[From Vacancy, 2004-2005] © Timothy Briner
Because of my presence, regardless of the situation, I could never truly capture a scene as it was. Yes, I am creating a document, but it is flawed, mostly by that fact that I am there with a specific intention, to create something, therefore manipulating something. But there is more to it: The photograph itself is only an object; It is an object viewed and judged differently every time it is seen, therefore it separates itself farther from reality. – Timothy Briner
A young photographer breaking his path in fine art photography. His vision, his dreams, the challenges, the inspiration.
I had the opportunity to interview photographer Timothy Briner, and he shared a candid view of his work, projects and struggles as a young photographer.
After several personal projects and a brief exploration of commercial photography, Tim is now embarked in a project, Boonville, that intends to explore “small-town” America, its people and its cultural diversity across states. But this project is not only a journey through America but a discovery of his own path.
The Boonville project is a a year-long cross-country journey to six different towns named Boonvilles across the United States. Timothy will be living with families and individuals during his thirty-plus days in each town. The final product will take images from the six communities, juxtaposing them together to create a fictional town named “Boonville”.
The Boonville project project is really about the people living in modern America: the good, the bad and the indifferent. This project is a dream come true. Traveling across the country, working on what you wish, when you wish; It all sounds very romantic. And it is! But not without some debate. I am grateful and very excited to be doing what I am doing. But it gets lonely.-Timothy Briner
Read the dialogue with Tim after the jump.
When did you get into photography? Is there anyone who inspired or motivated you try photography or it came from your own curiosity?
I was a sophomore in high school and I got into the Photo I class. I went on to Photo II as a junior. Our teacher was always teaching us alternative processes and things that really invited me to open my mind. Failure and experimentation was encouraged. By photo II we were developing and printing our own color negatives and prints, all by hand. Craig Speiring, my teacher, and those two classes were really the beginning for me.
©Timothy Briner [2003/2005]
At one point you decided to join the Hallmark Institute of Photography. What made you take that decision? Do you think that education is important to develop a photographic career?
By the middle of my senior year in High school my mother and had I gone out to visit the school in Massachusetts. I had a small portfolio of work and they liked it. I was blown away with the facilities and the students.
The school is small. I graduated with about 80 people in 2000. The initial inspiration for Hallmark was the time frame. The school markets itself as putting two years of photographic (technical and business) education into ten months. I was never a big fan of school so it sounded perfect for me. By the time I was nineteen years old I was already living and working in New York; It was very exciting and challenging. I really had no idea what I was doing. Hallmark supplies a good support system for their graduates, often from the previous graduates living in your area. For the first three or four years we all looked out for each other.
I believe education is very important. But I believe that you only get out of it what you put into it. I really used my time there to make relationships with the people I came in contact with. And eight years later, some of the contacts I made are now helping to support my current project.
If you have to summarize the key three things that you learned at the Hallmark Institute, which ones those will be?
Other then the techniques of photography, I would have to say that the three key things were: Determination, perseverance and trust. The school was difficult and would often set you up to fail. It was part of their “real-world” education. You had to really want it and dig down and find something inside yourself. Also, you had to rely on others, trust was a big part of the program. We started out with something like one-hundred-and-twenty students, and we lost thirty or so by the mid-point. The ones that stayed really supported one another.
©Timothy Briner 
The Hallmark Institute of Photography makes an emphasis on the business aspects of photography. Are you interested in commercial photography? Which is the area of commercial photography that you intend to pursue?
When I began at the school I was really ignorant to the idea of Commercial photography. I was especially ignorant to commercial vs. fine art. I had no idea how I was going to make a living. Commercial photography is Hallmark’s main focus. I think it was in the mid-nineties that George Rosa III took over the school. He started to create amazing connections with Mamyia, Profoto, and many key commercial figures in NY. The exposure we had to that part of the industry was very inspiring. Editorial, advertising, and fashion photography was what I was interested in and where I was headed. A few years ago that all changed.
When I moved to NY, I started assisting a number of different photographers and a few years later I was burnt out. I didn’t love the hustle and the scale of things that resulted in something that would end up in someone’s trash a month later. I wanted my efforts to be remembered longer then just in issue #345.
