Brennan Booker is a photographic artist living and working in Columbia SC. He is currently finishing his final year of his Bachelors of Fine Arts in studio art at the University of South Carolina. His work focuses on the interactions between queer identity, the Southern physical and social landscape. If he's not taking photos you can find him taking an afternoon snooze with his dog Kodak until golden hour.
Honeysuckle is a collection of portraits that explore the connection between queer identity and the physical/social landscapes of the South. Through my photographic practice, I use the camera as a tool to create a space for my subjects to express themselves fully. By removing the hindrances of the surrounding environment (the South), the viewer may experience a moment that often remains unseen. By photographing in a way that utilizes the traditional understanding of landscape imagery and juxtaposing it with aspects of queer identity such as the queer body, or unconventional expressions of masculinity, a conversation about how these two almost conflicting identities function simultaneously can begin. The work invites the viewer to experience how the world shifts and changes the way we perceive things, through the lens of these seemingly disparate identities combined. The portraits mixed with the landscape imagery bring the viewer into a collective queer experience. The layering and combining of different image types, functions as a representation of the complexity of these past experiences. In order for the relationship between person and place to be understood all of the intertwining elements must be understood. My work seeks to create these connections, and bring them to life as physical representations.
How did Honeysuckle come about? Did you feel a call to action?
I don’t know if I would describe it as a call to action, but more so a sense of validation that I was receiving. When I began the project in the fall of 2017 I was beginning to take a look at contemporary and historic queer image making and realizing that I could make work about my identity and still be taken seriously. I think when I was first starting out making working seriously, I felt a lot of pressure to make images that matched up both in content and technical proficiency with people who had been at it a lot longer than I have. I’m still working on breaking away from the rules I’ve for some reason always set for myself and I think this work was a big part of that breakthrough.
My work will always be somehow politicized though, simply because of its subject matter. When you make work about something that either people have a hard time connecting to, or speaks to contemporary societal conversations, people will always come to it with whatever frame of reference they can. With queer identifying work specifically, it will always be a part of that larger conversation. I can’t control how people perceive the images I make, but I can have my own motivations for making them, and I think that’s where I’ve tried to find the balance between a need to be making representational imagery and the motivations of my own artistic practice.
You use a lot of different identities in this work, how did you find your models and do you have advice for reaching out to people for others wanting to do something similar?
I started by photographing my friends who fit the criteria I had built when starting the project. Those parameters have since expanded, but by photographing people I really had that trust with already when I finally started photographing strangers it gave me the credibility that I needed with them to make them comfortable enough to photograph with me. I started by photographing friends, then their friends, then the friends of those friends, etc. Social media was also a huge tool for me, and providing images for people to use for their social media, even if they didn’t fit completely in with my project was important. People would see what I was doing on those platforms and they want that for themselves. And delivering on the promises I would make was hugely important. If I said I was going to photograph someone, I’d follow up, don’t reschedule. And remember that you’re giving them your time just as much as they are. Portraiture is collaborative, regardless of how much input your subject has on the final outcome. Taking that relationship seriously will only build you and your work up in the long run.
Do you see your portraits and landscapes as breaks between or something that speaks to each other?
I’ll be honest, my feelings about this change a lot and this is really what I’m thinking about now that I’m working towards a final(ish) edit and closing of this work before I move away. I think both of those types of images have their own languages but they do speak to each other. Perhaps they can even serve as both kinds? Something that I’m coming to terms with is more so that I can’t control whether people make those connections or not. I can only present the work as it makes sense to me and respond to the reactions that a viewer might have.
For me, and where I’m at in the long game of a photographic career, I’m fine with not having all the answers. I don’t think I ever want to have all the answers.
What is the best piece of advice you can give to someone about creating identity work?
I’ve thought for a while that if you can’t speak openly about your motivations for making identity based work, that you’d have an incredibly difficult time making work that feels sensitive enough, both in content and for your own personal motivations.
Also, especially regarding portraiture, make sure that you can be open enough to your subjects so that they can feel comfortable in the way that you as a photographer might be hoping for. I never ask my subjects to do things that I wouldn’t be willing to do myself, and everyone has their own level. I always try to meet them where ever they’re at physically and emotionally.
What was the reason behind starting Cumulus?
I really wanted to build a space that I could use to fulfill some of the holes that I see in the world of photo publishing. By offering more opportunities than just project features, I think it’s going to give so many more people an opportunity to spread their reach into other forms of photo publishing. Not every artist is ready or wanting to have a feature on a long term project and we really felt like we could provide a space for those people to find something else to work on.
I’m also just so obsessed with looking at photos and figured I should take all that time I spend on Instagram and put it to good use.
Now that your BFA is coming to a close at the University of South Carolina what do you have planned next?
I’ve got a few things in the works right now. Starting Cumulus Photo with Alyssa has been a dream for a while now, and I’m greatly looking forward to seeing what we are able to do and who we are able to connect with this platform. I’ve also been running a column over on Lenscratch entitled Developer, a series about specifically emerging artists and how they’re navigating the professional world of photography. Finally, I’ll begin pursuing my Masters in Photography at the University of Nebraska - Lincoln. I’ve known Dana Fritz and Walker Pickering for a few years now and am so excited to go and learn from them. Nebraska has an amazing program and I can’t wait to see how it transforms not only my work but also for me as an image maker. I’m really looking forward to seeing how that change in community will change the way I experience the world.
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