Nov 13, 2013

Phlearn Interviews Brad Wagner

Brad Wagner is a 22 year old photographer who was born and raised in Havre, Montana, and is currently living in Missoula, Montana. He recently graduated from post-secondary school this past May with a Bachelors in Spanish Language and Literature.

Brad’s interest in photography began like many of us – browsing Flickr and sites of the like online, and being incredibly inspired by an individual. Upon this inspiration Brad embarked on his first “365 days photo project” where you take a photo every day for a year, and he finished this project in September of 2012.

Through participating in this photo project Brad realized that One of his main goals with his photography is to tell a story with his photographs, whether it be a single photograph or a stream of them to create a visual timeline. Brad has found successes with this approach through creating three personal photographic stories – “Flowers”, “The Murder Ballad”, and “His.Story”, as well through submitting an entry to Canon’s “Project Imagin8ion” and winning in the character category.

Join us in this exclusive interview with Brad Wagner as we get to see sketches, before and after(s), and a plethora of images. As well as this, Brad also speaks with us about the development of his characters that he’s created within his photographs as time progresses, and what “storytelling” means to him.

How did you become interested in photography?

I’ve been interested in photography since about 2006-ish, but I really never became fully obsessed with it until 2011. That summer while wandering across the internet I came across some of Alex Stoddard’s photos and eventually his 365 project. It was kind of a strange eye opening experience to the power of photography, so much so that I started my own 365 project a few months later.

What inspires you?

In a broad sense I’m inspired by storytelling- why we tell stories, how we tell them, the characters, motives, themes etc. In terms of individual photos I’m inspired by just about everything. I’ve shot photos inspired by entire books, single words, colors, wall paper, the shape of a tree, a beam of light, a pose I randomly struck walking past a mirror, songs, mythology, and more!

Within your photography you participate in creating compelling self-portraiture which tells the viewers a story. How has experimenting and continuing to create self-portraiture helped you and your practice? Would you consider this something all photographers and/or artists should try at least once?

I love self-portraiture for the ultimate control it yields me as an artist. Having to be in charge of every aspect of the image’s creation forces you to really understand and consider every aspect of the process from light and concept to styling and pose. The times when I do end up working with others in my photos it becomes so much easier for me to communicate what I want because it’s all stuff I’ve had experience in doing with myself.Self-portraiture definitely isn’t for everyone, but it is something that I do recommend every artist try. Even if you don’t intend on creating a final portfolio piece, I think the experience in creating a self-portrait can teach you something about your art and yourself.

Does creating self-portraiture ever have a down side?

Self-portraiture can definitely be limiting. There are just certain things I can’t shoot as self-portraits, like a spring goddess shoot (I mean, I could put on a dress, but I would not be nearly as convincing as an actual girl). Or, for example, last winter I was at an amazing ghost town, but couldn’t execute any of the ideas I came up with because “long curly wild-child hair” just doesn’t mesh with an old west setting. At the same time though I think that most restrictions just call for a bit of creativity to overcome them.

What’s on your gear list? (cameras, lenses, editing software, etc)

At the beginning of the year I finally upgraded to a Sony A99, before that I used the A700 which gets taken off the shelf every once in a while. For lenses I primarily use a 50mm 1.4, but I also have a 18-70mm and a 75-300mm which have their moments every now and then. I use Photoshop CS6 for editing. Other than that, a remote and a tripod

You recently completed your first 365 photo project where you take one photo every day for a year. First off, congratulations! Secondly, now that you’re finished this project, how has completing this series of photos shaped who you are as a photographer?

Thanks! The project really shaped just about everything I am as a photographer. When I started the project I set myself a goal to experiment and push myself as much as possible and by doing so I was really able to find what I did and didn’t like in my photos and try out a variety of styles. Also, having to come up with something new every day really resulted in a wealth of ideas. Quite a bit of what I’m working on at the moment is taken from ideas that I had hit upon during my 365 project, and now I have the opportunity to investigate further.

What is your favourite photo that you’ve ever taken?

Well that’s not a hard question at all! Maybe the image “Water” which I shot for my Element series? It’s always been one of those images that turned out better than I had imagined and am still occasionally surprised by.

Is there something (within the realms of photography or not) that you wish you were better at?

Is everything an acceptable answer? I think no matter how good you are at something there’s always room to improve. But if I had to choose one thing I think it would be the communication/business side of the industry. I’m not really the best at talking to people.

Can you tell us about your small series “Icarus”? I find it to be so simply beautiful yet it speaks so much. What was the inspiration behind these photos?

The idea for Icarus really came about from my inability to draw. Before I started photography I would try and draw every once in a while. Most of the time my drawings of people would come out semi-decent until I got to the hands, so I eventually just started turning them into large fading winglike shapes. Trying to figure out what to shoot for my 365 one day I figured I’d try and bring the drawing to life. I really didn’t have much of an idea who he was as a character when I started, just a look, but after the first couple images I really started seeing where I wanted to take him and who he is, and really identifying personally with him. He’s really a sort of extension of myself in a sense. I still have a few more photos in the series that I want to do, one which I think could explain the character better than I could with words. But I think his name explains a lot- someone who’s dreams and desires are limited by the realities of the world; a sort of Don Quixote character.

With your photography one of your main goals is to tell a story. So far you have created three complex photo series which you call “stories”. The first being The Murder Ballad, second being Flowers, and the third being His Story. Which one of these series do you feel were the most successful and why?

