© Peter Brown,Walking Rain, Limon, Colorado, 2006


Bryan Schutmaat: For the past couple of decades your chief focus has been the Plains. Though I’m sure you express a contrary opinion, many would describe this vast area of the United States with unflattering adjectives—bland, boring, bleak, flat, inhospitable, and so on. Of all the places you could photograph, why did you choose the Plains?

Peter Brown: Well I love the Plains - and I always have. I think it's an acquired taste for some, but for me, it really was pretty much love at first sight. There have been many people who have tossed out such adjectives to me in the past and I've always had to take a deep breath and try to stay calm. It's like someone insulting a member of your family - and that person is kind of tapping his fingers on a table, convinced already that you’ve wasted your time, money and abilities on subject matter that is insubstantial and essentially meaningless. There seems to be a built in prejudice against the Plains in much of America. I get the same sorts of questions about living in Houston. How could you possibly live there of all places? And this sets me back in the same way. It’s actually a red flag of sorts for me and it’s often set off by someone who’s similarly judgmental in other ways, and usually just as uninformed…

But that said -- there are also those who truly do have an aversion to this country. Pioneer men and women went mad with the wind and space; there are those who suffer from agoraphobia - and I can't imagine a place better designed to bring on an attack - and there may be issues simply of taste: I remember the poet Richard Howard once asking me the following: didn't I know why the Plains were called the Plains? It's because they're plain, he said, very plain. And he wanted something fancy. So I do take a deep breath, pause and then tell them that in fact I find the Plains open and expansive and beautiful and enveloping and peaceful and remarkably complex and filled with all the wonderful contradictions of life in America - though on a lesser scale, which is interesting in itself. I tell them that the Plains are filled with small and sometimes beautiful towns, towns that are on the verge of disappearance and those towns filled with people who exhibit some of the best traits of people anywhere: the need for cooperation in order to live, a tenacity in terms of the place they've chosen to live in, an enjoyment of the out of doors, a remarkable work ethic, a reliance on small things to get by, a love of animals and things that grow --- side by side of course with some of the worst things about humans as well - pettiness, small mindedness, individualism to a fault, racism, sexism, meanness. I remember the cultural geographer John Brinckerhoff Jackson, who travelled with me early on in my Plains work telling me that what we were seeing was what America was like on both large and small scale - that what we encountered was emblematic of American culture, though in miniaturized but authentic ways. He also suggested that I avoid "curiosities" which he viewed as photographic traps. He said photographers were constantly pulled toward curiosities rather than the larger picture.

So I find the Plains both beautiful - in the most resonant ways - and I find them culturally interesting as well. The beauty is simply visceral for me and I don't really know why I respond so deeply to it, but I do. When I hit the High Plains - no matter what direction I approach them from I have a sense of glory, no other word will do - of celestial choirs even - genuinely a presence of music and I often get chills up and down my spine and begin to sing.

But most of us experience the Plains from a car on the Interstate going eighty miles an hour, with the air conditioner on and music or books on tape filling up the space of the cab. It’s either that or from a plane at thirty thousand feet where we snooze into a magazine or movie and may, if we look, notice the literal grid of America below us.

But most of the time the Plains are not experienced in any substantive way. It takes getting off the Interstate and off the bigger state roads - driving onto the smaller county roads and ideally onto dirt roads that look questionable. It finally takes getting out of the car, walking around and beginning to experience a space so enormously large that you feel both miniscule – one small sentient spot in that vast rolling space - and at the same time gigantic - connected to all other aspects of life on Earth. Seriously. For me there is that spiritual connection. And that’s one of the reasons I photograph the Plains.

And then there are the towns and the people, and the farms and the ranches…

And I could go on about the sensuality of the place – the wonderful smells, the birdsong, the wind, the feel of the sun, the wild weather. The physical engagement of it all. And finally the interesting challenge of photographing such flat country – always working with that horizon line… and there’s also the fact that not a lot of photographers have dealt much with this part of the world - so it still feels fresh and new to me.


© Peter Brown, Benny Clawson and his Point Collection, Yuma, Colorado, 2005


Bryan: It's obvious that you really care for the culture you depict. You photograph it with tenderness and respect. I feel like your photographic approach might correlate with your convictions on humanity. Quite a massive second question, but what are your views on human nature, and is that shown in your work?

PB: Yes I’d say that is a big question, and one that I haven’t formally entertained for some time, so let me give it a shot… I do care for that culture and I do care for that land in oddly protective ways, and my views on human nature have been shaped by many things.

