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Brian Ziff is a musician-turned-fashion photographer living in Los Angeles, California. With each shot, he seeks to tell a story and convey a narrative that goes beyond the photograph, opening your mind to a world he has constructed for you. Ziff embraces the intertwined future of photography and digital manipulation, and has recently combined his multiple interests into a single form of expression, incorporating music, photography and animation into one stunning project. Born into an era of technological revolution, Ziff represents a new breed of photographer, and luckily, he agreed to share his thoughts with us.
b.b: When did you pick up a camera as a photographer for the first time?
BZ: I first started doing my own photography about six years ago after being a retoucher for a while, but I never took it particularly seriously until about two years ago.
b.b: How did your experience as a retoucher help you avoid the mistakes you often saw in others’ work?
BZ: I’m not sure that it did. If anything, I was probably relying too heavily on my ability to create a concept entirely in post-production when I should have been focusing on initial concept and feel, and how the technical side of photography and lighting feeds the result. Being able to do whatever I want in Photoshop is a crutch I’m trying to lean on less and less as time goes by.
b.b: As someone who believes in creating a moment rather than capturing one, what do you think is the future of photography as a medium?
BZ: Photography has gone through a vast democratization process. The role of a photographer as a documentarian has sort of shifted by grace of the fact that everybody has a Smartphone and as such, is actively and constantly capturing moments as they happen. I’ve never been able to get into that. I don’t carry a camera with me anywhere, and I don’t really take pictures of friends or family with my phone. Somehow, I feel that it cheapens the experience of a thing to rely on a camera to remember it. My recollection of an event is somehow visceral before I see a photo of it. Obviously, when shooting, you’re always looking to capture a moment, but from my vantage point, I’m looking for a moment that best encapsulates the story I’m trying to tell. I’d like to think that the future of photography, due to the omnipresence of cameras in every pocket, is to convey a fantasy—to use photography to visualize a message or a feeling. I’m sure you’d get the opposite answer if you were to ask a representative of a tech company, who would tell you that the future of photography is to record everything all the time. I see the dichotomy play out at every shoot, insomuch as while I’m shooting, every team member is doing their own version on their iPhone. I find it perverse. The models must feel completely assaulted.
b.b: In your mind, does every shot you take tell a story? Do you take that into consideration when creating compositions?
BZ: Absolutely. Even if the story is just for my benefit, it always dictates the direction of a photo. I create more content than is necessary for every shoot—elaborate stories, poetry, music—the shot has to fit within the framework of the narrative.
b.b: Would you describe your creative process as being more intuition or logic based? To what degree are your “heart” and mind each responsible for your work?
BZ: I think there are brief moments of pure creativity in my process—when I first conceive of an idea and for short flashes during shoots, but for the most part, figuring out how to execute an idea from a practical standpoint occupies the majority of my time. Ideally, when things are well planned, you can leave adequate room for surprises and spontaneity. Hopefully, as time goes by, my head will have to spend considerably less time cleaning up messes that my heart makes.
b.b: Growing up in an environment that did not encourage creativity, how did you find yourself?
BZ: Shedding the construct of who you’re expected to be and realizing that you’ve been indoctrinated from birth with external notions of what is a correct and incorrect way to approach life is, in my opinion, the most telling signifier of adulthood. When I dropped out of school to pursue music, I made a conscious decision that I’d rather be a disappointment to my family than to myself. I don’t purport to have found myself, but I make stuff for a living and that seems like a huge win thus far.
b.b: A music career, as you mentioned, was your original ambition. Is Vespertine, your band, taking a backseat as your love of fashion photography continues to grow?
BZ: I guess it is. It’s not something I really planned for, but having seen up the proverbial skirt of the music industry, I think I’m pretty turned off by it. I still love music immensely, and getting to make it without the added pressure of requiring it to feed and house me is a bit of a relief. Getting to combine music and photography is really exciting to me though, and all of the things that I thought had to be mutually exclusive are really starting to meld together and make for a richer experience. That being said, I have an album written and half produced that I’ve been dying to finish and release. Maybe I’ll take a few months off and focus solely on that soon.
b.b: Now for some fun questions. If you were guaranteed 100 percent funding to follow your wildest artistic dreams, what would you want to do?
