As you gaze at his images and look into the eyes of the animals and birds that he has photographed, you would probably see yourself - the visceral fact that everything in planet earth is just one organism, though we have occupied multiple bodies. In one of his interviews for Telegraph, Brad quoted that ďAffinity, the title of the photo series, is a reference to the profound emotional connection I feel with my subjects when taking their portraitsĒ.
One can imagine the patience that is required to be doing portraits of animals. These animals are clearly not interested in our artistic ideas. This article is an attempt to know Brad better. Hope you enjoy reading it, as much as we enjoyed the experience of interacting with him.
The Wild Walk Team
On Childhood Days
I was born in North Carolina in the United States. My father worked in the insurance industry and my mother worked as a teacher. We lived a very traditional middle-class American lifestyle. Education was important to my family, so I completed my early schooling and went on to university where I studied English, Art History and Studio Art.
How It Began
By the time I got to university, I knew I wanted some sort of creative profession - I just wasnít sure what that would be. I studied studio art and art history, and tried to find a way to incorporate them into a viable career. It became obvious early on that I was not going to be the next great American sculptor or painter, but I continued to look for a medium that I could understand more completely. After university I took some photography classes and all my training in the arts suddenly made sense to me. It seemed that photography offered a more unique creative opportunity: the ability to make a living commercially, while, at the same time, pursuing fine-art applications. I got serious about photography as a full time career in 1992 after moving to New York City.
On Various Genres Of Photography
I dabbled with various photographic genres like landscapes and still life for a short time, but I knew very early in my career that I wanted to be a portrait photographer. For me at least, connecting with humans and animals was a more powerful and challenging pursuit.
I have always been interested in that precision which creates beauty - the exact instant when mood, stillness, and composition align to make something common suddenly uncommon, something expected suddenly unexpected. In many ways, my entire life in photography has been about trying to find those few elusive moments and capture them. The path to those moments, however, has seldom been straightforward. For me, the primary obstacle is always familiarity. It gives rise to a special kind of blindness - one that prevents me from seeing anything artistically, compelling in the repetitive scenes of my everyday life, or along the roads Iíve already traveled. I need journeys into the unknown to restore my vision. This project with animals, for example, was one of those journeys.
On Affinity Series
Before this project began I had spent my professional career photographing subjects I largely controlled: professional models, actors, or other noteworthy people. After more than a decade of this work, I felt I needed new challenges - and animals, with all their inherent differences, would definitely offer that. My goal from the beginning of the project was to give the viewer a sense of intimacy, proximity, and connection that they would rarely, if ever, experience in the wild or in zoos. Often I was very close to the animals during the shoots, and, to further heighten the sense of visual reality, I used a high-resolution medium format digital camera system that captured every detail. From the beginning, it was difficult to convince the authorities to let me photograph the animals. I had no experience and they were not sure what I would do. After some effort, I finally got to work with two chimpanzees. Once I had some nice images to show people, it was easier to get new animals to photograph.
Everything in the photo studio is set up to maximise the comfort and safety of the animals. I only work with professional animal handlers (from sanctuaries, zoos, or commercial agencies) who use positive reinforcement techniques, usually food rewards. Also, each sanctuary, zoo, or commercial trainer was very well paid. During the shoot, the animals are in charge as much as possible - we proceeded at their pace and never try to force anything. When any animal begins to indicate that they are stressed or annoyed, the day is over.
Affinity Series Vis-a-Vis Viewers
It was received quite well. Iíve received hundreds of very positive comments from viewers around the world. In addition, my book, Wild Life, has sold thousands of copies. I did receive few hate mails though. Almost any art work you put out in public will be criticised to some extent - whatever it is. The people who were most offended by my work thought it was far too stressful for the animals to be photographed indoors. This was not really my experience though, because the animals were habituated to humans and human environments. Plus, life in the wild is stressful too - especially now with ever-expanding habitat loss, diminished food resources, and increased poaching.
On Owls from Affinity Series
I loved working with all the owls. From the moment I first saw them in person at a sanctuary near my home, I knew I wanted to photograph them. They are a little difficult to work with, however. Owls can rotate their heads nearly 270 degrees and they always wanted to look at the black background behind them rather than at me and my lights. Also, they donít really respond to food rewards so itís difficult to get their attention. The shoots with them were generally quite short (30 minutes or less) and I had to get the shots I wanted very quickly.
Iíve had solo exhibitions in London and Santa Fe, and an upcoming show is planned for Milan and Bologna in January 2016. My work has also been widely exhibited at art fairs across Europe and Asia.
On Human Vs Animal Portraiture
I think animals are far more challenging and appealing. With people you have the advantage of direct verbal communication. You can tell them exactly what to do, and, for the most part, they do it. With animals you have no such luxury. You have to wait and watch and be patient. You might get the photograph you want, you might not. Also, itís difficult to work with subjects that are so unpredictable. Each animal reacted differently to me and the studio environment, and they were constantly moving which created some obvious difficulties. The challenge was trying to find and capture a compelling moment in the middle of what usually turned out to be a sort of organised chaos. When the animals indicated they were done (through a noticeable mood shift or show of aggression), the shoot was over. I might get 10 minutes or 2 hours - I never knew what to expect. Human subjects are much more predictable, which, for me, is less interesting.
On Treasured Moments From Affinity Series
All the animals, in one way or another, will stay with me in a deep and meaningful way. It is impossible to stand a few feet away from an elephant, a tiger, or a chimpanzee, with no barriers between you, and remain unmoved. There is something deeply resonant about this type of encounter that is profound in the moment and primal in its roots. A few of the most memorable moments were standing close to an African elephant and looking directly into her eyes, listening to a mountain lion purr (it vibrates the floor and moves up through your whole body), and feeding a white tiger from a bottle. Fortunately for me, there werenít too many scary moments over the course of my many shoots. Once or twice a big cat bared its teeth and showed some minimal signs of aggression, but nothing ever got out of control.
On Next Plan Of Action
I think animals will be incorporated in some way. Iím working on several new ideas now, but there are also some additional portraits on a black background that Iíd like to do of wolves, bears, and other forest animals.
I shoot with a Hasselblad H1 medium format camera and a PhaseOne P65+ digital back (60 megapixel). For lighting, I use 2400 watt Profoto or Broncolor strobes packs and heads.
To view the entire series | www.bradwilson.com
To view the Affinity video | www.bradwilson.com/SHOOT-VIDEOS/ANIMALS/1/thumbs-caption
To buy Bradís book | www.amazon.com/Wild-Life-Brad-Wilson/dp/3791348922
To view Bradís galleries | www.photoeye.com/bradwilson | www.doinelgallery.com/brad-wilson---affinity.html