What do you think makes your work distinctly different from others covering the same areas?
AB: Well, I am Alain Briot ;- ) People smirk when I answer this question that way (I have been asked several times before). They mistake confidence for arrogance. I am very confident. But really, I think that yes, what makes me unique is myself, who I am. How could it be anything else?
So, to answer your question more precisely, let me give you some specifics about who I am. In short, I am an artist first and foremost. I made this point already, several times, because it is crucial to me. So yes, that is what differentiates me from many other photographers. I see myself as an Artist who currently uses photography as his medium. I also see myself as a student of photography. Again, people smirk when I say that. I had one of my students say, when I told him that I was a student of photography, "but I thought you knew everything already!" Well, no, no one ever knows everything. In fact, very often the more you know the more you realize how much more there is to know and how little you really know. This is where I am, and this is one of the subjects that is at the center of the essays I write, especially my latest series "Reflections on Photography and Art." I reflect on photography in order to learn more about it. Certainly, I know a lot about it, and this is what allows me to engage in these reflections. But I want to know more, and by reflecting I am creating new knowledge. So this is another thing that makes me very different, my interest in photography as a field of knowledge, as a field that isn't understood very well yet.
My writings are certainly something that sets me apart, especially because I do not write only about photographic technique. I also write extensively about the artistic aspect of photography, and now about the philosophical and rhetorical aspects as well. In my eyes, the only author who engaged in the kind of reflections I engage in is Roland Barthes. But he was doing it from the perspective of semiotics, the study of signs. He was looking for signs in photographs, among other things, and how these signs informed the meaning of the photographs he was looking at. Barthes was not a professional photographer. He was a student of language using semiotics as his approach. He was also an art critique. I am a student of language using rhetoric as my approach. I am also a working photographer, deriving 100% of my income, a very good income from photography. So this places me in a different position, the position of a practitioner who reflects on his own field, and a practitioner professionally trained to be a critical thinker with a vast knowledge of critical, philosophical and rhetorical theory.
My knowledge comes from both formal studies up to the PhD level and second from actually practicing the profession that I am talking about, not just learning about it in books or through conversations with photographers. There is no substitute for real-world experience. And there are very few people out there making the kind of income I am making from the sale of fine art prints. Finally, to my knowledge there is nobody doing that and looking at photography from a critical and rhetorical perspective. So in that sense, I am unique, and I don't think I have much to worry about in terms of competition. If you think I'm being pretentious let me ask you this question: have you read Kenneth Burke? Or, have you ever heard of Kenneth Burke. Hardly anyone has, and yet he is arguably one of the most important, if not the most important American Rhetoricians.
As an aside, I want to add that I love critical thinking, critical theory, philosophy and rhetoric. I had excellent teachers, such as Tilly Warnock who now teaches at University of Arizona in Tucson, or Victor Villanueva who now teaches at Washington State University. Both taught at NAU when I was studying for my Masters. But, in and out of themselves, these fields are, to me, utterly boring. I need to apply them to a real-world situation, to an activity that I can do with my hands for creative reasons. I need a looking glass, if you will, to implement them, and this looking glass is landscape photography. It works for me in this sense. It provides me with all the material I need for a long and valuable reflection. Plus, since I am not affiliated with any university or other academic organization, I don't need to cater to any of the concerns that academics have. I can just do my own thing, write what I believe in, and share the exact outcome of my reflections.
You may ask "Why photography?" Why not politics, or social studies, or some other occupation that involves people, power and the pursuit of happiness? My answer is that it is photography because it is first an art, and art is at the center of my life, and second because it is the one art that is the most popular at this time in the history of the world, at least in the Western world. It is also the art form that I practice primarily. The fact that a lot of people don't see it as art doesn't matter. What matters is that they are using photography as the way, and usually the only way, to depict the world, their world. And when it comes to landscape photography, and more specifically to the students that attend my workshops, to the other photographers I work with, and to the people that collect my work, I believe that what they do is embrace photography as a form of personal expression, as a release from the pressures of today's world, and as an art. The fact they often say "I don't do art" in one way or another, doesn't mean they don't. They do. What it means is they don't want to get into that, they don't want to become overly serious about it or get involved in conversations about what is art and what isn't. But the fact is that they are artistes. And to me that is all that matters. The fact that art has a bad name is certainly part of the reason why they say it's not art, but that is another discussion altogether.