I should say right off the bat that although I don’t go to church much, that my father, Robert McAfee Brown was a theologian and social activist - and a Presbyterian minister as well. And his father was a Presbyterian minister. His grandfather was the moderator of the Presbyterian Church and his great-grandfather founded Park College, a small Presbyterian school in Missouri. So you’ve got some Presbyterians there, for whatever that’s worth.

And on my mother’s side: my mom has been a religiously informed social activist all her life. Her parents were missionaries in China – and my great-grandfather too was a minister – Dutch Reformed. So there’s that as well. My generation of our family is almost all artists, teachers and therapists. And my parents are/were very engaging, open, curious and funny people. But the backdrop of my growing up was filled with religion (my dad taught theology and ethics) and the fight for economic and social justice.

Further, my dad was a student of the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, a very political man who among other things served on Roosevelt’s kitchen cabinet. Niebuhr actually baptized me – so all vestiges of religious liberal/radical social and political thought vectored right into me from the beginning. I didn’t do well with it however (the organized religion part anyway) and moved into writing and photography instead, wanting a breather from the church and a world more of my own.

But as far as human nature goes, I do take from that past, and like and enjoy most people – despite a number of generations of wary Presbyterians. I tend to give people the benefit of the doubt. I think in general people are smart and funny and enjoy life and oftentimes are charitable. I no longer expect perfection from my heroes, nor from myself or my family. I think that given the opportunity, decent organization and ground rules, that most people will work well together and will be supportive and decent. My photographic teacher at Stanford, Leo Holub gave me a picture that is a simple graffiti on a worn wooden wall. It reads: “Be Kind”. A decent mantra for just about any occasion.

But I know and have experienced tragedy in my life. I have certainly experienced the darker sides of myself, friends, family, organized groups and political movements. I do know that without checks and balances that the greedier side of human nature can burst into some pretty hideous flowering – that people can be difficult and dangerous and deceptive and shallow. But I don’t believe that that side holds precedence. I really don’t. I’ll hang my hat with the angels and be disappointed and angry more than occasionally and then try to work my way back. I do wish I had more patience, a virtue that my wife Jill has in far more abundance…

How this all affects my work is a very interesting question, because I think it does. A lot of my photography is a kind of mix of these things. I generally look for something that I can believe in. Something that seems whole and complete and balanced in the way I feel that life either is or legitimately might be. And this does not mean beauty in conventional ways at all. That kind of beauty I find trite in photography, because it does not describe the difficult places we often find ourselves.

But I do think that’s what a lot of my work is about. Coming across those moments where there’s a kind of beauty that I can believe in. That is multi-dimensional and humane. It can include all sorts of oddnesses and stupidities because those things can be just as endearing and as important as brilliance and perfect thought and it can include majesty and devastation at the same time. There needs to be a balance – and what I’ve tried to achieve in my photographs and then in my books is that kind of balance. Some of the individual photos may not do it completely on their own, but I try each time – and the sum of them is finally just as much about me and the way I see the world, as it is about the world that I depict.


© Peter Brown, Railroad Sheds, Newcastle, Wyoming, 1987


Bryan: Yet at times you convey tacit disapproval in your photos, not cynicism in any sense, but an awareness of human faults, particularly when it comes to the use of the environment. Your pictures of the landscape are often not about the landscape but about what people do to the landscape, so there are inherent implications and criticisms.

PB: Pure untouched, unaltered landscape in photography quickly bores me these days. I just don’t get it. And even to say this is a cliché. It’s been done to death. We know that there are places in America and around the world that are remarkably beautiful. And I like to be in these places from time to time – I love to be in them actually – but I don’t like photographs of them very much any more. There’s just a redundancy to it all. But this said, I generally include a few of these kinds of pictures in my Plains books, because there is a surface truth to this beauty that I want recognized – that the Plains can be conventionally beautiful. But I’m finally much more interested in what people have done with the land.
And as we know, sometimes that’s good and sometimes it’s bad. Sometimes it’s miraculous and sometimes it is hideous – but to me it’s all interesting and it can be got at very directly with a camera.

