Photographing high profile celebrities, politicians, Burmese refugees in Cambodia, musicians in New Orleans, and many others, has taught Christopher Briscoe to connect with people, and to join the dots that connect all people. To be more than an observer and an objectifier. We recently caught up with him to talk about his craft, his methodology, and what advice he’d give other photographers starting out today.
Heraclitus said that a person’s character is their destiny.
For some people, finding personal fortune means heading out into the night, armed with a tiki torch and a butterfly net, and looking for it under the dark bridges that most people avoid. This has been the casual, wandering approach that has given Christopher Briscoe’s career such an entertaining trajectory. After three decades, his work has undergone changes with new technology and evolved with his personality, but his subject matter – people and the links that tie our species together – has bloomed.
In the seventies, he sailed to Tahiti and spent a year there, and followed this up by cycling across America three times. His most recent sojourns have been to Cambodia, and several extended stays in New Orleans, where he has broken bread and made lifelong friends with the offbeat artists who’ve moved there to do what they love. After many years behind the lens, he is still doing what he loves – going places, meeting people, and capturing it in his camera and in his books.
On Having “Connectors”
Through my career, I have established what I like to call connectors. In the early ’90s, a family came to see their in-laws in Oregon, and I did their pictures. We had a genuinely fun connection. It wasn’t the greatest portrait session I’ve had in my whole life, but two weeks later they called me from DC and said, ‘Chris, we’ve got ten families who love your work. You’ve got to come out here.’
I totally resisted at first, but ended up going along with it. And over the next ten years, twenty years now, that list turned into nearly one hundred. One of them was the quarterback with the Redskins in the 90’s. He got traded to the Broncos, so he was my connector in Denver, as I started going there for the Broncos. So that connector thing has really served me well.
Last Saturday, I was shooting Sheryl Crow, who was at a friend/client’s house in DC.
I started out with another friend, connector, who knew all the movie stars in Santa Barbara. And movie stars don’t shop the Yellow Pages for their photographers. It’s all trust, it’s all word of mouth. So I started staying in this friend’s guest house there for many years, and she would call up movie stars, writers, whoever. Rob Lowe, Dennis Miller, Gorbachov. And because the referral is coming from her, I’m now in the bubble.
Amzie Adams – one of Chris’s most beloved connectors and friends, in New Orleans.
On Being A Photographer Today
I got married and live in La Jolla. I usually stay here for six or eight weeks, and then I’ll go up to my studio in Oregon and work for two weeks, and then I’ll come back.
The biggest positive for me is having choices…. I’m at the time of my life and career now, where being a photographer after all these years, where I don’t have to struggle financially and think about who is going to pay me, and how much.
I’ll jump on the train or a plane to go somewhere far away and do a book, with a plan that I made, without a publisher, just because I want to do it. And that’s a great freedom.
I have to say, also, that in all my years as a photographer, I can’t remember ever taking a job based on the paycheck alone. I’ve looked at who I’m going to photograph and made the decision based on the connection I’d made, or the possibility of one. I’ve always followed my passion instead of a paycheck, and most of the time the money has followed. But the passion is what I really focus on.
On Paparazzi Photographers
One of things I love most about photography is the shared experience that results in a personal connection to the people I photograph.
Paparazzi are what I’d call disconnectors. It alienates everybody from them, and it’s all about making money. Totally the antithesis of what I do.
When I photograph celebrities, it’s not about who they are in the media, it’s about who they are as a person – as a mom or a dad, and their relationship with their family.
When I was photographing Catherine Zeta-Jones, with Michael and the family, they were generous and kind to me. I took their family photos, honored to be with them.
So a short while after that shoot, I jumped on a plane, and a few days later I’m in the middle of a really rough area in Thailand, with these Burmese children who’d escaped across the river, living in these huts, wearing clothes they’ve found in the trash.
I took with me a little HP Printer that ran on a battery and had it in my camera bag. You see tourists all the time taking pictures of people on their travels, and they show them the digital image on the back of the camera. I wanted to give them something. So I made prints on the spot and handed them what could very well have been their first portraits. To me, that was another shift in my career. There I was, with a mother and their children, who were peeling the label off cans so that they could collect a recycling fee, their feet covered in ash from the burning trash where they were searching. I saw the same kind of love and the connection that Catherine Zeta-Jones has with her children in those Burmese families. Their worlds are physically and metaphorically worlds apart, but the lady helping her kids peel the labels off cans wants the same thing as Catherine Zeta-Jones wants for hers – safety, happiness, food and health, education – the same thing as any mother.
On What It Takes To Strive As A Photographer?
There are three things that I’ve put together, that I need to focus on to thrive.
Vision, passion and courage. There’s lots of other things that could go on the list – authenticity, integrity. But these are my three.
Vision is very important; it’s all about having creative ideas. But anyone who has taken a hot shower has had great ideas – it’s what you do with those ideas when you get out of the shower that makes the difference.
Passion – you cannot take a class in passion. We all know people who have vision, high IQ’s, but lack passion. To me, they’re duds. A firecracker that doesn’t go off.
And the third is something that we all struggle with, courage. The only class in courage you can take, is life. And the only thing you can do for homework is practice – constantly challenging yourself to get out of your comfort zone. Whether you’re a teenager waiting to ask the beauty to the prom, or you want to be a writer and you go to the Writers, Ink and take a class, or quit your boring day job and pursue your passion.
On Gear & Using New Technology
Digital photography is one of the greatest things that’s happened to my craft. I used to stand in the darkroom, in a fog of chemicals, after shooting rolls of film. A roll of film gave me 36 photos with 36 possibilities, which in retrospect was a good discipline. With the digital age, my darkroom has become my iPad. I can create art with a .99 cents app that I couldn’t do in a week in a darkroom.
If I were starting out now as a photographer, it would be tough, because anyone who can afford a Canon Rebel can go to Costco and buy one for $500, and become “a photographer.” It’s not the same. We live in a world of point-and-shoot. Without a real understanding of light, form, and color, you won’t reach the same destination. Whether you’re using an iPhone or a Panasonic CM1 or an expensive Nikon, without knowing the fundamentals, no app is going to save your ass.
I’ve always shot with big Canons, big Nikons. I wrote a book recently on street photography in Manhattan. I watched other pros shooting with long, white lenses, as if they were hunting prey. I was reminded of a conversation with some friends, who invited me to Africa to photograph gorillas. They emphasized how important it would be that I not get any closer than twenty feet, and in particular that making eye contact with the gorillas could provoke an aggressive response. I think pointing large camera lenses at people, no matter what your relationship is with them, evokes a defensive reaction.
This is why I made the switch to the new Sony mirrorless camera system. Their cameras are small, lightweight and really sharp, but the cool thing is that they have a little flip-up screen. If I’m taking your portrait, instead of me pointing a long, intrusive lens at you, my Sony is at my waist. I’m looking down into a flip-up screen. It’s a totally different experience for the person being photographed. If I am shooting the shoes of an exotic woman in Times Square, I no longer have to lay on the pavement. I just bend over, lower my camera, look into the flip-up screen, ‘click’ and I’m off to the next shot.
When I was shooting my book about street photography in New York, I had a little sling camera bag under my arm. In it were two Sony bodies and three lenses. When I spotted the ballerina on the sidewalk, I jumped out of my cab, nailed the image, then jumped back in the cab without missing my train to DC. I love that camera!”
These Walking Blues would like to thank Chris for his time during this interview, and for the use all images in this post.