You also asked what is different in my work from others covering the same areas. I think one thing, which is very different, is again that I have had a unique experience with this landscape, either the American West, or the Upper Peninsula, or other. This different experience is that I lived for years in each of the locations that I photographed so far. I lived 3 years -three 20-below-zero winters!- in the Upper Peninsula, and 7 years in Navajoland. That's living there 365 days a year, not just part time. In fact, I spent a total of 18 years in Arizona, with up to 90 days a year at the Grand Canyon, in the park, not just around but also along the rim, during certain years. I am one of the very few Parisians (sic.) to have lived in Navajoland -in Chinle, at the mouth of Canyon de Chelly to be precise- for 7 years. Although we now live in the Sonoran Desert, we have never quite left Navajoland. There comes a time when you live there when you make this decision, and it is a conscious decision, that you'd rather stay there, good and bad, than leave. We left physically because we wanted our own house (you can't own a house, or land, as a Belagana [white person] on Navajoland) and because running a business, especially one that does well, is nearly impossible on the reservation.
In fact, you are not even supposed to have a business as a Belagana! But this put aside, we really came onto our own on Navajoland, and in a sense this is what made us what we are today. As individuals, we were shaped by Navajoland and by its people. As a photographer, there is no doubt that my work was shaped by Navajoland as well. The two -who I am and the images I create- are inseparable. One shapes the other and vice versa. So, to answer your question, I think that looking at my work, at my Navajoland portfolio for example- one should be able to say that this is the work of someone that didn't just travel there for a couple of weeks or month. Now that is not for me to say, that is for my audience. Here is the link so you can see the portfolio for yourself: http://beautiful-landscape.com/Print-Museum-Collection-1.html
JM: When did you decide to take your work professionally? Were there periods where you debated stopping and doing something else?
AB: I had an epiphany three years into my PhD studies, which I talked about earlier on. At that time, as I previously explained, I was overworked, underpaid and not very happy with the situation I was in. I drove a beater, lived in a run down house that I rented with Natalie, my wife, was deeply in debt, and didn’t see a way out of this situation. So I went to see one of the members of my PhD committee, which I knew was very open to discussing his personal and professional life. I told him what I was going through, and explained that I thought it was worth it since things would get better once I received my PhD and got a job as a full-time professor. I expected that once I got a full time job I would be working less and be getting paid well.
His response stunned me: “No it won’t be less work, it will be more work.” “What do you mean I asked?” ‘Well, once you are hired as a professor, you’ll have to teach classes just like you do now, and you’ll have to continue studying –post doctorate studies for example- and on top of that you’ll have committee work, with a minimum of 3 committees and usually more, you’ll have your students and graduate students so you’ll have to be on PhD committees as well, and you’ll have to do all you need to do to get tenure, meaning presenting papers at conferences writing essays, being published etc. because if you fail at your tenure, which you have to get within a defined period of time, you don’t really have a second chance and you are basically out of a job.” So I said, “well, at least I’ll make more money. How much do you make?” I can’t remember what his exact answer was, but it was around 35K a year.
I think I pretty much made up my mind, right there and then, when I heard his answers, to cross out academia as a field of endeavor. The workload was ridiculous and would have left me with hardly any time for photography, which was a serious problem, and the pay simply wasn’t ok at all. I expected 100k or more, not 40k, as salary after a lifetime of study. In fact, once I started my photography business, I started making a six-figure income after a few years. I had a very fast rise in terms of income, something which is not typical, but I proved the point that I could easily out do an academic income within a short time.
I remember Victor Villanueva telling me, while I worked on my Masters degree, for which he was my advisor, “ years from now I will still be a f*****g academic and you will be making money.” At the time I thought it was a strange statement, essentially because I imagined myself becoming an academic. Today, I see it as a prophecy, because he is still an academic and I am making money. So he was right. He could see something then that I couldn’t see and I commend him for that. This is the mark of a great teacher: to see where students are headed even though they are convinced they are not going in this direction themselves. It is called vision, and we could use a whole lot more of it!
What my understanding was, when I decided to stop my PhD studies, was that anything I would do and do well was going to be a lot of work. So, this being the case, I realized that I might as well do exactly what I liked. It would be a lot of work, and I may not be sure of the outcome, but at least I would have the satisfaction of doing something I really wanted to do. It is this simple understanding and decision that are at the beginning of everything I have done in photography and in my life since 1995, the year I left MTU. And it is this very understanding that continues to shape my decisions in regards to what I decide to do and not do today. If I don’t really love doing something, then I don’t do it. Some people see this kind of approach as being a luxury. They think I am in a privileged position where I can pick and choose. They don’t realize that if I am in a privileged position it is because I placed myself in this position and that I took significant chances in doing so.
In my view, this approach is what makes me successful, and I have plenty of evidence to prove that it does. Some do things because they think it will make them successful. I do things because I love doing them and this in turn makes me successful. Some think this is over simplistic, that there is more to it than that. But when you really sit down and think about my approach you realize that there is really no reason why it wouldn’t be so because when you do something you truly love, something that you really want to succeed at because it matters to you immensely, you give it all you have. You work at it because you want to, not because you have to. And it is this approach that makes you successful: hard work, passion and never ever quitting. And you can only have this approach when you do something you truly care about, something you have a personal stake in. So I recommend my approach to anyone who is wondering what to do. Find what you truly love, what you really want to do, whatever that might be, and do it. And if you do it the way I do, which is to give it all you have, and to do it as a passion, I really don’t see how you can fail. In fact, I think you’ll be quite surprised at the outcome.