There are terrible things happening on the Plains. And there’s a litany: a past that includes genocide, and a current policy of dealing with Native Americans that verges close to the same. Bad government goes back forever: the shortsighted program that led families to the Plains in the first place, back in the 19th century, out onto 160 acres of dry land farming – which was impossible. And those futile attempts to grow crops on those small plots – and larger ones as people sold out and moved on, left the Plains ripped up. Native prairie grasses and topsoil were gone – which bankrupted the smaller farms and eventually created the dustbowl of the thirties. Destruction of natural habitat has pushed many species near extinction; governmental subsidies have produced huge surpluses of crops that are unused despite international hunger; the reliance on monoculture agriculture and factory farms has not only devastated native plants but has left little room for small balanced farms and has produced a massive corn crop that contributes to a diet that has helped to make Americans unhealthy. The over use of pesticides and fertilizers and the under regulation of hog farms and feedlots have resulted in polluted watersheds - and the vast Oglala Aquifer, the only real water source for the entire area and a source that cannot be refilled continues to be depleted

This all makes the Plains sound like a wasteland, which they are not, but I do pay attention to these things in my work and the photographs comment on them both directly and obliquely. And in West of Last Chance, my most recent book on the plains (a collaboration with the novelist Kent Haruf) Kent writes about these sorts of things as well.

People are in a bind of course. It’s difficult to make a living on the Plains and any way to make an extra buck to support a family is usually met with open arms. Small towns often succeed on feed lots and hog farms, and midsized farms now make it on corn. There is an effort that is becoming more widespread to farm organic cottons and to raise grass-fed beef, but that sort of thing is still a small part of the Plains economy.


© Peter Brown, Church Champions, Corners, Colorado, 1995


Bryan: Many people think of the Plains and think Kansas, creationism, the religious right, red states, and so on. These days, I think the political climate in America is harrowing. We’re split. There’s this “us vs. them” mentality, and to many progressive viewers of art, you’re depicting the “them.” I understand you’re attempting to transcend that and photograph this place with an elevated mindset, but much of this landscape has been sculpted—physically and socially—by people who foster some bunk ideology. I mean, there’s something beautiful about the way light falls on a church in the afternoon and how it’s filled with families on Sundays, yet at the same time, I think religion is one of the great ills of society, and the political agenda of America’s Christian contingent, particularly from these parts of the country, is in stark opposition to progress. Do you feel similarly? And if so, how do you reconcile those aspects through your photography?

PB: Great question, and one that I do struggle with at times. I’ve told you of my church past, but it’s a progressive church that I grew up in, the kind of church that Glen Beck, the right wing talk show host now tells members to leave – “economic justice” being the bugaboo for him and his followers. Such churches are described as socialistic, anti-American places of political intrigue, which is a thoroughly dishonest kind of reasoning that leaves out much of what Christianity and all serious religions have taught over the years. That you help the poor, stand up for the rights of all, take moral stands on issues, work against racism, question unnecessary wars, etc… And just within our family and the church: my father went on Freedom Rides in the south and spent some time in jail for his beliefs, and both of us did a little jail time for Vietnam era protests. My mother has worked against toxic waste pollution and plant closures in the Bay Area for decades. There is a left political side to church life in America as well, although there’s not much in the small town churches of the Plains, as you say. And the conservative churches, both big and small with their smiling yet often hate filled diatribes represent for me the absolute nadir of the American conversation these days - really more of a shouting match than anything else.

So what do I do with this – and with the general politics of the country I photograph:

To begin with, there are specific political sections in West of Last Chance, sections that deal with war, irresponsible farming, George Bush, hog farms, native American life and the like - though by including them, my purpose is not to be strident, but to be subtle, to suggest.

In one of my building shots in On the Plains a red cross is painted on the back of a church, and it actually shocked me when I came around that corner and saw it for the first time. It seemed like something out of the crusades, and in a way it probably is. It represents a violent Christianity to me and it represents a judgmental and fearsome God - but it’s also beautiful.

I’m not proselytizing in my work, though I think my political views are probably clear. And I actually dislike a good deal of head-on political art, though I may agree with the views being expressed. It often seems formulaic if not simplistic to me. I don’t view the world as black and white and I certainly don’t view the people of the Plains as enemies – or even as an “us” and a “them”. I generally like the people I work with and photograph, and often have been helped by them. Our views may differ on a good number of things, but for the vast parts of their lives and for those times that I’m photographing (my personal life on the Plains) politics is simply a part the package. My attempt is to describe life as it’s lived – my interpretation of course, but one that I try to be honest about.

