Brian Finke received an Alexia Foundation Student Award of Excellence Grant for his project, “Middle Class American High School” in 1998. Yesterday, he published his fourth book, U.S. Marshals, a monograph on the law enforcement agency. His photography has been featured by National Geographic, The New York Times Magazine, Wired, GQ and many others.
In this new interview, we speak with Brian about his latest work, and how he developed his distinct style and focus, the roots of which can be seen in that first Alexia Foundation project.
Alexia Foundation: You have your fourth monograph, U.S. Marshals, coming out, that must be exciting. Are you relieved?
I’m drawn to subject matter that’s relatable, that we see in the everyday, and then I like to take that out of context
Brian Finke: I love the process. I’m always relieved but it’s always a little bittersweet because I love working on these projects and I love putting them out there and sharing it. It’s always heartfelt when it’s over because it is so much fun being out in the world with the wild circumstances. Being out there and photographing is always the really fun part. But, I’m excited to share it now.
Alexia Foundation: What intrigued you particularly about the U.S. Marshals?
Brian Finke: For years, I’d wanted to do a project about how we as a country police ourselves. That was the original, very broad motivation. My buddy, Cameron, who I was friends with in high school and then reconnected with many years after, had become a US Marshal. That’s how the project originally started.
For me it was amazing, putting on bullet proof vests and riding in right behind them. I had total respect for what they do. The pictures in the beginning almost felt too propaganda-like. It was just such an amazing experience – being there with them and being in awe of what they do.
I love being a storyteller with pictures. That’s why I love working on these longer term things and then having the opportunity to do a book where you just show so many pictures and are able to tell a story. I love to take pictures that touch on different sensibilities. Some that are very heroic. But also some that have a sense of humor or can be a little more heartfelt or sentimental or funny. When pictures touch on those different emotions, I think that’s what makes for a successful story. I think it’s very easy just to go do all one type of thing and be sarcastic about it.
I really enjoy that process of storytelling. I think it’s a very natural thing also that comes from spending a long period of time and revisiting something. All these things just start naturally presenting themselves.
I photographed a sex offender round up going on in Vegas. I photographed a prisoner transport coming back from Cuba. I photographed the amazing Air Marshal training facilities at LAX. Then, they were serving warrants.
My first day was in Houston. The U.S. Marshals work with other government agencies. A prisoner had escaped from a Huntsville prison. We were driving 120 miles per hour on the freeway going to get this escaped convict. It was incredible to see.
For me, what I love about photography is the experience of being out in the world. Reality is the best. The things that naturally happen, you can’t make it up. Being there, spending the time, and seeing what presents itself. That’s my work.
Alexia Foundation: How much of your book captured training exercises and how much was fieldwork?
Brian Finke: I don’t know the percentage. There is a combination of being out on the street and then doing training things. I felt the training stuff was important because how it is a weird play with reality. You don’t know whether it’s real. That is something that I liked and is important to me in my pictures.
I also like capturing those reportage moments, but then adding light to it. The light heightens the moments and creates an artificial feeling.
Alexia Foundation: How dangerous was the fieldwork?
Brian Finke: I never really felt like my life was in danger at any point because of how they operate. It’s all about being very smart and also using overwhelming force, in a sense that, it could be a dozen marshals going in to get one guy. They go in early in the mornings, either after the person is come back from being out all night or before they leave the house for the day. They are on the streets when there are no bystanders or pedestrians nearby.
And when they say, “You should put on a bulletproof vest,” you should definitely listen to them and take the precaution. But they’re really, really, good at what they do so that, it felt very safe being there. It’s about as close as I would ever want to get to any sort of sketchy or war type of situation.
Alexia Foundation: How are you shooting? What are you using?
Brian Finke: This was my crossover to digital project. Everyone has theirs, it seems. The beginning was shot on film and I switched to shooting digitally.
The digital process just works for me very well. Prior it was all Hasselblad and handheld Q flashes. I love how responsive the digital process is between auto focus and using the TTL metering for the Quantum Q flashes. It made me even more responsive in the situations as far as being able to react to what’s going on and capture photographs.
I think it made me a better photographer, I wouldn’t be doing it if I didn’t really enjoy the process and thought that it would make for better images.
Technically speaking, I shoot with the high end Nikon cameras and I use Quantum Q Flashes. I hold a flash off camera and then I work with an assistant that also holds a flash. My assistant and I work together all the time so the whole process becomes very second nature and intuitive in these situations – knowing which way I’m wanting the light to come from and streaking through the scene and then just being very responsive and moving with the changing situation.
