Through his viewfinder, he produces remarkably straightforward images bursting with a colorful, decidedly hip aesthetic creating memorable images which most accurately depict the feeling of ‘being there’. That’s the heart of his work. He’s a Nikon shooter who once played fretless bass in a band. In secret handshaking social circles, he’s affectionately known as The Blowfish. We know him as Brian Carroll, co-founder of Elephant Gun.
Grab a cold one and read along as Kathryn Flowers goes mano-y-mano with Brian to discuss his creative process, his influences, and his latest project 'identity'.
When we first met you were doing more writing, and now I feel like you've shifted to more photography, but it seems like you always have a hand in something related to the arts. What drew you to a creative profession (however you want to define it)?
I'm drawn to creation. Aside from my writing, I've played music in bands which involves a level of creativity that forces me to think in entirely different ways. But, like fiction, that too has gone a bit stagnant for all sorts of reasons. So, maybe that's where the photography made its resurgence.
I shot film all through high school with my dad's old Canon AE-1, toyed around in darkrooms, did the traditional shoe-gazing Polaroid bit (still do), but moving to digital photography best suited my creative urges. I wouldn't say that photography is easy, and I definitely wouldn't say that I am particularly good at it, but it's fast; the results are relatively instant–much more so than writing a story or crafting a bass line that works cohesively with guitars, drums, and vocals. Creating puts me in this distinct mood. It does something to me mentally, in that moment, that I can't really get from any thing else.
The most frustrating thing about creating is my general impatience with my lack of technical prowess. I don't really know how to use my digital camera well. The automatic modes don't really produce what I see, or want to see. I can snag a short twenty-second video clip, but can't decode the processes of iMovie. I hear notes in my head and play things with my guitar, but have no idea how to manipulate the multiple tracking and effects for Garage Band. I verbalize short story ideas to friends and loved ones but can't produce the language to really translate those thoughts. So maybe it is really just a problem of permanence. I don't find a beauty in producing things "as is" in some sort of raw form. And the time. I don't do well with it, I grow impatient, not just with software or hardware, but just with the results. Instant is not instant enough, and when it is, it doesn't look right. Is 'restlessness' the same thing as 'impatience?' Maybe I am more of the former, actually. Often, I just feel restless.
Do you think this restlessness or impatience is part of why you’ve experimented with different creative forms?
Sadly, I feel like this lack of patience, restlessness, is very transparent in my work. I want to create more visual narratives, more pictorial stories–but I don't. But yes, I would say that's why I shift between these things. I want that fabled satisfaction; that coherence in creative self-production, and if it's not happening in one arena, I shift to another, consciously or otherwise. It's good that someone like me doesn't have access to a hefty disposable income, because I would have a room of musical instruments, a room of video production equipment, a room of photography tools. Getting the B&H catalog in the mail is a never a good thing and I spend entirely too much time engaging in that endless circuit of ludicrous desire.
What do you like about photography specifically?
I have this initial inclination to cite a bunch of academic bullshit on photographic aesthetic theory here– it's a waste of time to call it up to answer this question. Let me try this on my own: I like looking at photographs because they represent reality. I am using the "R" word completely aware of the predominance of digital manipulation. But that's not the point. When I look at, say, a painting, no matter how photorealistic, I think 'painting' first, then representation of something real, then the real itself. With photographs, for me, the real is always the thing that hits me right in the fucking face, right off. Even if some jackass has altered his self-portrait to give himself eyes all over his head, the head is still real, the eyes are still real (the number of them is somewhat a moot point in terms of the realness, despite the fact I wouldn't "get" such an image). Thus, if the real is real, then the narrative therein is too. Again, I like stories. I like fictions. Shit–even photojournalism and documentary-style photography is fictive–and I don't mean fake–or unreal–I just mean there is a story there that can never be complete. But in that incompleteness, there is still a vibrant reality. That's photography for me.
My favorite thing about your work is that you take honest portraits of people that never seem to pass any judgment. Do you have a favorite portrait from your shots?