© Peter Brown, Cardboard George Bush, Ellsworth, Nebraska, 2005

Bryan: On a similar note, there’s a specific photo of yours that I find difficult to read—the shot of the two men in Nebraska posing with a cardboard cutout of George W. Bush. It's excellent visually, but I almost don’t like it because your intentions are so nebulous within the context of the larger body of work. There’s something humorous about it, maybe satirical. These guys stand proud next to such a terrible political leader, and any way you slice it, you’re implying something. It seems you’ve either made an earnest portrait with respect for the subjects and in turn the president, or maybe you’ve used these poor guys to demonstrate a point about the benighted political outlook of Middle Americans. The former doesn’t endear people to you as a photographer, and the latter doesn’t endear people to the Plains, which seems to go against the grain of what you’re trying to say with many your other photos. Much of "West of Last Chance" charms viewers with the beauty and simplicity of the plains—makes me want to step into the photos and chill out. But this photo is like a curve ball that reminds people of any negative feelings they may have about the plains and the attitudes of those who live there. This photo is kind of an anomaly for you, and there’s a lot going on in it! Please share your thoughts on it, the story behind it, and anything else that will help viewers read it.

PB: That was another “coming around a corner and getting a shock” photograph. I was poking around the very small town of Ellsworth, Nebraska, up in the Sand Hills, and I walked into a tack shop - a saddle and ranch store - and the place was a warren. Stuff everywhere. The store had been there for many years and my memory is that it was the only store in town. But a thriving one, which I found interesting. And I came around a corner and literally bumped into George Bush. And if that red cross on the church set me back, George had the hairs on the back of my neck up on end. He was life sized, made of cardboard and he was grinning that grin of his. I literally hopped backward, bumping into an equally large cardboard cutout of John Wayne.

This was at a time when Bush was in some descent. His popularity around the country was waning; the war was dragging on and he was in some political trouble on a variety of fronts.

And I had an idea. I’d seen a barn outside the shop with a fiberglass horse head hanging from it. And the horse head was framed by some inexplicable lettering: APHA – AQHA. My idea was that it might be interesting to see if the owner of the shop would be willing to let me photograph George Bush underneath the horse head. The horse seemed to have some reference to me that coincided with the illogic of the Bush presidency. It wasn’t a horse’s ass which would have been much too easy, but there was something strange and oddly misplaced and slightly horrific about it and the lettering seemed to refer to Bush’s difficulty with the English language.

The owner said sure, let’s haul him out. So we did, and with just Bush standing alone, it was an okay portrait. There he was beneath the horse head, made of cardboard... But then this guy, a friend of the owner, came out of the barn where he’d been working on his boat, wondering what in hell was going on and suddenly this man plus his buddy and Bush became a nice trio in my eyes. And they were happy to pose. And though I didn’t address it directly with them, it was clear to me that they viewed Bush with some skepticism. They no doubt had voted for him, but I think they were disappointed in him as a person and a leader, and because of this were happy to have a little fun with him. They called him Georgie.

So here is Bush with his fan base, but a fan base that’s in on the joke and happy to be in the picture. I didn’t feel like I was taking advantage of them or exploiting them in any way – and all in all, I think it’s a pretty good portrait of George Bush.

In response to the other side of your question, this photo is placed in the book to help viewers remember the rest of the world – to bring them back to other realities. As should the shot of the store window welcoming Sgt. Boomer home, the Sioux family at Wounded Knee, the hog farm, the Walmart etc. I don’t want my work to be a kind of idyll where all is peaceful and resolved. I do want some curveballs. I want the viewer to be reminded of other realities. Kent’s writing certainly gets at this as well.

And APHA is the American Paint Horse Association, and AQHA is the American Quarter Horse Association.)

© Peter Brown, Sleeping Boy, Soldier Summit, Utah, 1987

Bryan: I once wrote an essay claiming that Iranian cinema could help mitigate the enmity between the U.S. and Iran, because films coming out of Iran stress coexistence rather than incompatibility by using a humanistic cinematic vision that can appeal to heterogeneous audiences. Your pictures could have a similar affect domestically; in much of your work, you put forth a gentle vision of America with a photographic language that all different kinds of people can appreciate and more or less understand. Would it be a stretch to say your photos function as cultural mediation?

PB: No I don’t think it would. It would be nice anyway… I do like to bring people together and I do want to deal with ways of showing truths and telling stories that can be heard by many. I hate to continue to harp on my father, but he was able, in the most remarkable ways, to speak the most radical thoughts to the most conservative audiences and have them listening and nodding and oftentimes agreeing. I can’t do that with words. I just don’t have the personality for it. But I do think I can do this with images sometimes.

