Not only is Brian Finke a talented photographer but his answers to my questions are nothing short of inspiring. In anticipation of his new book Construction published by Decode Books and the show that goes along with it, I am excited to have had the chance to discuss the work with him. From September 6th to October 13th “Construction” will be on display at ClampArt in Chelsea. The show opening coincides with the book release this week.
Abigail Smithson: Most people (me!) walk by construction sites regularly without a second thought. Also, most people (me again!) associate construction sites with being loud, noisy, dangerous and dirty. There is a beautiful stillness in your photos that show a grace and delicate aspect of construction. How did you discover these moments in such a chaotic environment? And was this something you were seeking out to shoot for the book?
Brian Finke: A lot of the time when I’d show up nothing would be going on at these construction sites. To me there seemed to be a natural quietness that I’m glad comes through in the photographs. The photograph direction took many forms while shooting the book. At one point I was considering making the project all still-life images, or possibly focusing on more abstract photographs of the worker’s gestures and movements while working. Finally, the need to build a story shaped the final edit.
AS: In 1932, when Charles C. Ebbets shot his iconic Lunch Atop a Skyscraper, I can only imagine that building site codes and rules were a little different. What kind of restrictions did you face while you were in the process of shooting? Were you free to move around the site?
BF: It was the hardest project that I’ve worked on to get access. Once I gained access to be on-site I could go anywhere and photograph. I could go up on the steel and be free to explore the sites as long as my assistant and I wore the proper safety equipment. Photographing during the winter was the toughest. The work at one site was being done throughout the night because the building was being built next to an Amtrak line that would be shut down for the construction. It was the middle of February, and the steel work was being done in brutally cold temperatures with ice on the ground. It was pretty incredible seeing the guys work in these conditions.
AS: Since you started the project in 2008, you have experienced the rise and fall of the real estate market. What initially drew you to start this project and did you find a more dynamic subject matter than you had imagined?
BF: My projects are pretty straight forward, simple ideas. I enjoy the process of looking at something over and over again, to work through an idea, to exhaust it, to produce a body of work. I work in a very obsessive way. How I get to the subject happens different ways, but usually it’s something that’s around me and presents itself. I was living in NYC and all this construction was going up all around me. The construction sites were rich subject matter but it took a lot of looking. It was a very slow process of waiting, a lot of days not shooting anything at all, but returning again and again to see the construction change and new photographs present themselves.
AS: Your portraits are both intimate and personal yet you seemed to have maintained a subtle presence. All the men seem to be going about their job without interacting much with the camera. What was the working relationship like with your subjects?
BF: I had a very quiet presence while photographing on the sites, wanting to capture the natural activity. I didn’t want to interrupt the work, so a big part of shooting is studying a situation, seeing the habits, the repetitiveness, to be able to anticipate and make the photograph, and at the same time being open to capturing the wonderful surprises that make a photograph really special. The photographs are also a departure from past projects where all the images were about the personality of the person, focusing on the subtle expressions to identify with the subject. These photographs have some of that but are also more abstract, turning the person into a landscape and also physically stepping back in the scene to play with the scale and make the large machinery small, almost the size of toys.
AS: Was use of the flash ever an issue?
BF: I always shoot with an assistant working with an off camera Q flash. It is a great way to stay spontaneous in changing situations. After years of photographing this way, I am very careful to be constantly aware of my ‘presence’ in the shot.
AS: How many sites did you work at in total? Have you visited the sites since to follow the progress of the building?
BF: I visited around 30 sites all in the NYC area but photographed at less. A lot of the time I would show up and just look around, sometimes come back, and other times move on to another site. It was very freeing to have the time while working on a project to sometimes not photograph at all.
AS: Is there one site or photograph that really stands out to you?
BF: Ridge Hill, a site in Westchester was amazing. It’s a huge site – one of those town center malls which allowed for tons of exploring, and it always had different types of work going on. It’s located on the top of a hill which made for a clean horizon line, which became important to me as the project progressed, especially when I wanted to take the images out of context of any one location.
AS: Teamwork and a unifying group goal are both common themes in your three books (2468, Flight Attendants, and Construction). Are these themes that you seek out when looking for a new subject matter to photograph? What other insight can you offer about your subject choice?
BF: They are, and I’m drawn to subjects that we see in the everyday, things that we can all relate to in some way. We can all relate to the activity of construction or know someone who works on construction. But I also enjoy breaking through the stereotypical views that the audience may have with these professions. That is in part why I like to incorporate as many “daily life” photographs into every series as possible.
AS: What distinctions do you make between your editorial work and your personal work? How much crossover is there between the two?
BF: There is no distinction any more, it’s the perfect place to be. I pitch personal projects to magazines to help with access and funding, and most editorial assignments I’m called for lately are to photograph subject matter that I’m interested in shooting – from firework exhibitions to food eating competitions. Recently I was shooting truck drivers for a campaign and the art director asked if this might be my next book. It’s a great feeling to be at a place in my career where I’m photographing things that excite me, and that that allow me to work with such great creativity and subjects.