Brian Day, Detroit From Above

I had the pleasure of meeting Brian Day at the Scarab Club last year when his work was featured as part of their annual photography show. His work has been exhibited both locally and internationally, and published in Esquire, Smithsonian,CNN, The Detroit Free Press, The Detroit News, the Metro Times, among others. He was awarded a Documenting Detroit Fellowship in 2016, and was a recipient of the Michigan Chronicle’s Men of Excellence award in 2017. Brian currently serves as the Chief Technology Officer for Henry Ford Health System in Detroit, Michigan, and lives with his wife of 17 years in the Metro Detroit area.

"Detroit From Above" is currently on view at M Contemporary Art through March 10th, located at 209 E Nine Mile in Ferndale. They are open Thursday 12-8pm, Friday and Saturday 12-5pm, or by appointment.

 

First, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us in the midst of your beautiful show “Detroit from Above” that opened last week at M Contemporary.  Can you start by telling us a bit about your background growing up in Detroit and how you think that’s influenced your work?

I come from a middle class, blue collar, third generation of Detroiters.  I was born the same year as the GM Renaissance Center, and raised on the west side during the Coleman Young era.  We had friends and family all over the city, and it was a time of family reunion picnics on Belle Isle, block parties where the fire hydrant would be turned on and the kids would play in the street all day long – as long as you were home by the time the street lights came on. Driving to even the nearest suburban movie theater (the good old Americana Theater back in the day) seemed like a trek. 

Anyway, my parents – celebrating their 42nd anniversary together this year – raised my sister and I in a safe family atmosphere within the city, but I was always curious to wander beyond the bounds of my neighborhood and see more.  We spent a lot of time in Belle Isle and Palmer Park, took family drives through Indian Village, Boston Edison and downtown, and I was always fascinated as a kid in the back seat of the car, watching the city flash by in the window, wanting to explore.  My dad took a lot of photos (essentially street photography) and I stared at plenty of Ansel Adams’ photos while waiting in the lobby of a bank for my mom to get off work. 

The older I got, of course, I had more freedom and opportunities to hang out across town, but it wasn’t until I started taking photography seriously that I realized it’s power to recapture that sense of exploration and nostalgia.  So I think that has had a definite influence on my work.

When and how did you discover photography? 

 I’m a technologist by profession, and I was working in the automotive industry from 1998-2008.  When the recession hit its low point, I decided it was a good time to shift out of the automotive industry into health care IT, so I left one corporate job for another and found myself getting to know new colleagues all over again and navigating a brand new organizational learning curve.  I inquired one day about the cool graffiti photos a colleague had on his wall, and he told me he was a photographer on the weekends, going all over the city taking photos.  On a whim, he invited me to join him that upcoming Saturday.  I accepted the invitation and went out to buy a camera just so that I would have something to do while we were out, figuring maybe I might learn a little something along the way. 

Needless to say, I got hooked, and my colleague and I became sort of urban photography buddies.  In reality, I guess it was probably more like me following him around like a puppy, sponging as much knowledge of photography as I could.  As a computer nerd by training, I also got really interested in the technical aspects of photography, and reading and learning about the old masters (Cartier-Bresson, Adams, and many others) from their biographies and monographs.  My recreation/“free time” went from playing basketball and video games to bookstores and rediscovering the city with my camera.

  

I was really drawn to something you wrote on your website, in essence that your photography was “a desire to explore both the presence of humanity and the quiet joy of solitude...” I think you meant this in relationship to your Belle Isle images specifically, but I find this to be such an apt theme in all your work.  There is a tension between interaction and isolation. Can you talk about your shooting process and what you look for through the lens?

I’m no pyschoanalyst, but I’m pretty sure my tendency to look for moments of interaction (for example, in the street photography work) and isolation (such as the architecture and aerial work) is a direct reflection of tendencies in my personality.  I go through periods where I love being around people and having great conversations to moments where I just want to be alone and explore.  Not out of any sense of sadness, but I’ve always been that way.  In my photography, that literally translates to me bouncing between different styles in order to scratch the itch of wanting to take photos all the time. 

