SHOOTING WITH INTENTION: BRANDON GETTY

Shooting With Intention is a series of interviews by Elephant Gun photographer Kevin O'Meara.  This week, he interviews Stockton, CA photographer Brandon Getty about his publication "Maps to Stockton: Volume One"

 

 

If I recall correctly in the Findrangers interview, you started shooting skateboarding first and it evolved from there. How has skateboarding changed how you look at photography?

Countless hours of flipping through skateboard magazines showed me that photography could be used as a documentary and narrative tool. In every issue there's a photo-heavy feature article that documents a team trip, tour or event. In between the full-bleed photos of tricks there were smaller portraits of the skaters, snapshots of hijinx, and maybe a few landscape photos that helped round out the article. I didn't really think about the amount of work that went into the article by the photo and design staff, I just liked the images because they told a story and gave a glimpse into a lifestyle that I was pretty obsessed with at the time. I might have learned the same lesson from old issues of LIFE or National Geographic, but those weren't on my radar as a 13 year-old skate kid.

When I started carrying disposable cameras on skate trips, I just tried to mimic the photos I saw in the magazines. Of course most of my first images were just blurred frames of us pushing from spot to spot or low-angle wannabe fisheye shots, but I didn't mind. Just having the 4x6 prints, all neatly arranged in the order that I shot them, was good enough for me.

Skateboard photography is a great teacher in terms of form and timing. It taught me to respect composition and be meticulous, to consider the edges of the frame carefully, and give what's happening in the background just as much attention as the skater and the trick. I've made it a habit to ask myself, "Why am I including this in the frame? What does it convey about the trick and/or subject?” I try to compose until I have good answers to both questions, but even then things don't always work. I'm not as deliberate when I'm out shooting on the street, but that concern for composition is always there.

What photographers do you look at on a regular basis and how does their work influence you? What are some of the publications that have affected you the most?

I've always liked photographers that work close to home, whether out of desire or necessity. Looking at your everyday surroundings with a fresh perspective and consistently producing new work is challenging, so I really respect those who have that ability.

An big early influence was Daniel Weiss, a New York-based street photographer. I discovered Daniel before learning about all of the established figures of the genre, so his style was brand new to my eyes. He blends sincerity and wry humor really well, so you get a view of New York that is warm and lighthearted. Matt Weber is a predecessor to Daniel and just as influential to me, but in a way that has more to do with the overbearing and claustrophobic nature of the city. I don't own books by either of them, but I'm always lurking their websites.

A few years ago I stumbled upon a BBC documentary about James Ravilious that blew my mind. Beginning in 1972 he spent roughly 17 years documenting the rural English community of North Devon, just leaving his house and walking the dirt roads to socialize with the farmers and their families. His work is a record of a way of life that no longer exists in North Devon, so there are threads of melancholy and impermanence tangled up in its beauty. Any time I shoot into the sun, and I do a lot, it's because of James Ravilious and his book “An English Eye”.

It seems like I find a handful of incredible photographers, all with archives that I need to delve into or zines/books I need to buy, every single day. Thanks to Tumblr I've come across current favorites like Stephen B. SmithMissy Prince, Alex JD Smith, and Ed Panar. I've been photographing people less and less over the past year, and their work reminds me that that's okay.

A lot of everyday inspiration also comes from friends that are always putting out new work or approach photography with a lot of passion. TJ Nelson Jr., Sam Milianta, Chris Taylor, Barrett Moore, Joe Aguirre, Carson Lancaster, my brother Cameron Getty, and Yubey Delgado are just a few of the people that keep me motivated and appreciative of photography. Two key influences from college through to today are Sean Morales and Raphael Villet. Thanks guys.

 

Are there any books that are similar to a good skate part that make you want to go out and shoot immediately?

The Walker Evans MoMA book is on my desk right now, and it's been a huge motivator mainly because I didn't take the time to familiarize myself with his work earlier. I haven't been feeling overtly social when shooting lately, so flipping through Evans' photographs of roadside stands, building facades and humble interiors—all mostly devoid of people—keeps the inspiration flowing when I want to stay introverted and keep the pace slow. I really relate to the quiet, direct simplicity of his approach. I love Henry Wessel's Incidents for the same reason.

I revisit past issues of Hamburger Eyes all the time. The charged, diverse nature of the work always gets me excited to head out even if I'm feeling withdrawn. The format is crazy and dynamic in itself: images that come at you in a full-bleed barrage, some jarring and others more subtle, that leave you with little breathing room and a ton of questions. It’s visceral, full of anxiety and mystery, and I love it. Mary Ellen Mark's American Odyssey, Ed Templeton's Wayward Cognitions, and the huge Garry Winogrand retrospective book are all great to look at before heading out, too.

