The Lounge: Thomas Broening

by Heather on March 8, 2010

Truth be told, I don’t keep up with a lot of photographer’s blogs. For that matter, I hardly have time to read any blogs at all. But, when I do have time, I enjoy checking in with Thomas Broening.

When I started reading Thomas’ blog, it was way back in 2008 when he was in the middle of a project called CTWWWTB (Closer To Where We Want To Be). He used his blog as a place to work out his new ideas and show his photographic “studies”. About the project, Thomas wrote:

I learned a lot while working on CTWWWTB. I learned how I wanted to deal with space within the frame, what kind of light and color I am interested in and the emotion I want to communicate. Now all that is left to decide is what to shoot.

Throughout this time, I found it fascinating to watch his process. For example, Thomas would find something and try it out:

© Thomas Broening

© Thomas Broening

I drove around the island and came across this giant eagle in a case. Shot it like crazy until I found this angle. I wanted it to look like a snap shot. Everything I had shot of it up to that point made it look like I a was trying too hard. I may have come to it too late in the morning. The light is perfect for 15 minutes before sunrise and then most of the time it all falls apart. Milton Berle used to smoke five packs of cigarettes a day. He was a chain smoker but only liked the first couple puffs and then he would throw the cigarette away and light another one. Sometimes I feel that way:only using the best light and throwing the rest of the day away.

Not quite satisfied, Thomas returned to the bird in the case:

© Thomas Broening

© Thomas Broening

I went back and reshot this bird. The first time I shot it-it looked good in black and white but kind of fell apart in color. Still not sure if I have it. And so he goes back:

© Thomas Broening

© Thomas Broening

I went back a third time this weekend unable to let go of the idea that there is a picture here. 8×10 this time.

This kind of determined mastery is wonderful to share and now that film seems to be making a comeback, Thomas’ 8×10 images look more beautiful than ever.

Let’s look at some of his traditional environmental work:

© Thomas Broening

© Thomas Broening

© Thomas Broening

© Thomas Broening

© Thomas Broening

© Thomas Broening

© Thomas Broening

© Thomas Broening

© Thomas Broening

© Thomas Broening

© Thomas Broening

© Thomas Broening

© Thomas Broening

© Thomas Broening

So about a month ago I got an email from Thomas asking for some advice on his career:

For the past decade I have been known as a people location photographer. In the last year I have been shooting a lot of still life and am having a ton of fun working on it.

There are a handful of people who are known nationally for being able to do more than one thing and wonder why that is. How hard is it to be known for a different kind of imagery? Am I damaging the brand I have created by showing work that is not people centered? Thanks in advance.

Let’s start by looking at his still life. I have dreams about a big print of this first one hanging in my living room:

© Thomas Broening

© Thomas Broening

© Thomas Broening

© Thomas Broening

© Thomas Broening

© Thomas Broening

© Thomas Broening

© Thomas Broening

© Thomas Broening

© Thomas Broening

© Thomas Broening

© Thomas Broening

© Thomas Broening

© Thomas Broening

So, as far as I’m concerned, there are two separate questions in here, one is about showing different imagery and the other is about the photographer’s brand. I addressed the first issue about two months ago when asked whether photographers should change genre’s. To read that post and look at some examples of shooters who do show mixed-genre work, go here. In short, if both bodies of work are done well, it’s not going to damage the brand, because ultimately, it’s all about the imagery. I think these still life shots are stunning and it would never occur to me to discount them on the basis of “but Thomas shoots people, not stacks of paper…” However, packaging yourself as someone who shoots two different genres has some additional complexity.

Damage the brand? No. Change the brand? Yes.

In recent discussions I had with a photography team we realized together that one of their “stories” is that they are two shooters with abilities across a bunch of genres- they do both conservative lifestyle and high key still life really well. Rather than picking one, this multiplicity became a big part of their marketing plan from a content and message standpoint. In their case, a bigger package (two shooters) really does equal a bigger variety of work. And so the story they’ve began to tell about themselves is that they do a bunch of stuff really well. And their work backs up this assertion.

