Today we have an interview with photographer Brian Kosoff, whose work I have known since my earliest days working with B&W film. He is a member of www.apug.org, a forum dedicated to analogue processes and a community that helped me no end with my own journey. It is with great pleasure that I present his inspirational and highly distinctive work, along with the man and mind behind the images. Enjoy!
Q. Can you tell us a little about your background and how your move from commercial still life photography to black and white landscape work?
Like many photographers I came to photography in my teens, in my case at age 15. I grew up in Brooklyn, NY and for the most part photographed urban landscape, in a style very similar to my work today.
My high school had an excellent art program, and I spent as much time working on sculpture as I did photography. In my last semester of high school I entered an internship program where 4 days a week I’d intern at a business in a field of my choice, I chose to assist several NYC magazine and advertising photographers.
It was a very rewarding experience and it taught me a lot. It was clear this was going to be my chosen career so I enrolled at the School of Visual Arts in NY. I continued to assist other photographers on breaks and off days from school. In my case the assisting was a greater educational experience so in my second year, and to the horror of my parents, I dropped out of school and started assisting full time. I assisted many photographers, as full time and freelance, some of whom were quite notable.
At age 18 I had my first NY solo show, which got the attention of the NY Times who described my work as “formalist”, a term I had to look up but one that seemed to fit. By 19 while I was still assisting I started shooting for magazines, my first magazine assignment was for New York Magazine. At age 20 I shot my first national magazine cover and by age 21 I had a photo studio in Manhattan.
It was never my intention to become a studio photographer, I wanted to be an art photographer, but one has to make a living and photography was not a cheap medium to work in. But nevertheless I enjoyed the commercial work and was fortunate to do well in it. After 20 years of it I came to a point where I would not carry a camera or even produce photographs unless I was getting paid. This was not my original intention, so I decided to go west for a couple of weeks and shoot some landscapes. To say I was a fish out of water is not an understatement, the preparation and methods required were very different from that of studio work,
but I quickly learned the process of shooting landscape.
After more trips over the course of a few years I had a small landscape portfolio. My wife encouraged me to take my work to a local co-op gallery, which resulted in their giving me a show. To my surprise the show did extremely well and while the show was ongoing I brought my portfolio to several galleries in NYC. In the first week I had offers of representation.
After a few years of selling prints, and now through quite a few galleries, I closed my NYC studio and switched solely to my personal work. I have not done an assignment in 14 years.
Regarding my preference for B&W, I like the hand made aspect of it, but what I really like is that B&W strips down an image to it’s most basic elements, light, composition and form.
Q. How do you feel the skills and experience built up as a still life photographer has shaped your approach to landscape work? The two would seem to be quite separate, but you are not a typical landscape photographer!
I didn’t start my commercial career in still life, I shot whatever assignments I could get, fashion, beauty, illustration (people in scenes and situations) and still life. I liked the glamour of fashion and beauty photography but I didn’t like that area of the business as much and I was getting still life work more and more, to the extent where my portfolio was becoming a still life portfolio.
While my work today has very clear roots in the work I did in my teens, having spent almost 25 years, and producing thousands of assignments, most of which were still life has had a clear affect on my landscape.
It’s funny, and maybe other photographers have had a similar experience, but when you hang that first show and a large group of your work is visible all at once your patterns and style become obvious. What struck me about that first show, after a 25 years hiatus from exhibiting, was that I had a very strong tendency to center the subject in the frame, and in my composition to be quite minimal. This is possibly the influence of shooting many silhouette product shots, the most common assignment for an advertising still life photographer.
The other things I came away with from the commercial experience was an emphasis on lighting and on preparation. I am very critical of lighting and very aware of it when I shoot and print, and I am extremely well prepared and deliberate in my process.
Often I will see a great scene but the conditions are not right. I will take scouting photographs, take compass and GPS readings and will come back to that location when the conditions are right. It could be 6 months later or 3000 miles away, but I’ll do my homework and then come back when I think conditions are optimal.
Q. How do you create, or find, inspiration? What is your ‘flow’? I have read that a number of your photographs have been shot after spotting opportunities from the car, while on vacation perhaps. Do you undertake long trips like many landscape photographers, or approach landscape photography quite differently?
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