That's a nice compliment. I took this vibrant color shot of one of my professors a few years ago, Dr. Faris. She looks like a mystic because she is in so many ways. Her eyes are so blue, her peculiar poncho thing is so red. And her hands, which are out of focus, demonstrate movement but not enough that you want to look at them. I feel like she is one of the few people I've actually captured who looks like they really do to me.
I recently took a mono shot of my wife, Leah, in a friend's backyard during a party. She was adjusting her wool cap in front of this giant oak and the sun was a few minutes from completely setting. I love my wife very much but I would agree that that photo, "just is." And I like the indifference, not in her expression but in the expression of the photograph itself. The mono of Justin at Avoca does the same thing. These latter two, and recent examples represent a swing towards something a bit more minimal. I need this shift. And I want it very badly.
Finally, I enjoy self-portraits of myself from time to time I don't like my body shape but I do like to concentrate on my face. There is a certain type of vanity in this, but the truth is, in no other way can one really see themselves except in this manner. Because even staring into a mirror doesn't produce the same result at all. Mirrors produce a delay. There is always a lull in mirror-time, in that space between the eyes of yourself in both your forms. With a self-portrait, you can see yourself truly without movement, without sharing the same thoughts you had in the moment in staring at yourself in the mirror. You have to look at yourself in a moment that isn't sharing the same thought-time, of course this is totally impractical to do most of the time, to look at yourself 'after the fact.'
“With a self-portrait, you can see yourself truly without movement, without sharing the same thoughts you had in the moment in staring at yourself in the mirror.”
I feel like I've seen your work change and morph over time, whether its photography, writing, or music. Who and/or what has inspired you in the past? Who/what currently inspires you now?
I am always inspired by those close to me because I can reach out to them, engage in a dialogue about their work or their life, find out their motivations, tell them it's made an impact on me. People like to hear that, I think, and the positivity often gets returned. This is a bit difficult to articulate, but the collective and social aspect of having knowledgeable, intelligent, and loyal acquaintances is a powerful thing for creative expression.
Certain films have inspired me a lot lately for various reasons. I always come back to Wes Anderson's films (except for Fantastic Mr. Fox), Edward Yang's Yi-Yi, Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation, the films of Teshigahara, the original Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai, and the HBO series Six Feet Under–films that often have the qualities of a still photograph; films that really concentrate on the formal properties of composition.
I also re-watched, after a long time, Paris, Texas; Bicycle Thieves; Breathless. I like film because I can watch it for this finite time. And the music, which, when blended seamlessly with the visual properties, really makes for something special. Not that they don't engender reflection after they end, but it's an inspirational discipline that is, well, just that: disciplined–streamlined and effective (image + music). If I was the artsy equivalent of some sort of Wall Street executive that had to maximize creative profits, that would be my answer to my underlings: watch these films. These are things that motivate me now. God–the books. There are lots and lots of books that set my sails.
“The collective and social aspect of having knowledgeable, intelligent, and loyal acquaintances is a powerful thing for creative expression. “
What would be your next project if money and responsibilities were no object?
I want to go to Japan and do a street series–I feel like my creative inhibitions would drift away quite easily and I would be more fearless to pursue the images I see in my head. I also like the idea of building a very traditional indoor portrait studio, with all the fancy lights and backdrops and medium format cameras and such. Kind of a boring answer, but if I had that, that would also mean I probably have some grand, loft warehouse somewhere too, haha. I think I would like to do a project on income inequality too. I see it so much more now, or at least I am much more cognizant of it where I currently live.
You've lived in Texas for 5 years, but you're not a Texan. Do you see Texas in your photography, or do you think its place-neutral?