A couple of stories: when I first sent the photos that would become On the Plains to the writer Kathleen Norris in Lemmon, South Dakota, Kathleen wanted to lay them out somewhere to see them all as a group and she took them to the town library. (Kathleen wrote the book Dakota: A Spiritual Geography which in words got at much of what I was trying to do with my photographs.) There the pictures sat for a few days, and from what she told me, half the town of Lemmon came in to see them, and these people convinced her to write the introduction to my book. They loved the photos – and that made me think that I was on the right track. It was the first time they’d been “shown” in that kind of setting to that kind of audience.

Secondly – the first time Kent Haruf and I got together to work on West of Last Chance eight years or so ago, we met in Yuma, Colorado, on the eastern Plains, a little town that Kent had lived in for two lengthy stretches. (Kent wrote the wonderful book Plainsong, which I loved, and that afternoon we had worked together, photographing the cover for Eventide, the novel which followed.) We were having dinner at a local bar with the town vet, Kent’s brother’s ex-wife, and a rancher when a very drunken farmer from the bar came up to the vet, Tom Parks, and shook his hand, tearfully thanking him for the gentle way that he had put his bulldog to sleep earlier in the week. Tom told him that it was fine, that he’d been a good dog and that he’d led a good and useful life on the guy’s farm and then introduced the man to me. I didn’t have a lot to say to him, but I did tell him I had a dog too and that we’d had two dogs put down over the past few years and I knew how hard it was – and then Kent suddenly pulled a copy of On the Plains out of his bag and told the dog owner that two of the photographs were taken within a mile or so of his house and he proceeded to show him the pictures. I had no idea. The guy was entranced. There then ensued a tug of war with the drunk bull dog guy and Kent, the man wanting to take the book back to the bar and show the ranchers and farmers what Kent had showed him, and Kent not wanting beer all over his book. The drunk guy won and left Kent shaking his head and the rest of us laughing. About thirty minutes later, the man was back, but with a large group of ranchers and farmers – the bar was suddenly at our table – and they one by one slapped me on the back and shook my hand, telling me what a great job I’d done and how beautiful and right they thought the book was and how could they get a copy? I was surprised of course, and pleased and said that I’d take twenty bucks – and they lined right up and I wrote their names on napkins and took their twenty dollar bills and a week later when I got back to Houston I sent them copies of the book, and one for the bar as well. It was the best set of reviews I’d ever had. And the most relevant. I remember Kent saying to me after the guys had left, “You showed them their country.”

So I do think that the kind of work I do can occasionally bring people of different backgrounds together.

I don’t think I’ve ever had anyone who knows the Plains or grew up on them say negative things about my work, apart from correcting me on facts. For the most part they tell me how much they miss the Plains and how grateful they are that I’ve taken the time to photograph this world.

And from the art world and blue state side - if you want to call it that – there’s a more conventional kind of response - shows and publications and reviews - a different kind of acceptance. Along with a lot of conversation…

But I’ll take the combination of a library in Lemmon, a bar in Yuma and a gallery in Houston and try to believe in it.

© Peter Brown, Open Country, Weld County, Colorado, 2005

Bryan: There’s this Louis Malle documentary called “God’s Country” that really reminds me of your work. In it there’s a touching scene in which a young farmer talks about the land. He said he loves his land almost the way he loves his wife or his kids. He just had this profound love for it. Do you love the land you photograph in a similar way?

PB: I can’t love it deeply, in the way that people who have lived on the Plains for many years are able to. People like Kent and Kathleen. But I certainly do in my own way. Part of the reason I wanted to work with them was because of their deep and passionate understanding. Their work is filled with great affection for this particular place and I’ve learned a lot from each of them.

But oddly enough, in a way I was primed for all this by land in Massachusetts.

My family has a place on the top of a hill in the western part of the state, in the little town of Heath. And I’ve been going there for summers since I was four years old. And I know that country well and feel tenderly about it and have worked that land since I was a kid. There are hayfields to be kept, there is an apple orchard to prune, a blueberry field to be weeded, forests to be thinned out and a view to the west and northwest that is unobstructed and vast. Range after range of mountains. It’s a western rather than eastern type of expanse, and I’m sure this is one of the reasons I feel so at home in open land. The Plains feel like my home in the east in many ways. And while I’ve photographed this land of ours in Massachusetts for years, my work there has had more to do with family than place - though the land is always a backdrop. For whatever reason, I’ve never wanted to deal specifically with Heath. I’m too close to it in a way I guess and the thought of an extended series on the town makes me feel a bit strained and claustrophobic. The Plains on the other hand are an adventure – an opening always. Something new. But this spot in northwestern Massachusetts in a surprising way opened up that country to me.