I'm actively trying to grow my zine collection, so publications by friends and photographers I've connected with online are a consistent source of inspiration. There's always something new on my desk or in my mailbox.

 

Where did this project come from? What made you decide to start shooting it? Was there a significant change in the community that made you say, "I need to shoot this"?

Intention and a specific focus didn’t really come into play until I was about two years into photographing my neighborhood and downtown Stockton. I had recently moved from a suburb in the quiet northwest side of the city to a much older neighborhood in midtown. The area was more walkable, the residential architecture was more interesting and there were more people on the street. It was a refreshing change. I was working as a freelance writer at the time so I took long walks in the mornings and evenings and photographed whatever interested me.

I first started thinking of the photos I was making as a distinct body of work in early 2012. I thought having an online outlet would be a nice way to archive and share the work, so I started a Tumblr called “Maps to Stockton” and began posting. The project remained pretty casual until that summer, when Stockton filed for bankruptcy and faced the highest homicide rate in its history.

At the time Stockton was the biggest city in the country to enter bankruptcy proceedings (Detroit beat us out a year later). That fact coupled with the murders made it a historically bad year. The media pounced on both stories and put Stockton’s name through the wringer, writing the city off as too far-gone to fix. City officials and community groups tried to balance out the negativity with boosterism that to me seemed overzealous and shallow. There were two divergent depictions of Stockton that were forming, and I didn't find a whole lot of truth in either of them. I think a lot of residents probably felt the same way.

From then on I made an effort to photograph in a way that I felt was accurate; that portrayed the city clearly without malice or excessive charm. I wanted to push back against the extreme depictions of Stockton and make room for a more grounded perspective. I tried to make the images that I wanted to see; that I hadn't seen up to that point.

 

How did you decide on format for layout and publication? Did you self publish?

I tried to keep the layout simple and as true to the name of the project as possible: full frame photographs centered on the page with a handwritten caption specifying the name of the street where the photo was made. For each spread, I paired images that I felt were complementary in form or content. I realize that that's not a very subtle or nuanced way of sequencing, but I like the momentum it gives the book. Maybe I'll change things up the next time around.

For cost reasons I decided to publish through Blurb for Vol. I. I used their 9x6 trade book format, which is a nice balance between cost and quality, but I do hope to work with a smaller press for future publications. Print on demand is convenient and it has its place, but I'd like to have a more personal role in the book's production.

 

If I understood correctly, the proceeds from this project didn't go to you, they went to keeping the Stockton library open. How did you donating your art to a cause affect how you felt about the body of work?

Correct. Sales from the book paid my out of pocket printing costs and the profit was donated to the Cesar Chavez Central Library.

Donating the proceeds didn’t have much of an affect on how I viewed the work, honestly. I was just happy to put up the money because the Cesar Chavez branch in particular does a lot of good for youth in the area. All of the photo books I’ve spent considerable time with have come from that library, so it made sense to give back in some way. I felt a little better about the overdue fees I’ve racked up over the years once I cut the check, too.

 

How did you know when the body of work was complete? Did you have a particular deadline you were shooting for or did you go back through your portfolio and recognize that you had gotten all the shots you needed?

Actually, it's still a work in progress. I live here and shoot almost every day so I imagine that it will continue, though perhaps not as intentionally, until I move away. There's a lot of personal emotion wrapped up in the project, so I feel conflicted about ending it before it's necessary. But even after five years into the work, I still wrestle with what an honest depiction of Stockton—or any city—looks like, and whether I’m representing my hometown effectively. I question whether representation and accuracy even needs to be my focus anymore. I often worry that the amount of time I spend thinking about this project is closing me off to new ideas, or is somehow stunting my creative growth. Like I have blinders on, you know?

There was no grand plan behind the decision to wait five years to publish anything; it just took me a long time to figure out what to do with the photos. The first volume of “Maps to Stockton” spans November 2010 through December 2011, so I’ve got four more volumes to put out if I want to chronicle the work through to the present day. It’s comforting that the photos for the next few books already exist, but sometimes I feel like I'm just amassing a huge backlog that will be impossible to work through. As always...time will tell.


See more of Brandon's work here.

To purchase a copy, contact Brandon through his email: brandongetty[at]gmail[dot]com