I began working for two sculptors in mid-town shortly after September 11th. They were working on an interactive memorial project in Union Square. I had only been in NYC for a year when the attacks happened and I was lonely and scared. I attached myself to the two sculptors, Mike Kervel and Ted Lawson, and began working with them daily in Union Square. They eventually hired me and I was living in their studio part-time and acting as their assistant.
We started working on a project that blew me away, and I am very grateful to have been a part of it, as it changed my entire perspective on art. The project was real. It was something that would be loved and cherished by someone forever. That is the direction I wanted my work to go.
[From Vacancy, 2003/2005] ©Timothy Briner
You are at the beginning of your career in photography. What are the main challenges that you notice for a young photographer?
Money. I think the hardest thing to get past is how much money it takes to survive in a major city (where most of the work is), not to mention the price of equipment. For the first three years I lived in New York I made very little. I lived in a four bedroom apartment with four other photographers. The rent was cheap, it is really the only way to survive in the beginning.
At one point I found myself living on couches for six months. I never left though, and that was the only thing that saved me. Really, I couldn’t go anywhere else. My mother is a big supporter of my dreams; Sometimes in a backwards kind of way. At one point she told me that I couldn’t come home. I really believed her. That moment made all the difference. Of course she would have let me come home, she saw how hard it was for me, but she believed in me. Sometimes people need that support system, or that push. It’s not always as romantic as it sounds.
All your work displayed in your website appears to be personal work. Is this intentional?
It is intentional, only because I don’t really have any commercial or editorial work. After I assisted for a few years I started to shoot commercially, but shortly after I stopped. The same issues that I mentioned previously started coming up: I was working too hard for my work to eventually be thrown away. I don’t mean to say that commercial photography is not rewarding or respectable. I fought over the decision for some time and started seeking out successful fine art photographers and commercial photographers to ask them their thoughts on the matter. Many of the commercial photographers said their intention was fine art, but they turned to commercial work because of the money. Many of them told me that if they had to do it over again they would choose one and run with it. It was after that that I quit commercial photography altogether and got a non-photographic job.
I was looking for a job that had no strings, meaning I didn’t want to take the job home with me. It gave me the energy to focus on my art. Although many of my friends were making ten times more then me, it always seemed like they were struggling to work on their own ideas.
©Timothy Briner 
In looking at your portfolios, they appear to have a narrative, like you intend to tell a story. Is storytelling you main interest in photography?
I think there are many interesting things about photography. The history and the questions that have popped up around the medium: its purpose, photography perceived as reality, etc. For me, storytelling has been the driving force behind the medium.
I was first introduced to Duane Michals‘ work at Hallmark. I had to do a thirty-minute speech about him for class. I took the train out to New York to visit him. It was my first time in the city. At that time he had a show at Pace-McGill. It was also my first experience seeing photography-as-art in person, and in that environment. It was beautiful. I remember not wanting to leave and roaming through the drawers of the gallery’s back room. I met Duane at his Brownstone and spent a few hours with him. It all seemed very romantic. When I first saw his early work from Russia and his celebrity portraits juxtaposed with his narrative storytelling projects, I was sold. His range and his mind is stunning. He has been a major influence of mine ever since.
[From Dixie, 2005] ©Timothy Briner
What is the intent of your personal work, Vacancy and The Adventures of Dixie?
I think I first begin thinking of creating work as a series rather then a portfolio in 2003. It was the first “photo-excursion” that my good friend Jason Covert and I took together. Since then we have attempted to take at least one every year. We made our way to Boonville, NY, where an old girlfriend had a winter house. We spent ten days in Boonville, exploring the town and its people. The work that came from that series is what inspired my current project.
At the time my work was very much influenced by contemporary art and photography. I had no real art training and I was exploring things on my own. The specific people I was studying at the time had a large influence on the work, as did cinema/film.
Film Literature in high school was the first time I started to understand storytelling as a visual art form; The use of lighting, editing, context, camera work, etc. In 2003 I began to study old Hitchcock movies to the point of pausing scenes and drawing sketches of the light and the camera movements. I began to draw up the “rules” of my future work. I was solely working with diptychs at the time, something I continued to explore up until a few years ago.