©Peter Brown, Car Repair, Wendover, Utah, 1987

Bryan: We’ve talked about what your photos might mean to society as well as what they mean to you individually. Where the two collide is where art finds meaning, I suppose. But which is more important to you? I guess what I'm really asking is: why do you make art?

PB: I make art because it’s fun to do and because I’m at a loss if I don’t. I feel useless and empty. It’s really just about that simple.

So first, I need to stay sane. But there have to be reasons for this feeling – some of it is that when I’m not making art I feel like I’m wasting something. I do want to use the abilities that I have and I want to use them and develop them in the service of things that I feel deeply. So the search (as a photographer) for subject matter is something that is important to me and the Plains have come through for the reasons I’ve mentioned, again and again and again.

Art making for me has to do with creating something that is whole and complete, complex and coherent, something that pleases me and is both of myself and of the world; something useful, something that translates. Something that others can experience. Something to share.

Art seems a puzzle on one level, a complex and deep game on another, simple and inspired play when it’s going well, and always at its base, serious stuff.

I like the state I enter when I’m confronted with a set of things that tell me that a photograph is nearby. I love the sense of searching, of excitement, the claiming of something in a way, a kind of possession that probably should feel selfish and prideful, but which doesn’t. It just feels like I’ve done something good.

My family, growing up and my family now are a bunch of lookers and pointers, and on the simplest level the sort of photography I do is just pointing things out. And that’s been a part of my life forever. In one of my pieces in Seasons of Light I write of photography (this is years ago but I still believe it): “It’s a pretty good racket: a parallel world that helps shape and define the original without the immediate crush of human misunderstanding. Emotionally cost-efficient, at a base level photography can be a series of beautiful bucks passed. I see it, I love it, I take it, I give it. Simple and dumb, but a gift is a gift and if it comes from love the strings that are attached are pretty loose.”

So what is it? --- An expansion of myself, a way to avoid complacency, a way to use and think of time and place in new ways, a way to see the world freshly and a way simultaneously to make a place for myself in the world and discover a new order within creation.

And the result is the birth of something that will be around when I’m gone. And not just me dead, but while I’m in another room or in another state. Small emissaries that have lives of their own that come to further expression when they’re seen by someone else.

Art finally has to do with the creation of new life, an object that gives off thought and feeling, that holds a small world and has a life of its own.

It’s always seemed miraculous to me.

© Peter Brown, Shop Fronts, Claude, Texas, 1995?

So it’s evident that photography is something intensely meaningful to you, your work is heavily influenced by the visceral relationship you have with the land, and you have deep sentiment for what you shoot; however, your photos are not sentimental. In fact, your collaborator, Kent Haruf, has said that he’s drawn to your pictures because they’re distinctly unsentimental. How do you achieve this?

PB: Sentimentality is to some degree in the eye of the beholder and I’m sure it shifts around a bit depending on who is doing the looking. But for me, I’ve got an eye that seems to spot sentimentality pretty drop dead easily. It’s intuitive to me but if something begins to make me feel stupidly weepy and then moments later disgusted with myself for feeling this way, I know it’s probably something to avoid. There often is a physical reaction that goes along with this. Sentimentality is skin deep but it’s pernicious. I’m not sure how I avoid it in my work, but I do know it when I see it. There is a kind of patriotic sentimentality that hides behind macho posturing that I find particularly offensive, and pointing out that kind of thing might be something that I’d do in my work. That weirdly long painted American Flag in West of Last Chance begins to get into that world, as does the billboard sized painting of John Wayne in Limon, Colorado. I’ll fool around with sentimentality by pointing it out. But on the whole I think it’s best to just walk on by.

© Peter Brown, Tom Corvis, Mattheson, Colorado, 2006

Bryan: So is there certain subject matter you stay away from?

PB: Well obviously all the sentimental stuff. I photographed late afternoon light and early morning light again and again in Seasons of Light and kind of got it out of my system I think. I do try to be emotionally direct in my work, which can mean avoiding sunrises and sunsets on the Plains. But on the whole, I’ll try to deal with anything that appears on the horizon one way or another. My friend Steve Fitch killed two birds with one stone when he finally figured out how to photograph western sunsets without getting syrup all over himself: just stick a cell phone tower in front of the thing. And he’s got a series that points out these relatively new towers, a new way of seeing these surprisingly beautiful creations (in that light anyway – which underlines my previous point), plus gorgeous sunsets. But that’s rare. The next thing to do will be wind turbines – how to photograph those immense fields effectively… But I do like to have fun with clichés sometimes: the two remarkable windmills in West of Last Chance. Or the grizzled old guy on the back cover of the book, Tom Corvis – he’s just grizzled to death.