BZ: Everything I’m doing now but on a much bigger scale. Getting to work on personal projects without the need to focus 90% of my effort into paid jobs is my wildest artistic dream.
b.b: If you could live anywhere in the world, what would your first choice be?
BZ: Getting to live in Los Angeles is nice because the weather is always and interminably decent and it is, as far as I’ve experienced, the single most utilitarian city in the world. Also, all my stuff is here. That being said, I wish I could live everywhere. Two weeks at a time, soaking up flavors, textures, sounds, smells, cultures, languages—if it were financially feasible, I’d never stop traveling. I always get the same thing at a specific restaurant. If I want something different, I’ll go to the restaurant that has the specific thing I want. Applying the same principal to where I live would be amazing.
b.b: What is a hobby or skill you have always wanted to pursue, but have never found the time to do so?
BZ: I’ve always wanted to play the cello. Not sure if I’ll ever find the time now, but I think it’s one of the most haunting, soul-piercing sounds in existence. My hobbies always become my job, so I have to tread carefully when acquiring a new skill. Sort of a “find what you love and let it kill you” type of thing.
b.b: Was being heavily synesthetic a major obstacle when you first began as a fashion photographer (synesthesia, dear reader, is a linking of the senses [usually just two]. You might smell chocolate when you see the moon, or taste strawberries when you hear the violin. For Brian, his thoughts and visual concepts are coupled with music)?
BZ: For the most part, it was a huge help. I could always rely on other forms of media to dictate precisely how an image should look. The only part that was tricky was the inclusion of color, which is a binary correct or incorrect issue for me.
b.b: As a college dropout who has certainly found success, what are your thoughts on formal education?
I think that people learn in vastly different ways. For the most part, I learn best by figuring things out on my own, but I was absolutely studying the wrong things in university. As it pertains to me, in what I do currently, I would have loved to go to art school. Even if I disagreed with almost everything I was taught, at the very least I would have been afforded the opportunity to expose myself to all the technical aspects of my craft at an early age. I think education is extremely important, whether formal or otherwise. I’d prefer if my surgeon didn’t learn their trade by watching YouTube tutorials.
b.b: I know this question can be incredibly difficult and daunting, but what drives you to create? Does photography fill a void that threatens to consume you if not satiated?
BZ: I’m only happy when I’m making something. To call it a drive would seem like an oversimplification. It’s less something I’m compelled to do, and more the only thing that makes life bearable. Achieving a good balance between input and output makes everything feel visceral and purposeful.
b.b: Who is your biggest inspiration?
BZ: There are pieces of art so gut-wrenchingly beautiful that I feel at once both thrilled for the opportunity to experience it and humiliation for even daring to contribute any more mediocre noise to a world in which such pristine and unbridled genius can exist. Whoever is responsible for those moments are, at the time in which they’re happening, my biggest inspiration.
b.b: What are you currently working on?
BZ: I’m working towards a huge gallery idea that I’ve been keeping really close to my chest for a while now—it should be a culmination of everything that I’ve been working on all at once.
b.b: “Rite of Spring” for Schön! Magazine was a unique hybrid of music, photography, digital manipulation and animation – would you like to see yourself continue in that direction?
BZ: Absolutely. That project was something I had wanted to do for ages, but didn’t have the opportunity to execute until recently. It’s all I would be doing, if I could afford to do so.
b.b: How does knowing that a shot will be digitally manipulated affect your approach to a shoot?
BZ: From a technical standpoint, it affects how I light the shoot, but not much more than that. The more the shoot feels organic and inspiring for everyone involved, the better the result is, generally. A shit photo doesn’t become a great one in post, so the aim is always to take the best photos possible.
b.b: In your interview with Klassik magazine, you mentioned composing music as a means of deriving inspiration for a shoot. Could you go into a little more detail about that process?
BZ: I guess I use it as a cheat-sheet, but with synesthesia, the moment I think of an idea for a shoot, I immediately hear music. Recording the music will outline a clearly defined color palette, and cement the direction in my mind. I’ll then play the music during the shoot to assist with the mood, pacing and story. For me, they’re inseparable, and I can’t see the images outside the context of how they sound to me. If I can get to a point where all my images are accompanied by the corresponding soundtrack, I’ll be infinitely more fulfilled.
b.b: What do you want your viewer to feel when they view your work?
BZ: Whatever I feel, optimally—minus the crippling self-doubt.