SOL chatted to Johannesburg-based Photographer Brett Rubin about his journey into the world of photography, Anton Corbijn and David Bowie’s influence, some of his professional highlights including his ongoing collaboration with fellow South African Cameron Foden as well as his time spent with Jazz legend Hugh Masekela, and all this while playing bass for Zoo Lake who have recently released their album ZONK.
For the Bier Series Collaboration with Cameron Foden https://cameronfoden.wordpress.com/the-bier-series/
To hear Zoolake’s sound https://zoolake.bandcamp.com/
Did you always know you would end up becoming a photographer?
No far from it. In school I was music obsessed and played bass guitar in a band. I always knew that I wanted to pursue a creative career and after school I realized that sometimes what attracted me most to some of my favourite albums was the sleeve photography and music videos. So I studied a degree in Film, Media and Visual History and became addicted to working in a darkroom and hand printing black and white photographs. After I completed my studies, I travelled in South America briefly and only after printing some of the images I took whilst travelling did I decide to seriously pursue a career in photography.
Has creativity always been a big part of your life?
To a large extent I’d say yes. I am the youngest of 4 children and from the age of 7 or 8 years old I would often secretly borrow my siblings’ music and books.
One of your earliest memories that hugely impacted you and pushed you to your vocation?
I remember discovering the work of Anton Corbijn at a very young age. I would look through albums like REM Automatic for the People, Depeche Mode Violator, U2 Achtung Baby, and was mesmerized by the stark and mysterious imagery he created and how it added an extra depth to the music I was listening to at the time. I also remember discovering David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust album at 12 years old and feeling like I had suddenly learnt to speak a new language.
As a photographer, aesthetics plays a vital role- what does it mean to you on both a professional and personal level?
I think aesthetics are an intricate system of signs and signifiers. People often make aesthetic choices, whether conscious or not, based upon a myriad of urges, references, emotions, thoughts and impulses and on both a personal and professional level I have come to deeply admire people who are aware that aesthetic choices can function as a type of homage to a particular epoch from the past or as an envisioning of what’s to come. Either way, I resonate with people who can look beyond the surface-level of appearances and grasp the bigger narratives alluded to.
Take us through your creative process when coming up with a new body of work?
I like to think about a new series of work from multiple approaches. I explore a feeling or subject from as many possible directions before deciding upon what I would like to communicate and in what way. I do also like to leave some room for an element of chance or surprise to imbue the way I work, and I welcome the unexpected or unforeseen instead of trying to discard it or work away from it. Other times I will start by exploring what I perceive as a wrong approach or technique and see if something of value can emerge.
Ansel Adams said “You don’t make a photograph with a camera. You bring to the act of photography all the pictures you have seen, the books you have read, the music you have heard, the people you have loved” do you agree and how would you describe your own perspective on photography?
I wholeheartedly agree with Adams’ assessment and feel like in a larger context, the same sentiment applies to how we live our lives. There is an unspoken or suggested message behind the images we create. It was Cartier-Bresson who said ‘To photograph is putting one’s head, one’s eye, and one’s heart on the same axis’. And I also subscribe to that idea. I remember as a student I found a Wim Wenders book in the library titled ‘Emotion Pictures’. This completely changed my entire outlook towards image making and made me aware that visual language is so much more complex and sophisticated than just technical proficiency. My approach to image making is one that questions the value systems - both societal and global - from which images emerge. How does one create poetic beautiful visuals in a society that consumes images like fast food? In today’s hyper-visual, post-rational world, too many people place a higher value on style over substance and I believe we are living in a time that for me conjures up Aesop’s foreboding warning:
“Beware lest you lose the substance by grasping at the shadow.”
In this Digital era, how do you envision the role of the Photographer in years to come? And in particular within the social media spectrum?
I think the photographer’s role has always been to reflect or reflect upon the world around her/him. This still rings true in the digital era where smartphones and apps have democratized image making and social media has offered a soapbox to anyone willing. If the medium is indeed the message, then I think photographers need to consider ways of evolving into virtual spaces and creating immersive works that can still communicate to people as effectively as framed prints on a wall or images on screens. The biggest challenge facing photographers in my opinion, is how to make work that gets remembered in and amongst the maelstrom of all the imagery people are bombarded with on a daily basis.
What do you make of the current Creative scene in South Africa?
I feel overjoyed at how so many creative voices are emerging from South Africa and finding recognition globally. I feel like there is an expanding interest in the art and culture being produced in South Africa and the circumstances that have shaped it, which perhaps was less apparent when I was starting out in my career.
Speaking of which tell us a bit more about your on-going collaboration The Bier Series with fellow South African Designer Cameron Foden?
Cameron is a good friend and one of the most talented people I have had the pleasure of meeting and working with. We began our collaboration back in 2009, prior to Cameron leaving South Africa to study in Antwerp at The Royal Academy; he is currently based in Amsterdam where he is employed by Calvin Klein. The collection of clothing that Cameron made during his studies was titled ‘Monsters of Empire’, and I was drawn to the idea of looking at the colonial past as monstrous, in terms of the impact and legacy it has left on the present. This is portrayed through a series of landscapes being essentially haunted by these ominous figures from the past. When Cameron relocated to study, we decided to continue working on the Bier Series sporadically, whenever we were geographically in the same place. We worked together on the latest instalment as recently as June last year. Cameron sketches out his ideas for the characters and settings and I try realize and achieve these sketches as close as possible photographically. We are hoping to eventually compile this series into a book and exhibition.
Are there any other creative you would like to collaborate with in the future?
Too many to mention! Currently I am very excited to be working with local South African band The BLK JKS, who are soon to be releasing their sophomore album after a nearly 10 year hiatus.
What have been some of your professional highlights thus far?
I was very fortunate to work with Hugh Masekela over the final 6 years of his life. I would joke with him that I felt like I had taken a job working at a national monument, but looking back on that time, I feel like I learnt so much from him and came to deeply respect and appreciate his no-nonsense, outspoken approach, which was always informed by an underlying humane and generous nature. Other highlights have included exhibiting my series of free-standing large scale glass sculptural photographs at Nirox Sculpture Foundation in the Cradle of Humankind (2014) and the Mount Nelson’s Sculpture show in Cape Town (2015).
Where can one creep on your work?
Are there any exciting new projects for you on the horizon that you would like to mention?
I will be exhibiting my portraits and videos of Hugh Masekela during the Johannesburg Art Fair at Circa Gallery in September, which I am looking very forward to.
I have also been playing bass in a band called Zoo Lake https://zoolake.bandcamp.com/ with some close friends for the past 4 or 5 years. 2019 saw us release our debut album titled ZONK on vinyl, which we will be promoting with a series of live shows over the coming months.
Finally, if you could be summed up in one photograph, yours or another’s - which one would it be and why?
I think it is impossible to sum someone up with one image. That said, one particular image that definitely comes to mind (in fact two images to be exact) is Man Ray’s Object To Be Destroyed (1923), which was later remade after being destroyed in 1957 and renamed: Indestructible Object (1964)