In Thomas’ case, his work is actually very consistent. From a style perspective, though the content and the genre is different, the things that Thomas valued in his CTWWWTB series are still crucial to making this still life work so strong. That mission statement identified three things Thomas was interested in working out:

1. Space within the frame.
2. Light and colour.
3. Emotion.

Although the subject matter of his still life shots is different than Thomas’ environmental work (in Thomas’ best work it might only partly be a difference of scale- still life in studio vs. still life in the environment), I would argue that, judging by the above list (number three might be a bit tenuous… nonetheless…), he is bringing a consistent approach to both genres. So… good news, you can present both bodies of work under one consistent story- you are a shooter who does work that is very highly composed and carefully crafted, lit, and controlled.

But, you need to be really conscious about the way you sell this story. It needs to be balanced and confident, no apologies for the new direction. The images need to be integrated in a way that makes sense and supports the overall message of you as a certain type of image maker. Certainly there are different considerations in pagination, website design and promotion when you are selling yourself as a multi-genre photographer- but again, the strength of the images is the most important thing.

But why? I asked Thomas about this interest in still life:

I have been shooting since I was in high school and have always been drawn to a variety of subject matter. I started off as a photojournalist then shot portraits for national magazines which evolved into bigger campaigns for ad agencies. During the latest down turn I wanted to create a body of work that I could shoot close to home so I converted my office into a tiny daylight studio. For the last year I have been shooting a series of still lifes on 8×10 film. I really enjoy the process because I find if very cerebral and unlike shooting people it is something I can come back to over and over again until I get the result that I want . I have started to get small commercial jobs already and they have been fun to work on. I have been promoting this still life work in Archive magazine, direct mail pieces and email blasts. At the same time I continue to shoot and promote the work I am better known for.

I may be biased in favour of the work I saw develop on Thomas’ site, which makes up most of what I’ve shared with you above. If we are talking about aspirational commercial applications, I prefer this work to some of the older commercial work on Thomas’ site. So too with the still life. We are surely edging into personal preferences here but I would encourage Thomas to keep exploring “the result that he wants”. Some photographers don’t have the patience or the interest to go back and back until that result is right. But when someone takes that care, well, the results are just that- right.

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

jacob snavely March 8, 2010 at 12:43 pm

Great insight Heather.
Great work Thomas.
Keep pushing…. It certainly more inspirational to keep focus on the work and not on labels.

t.scott carlisle March 8, 2010 at 2:36 pm

Very thoughtful post. I like how it really fleshed-out he idea of doing different kinds of work.

Brad Wenner March 8, 2010 at 5:25 pm

I have also been following Thomas’ blog and have enjoyed seeing these images and his process over time. I started a similar project last year – I had just moved cross country, things were slow, and a broken hand was keeping me from doing the location portraits my portfolio was mostly made up of. I wanted to see if I could take the stylistic & lighting choices I made for portraits and apply them to other subject matter, and it ended up being a lot of fun and I have gotten great feedback on the work. The process of making a still image in the studio is definitely different in a good way, “cerebral” is a good word.

Denis Mortell March 9, 2010 at 4:18 am

Broening’s work is glorious and thank you for bringing it to my attention.

Of the three images of the eagle in a glass case (how surreal is that!?), in the first (which looks like a Polaroid) he appears to have used a wider lens. The added depth that this gives makes it the most successful from my point of view. It breathes more easily.

Denis

Tricia March 9, 2010 at 2:47 pm

Kudos to Thomas for expanding his vision and brand. As you stated, it can’t be wrong to push yourself to do something new, while keeping it consistent with your vision. In a time when many photographers have been panic stricken by the failing economy, it’s great to see someone moving forward with this change in mind. This is actually being put to use quite frequently these days. Food magazines hiring photographers that traditionally shoot people, ad agencies hiring fine art photographers for commercial work, there are no limits.

Photographers should always be evolving. This will keep them working in both good times and difficult times.

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