© Peter Brown, Corn Stubble, Causey, New Mexico, 2003

Bryan: That brings me to a question of aesthetics. It seems that you’re constantly playing with people’s expectations. You’re a straight photographer although in many respects you’re unconventional. You mostly shoot mid-day, as you said, avoiding a quality of light on which most photographers capitalize. Often your pictures are center-weighted, but then other pictures that feel as though they should be centered are just slightly off-center. I've also noticed a few tilted horizons in your books. Are you trying to challenge viewers? What's your intention behind some of these compositional themes?

PB: I hardly think about composition any more. I used to quite a bit – for example I did a series of photographs back in grad school that had all the information on the edges of the pictures with the center essentially void… But I’ve never really taken any stock in the kinds of things that you’re supposed to do or you’re supposed not to. I get behind the camera and I move it around (this is a view camera so the image is upside down and reversed) until it feels right. And then I take the picture. I really hate books on photographic composition – the rule of thirds, never divide a photograph in the middle – make sure one gesture leads into the next, foreground, background, middle ground – all those sorts of rules that camera clubs and online salons tend to propagate. I just want to throw hand grenades into that kind of talk.

I do like some things that other photographers have said – Winogrand’s dictum that form follows content (like a bivalve conforming to the shape of its shell it suddenly occurs to me from Geo 101) or Robert Adams talking about the way the surface of a print should be taut in the way a trampoline is taut. But for me, when I find myself trying to wedge a bit more commenting content into a photograph, I know I’m on the wrong track and the thing will never work. There can be a dialogue in my head, but it’s mostly intuitive. And I have to say that I feel that on some semi-mystical level that photographs are gifts waiting to be discovered – I’d say like an Easter Egg hunt but that would send my sentimentality meter skyrocketing – fishing is maybe a better metaphor, but even that’s become a cliché. But I do believe photographs are often gifts.

Composition does become a conversation within myself from time to time so let me describe it: there’s an intuitive response to something, followed by wondering what the response is all about (generally milliseconds – I almost always know), then getting out of the car, looking around more closely, making a tentative choice about what I want in the picture, considering where to stand, pulling out the camera from the back seat - an old wooden Deardorff 5x7 that I use as a 4x5 (tripod already attached), thinking again about inclusion, choosing a lens that will do this effectively, setting up the camera, throwing on the dark cloth, opening the lens and taking a look at whatever it is that I’ve got. And then moving the camera and lens around until I’m happy.

I think almost always the way that I decide to frame something up is dictated by the scene that is confronting me. I do talk in classes about not taking a picture of some thing or things, but making a picture that is a thing…

One of the most interesting aspects of folk art, which I think photography is in many ways, is its wonderful awkwardness. I try to frame things carefully, that’s for sure. I take my time, but I like and appreciate many different ways of making a picture.

© Peter Brown, K-Mart, Durango, Colorado, 1988

Bryan: Kent Haruf has been brought up a few times in this conversation. You guys won the Lange-Taylor prize together from Duke University’s Center for Documentary Studies for "West of Last Chance". Yet Kent's writing is fiction. And your photos, though appropriated from the real world, are consciously taken from vantage points that construct a vision of the Plains based on your own inclinations, tastes, feelings, and philosophy. That's fiction too. How do you explain winning a prize from a center for documentary studies?

PB: We paid them a lot of money. No… it’s an interesting question and one that was posed to me by a member of a Duke audience when I made my first presentation of the work, and posed pretty forcefully. In the same way I don’t believe in rules of composition, I don’t believe very stringently in the odd kinds of demarcations we find all the time in the photographic world, and if there’s any place that seems open to a variety of kinds of work it’s CDS, despite its name. While Dorothea Lange worked within a documentary tradition that was established by her husband among others, her work transcends all boundaries. Walker Evens, working for the FSA (a love/hate documentary relationship if there ever was one) and forced to make photographs of headward erosion say, made pictures that compositionally are some of his most stunning. And I like the way that Szarkowski, throughout his life championed all sorts of photography and included all kinds in the MOMA collection. I’m thinking right now of a photo postcard of huge apples with a ruler beneath them and under it all, the inscription “Miss Annie - How are these for apples? Jim A.” A document if I’ve ever seen one, but also simply a terrific piece of art.