Sometimes, I crave the interactions and collision of humanity happening on the street and the way we go about our lives together in sort of a strange, unscripted dance.  There’s also a great mental challenge to be found in trying to align all the unscripted characters from that dance into a frame that makes for an interesting – maybe even poetic - juxtaposition.  But, street photography is extremely difficult and frustrating; there’s a lot of scrambling around and an emotional drain to it.  On top of that, even with one’s best effort the reality is more than 90% of the time the images are failures. 

Having a pretty intense day job already adds its own amount of stress, so after a period of shooting street photography I usually get to a point where I want to be away from everything and everyone for a while, or I want to look for images that have a sense of quiet to them.  Quite often, that manifests in the form of some sort of solo road trip with my camera, but the aerial project has been a nice hybrid alternative to give me of creative release of a sense of solitude but without traveling too far away from home.

 Many of your images have a strong play between light and dark values, which adds a sense of drama to the pictures. How much editing do you do in your post-processing and what you look to achieve? Do you shoot in color and then convert everything to black and white?

I mentioned earlier my fascination with Ansel Adams when I first started with photography.  As a kid, I probably stared at Monolith, The Face of Half Dome for countless hours while waiting for my mom to get off work at the bank.  So when I started making pictures, I remembered that image and wanted to know why it always felt like both a serene and scary image at the same time.  I realized I felt that way about that image because of the darkness of the clear sky against the gleaming bright streaks on the shaven face of the mountain, and wondered how something like that was done technically, because out of camera none of my images were coming out like that.  After a bit more digging and reading, I learned about the Zone System, and discovered that Adams’ strict application of that techncial process created images that had a really wide tonal range of light to dark values.  For people who say that technical skills are irrelevant in photography, I would argue that the correct expansion of tonal range can have an undeniable addition to the emotional impact of an image. 

When I shoot, I look for the broadest range of tones in the original scene.  In most of my images taken outdoors, that usually means shooting when the daylight is a sweet, golden color (early morning or late evening).  I shoot primarily digital, and most of my cameras produce raw files that are in color by default (I also shoot with a digital camera that only produces black and white digital files).  In post-processing, the only editing is really the conversion to black and white.  But this conversion is not a simple desaturation of the image, it’s a conversion of each individual color channel.  Similar to the way Ansel Adams used a red filter to make the blue sky so dark in Monolith, a channel conversion from color to black and white creates an opportunity for a more dramatic translation of the image.  But other than converting my images to black and white (and an occasional spot healing brush to remove sensor dust from the sky or ground), I generally don’t alter much in post.  I try not to even crop if I can help it.

 

Your recent series, “Detroit from Above,” employs a totally new perspective while still maintaining your same voice.  Tell us how you photographed this series.  What camera were you using?  How are you controlling aperture and shutter speed?

After shooting in and around Detroit for about 8 years, I found that I was going back to the same locations over and over, trying to find new compositions and new ways to look at scenes.  Drones were out for a few years before the manufacturers really started to emphasize the quality of the cameras mounted on the units, so I had my eye on them for a while as a possible experiment in new compositions.  When the DJI Phantom 4 drone came out, I felt like it was the technical leap I was waiting for to make high enough quality still images. 

From the beginning, I never had any intentions on shooting video with my drone like pretty much everyone else was already doing.  After getting an FAA drone license and going through the learning curve of controlling a camera in the air, I was ready to start re-shooting all the locations that had been nagging me to return.  The fixed lens camera is built into the drone but has full manual controls, so I’m able to compose frames by way of my iPhone, which is plugged into a remote controller.  From the ground, I can compose the frame, adjust ISO, aperture and shutter speed the same way I would with a normal camera.

  

What are some of the challenges of shooting by drone?  Any mishaps?

