Get Loud!: An Exclusive Interview with Award-Winning Photographer Brandon Schulman
In our third installment, we speak to award-winning photographer and familyman Brandon Schulman.
Based in Brooklyn and the Catskills, Brandon focuses on portraiture, fine-art and commercial photography. His works have been exhibited domestically and internationally; used in marketing efforts by the likes of Prada, Cole Haan, Coach and Kate Spade, and Microsoft, Verizon and Rockstar Games; and appeared in leading publications from Marie Claire and Allure to Money and FORBES, and from Time Out NY and Manhattan (Modern Luxury) to VOGUE Australia and Playboy France.
As stated in his online bio, Brandon’s “love for the photographic process comes from a lifelong respect for passionate craftsmanship, timeless storytelling, and how a subject’s identity and environment inform its narrative” — all of which are evident in his compelling works, as well as his honest responses to our interview questions.
In this exclusive Get Loud! Q&A, Brandon talks to Echo Sixty6 about his photographic philosophy, process and experiences; his use of marketing and social media; his take on today’s photo industry; and his top tips for aspiring photographers.
1. How, when and why did you become a photographer?
When I was born, there was already a darkroom in my house — it was my father’s hobby since he was young. Even in the 1950s, he had a makeshift darkroom in his bathroom. So, soon after I was born, he was taking me onto the streets of Philadelphia and handing me a twin-lens Rolli. My father showed me how to focus, and we took pictures. So, chemistry and photography have been a part of my life since before I can remember.
During my last two years of high school, I was lucky enough to engage in a work program that allowed me leave school early for the local wedding photographer’s studio. What was so special was that he had a processor and showed me how to color print — so well that I tested out of color printing and theory when I later enrolled at Brooks Institute of Photography.
2. How would you describe your photography?
This is difficult, as most visually oriented individuals have issues answering this type of question… I guess I’d say that my photography is very heavy in geometric composition, and respecting of the objects around the subject as part of the image and to preserve the story for posterity.
As a result, my portraiture incorporates the environment; I am always trying to “sum up” the subject and how they interact with the other objects in the image. My landscape work, meanwhile, is more meditative on the location — and a little ironic at times.
3. What equipment do you use?
I use everything from a 4x5 Camera — sadly, not as often anymore, as every photo costs $15 to take — to my digital Canon 5D Mark IV, with a whole set of Sigma Art Series lenses. My carry-around camera is a Fuji X-Pro2, which I love, even though I’d prefer a Leica M10. For bigger commercial jobs, I rent a Phase One.
4. What is the competitive landscape like in professional photography in the Hudson Valley, where we’re based, and in general?
Photography is about as competitive as an industry can get. The hardest part is that there’s no union in photography, so you have people undercutting you, which only hurts them in the end, as well as the industry as a whole.
Clients do tend to hire the photographer whose work they most like, but in many ways it still doesn’t help.
As for all the other workers in the industry, like the assistants and the techs, they are constantly dealing with being taken advantage of both by photographers and clients.
While I do live in the Hudson Valley, I’m really not sure about the local market, as I’ve never really worked locally outside of a few jobs. I’ve recently been wanting to market myself more around here, so I can work closer to home, but the money is in New York City.
5. How do you differentiate yourself, in order to earn a living doing what you love?
Staying relevant, and always producing work for myself. If you only shoot for money, why did you become a photographer? You create because you have to and want to, not because there’s money behind it.
6. Well said — and that’s probably why the art in your work, even for paid gigs, is so prevalent. How do you balance your artistic vision with the needs of your paid clients?
It’s important to deliver what they expect, or want; however, once they see that your intentions are in line with their needs, you can start to push the boundaries and really do something special.
7. What about marketing? Do you leverage any promotional methods to build relationships or expand your clientele?
I usually send out an annual print mail promo. Last year, I used eight self portraits I shot in the small town of Brandon, Florida. I picked 250 photo editors, art producers, creative directors and other industry figures working for everything from magazines to ad agencies, and every month I sent them a postcard portrait from the series — and every third postcard was an art piece. The year before, I sent a 25-page magazine of my work.
In the end, though, much of my work comes from word of mouth, or referrals.
It’s also important to know who you want to work with, and simply reach out to them. Hopefully you can get a meeting and let your work speak for itself.
Many potential clients can see potential, but most cannot — they hire what they see, so my advice to other photographers is to always show with this knowledge in mind.
8. Interesting. Do you use social media?
Social media is destroying the photo industry, as a business. Clients are undervaluing what photography is worth and now seem to be OK with decent, versus great — and I find that your number of followers is more important than the work itself.
That being said, I do have three Instagram accounts, myself: one for personal, one for photos, and one for my vinyl collection.
I also love the power of Facebook… but we all know the damage of misinformation spreading, as well.
9. Speaking of misinformation, there’s nothing more rampant in the lives of teenagers today, especially now with social media making it easier to spread. So, the same issues every generation of young people has dealt with — from changes in hormones and brain chemistry to related insecurities and confusion — is only exacerbated. I know your beautiful daughter is not yet a teenager; how did you get involved with the Woodstock Day School project, The Crying Room, through which you captured such true portraits of students in their home environments?
My friend Jon Greenhalgh, the editor on the project, asked me if I wanted to be director of photography. My side was all about making quiet moments on camera come through, and staying true to these kids, who were sharing such intimate feelings and moments.
10. It really is powerful, and your work — pro bono, to boot — is certainly integral. What other project would you say represents your greatest career achievement?
So far, I am the most proud of my String Theory portrait series on the world’s most eminent theoretical physicists, as well as my landscape series, A Portrait of America Left Behind. Each has performed well in competition…
And now it’s time for me to get back to this work. Having a family can really slow down your productivity…
But I wouldn’t change it for the world. When I get a hug from my daughter, I feel a joy like no other.
11. So, has this been your biggest career hurdle?
Yes — finding time to be in the city, and a part of the photo world.
But I love being at home in Saugerties with my family. The older I get, the less I care about anything else. Everything seems trivial compared to them.
12. Certainly, there’s a lot less time to just explore with your camera in hand… What’s the funniest, craziest or most informative experience you’ve had while shooting?
I remember following a dirt road for a few miles in Nevada to come upon a power plant, photographing it, and then having security approach me and speak seemingly endlessly about what I was doing there — only to have a couple phone interviews with the FBI a few weeks later to confirm.
Actually, I faced pretty similar results in West Virginia, being chased by strip-mine security…
Anything for the image!
13. Wow! Other than ‘always keep your credentials’ in case there’s security, what advice would you give to aspiring photographers?
First, be true to yourself, and shoot, shoot, shoot!
Second, think and feel — don’t just be a shutter button-holding machine gun.
Third, look at what’s outside the frame, and see the image before you even put the camera to your eye — yes, your eye, not a screen.
Fourth, develop projects that interest you, and produce them on your own, because you want them to exist.
Fifth, do not be cocky.
And sixth, remember that there’s always someone right behind you, so look!
A photograph, to me, is three things: a frame, determining what not to show; a subject; and “the decisive moment,” a term coined by Henri Cartier Bresson. Keep that in mind.
14. When was the last time you were in awe?
Everyday, when I see my three-year-old daughter Mila smile. I tear up just thinking about her.
I am always in awe of life and time — these changes that weave through our lives so slowly and yet so quickly.
The role that time plays can be scary, but I try and use it as a reminder of the importance and value of things in life.
For regular updates from Brandon Schulman, follow @brandonschulmanphoto on Instagram.
For print inquiries or commercial commissions, email Brandon at firstname.lastname@example.org.
To be interviewed, or for content marketing, contact me.