Eve Sonneman and David Hillard’s works were also very inspirational when it came to the use of diptychs.
All of my projects that use diptychs are shot as horizontal images and then placed side by side. The intention was to create the long shot seen in cinema on the left side of the diptych, and the close-up shot on the right. Both images represent the same moment in time, seen from two different viewpoints. The result was a long horizontal image, representing the wide-screen or 16:9 format of film/cinema.
Next came Lycanthrope, 2004: Lycanthrope is a self-portrait series dealing with matters of duel personalities and anger. I was dealing with a difficult breakup and a new relationship. They came right after one another and I was very confused. That project is a bit of a stretch but it still means more to me then anything I have ever produced.
With Lycanthrope, I was very determined to create something new. It had been almost eight months or so since the Boonville trip and I had finally saved enough money to do something. It was meant to be a completely solo project. I went up to this camp for a weekend with a bunch of home-made shop lights and one strobe setup, and lots of Polaroid. I spent the next two days shooting different situations with the “wolf” and ‘Hunter” character. I had a blast with the human side of the story, it was the most fun I have ever had shooting. The “wolf” was one of the most difficult things I have ever done. Shooting self-portraits with tons of make-up on and being alone in the cold/dark woods is not recommended. It made for a memorable project though. The meaning of the story really came to fruition during the shooting process.
Then came Vacancy: Between 2004 & 2005, I took three trips out to my hometown in Indiana to complete it. I still struggle with that series. The meaning changed a number of. I was itching to create something again. I was fascinated by old motels and their relationship with loners and lovers. I was trying to convey a message of love and lust in our current society.
The Adventures of Dixie came out of a solo trip I took to Maine in 2005. I was looking to get away. A friend from Hallmark had a cabin that was off the grid and a few miles outside of civilization. I spent four days doing nothing but reading, writing, drinking, and playing my harmonica. By the last day I was a bit depressed that I had not shot anything. There was a game pole on the property for hunting and a few huge deer-head trophies on the walls. Dixie was a present to my girlfriend and oddly enough we became very attached to it. So, I decided that a photo of it in Maine only made sense.
The cabin and the game pole became my inspiration. I took video of myself dressed up as a back-woods hunter tracking and hunting Dixie. They were ridiculous and fun, but didn’t seem to fit into the final product. At that time, I was thinking about the irony of hunting and hunters. But I am not a big fan of over-ironic imagery. So I never did much with it.
[From Lycanthrope, 2004] ©Timothy Briner
Where do you get your inspiration from?
My inspiration almost always comes from my surroundings. I am often persuaded by what I read and see. As a visual artist, I cannot help but “see” things on a daily basis – it can be very hard to turn off. But when I am ready to work, my surroundings are primarily what I look at and study.
Your current project, Boonville, can you tell us more about what is it about? What is your intent?
Boonville started out as a document of the current state of small-town America. It’s gone through a lot since I left Brooklyn in July of 2007. I had been working on the project in my head for four years. I created a very specific idea of what I wanted and where it would go. That quickly changed.
By 2005-2006 the idea became greatly influenced by the influx of photographers objectifying the ordinary and focusing on small-town and suburban America, and its death by globalism. Although none of this had such a blatant effect on the original idea in 2003, all of a sudden it was all over my statement and the project was sub-titled, “The Death and Life of America’s Small Town,” named for Jane Jacobs’, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, and it turned into a project about the irony in America, the negative aspects of Americans and today’s society. I was being influenced without even really knowing it.
Shortly after leaving, and having a minor breakdown in Boonville, Missouri, I took some time and reflected about what I was doing and what this really means to me. The project has always had a subtle interest in the destruction of smaller societies by corporations and the government, as well as dealing with the current state of American politics and economics, but it is all underlining. The project is really about the modern life and times of these small towns, and the people that inhabit them, and my relationship to it. Of course I am focusing on certain points, and some of it IS about the power and politics in a post-911 society, but this project is really about the people living in modern America: the good, the bad and the indifferent.