I don't see it consciously, though I'm sure one could make the argument some of my images have a Texas flavor (whatever the fuck that means). Obviously shots that have a guy in a cowboy hat (which literally says Texas on it), playing his guitar at the Stockyards, with a 32oz sweet tea on the ledge of a bar that serves fried calf testicles, is "Texas-y”; the scene has a distinct sense of place. But when I look at that particular photograph, I see an old man in a chair with his wife next to him, breathing with an oxygen tank, sitting in a motorized wheelchair, staring at the ground, clutching a microphone. The details say Texas, but the humanity says otherwise: it says anywhere.
This is really interesting answer to me, because I see Texas in a lot of your work. But I'm realizing maybe that's because I'm from here, and have specific associations about people and their characters that I see in your work that others wouldn't. Do you ever think about how people layer meaning on your work? Do you hope for a take-away of some kind specifically, or just for any response?
I am not intentionally trying to make anything distinctly Texan, but Texas is much more distinct as an idea than a lot of other places. It's not as neutral in terms of its aesthetic. When we were in Paris last March, I took some images that were quintessentially Parisian, like a guy smoking out on the second floor of a distinctly Parisian-y curlicued building façade–the architecture alone really helps locate you. The previous day, I shot a green chair against a wall, with the shadows of bare trees off-camera, hugging the shape of the chair.
Now, these specific green chairs (their shape, their color) are a trademark of the Paris park system but this singular one, against the beige, slightly damaged wall, the meandering shadow lines of the naked trees, these formal elements are mostly place neutral. I associate it with Paris, but many others wouldn't. This is what I'm driving at. The place is a sort of secondary (though not inferior--and this is key) position. This is an important issue for me and I am striving for clarity. Clarity with myself and with others. So, I guess this demonstrates that I'm thinking about how people layer meanings on my work!
As for your next point about a 'take-away,' that's a really good question. I don't think I take criticism particularly well, and admitting that it’s difficult is also difficult. This goes for any creative project. I am getting better about it, because that's obviously the only way I will grow. My own stagnancy can certainly be attributed to this very serious problem. I will say, though, that photography has been the easiest medium for handling these matters–I am more comfortable talking about my audience's reception, either positive or negative, with photography than with anything else. What do you think that means? I don't know. Short answer: yes, I am now hoping for responses from viewers. I want them. I need them to build this whole photographic project and turn it into what it needs to become.
"Brian carries that big ass camera around with him all the fucking time. I'd get tired of that shit. But he obviously doesn't since he sticks it in everyone's face click-click-clicking all day. You just have to ignore it. Really. Most of us do. So most of us have big-ass close-up photos of ourselves making awkward-ass faces plastered all over his face-blip-flick-whateverthefuck. Fuck that guy. Go back to Denver, asshole."
I want to touch on your current project, identity. What are you exploring with this project and why?
I've always enjoyed the meta-narrative; this idea of stories within stories, whatever the medium. This is not an original topos. In identity. I want to just continue with this tradition, but engage more with temporal matters. The Polaroids are from another era, an epoch before my own. I mean, you can still by the pull-apart Fuji film, but the cameras are from the mid 60's. I guess part of me is a primitivist. Part of me feels nostalgic for these antiquated machines. But in the end, these are just tools. The real point I am working towards, is regarding the re/perception of the portrait. We only see the subject's full face, features, hair, eyes, and such, in the simulated representation they are holding. Even if we could see all those defining characteristics, the digital image is still just a representation, of course. So, the identity is a few layers removed from the actual person. Call it Inception, call it Baudrillardian. It still interests me. That, and I don't have time to conjure anything original anymore.
If I was visiting your parents’ house, what board game would we be most likely to play after dinner?
We played a lot of Scrabble growing up. My grandmother (we called her Sittie, it's basically Arabic for grandmother) was a big Scrabble player. Sure, there was the ubiquitous Monopoly or Sorry! game thrown in there, but definitely Scrabble was what I remember the most. And certainly the only board game that has sustained itself through my adult years. We usually get the board out at Christmas.
Tell me something I don't know about you already.
I think a lot about what it would be like to perform a eulogy.
BRIAN CARROLL GALLERY (click images to enlarge)