Brian Finke: I’m drawn to subject matter that’s very relatable, that we see in the everyday, and then I like to take that out of context or show it in a slightly different circumstance, so it’s less familiar. For instance with the flight attendants it was great going into people’s homes or deli’s or bars or lounges and different things, taking them outside of that normal scene of relating to them on an airplane.
I think that it’s also very fulfilling because it allows people to see the very familiar and look at it in a slightly different way. I like that familiarity with something like the cheerleaders or football players. The same thing with U.S. Marshals, seeing them in the unfamiliar place of going into people’s homes with them and how that feels.
Alexia Foundation: What are you trying to do with your photography? What’s the goal?
Brian Finke: Originally way back when, forever ago, in high school, I got into photography because of seeing the work of photographers like Eugene Richards, Eugene Smith, Joe Perez – people that were very dedicated to social awareness in their photography. I wanted to work in that tradition.
I came to art school here in New York, the School of the Visual Arts, very interested in documentary photography. When I graduated, I was one of ten photographers photographing child labor issues around the world. My original motivation for photography came from that. I wanted to go and photograph very serious social awareness issues. Working on projects like that, I felt my photography was emulating people that have done it and done it very well for a long time.
Then I started my first big personal project. It became my first book, 2-4-6-8, which was about cheerleaders and football players. It came out in 2003. I grew up in a suburb of Houston in Texas and both my sisters were cheerleaders in high school and college. My attention turned to things that more spoke about my own culture.
I love what I go and do. I love the process of it. I love being out in the world, meeting people. That means a lot to me. Then I enjoy the part coming up with the U.S. Marshals projects where I able to share. What people get from it specifically, I very much leave up to them.
Alexia Foundation: What’s the moment you remember best from your Alexia grant?
Brian Finke: There’s not really a specific moment, but I enjoyed it, being back at the high school and appreciating that experience. And it led to my first book. It was during that time when my motivation and interest changed from just wanting to do something that was more specifically rooted in documentary photography, the traditional subject matter of it. I didn’t consider myself a documentary photographer. I was more making a social comment, instead of more criticizing a specific thing.
It’s kind of a strange thing to talk about because it wasn’t, I didn’t feel like it was totally a successful thing but it was a good learning experience. It helped me find a better balance between just going and photographing. I really like how I work now. I like how doing assignment work can influence personal work and vice versa. I think everyone figures out what works for them and the subject matter and stuff that they’re drawn to.
Alexia Foundation: What did winning the Alexia Grant mean to you?
Brian Finke: It’s wonderful getting acknowledgement. That reassurance is always very much appreciated.
For me, when I was a student and received it, it helped me get meetings at magazines with photo editors. It was that original introduction that brought my work to photo editors’ attention. Not that I started working right away for places like The New Yorker or The New York Times Magazine but it was great being able to go and meet with the photo department and show them work. Then just to always follow-up with that, show them the work six months later, and then show new work and then continuing doing that.
Then, a few years down the road, I started to get assignments for these publications that I really wanted to work for. It definitely opened doors and it’s always great getting acknowledgement for personal work.
Alexia Foundation: Do you know what’s next?
Brian Finke: I’m always working on something. My current project is about the models in hip hop videos, “Hip Hop Honeys, Video Vixens.” I’m hanging out on set of everything from B-level to high end stuff with Jay-Z and Busta Rhymes and 50-Cent, and photographing the women that are in the videos.
The project came to me through a photo editor that I work with at D Magazine in Italy. We were at a photo festival and she had seen a BBC documentary about it and she said, “Brian, you’d love this, it’s so perfect for you.” I love it when friends and people that I work with recommend things. It seems like story ideas come very naturally that way. I started shooting a little while ago and that will hopefully be the next book and show.
Alexia Foundation: What advice do you have for young photographers?
Brian Finke: Always make personal work. That’s the thing that I took the most from art school – to always be doing personal work. That’s where all my commercial work comes from – sometimes very, very directly. I’m now photographing a Delta ad campaign because of my Flight Attendant book.
Recently, my first story for National Geographic came out about meat culture. That came from me just doing a lot of shooting BBQ and doing food pictures that way. People respond to the personal work. It’s great showing that interest in and commitment to things. It comes across. Art directors and clients respond to it.
It’s also very fulfilling. Personal work is the stuff that stays around. It resonates. It feels really good to do those things. I can’t talk enough about personal work. Also, as your photography career grows, it’s nice having this grounding of things that you can go do for one’s self. That’s a great thing to have there.
That and to have just a great work ethic. You have to work really hard. That’s my two cents worth.
Clamp Art in New York City will be hosting an exhibition of U.S. Marshals to coincide with the launch of the book. The opening reception is Nov. 20, 2014 and the work will be on display until Dec. 20. PowerHouse books will be holding a celebration and book signing for the new work on Nov. 21 in Brooklyn.