The biggest challenge of shooting with a drone is that it can be a bit disorienting, visually, since the photographer is physically so far away from his camera.  Figuring out the composition can be a challenge if there is a bit of wind, and you really have to be skilled at piloting the aircraft to avoid any trouble – not to mention keeping an eye on your battery life and all airspace restrictions.  So there are a number of logistical things to be mindful of.  I’ve not had any serious mishaps, other than once landing a bit too hard and bouncing the drone off the concrete, lol. 

 

The images I’m most drawn to in this series are the ones that become highly abstract, removing much of the recognizable context of place as a result of your bird’s eye view.  Many of these also have really strong black values, voids of darkness that seems to imply infinite space beyond, while your full depth of field simultaneously flattens the picture space.  What are you looking for when you’re composing these images?  Are there particular architectural components or landscapes that you are drawn to?

Initially, my drone images were essentially high altitude tripod shots, aiming horizontally toward the horizon and capturing the cityscape at a height that hadn’t really been photographed often.  But even that didn’t feel very rewarding; I didn’t feel like I was really doing anything new in my own work until I started aiming the drone camera straight downward.  When I did, everything that was previously familiar to me about the city became sort of an abstract shape, and suddenly instead of trying to find new images in an old city, the whole city became new again.  It became like a game for me, finding increasingly complex shapes in architecture and civil engineering. 

I’m a big believer in cross pollinating techniques, so the things I learned from shooting wide dynamic range scenes and even long exposure photography quickly became experiments with the drone.  I think it’s a bit like cooking; after doing it for a while, you start mixing and matching ingredients to try new dishes.  Buildings are fascinating photographed from above, because as you mentioned, it’s like they are suddenly flattened into very basic shapes, some of which come to look a bit like circuit boards or architectural schematics rather than fully realized structures.  But I’m really drawn to the way the sun interacts with structural patterns on the ground as well: for example, I love road interchanges, and the way the afternoon light hits a building or parking garage with a courtyard or “vortex” pattern (for example, the Greektown Parking Garage image).  There’s so much drama in geometry.

 I can’t help but read some level of science fiction into these images.  With a few exceptions, people are not present in your landscapes, or are not easily seen at the altitude you’re photographing from.  They seem post-apocalyptic, an image of the industrial concrete structures left behind in a vacated city.  Is this an intentional part of the pictures, or rather a byproduct of shooting from up high?

 I LOVE sci-fi, particularly story lines about time travel and the notion of reaching another world across the galaxy.  Don’t make me start geeking out on you, lol.  Anyway, another by-product of the aerial series is that, at the right height, the landscape can feel almost futuristic.  Which is likely not by chance, because as far back as the Art Deco era, architects and civil engineers were similarly enjoying newfound fascinations with the idea of future worlds.  It’s all so familiar to us at ground level, but from the air you can better appreciate the full scope of what many architects set out to achieve across the city’s landscape. 

In some cases, the reality is that time has been cruel to the older architecture (and much of the city’s infrastructure), so some of the images have an added feel of a “crumbled future,” perhaps.  The lack of people in the aerial images is purely a matter of consequence: even a 7 foot man shot from about 300 feet straight up simply looks like a dot on the ground, so people appear to vanish from this vantage point even when they are present.  I love this consequence, because it lets me isolate the structure in a way that I simply can’t on the ground without extremely long exposures, image stacking, or composites, none of which I have a whole lot of patience for.

 

What do you see as the relationship now, or in the future, between technology and photography?

I think that cameras will continue to increase in resolving power while also decreasing in size.  I also think that photography and video will essentially converge at some point, in the sense that video resolution will go far beyond 4k and 8k to a point where both hobby photographers and serious artists are regularly plucking high dynamic range frames from video footage for creative purposes.  Augmented reality will find its way into mainstream still photography, merging people with environments in new ways. 