The only thing that worked in my favor and that I couldn’t control was that when I started I had a very low income. I was making about $500 a month in 1995 as a graduate teaching assistant (GTA). So, as soon as I started selling my work, my income went up. A couple of sales and I had $500 in my pocket, and soon a whole lot more than that. And even when you deduce expenses and the cost of creating the work, you still have a very significant profit margin because photographs are not very expensive to create. What is expensive is the equipment. The paper, the inks, even the frames and framing supplies, are quite affordable.
Of course, if I had made a good income in my previous job, it would have been harder and taken longer to make more money. And I think this is the situation people refer to when they say I am privileged. They think how much money they would lose if they quit their job today and tried to make a living in photography. I was only looking at how much more money I would make. In fact, I set a very realistic goal, which was to make the same amount I was earning as a GTA: $500 per month. So I divided 500 by 30, the number of days in a month, and got $20 per day, which is actually slightly more than the actual math, and I set out each day to make $20 from the sale of my work. And if one day I made $100, that meant it was OK to make nothing for 5 days since I had made 5 days income in one day. Soon enough I was making way more than $500 a month, and soon enough I saw the potential for a much better income than the one I was making as a GTA. So, to conclude, if you make a lot of money you are going to have to set new income goals, goals you can reach relatively quickly, or you will get discouraged and most likely quit. You may also want to put aside a cash reserve so you can maintain your current lifestyle while you are earning a lower income and building your business.
JM: How does the photography that you do impact your choice in gear? I know you use multiple formats.
Basically, I believe that first, each format has unique capabilities. Second, I consider the size of the final prints I want to make when I decide which camera to use. Small prints means 35mm digital. Large prints, 16x20 and above, mean 4x5. Now this implies that I am aware of what size I want to print specific images while I am working in the field. Most photographers prefer to wait until they return to their studio to make a call about print size. But what you need to understand is that my approach is the approach that painters follow. For a painter, the size of the painting is decided before you start painting because the painting cannot be resized.
To me, that is the correct approach for any visual art, including photography. Why? Because some subjects ask to be printed large, and some subjects call to be printed small. You see, print size is not just a matter of resolution or camera format. It is also, and foremost, a matter of subject matter. You have to take into consideration what your subject calls for in terms of print size. And if the subject calls for a small print, then there is no point using 4x5. Similarly, if your subject calls for a large print, there is no point trying to enlarge a 35mm file beyond what is a reasonable enlargement, which is about one print size above native resolution. You are much better shooting the image with 4x5 and getting much better detail and resolution to begin with.
This is my approach, and it is an aspect of my work that people have a difficult time fully understanding. There is a myth in photography that once you go up to a certain format, and this format in my situation is 4x5, you cannot go down to a smaller format, or if you do it means you are no longer a professional, or you are turning to the dark side, or you are lowering your standards. The fact is that there are different tools -different cameras- for different jobs, and a true professional knows exactly which tools, which cameras, to use in each situation. So to me using different camera formats is the mark of a professional, the mark of someone who is thinking on his feet, in the field, all the way to the final print.
JM: Can you talk about what your photographic day looks like? How does your family fit into it?
AB: Since I work with Natalie my family and my business are very close. I have a very specific schedule that I adhere to, but I get to set my own hours, which is very nice. I don't know that there is a typical day, but we usually start by discussing how things are going and what we need to do for the day, then move on to doing just that. We take phone calls and receive orders. If we have a show scheduled for that day, or for several days, then we either do the show together or only one of us does the show while the other tends to other matters. During workshops, we both teach together so in this sense we are always traveling together. It is the same when I photograph, something which occupies a very important part of my schedule, and during which I always work with Natalie. It's always the two of us. I used to photograph a lot by myself, but I no longer enjoy it. I just get lonely. I like to have someone with me to share the experience!
JM: How do you feel about the evolution of digital photography?
AB: I think digital made me successful, and I think it continues to make me successful. So I expect a lot from the evolution of digital photography. I think this is the last form of photographic recording we will see in our lifetime. We had film, now we have digital. We won’t see a third method of recording photographic images in our lifetime. In fact, there may not be a third form, at least not in terms of images on paper. Analog or digital, that’s it. I am in the process of writing an essay that details this change. Look for it on my website when it is published which should be in Spring 2006.
If you are interested in learning more about Alain Briot, you can visit: beautiful-landscape.com.
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