It’s a bit hard to say which one was more successful, they each had really different formats and goals in storytelling, so I think they were all rather successful in their own ways. But I think my favorite would have to be the Flowers series, because its creation was so natural and fun. It actually started out from having worn the same clothes in two different photos in my 365 and wondering how I could go about connecting the two. So I just started out shooting more and then filling in the narrative gaps and really telling the story completely out of order. It’s also actually the one story that I’m still working on. Whereas all my other stories I think of being ‘short stories’, I like the idea of turning this one into a ‘novel’, or a ‘saga.’ I still don’t know exactly where it’s going, but I just keep taking new photos and filling in the gaps.
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To follow up that question, I’m going to say my favourite is “The Murder Ballad”. I find the series absolutely stunning! Can you tell us about the process of creating these images? And the “story” behind it all?

The series came about pretty much as the result of being sucked into a whirlpool of folk music. Through a chain of watching videos on YouTube I came across a video of Hedy West playing “Little Sadie” in which she referred to it as “one of the many American murder ballads” and I became interested in the fact that this was a genre of music. I eventually became obsessed, finding more and more songs, making a playlist, and looking up the history. I ended up noticing a general storyline in a group of songs of a young girl running away with her lover who ends up murdering her, some of them based on true stories. I was so interested in the stories and their history that I really wanted to do something to bring them to life and decided to take the “story” format I had been exploring with “His.Story” and “Flowers” and put it into something more defined.I ended up shooting the series at the MidWest Flickr Gathering (about 30 of us photographers who had become friends through Flickr decided to meet up on a farm in Indiana and become friends in real life. No one ended up being a serial killer.) The whole experience of actually shooting it was really different for me. I spent a couple evenings scouting out the locations, sketching everything out, and figuring out exactly how I wanted to tell the story so that when it came to shoot, it would be a breeze. One of my favorite things about the series is that I shot almost all of it in real time.I really loved the challenge in story telling this presented. Whereas with “His.Story” I relied heavily on the titles to tell the story, and with “Flowers” I’ve been trying to keep quite a bit of mystery, I set a goal for myself with it to try and clearly tell a story in just photos. I like the idea of being able to “read” through them like a book.
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What is your proudest moment as a photographer?

Definitely finishing my 365 project. The project was really the first thing I’ve ever really fully dedicated myself to, and even though I ended up being 3 months late (4 if you count the month long hiatus, I guess) the feeling of having stuck with and finished something that big was incredible. Not to mention the progression I was able to see in my photography and myself.

Can you tell us about your experience of winning the “character category” in Canon’s “Project Imagin8ion” contest with your photo entitled “Tyrant”? It must have been awesome

I absolutely loved the result of the first “Project Imagin8ion” and when I saw that they were doing it again this year I immediately submitted to every category. I was so happy to end up being one of the 10 winners in the Character category since that is the theme that most relates to my work. In the end my photo didn’t end up being used in any of the 10 films (multiple directors were able to use the same photos so many images unfortunately didn’t get to be used). I attended the film festival premiere this past week in New York City with a few other friends who had won and had a blast. It was incredible to see how various images got interpreted into the films and to be surrounded by so many other creative and passionate people. All the films that came out of the project were incredible. If anyone cares to view them they can be seen at (I personally recommend Julian Higgins’ “Here and Now” and Biz Stone’s “Evermore”)

Who are some of your favourite artists and/or photographers?

Even though he’s not a visual artist Neil Gaiman is without a doubt my favorite, Dave McKean, the Pre-Raphaelites, Peter Sís’s book “Conference of the Birds” is beautiful, Anish Kapoor, Vermeer, I love JMW Turner’s seascapes, it’s impossible not to admire Kirsty Mitchell’s hard work and dedication to her Wonderland series, and the entire Flickr community is full of incredible artists and friends.

How important is Photoshop to your work? Can we see a before/after of one of your most edited images?

I really couldn’t do most of what I do without photoshop, but I try and keep it simple. I expand the frame with pretty much every image- so there’s always some simple compositing. Other than that it’s just tweaking colors and light, trying to keep things as natural as possible.

“Fleet Feet and a Sheet of Sleet” is probably the most editing I’ve ever done to a photo. There was no way I was going to run barefoot and partially naked through the snow enough times to perfect the pose and framing so I settled for having to composite in my feet and the rest of the cloth. I wasn’t able to feel my feet for about 24 hours afterwards anyway. And I remember how painful (yet ultimately very rewarding) it was photoshopping to make myself that pale and turn my hair white and make it relatively believable.

Do you ever sketch your work before shooting?

I do every once in a while, usually it’s if I’m going to be using a model or for storyboarding. Here’s my initial drawing from when I shot my Elements series, things ended up changing based on the locations but for the most part they came out pretty similar. (as you can see there’s a reason photography is my medium of choice)

On average, how long does it take you to create a conceptual image? (So that would be conceptualizing, shooting, editing, etc)

Well, I used to be able to get it all done in about 5 hours (about 2.5 hours conceptualizing/shooting, and 2.5 hours editing) by necessity during my 365, but now it’s taking quite a lot longer as I’m spending more time on things. Conceptualizing can take anywhere from a few minutes to years. Shooting is usually rather quick since I have things pretty much all planned out by the time I shoot. Editing I usually spend maybe 7 hours on average spread out over a few days, going back and forth between the most minor adjustments (and getting distracted quite a bit). So it’s usually about a week before I’m actually satisfied with a final image.

What would your dream job be?

I’d like to be an author who uses photos instead of words.

Do you have any advice to offer us fellow photographers?

Keep your mind open to the world around you. Talk to yourself. Climb mountains. Make mistakes. Be curious. Explore. Breathe. Learn.

If you would like to know more about Brad or stay up to date with his work you can do so on his Website, Flickr, and Facebook Page. Interviewed By Angela Butler, thanks for reading!


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