A few months before I left on the trip I realized I needed to reassess my work. I was being influenced and finally became aware of it. I spoke to a few close friends and photographers. They helped me understand my concerns. I began to go out daily and shoot 4×5 Polariods of my neighborhood as well as taking my Mamiya 7II into the city and to parties. I forced myself to work everyday and to get ready for the trip and to work out my concerns about my shooting style. I’m happy with the work I was producing just before I left. It was inspiring to shoot everyday; a lot of things came up for me. The current work is different, but that solid month of shooting helped form new ideas.
Also before I left, I started looking at work I shot in high school and at Hallmark and for the first three years in New York. Much of this work was untouched by major influences. It was raw. I wanted to get back to that. I began putting a bunch of my work together, thinking about it all as one; Blending the old with the new. It has turned out nicely. I’m really happy with the direction I have chosen.
©Timothy Briner 
How are you financing the project?
Cannery Works, a 501 (c)(3) arts organization in New York came on board in early 2006. They helped me work on the project and focus it into a reasonable goal.
Working together we created a financial plan. We set limits and goals. By January of 2007 I had given George Rosa III at The Hallmark Institute of Photography a proposal to help support the equipment-and-film end of the project. By May I had met with him three or four times and by June the project was accepted. The equipment is beautiful. I received a new 4×5, portable strobe lights, etc. There is a lot of equipment, but because it’s light weight and smaller, it all fits into two bags and right on my back. It has allowed me to get my 4×5 and lights into places that I normal couldn’t have.
Cannery Works and I also worked together to create a package that contained a support letter, press release and support-opportunity options. This was sent to family and friends. It proved to be very successful.
Boonville, again, looks like a project where the narrative and storytelling will play a key role connecting the images. How are you planning to blend the images taken at different places so they communicate the message you intend to convey?
The project will unfold as a cohesive message. There are levels of story telling but it will not be as clear of a narrative as my other works.
The diverse geographical locations and range in population sizes are a major driving force behind the project. I’m using the six towns, their common name, locations, and sizes as a visual metaphor for small towns across the country. The project will represent my current views on modernity in America, the people in each of these communities and the details that make up life in small town America. I’m looking forward to juxtaposing the final images from all the regions into the finished product. The work will express my relationship to these towns and their residents. It is very personal, almost to the point of being biographical.
[From Vacancy, 2004-2005] ©Timothy Briner
Do you plan to use text to explain the images of the work? Do you plan to integrate multimedia (audio, video) in the project to enhance the storytelling aspects of the work?
I am taking audio recordings of a lot of my experiences. They are personal notes as well as interviews with people, but as of now they will only be used as notes. I do plan on having some text involved. I am still not sure how it will be incorporated. Most likely that will be set into place during the editing and post-production process.
How do you approach to your subjects to ask for permission to photograph? Do you request any model release?
I do not request a model release. The approach often depends on the day and how I am feeling. Today I passed up a group of kids that I thought might have made an interesting image, I just didn’t feel up to it. But an hour later I walked into a man’s yard. He was burning papers and garbage and I simply introduced myself, chatted for a moment, then I slightly eased him into the idea of taking a photo. He was excited about it, more then happy. The people that you think would be turned off are usually really helpful and cooperative. Normally, I get full of fear just before approaching someone. I take a few deep breaths and just walk over, or get out of the car and make myself do it. Nine times out of ten it pays off big.
It is a process though. You have to really want to engage the person, otherwise they can see right through you. I read The Tipping Point shortly before I left for Boonville and there is a part in there about smiling. It talks about smiling being contagious and people who smile are more likely to be trusted. I tried it on the subway for a few weeks. I tried to engage in conversation and to get reactions from smiles. It worked.
I try to be cheerful without seeming odd. Introductions are the first step. It may seems obvious, but a lot of people wait to introduce themselves, they feel awkward or something. Once you establish a name and an association to their current surroundings, it can all fall into place. I do struggle every single time I approach someone. I’m not as much of a people person as some might think. I like being isolated more so then not.
