Studying The Light
A talk with photographer Brumley and Wells
By Negative Lab
Jacob is a photographer who needs little introduction. His work in the wedding industry, under the moniker Brumley and Wells, is something of a household name at this point. I (Brian here) have had the pleasure of calling Jacob one of my best friends for the past 7 years. We've travelled the world together—chasing light and joining forces on a variety of creative endeavors. I'm a little biased, but I love his work and love how he views the process of being a photographer. So, here it is—a conversation with one of Negative Lab's favorite photographers!
Negative: When did you get into photography?
Brumley and Wells: I always chuckle a bit at this question. Technically, it was February of 2004, when I photographed my girlfriend’s first album cover with a digital point and shoot. As you can imagine, it was a terrible photo, but Annie married me anyways, and when the album was released I started receiving inquiries to photograph weddings. I turned them all down. A year later, Annie and I said yes to photographing a friend’s wedding together, and that set us both on our photography journey. To be honest, I wouldn’t be a photographer without Annie, without her taking initiative, without her confidence and determination. I struggled for years, because I was so drawn to the aesthetic nuances of the image that I neglected to develop an ability to capture compelling, emotive stories and to truly connect with my subjects on a deeper, human level. That obsession with aesthetic, however, did lead me to film, and in return film quickly lead me to story and forced me to connect in ways I hadn’t imagined.
N: I know that natural light plays a huge part in the images you create. Can you unpack a bit about your philosophy on photography & light?
B: That’s a far more dynamic question than it probably seems! I prefer both the flexibility and the limitations of natural light, much the same way I prefer the limitations and flexibility of film in general. My creative process is synonymous with problem solving. Limiting myself to shoot just a few film stocks and to shoot in natural light forces me into the creative process. It’s tempting, when you discover something that works, to stick with that something until it become mechanical and predictable. It feels safe, but it’s boring and will soon feel soulless. As I grow in my craft, I see light differently. Rather than looking for a particular brand of light, I look for the qualities of the light that make it beautiful, and then I leverage those qualities, moving my subjects and composing images that will thrive in those conditions.
"Shooting film is as much about process as it is about aesthetic."
N: We're really steeped in the medium of film photography being here in the "Negative Journal," but we're not too afraid to get a little bit existential. You mentioned earlier that the medium of film lead you to become a better storyteller. Is it important that you are a film shooter, or could you achieve the same level of work if you shot digital?
B: For me, film is the most essential ingredient to my work as a photographer. I don’t feel it’s necessary to compare film to digital. There are great photographers creating digitally, photographers I respect and admire. I find that it’s more important and more useful for the photography community to shift our discussion from the comparison of film vs. digital to a discussion of our purpose as image creators. I do find it hilarious that so much of the digital photography market, particularly in its early days, has focused its efforts on quantifying quality. Our conversation devolved as photographers from talking about the intent and purpose of photography, the profound impact of a still image on the human mind, to talking about megapixels and dynamic range. It’s funny to even say that, but I really do feel that in its early stages, the digital revolution created a dark decade of meaningless and excessive image creation.
Shooting film is as much about process as it is about aesthetic. Film forces me to interact with my subjects in an intimate way, where the subject is seen as an essential equal in the final outcome of an image. Film demands that I study, assess, and notice the nuances of light. It requires me to be honest about the importance of a particular moment, to move slowly with intent and focus, to be in control of the outcome of the story I’m seeing and creating, or just imagining. So much of the image lives in my mind before I ever see it, and I think there’s something significant about one’s ability to imagine an image and to keep that image alive in the mind. Nothing has done more to shape the nature of my photography than the medium of film.
N: What is the significance of having a close relationship with your film lab?
B: Man, I can’t imagine my work without Negative Lab! Your hand is essential in the process, both creatively and technically. A bad lab can actually make you feel like a bad photographer and crush your spirit. I needed to work closely with someone to achieve the look I wanted, the look I saw in the seasoned photographers I admired. For years, I’ve watched photography trends come and go, with both film and digital. Although we never discussed it formally, I think we both saw a need for scans that could circumvent some of those trends and speak to something more classically film, more timeless and true to the colors, density, contrast, and tonal range that the makers of film intended.
N: We've touched on the fact that photography is all about the process. Give us a quick summary of how this informs your life and vocation as a creative, and your career as a photographer.
B: I feel emotional trying to answer this question honestly. Sometimes, I’m not sure where photography ends and where I begin. I don’t think that’s a healthy thing. I’m the same human soul with or without it, but somehow photography has helped shape my view of humanity, views I cherish and would otherwise be without. It’s taught me about empathy and compassion. It’s taught me about the beauty of ugly things. It’s taught me about the beauty of humanity and how to celebrate all of its variety and color. It’s taught me about grace. Most importantly, It’s allowed me to experience that beauty, not just stand afar and theorize about it. Photography has thrown me into the crowd and encouraged me to talk to everyone, to ask questions, to wonder, to feel, to take risks, to wear my heart on my sleeve. I’m sure there are many vocations and many creative mediums that have taught others those exact lessons, and they feel equally as emotional and attached. Or maybe it isn’t the medium at all, and it has more to do with the people who surround us and an openness to learn from them. I like to believe that. I’m surrounded by beauty, and it’s that beauty that gives me hope and purpose. Photography is just a way to try and capture it.
"...the image lives in my mind before I ever see it..."
N: I know you are a bit of a jack-of-all-trades when it comes to the arts. What other mediums inform your work as a photographer?
B: I think that somewhere along the way, I made the choice to focus on photography and let other mediums take a back seat. I love to draw, though. I haven’t painted in years, but I love color and movement and the quiet, methodical nature of creating with my hands. Most directly related to photography, I love cinema and find that moving picture is a powerful and emotive medium. I love analyzing it, watching the silent picture, studying the light, listening to the music, feeling all of its intended emotion.
N: It's clear that being an artist is a deep and personal commitment for you. Do you look to any external sources for inspiration, or do you find it distracting?
B: Man, you're really challenging some core believes with these questions. I think that humans are by nature creative. It's what makes us human. I'm always hesitant to proclaim that I'm an artist—meaning that I'm not comfortable making a distinction between myself and others with such a loaded title. Most of the time, I find the self-proclamation of artists to be a veil of insecurity, idolization, or some destructive combination of both. There are varying degrees of creativity and a multitude of ways to express it. That being said, I have made a conscious decision to try to pay attention, to seek meaning and beauty, to follow my creative instincts, and to put in the work necessary to develop my craft. I think we all need inspiration. The best inspiration always comes when I least expect it, when I'm lost in the experience of someone's work, not when I'm merely consuming it or actively seeking it out.
N: Any advice for up and coming photographers?
B: Be honest. The sooner you can be honest with yourself, the sooner you will find your voice. If you’re honest enough, you might even find that photography is not for you, or you might find that you love taking pictures of trees or old tennis shoes, or that you like writing poetry better. I don’t know. There will be a voice that tells you that your idea is stupid, and then there will be another voice that tells you that no one cares, and finally a third voice that tells you that you need to focus on making a living, in which you will respond by creating things you don’t really care about. Don’t let that happen. Secondly, create work for others. Create for your clients. Create for your subjects. Create for your mom. Create for people who can’t create. Doing work for others is far more rewarding that doing work for yourself. ☗