But the real reason we were considered for the Lange-Taylor is because CDS is filled with really bright people who do not feel the need to establish rigid barriers. I think they recognized that we had done work that mirrored each others’ in the past, that we both knew the region fairly well and that we’d do something new - plus we’d probably come through. And I think we did. It’s certainly not pure documentary in the way that Paul Taylor or Robert Coles (both of whom have written books on documentary work) might line it out, but our work was close enough to pass, it had enough of the earmarks of place, scope, descriptive intent etc., and we slipped under the bar. But you’re right, it’s much more like a novel than a classic documentary study. 

Walker Evans at the end of his life talked about his work being “Lyric Documentary” and in a way, I think that is what I do. I am obviously interested in place and I do try to cover what I think are its salient points, but I do it through my own particular prism, as you say. I’m not a social scientist, nor am I interested in being one, but I am trying to get at a set of social truths – as is Kent. And oddly, in a way, his part of the book is perhaps more documentary minded than mine in classic ways. The vast majority of his short pieces are not fiction at all, but are true stories from his family, from his friends and from talking to people over the years he’s spent on the Plains.  

© Peter Brown, Old Woman and Home, Texline, Texas, 1985

Bryan: Well, either way the book was a success. You’ve had many successes. You exhibit worldwide, put out books, teach, and stay quite active. A large part of Ahorn’s readership is comprised of young photographers with goals like that. What’s your advice to them?

PB: Stick to what you love doing - whatever it is that truly moves you or motivates you to work. Find something that you’re passionate about and go about doing it. Be persistent, look at the work of others, familiarize yourself with the history of the medium, look at as much photography as you can on walls and in books. Immerse yourself in books. But mostly, work, work, work. Figure out a framework for what you want to do, be intellectually rigorous about whatever it happens to be. Write about it, be clear about what your photographic interests are and try to stay with them. But be open to the unexpected at all times. And find a library with open stacks where you can just plow through books.

Secondly – get some community. Create a group of people whose opinions you trust, and talk about your work with them and show it to them. Pull together a group of peers if you can – people your own age with your own sets of concerns, people who will intuitively understand where you’re coming from. If there’s a local co-operative group, work your way into that if you can. Go to critiques if they’re available.

Take classes – either in a photo department at your school, or a photo center in your town. Become technically proficient – know what it is that you’re after photographically and have the equipment to bring it into life.  

Begin to show your work wherever you can – coffee houses, restaurants, dingy little galleries – wherever - just to get an idea for what a show is. It’s fun and your friends will come and you’ll have a party and you’ll be encouraged. Work up group shows with photographers you know and like.

Figure out which photographers locally or even nationally you admire and get in touch with them. Find out what they think of your work if they’re willing to look – talk to them and begin a relationship if you can. Be bold. I don’t like the word mentor because it implies too much, but single out a few photographers whose work you really like and see if you can get to know them a bit – find out how they got started and with their help, expand.

As far as a book of your own goes – the photographer and writer Robert Adams once told me that every photographic book needs a miracle and I think in a way it’s true. It’s hard to get a book published by a conventional press, but it’s not impossible. Again, you need to be persistent – refine your ideas and hone them down again and again. Shows almost always precede books of course – so work on shows and a resume.

Write an artist statement – a necessary evil – and make it as clear and as jargon-free as possible. Use it to help you be even clearer in your own mind on your purposes. Online publication of books is a wild and wonderful new thing and it’s easy to do and greatly empowering. It’s a book! It’s a great way to see work in sequence and it’s a great way to refine your thought. I’d certainly make a few of these.

I’d consider journeying to the large critique sessions at places like Houston’s FotoFest, PhotoLA, Santa Fe and the like. It’s a crap shoot, but people do emerge from these events with shows and publications and perhaps more importantly for young photographers, connections. 

I have been incredibly lax in my own online presence and am only now putting up a website. I’ve been happy with the response to my work in old world ways and because of this and a myriad of technical deficiencies, have not felt compelled to make one until recently. But I grew older in another era and became established, such as I am, before the digital age. I’d urge you to look at the web as you are doing right now, carefully make your presence known there and see what comes to you from out of the ether. 

The most important things are: having work that you’re passionate about - work that you love to do and must do; continuing to be persistent with that work and those ideas; developing a community of people who respond to what you do – and then further door knocking, emails and phone calls in trying to get the work shown and published.  

Finally, grad school is almost always fun. It’s the equivalent of two year grant if you play your cards right and all you’re supposed to do is what you want to do. Think about location, teachers and resources obviously, but it’s a very efficient way to delve deeply into your work and then move on into new parts of the photo community.

Good luck!


Interview by Bryan Schutmaat
For more information about Peter Brown take a look at: http://www.petertbrown.com/