From a gear perspective, wearable cameras will ultimately replace even the camera phone, and we’ll have an interesting debate about who may or may not be recording or photographing you with the camera built right in their contact lens.  But all of that stuff is way out into the future – way out being maybe 10 years or less at the rate we are going.  That’s all conjecture, of course, but I think still photography will always have a place, because even in an age of so much information overload, the still image is easier to consume and can embed itself in our minds forever.  All that said, I also think film will never die, because for many of us who really love photography the journey IS the destination, and thus the process itself is as interesting as the end result.

What other photographers, artists, people or things influence you?  Where do you find inspiration on a daily basis?

There are so many names I could list that I didn’t know where to start.  I’m standing in front of my bookshelf as I write this response, so perhaps in a roundabout way I’m largely inspired by Carey Loren, who owns and stocks the best selection of photography books I’ve ever seen over at BookBeat in Oak Park.  I’ve been a frequent flyer there since I was about 13, and can link BookBeat to some of my favorite Detroit photography legends, including Bill Rauhauser, David Griffiths, and Don Hudson.  Other Detroit area influencers include Dave Jordano, Carlos Diaz, Monte Nagler many names that escape my recall at the moment.  From the newer generation of Detroit area photographers, I’m a big fan of Lauren Semivan and my good friend Jon DeBoer, among others. 

Beyond Detroit and through history, there’s of course Cartier-Bresson and Adams, Garry Winogrand, Joel Meyerowitz, Gordon Parks, Alex Webb, Trente Parke, Alexey Titarenko, Alexander Rodchenko, Ray Metzker, Eli Reed, Matt Stuart, Josef Koudelka, Sebastiao Salgado, Robert Frank, Saul Leiter, Irving Penn, Michael Kenna, Rene Burri, Tod Papageorge…  Ok, maybe I should stop there, but yep, a few folks. 

I’m also inspired by music.  I love all the normal stuff, but I’m a particularly big fan of classical music, epic, cinematic scores and old jazz.  I love looking at and experiencing architecture, so international travel is always eye opening and inspiring.  Those things can inspire me directly, or sometimes simply create a mood or feeling that guides how I approach a single image or an entire project. 

What drives you to live and make work in the Detroit area now? 

For my wife and I, the vast majority of our immediate family lives within a 15 mile radius, so we are very close to our peeps.  I enjoy the challenges of my day job in the city.  Creatively, a city in transition is more interesting than a stagnant town, and that is both exciting and sobering at the same time.  Exciting, because of the renewed energy on some of the streets near downtown, including new architecture, more folks out and about on the streets, etc.  But sobering in the sense that beyond the city center the challenges are very steep, and the people on the less fortunate fringes of town matter just as much as those in the shiny new condos downtown.  That dichotomy makes for potentially rich and meaningful visual stories, and I love having the privilege to be around and capture some of it.  That said, having been in this area all my life and on the early side of 40 years old, I’m reaching a point where I may want to experience some life adventures in another town for a few years.  I’m in no hurry to go anywhere, but time will tell.

 

Finally, what advice do would you give to an aspiring photographer?

Try.  Fail.  Try again.  Allow social media to play a role in your work without defining it.  Engage in meaningful dialogue that forces you to articulate why you make pictures, not to convince the world that you are good, but to help clarify for yourself what your intentions (and messages) are.  Don’t worry too much about how good your gear is compared to others, but learn everything you can about what you do have so that you can exploit it creatively.  Experiment: push your gear and your knowledge to the limit and find out what it can and can’t do, and then figure out how to push it even further.  Read more, because it can shape and refine your perspective on life, and thus, your visual response to that perspective.  Learn about other work, because no matter how unique and cool you think you are, you’ll probably learn that at least some of your work is inadvertently highly derivative, which will push you to either evolve into new thinking or risk being a carbon copy of someone else.  Finally, ignore everything I just said and do you.

You can view more of Brian's work on view at M Contemporary Art through March 1oth, or on his website here.