©Timothy Briner 
Do you feel that the people feel at ease when you photograph them? It looks like many of them probably are not used to be photography with a large format camera, do they feel intimidated about that?
I don’t think people always feel at ease. I spent a good portion of a day, probably eight hours, with a woman who seemed jittery every time I took her portrait. But I spent the same amount of time with another woman who would have let me done anything. She was very comfortable. She actually told me things that she says she has never told anyone else, it was an unforgettable experience, and I think the image shows that.
I think that most people can connect to a large format camera much more then anything else. It’s often something that everyone has seen in the movies, their grandpa had one, etc. I get much more cooperation with the 4×5 then with the Mamyia 7II, people are intrigued, it keeps their focus a bit more.
I think it depends on the photographer and not the camera if people are intimidated. I often support intimidation in my work. If I have the time, I will usually start off with a longer image of the subject. I then chat for a bit and move in closer. This is when you get either no change in emotion, or people comment on the space between you and them and begin to tighten up. I think of Avedon. seeking out that awkward body movement. Those subtle hand changes and the moment of capture, it really set that work apart for me. My process is similar. I will spend a long time staring at a person while holding my shutter release, and them holding their pose. It messes with a person, they get tighter, then lose, then tight. I like those strange moments. I enjoy the more intimate ones more, but this process is often a game, and the confusing moments can be the ones that work best for a particular subject.
[From Vacancy, 2004-2005] ©Timothy Briner
What is your aim when you take portraits?
My aim as a storyteller is to create a telling image. As a portrait photographer is to create something that is compelling and represents my interpretation of a person. I would say to reveal the truth of someone, but photography is full of lies. I am not attempting to create a “real” document of small-town America. I am interested in my relationship to these people and places, and this journey. This work has been straddling the line between fiction and non-fiction since the beginning. And I am continuing to explore techniques and options to remove it farther from the perception of reality.
©Timothy Briner 
What do you think are the most important aspects of a good photograph?
Personally, coming from a technical school, I believe that lighting and framing and the moment of capture are the most important aspects of a photo. But I also believe that the concept of an image or series plays just as important of a role.
Do you feel welcome by the towns you visit or it takes a while for the community to open their lives to you? What do you do to integrate within the community?
Of the three Boonvilles I have visited, I have been welcomed in all of them. Some gave me more of a warmer welcome then others, but they have all been really amazing in their own way.
I have been featured on the local radio in two of the three towns and I’ve been on the cover of all three local papers. This was weird, because now I am not an outsider looking in, the people know I’m there, therefore the type of work I choose to do could be affected. It has been a great help though. Certain people that may have been unapproachable are now open to the idea.
Do you notice a significant difference in how the different towns open the community to your photographic exploration?
Boonville, North Carolina took a few weeks to really open up to me. They have a population of 1128 people and are very close knit. The newspaper article about the project came out fifteen days into my stay there, so the beginning was slower. The beginning of my visits are often slow though, I usually don’t start shooting until the second week. Boonville, NC doesn’t have lodging and I couldn’t find a family to stay with at first, so I slept in a tent in the town park for a few weeks. After coming off of an overload of people to stay with in Missouri, it was nice to be alone.
©Timothy Briner 
When do you plan to complete the Boonville project?
Tentatively, we have a completion date of June 1, 2007. If time and money allows, and I feel I need to, I will revisit a few or all the towns for two weeks at a time.
How do you plan to show the Boonville project when it is completed? Do you plan to show it at galleries, perhaps publish a book, or sell it to media companies like websites of magazines?
A book is my goal. But showing in galleries and museums is where I would really like to see the final work. I think that it’s the greatest way to view art. It’s the perfect environment for it. Photobooks are amazing, they allow everyone who wants to, to see it in a beautiful package, but a finely curated exhibit can be something you will never forget.
What is the most difficult part of the Boonville project? Do you have a clear end for the project? Do you know how you like to finish it?
The project has been brilliant at times, other times It is a disaster. For a while I was having minor breakdowns every two weeks or so. The meaning of the project and the creative changes that were happening early on were really taking a toll on me.
