CONVERSATION WITH BRIAN DAY
What is currently your favorite:
Work of Art: The Thankful Poor, by Henry Ossawa Tanner
Piece of Advice: Be on time, and be prepared." -- my Dad, as told to him by his former math teacher and "Red Tail" Tuskegee Airman, Lt. Col. Alexander Jefferson
What are you most looking forward to about the upcoming exhibition: Transitions?
Sharing my work in my hometown is not something that I take for granted, let alone being able to do so in such a beautiful and distinguished space as Galerie Camille alongside a talented friend and artist in Will. There is so much renewed creative energy and interest in the city, and it's nice to be a part of it in some way. I love the physical act of getting out and making photographs so much that what I do sometimes take for granted is seeing the images presented in a finished format, so I am very appreciative of the opportunity to share. After all of the decisions and preparation for the exhibition are complete, I'm looking forward to just enjoying this moment with family and friends, meeting and talking to new people and hopefully having the images resonate with others on some level.
How does your work fit into that concept?
Despite the fact that my work touches a few genres, the title is fitting because many of my images imply something that relates to the fleeting nature of time itself and our transience within it. Of course, perhaps more than most major American cities, Detroit is also a place in transition, very different even from the place I knew just five years ago, let alone from my childhood.
Was there an artist you admired that inspired you to be an artist yourself?
The photographs of Ansel Adams were the first to fascinate me as a kid because he seemed to be able to look around his environment, whether it was a mountain or a set of trees, and interpret it in such a way as to create something almost surreal, without following the trend of that time in pictorialism. He was articulate and eloquent about his love for the craft of photography, bolstered and enhanced by his love of music. And, no surprise; looking at an Ansel Adams print is so dramatic that one might call it a symphony of emotion. I'm not so interested in photographing rocks and trees per se, but the idea of taking something that might otherwise appear rather banal to the casual observer and not only recording it but interpreting it in a way that evokes emotion while also having some level of visual harmony was really the jumping off point for me, and it similarly complements my own love of music. I've also been inspired by the diverse work and longevity of Joel Meyerowitz, the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich, and the visual impact and storytelling techniques of Akira Kurosawa. Those are pretty high peaks to tumble off of, but they have contributed to some of my own creative inspiration over the years in many ways.
What themes do you tend to pursue in your work?
The most literal theme in my work is that the vast majority of my images are in black and white - although I've been transitioning toward more color as a means of pushing myself to think and interpret differently. In a world where video and dynamic media dominate everyone's attention, I also enjoy trying to defy the static nature of a photograph to catch those "pregnant" moments that maybe lead to an imaginary narrative that you have to play out on your own. Beyond that, however, I believe that, for all of us, time is both a friend and an enemy (a 'frienemy'?), from one minute to the next. Of course, while I can only be in the present moment, whether the genre is street, documentary, urban landscapes or conceptual, my work goes to themes of solitude, quiet chaos and fleeting intensity. There are specific literal elements like water, fog or clouds which tend to reappear across each genre, but I like to think that an undercurrent of optimism and fortitude is just under the surface of the images as well. What's been ironic to me is that I rarely set out deliberately to pursue those themes, and yet I've realized myself, perhaps within the last year or so, that they keep resurfacing inadvertently. All the more reason why it's interesting to put a collection of seemingly unrelated images together for a show; seeing them on the wall is kind of like hearing a recording of an oddly familiar voice and realizing, "whoa, hey wait, that odd dude is ME!"
Where are you finding inspiration for those themes these days?
Music is a constant source of inspiration, whether it's Kendrick Lamar or John Lee Hooker, that suits different compartments of my life. But, I have to confess to loving classical music most of all as the accompanying voice to a lot of my photography. Most recently I've been stuck on Dmitri Shostakovich, who observed and experienced plenty of adversity during his own time. Anyway, there's both gravitas and whimsy; slivers of optimism and joy, even among chaos - to be found in his work that is relatable. How do you make a photograph or series of photographs out of an interpretation of Shostakovich's Piano Concerto No. 2? Right now I have no idea, but it's an interesting creative problem to mull over, and whether I succeed or fail is irrelevant - I'm just excited and inspired to try, and we'll see what happens. Well, you may not see what happens, but I will. :)
Is there a single habit that you strongly believe contributes to your success as an artist?
As a photographer, the simplest habit I can think of is always having a camera of some sort handy. Unless you are a studio photographer by trade, it sharpens the eye and increases the chances of capturing something of interest. A number of my personal favorite images came as a result, not of having left the house with the intent of capturing a specific image, but of having my camera when a situation just happened to present itself at a moment when I was ready. Even if that camera is my iPhone and the photograph in that particular moment serves only as a sketch of something to pursue later, there's some creative validity to Garry Winogrands' habit of photographing things simply enough to see what they look like photographed.
How do you feel about the art market / scene in Detroit? Have you seen a shift in the last few years?
I should perhaps admit that I don't claim to be particularly well versed in the art world. That said, even as a layman I've observed that over the last few years we have gone from seeing a morbid curiosity in Detroit to thirst to be around the 313 story (which is most apparent to me by just looking at the explosion of street art around Detroit in the last 5 years - and yes, I think street art absolutely counts as art). I've personally seen a shift in inquiries for my own work, locally and abroad, from folks asking if I can sell them any photos from inside abandoned buildings to work that fits newer narratives of Detroit as the warts-and-all comeback city, or those which simply paint Detroit as the place where all the cool kids are. Whether there's any truth to my anecdote or not, there is a staggering amount of talent in and around Detroit. Whether all of the talent has been here all along or is the result of transplants into the city, it's awesome to see a resurgence in art venues exhibiting work from both new and established artists and in both individuals and forward thinking corporations willing to come out and support art. As a result of this positive transition, I've been exposed to artists such as Adnan Charara who not only creates and sells his own work but who takes an active role in supporting and contributing to the art community at large through his space at Galerie Camille. Other efforts such as Red Bull's House of Art represent a significant beacon in the local art scene, including the incubation of emerging artists that I think is a tremendous boost, hopefully indicative of a sustainable positive movement. Imagining a Detroit where art executives are leaving the high end New York art scene to come here and build on the rising momentum of the city? That's a pretty awesome seismic shift, and I hear it's actually happening.
Do you collect anything?
Aside from collecting socks that have lost their mate in the dryer, I have recently begun to collect original photographs. I purchased an Alex Webb print some months ago, and most recently I bought an original photo of Garry Winogrand staring into the camera while driving a wood paneled station wagon from the 1970's, taken by a friend and legendary Detroit photographer, Don Hudson. I'm also interested in the work of several painters, so my wife and I will need to have some negotiations around our available wall space.