I’m dealing with things better these days. I take days off when I need it. If I can’t work, or don’t want to shoot, I don’t force it. At first I was feeling guilty and made myself work, which made me tired and unsure of the work, and it just really messed with my psyche. I even lost two days of work because I unloaded film at a time I should have been sleeping. Twenty-Five sheets were exposed. Luckily, I turns out that a good portion of them are actually usable. I was completely devastated though. It set me back about two more days.
Overall it has really been amazing. The people I have come across are fascinating and genuine. It has been a lot of work, but worth every minute.
I do have a clear vision for the finished product, but I try not to conform to it as much as I used to. Projects evolve over time. I am shooting everything that peaks my interest. I am following a personal formula, but it’s loose.
Could you explain your editing process? How do you plan to select the images?
I’m not yet sure. I do believe that editing is very important and I plan to spend a lot of time in post-production.
Timothy at work, setting up his camera. [Boonville, NY, November, 2007]
You are shooting the project with a large format camera. Why is that? What do you think that the large format camera provides you for the creative process that you don’t get with medium format, 35 mm or even digital capture?
Since graduating photography school, I have only used my 4×5; it is really the only thing I know. I got a Mamyia 7II medium-format camera for the things I can’t easily shoot large format, but before that it was strictly the 4×5. It is all I know. I got out of the commercial end of photography just as Digital was getting really big, and frankly, I am just not educated on it, I’m lucky if I can get a decent scan.
Plus, I hate the computers, cords, discs, etc. I need something tangible, a polaroid and a piece of film.
The biggest reason though. I love looking through the ground glass. There is nothing like looking at an image with both your eyes while seeing your vision unfold under the darkcloth. And using my hands to tweak the rise and fall, tilt and swing. I love the finite control that it provides. It really is an amazing way to create photographs, and I wouldn’t know how to do it as well with anything else.
I got my original 4×5 at hallmark. The funny thing is that I don’t remember why I originally bought the camera. It wasn’t required. In school I loved using it cause I found the beauty of Polaroid Type 55. It was an instant image and negative. I guess It just seemed perfect to me.
©Timothy Briner 
What comes after the Boonville project? Any new ideas you are now exploring? Do you intent to continue to work on future projects describing the live in small towns across America?
I am thinking a lot about people and America. I want to create something stripped down and raw. My girlfriend is very supportive of me and this current project. But if I took off for another year right away, I might have problems. I’m not sure, I have some ideas.
Do you think that your style is influenced by the work of other photographers you admire? Who are they?
As I previously mentioned, I think a lot of the work produced in 2005 and 2006 was influenced in one way or another. The works beginning in 2003 were being influenced by Duane Michals and Philip Lorca-Dicorcia. There are many others but their styles really represent the two types of photography I was looking at.
Where do you see your career going in the next few years?
I plan on continuing on the fine-art path until I can’t anymore or until I want to do something different.
What are the biggest changes you see happening in the future in the field of commercial, editorial or fine art photography?
It’s hard to say. I’ve been out of the loop for a while, but I think that digital is obviously the wave of the future (and present). Eventually, I think it will be very difficult to shoot film and Polaroid.
When I first started shooting commercially in 2001, the smallest magazines would pay for film and developing and give a small day rate. From the word on the street, most of the smaller magazines these days pay nothing at all. And the larger ones pay very little for editorial work. If this is true, I think digital photography will be the demise of the editorial photographer. Why hire someone when someone else will do it for free? I have nothing at all against young photographers working for little or nothing to get out there, but the overall use and praise of digital seems likely to become the death of photographers working in editorial.
While I was in Boonville, Missouri I was very invested in the History of the town. I was seeking out old yearbooks from the 20s and 30s up through today. The images from the 20s through the 70s were amazing. The yearbooks from the last 10 years were terrible. Not only the design and layouts, but the photography. It was disgusting, I felt ashamed to be a photographer. They were obviously very low-res digital files. I’m sure a cheap photographer was hired. They did the job, but at what cost? Posterity?
Thank you very much Tim. I am looking forward to seeing the Boonville project come to fruition and follow your future career as a photographer. Best of luck in your pursue of excellence.