Swamp things and book jackets with Bryan Graf

Written by Brianne Garcia

Thing of Wonder

Bryan Graf

There’s a famous saying that somehow made its way into popular vernacular, which goes something like this: “Make like a duck; be calm on the surface while paddling like mad underneath.” (This quote, when Googled, is mostly attributed to actor and knight Sir Michael Caine. But we know how murky digital quote investigations can be.)

This image of a stoic duck, going about its duck business in a graceful, effortless way while its feet move furiously beneath the veil of surface commotion, is an apt one for artist and photographer Bryan Graf. Initially reserved and soft spoken, after a few personal questions and further prods, the veil was lifted. Feet were revealed.

Graf quite literally stumbled into photography in high school, though he didn’t take it seriously as an art form until he was a bit older. Born in “the shoulder of New York City”, Graf grew up playing soccer and skateboarding with friends, which he described as a “unit”. After suffering a skate-related injury – a requisite rite of passage for a teenage skateboarder – Graf was sidelined while his wrist healed.

Suddenly, the blur of the world whirring past became still; from fast forward to pause. He was now in the audience, spectator to his friends’ simultaneous solo performances. It was then that Graf was forced to transition from one of the performers to an “observer”. During this period of discovery, he says he “re-sculpted” the world with a camera, venturing out on his own.

The word “observe” is a deceptive one. It can lead you to believe that it is a passive act; one in which the observer simply receives, when in fact, to observe is also to “to notice; discern; spot; detect.” It is an act of bringing the external world inward, and, for Graf, taking these personal moments or observations and actively offering them up to chance and experimentation. 

After years of trial and error, copying styles and then detaching from them, Graf has since found his own direction, which is a balance, somehow, of whim and technique; serendipity and intent. Having been inspired by everything from conceptual artists to swamps, the results of his experiments are often unexpected: a discoloration, a wrinkle, a pocket of light where we wouldn’t expect one.  As a viewer, you are drawn in and then left to come to your own conclusion, which is exactly what he hopes will happen. He considers his work an act of persuasion; rather than convincing you to feel what he wants you to feel, he simply guides you towards feeling.

This interaction between concept and chance is captured in his work, and yet there is no commotion; no splashy imagery or cheap tricks. After a long conversation, you know: his calm gaze is consistent, but the feet are paddling like hell.

What kind of kid were you?

I don’t remember this at all, but my mother told me this story from when I was going into kindergarten or first grade, back in 1980-something. You had to take an entrance exam, but it wasn’t like it is now. You just had to draw a picture of a member of your family, and I think that was the whole criteria. My mom got called in, and she was a school teacher as well, and the first grade teacher said, “Linda, if I didn’t know you and your family, I would think there might be something wrong.” Because I drew a stick figure, which was my mom smiling, but she was upside down standing on her head. So they showed my mom the picture, and she was just like, “oh, he’s creative.” And they were like, “yeah, but we’ve never had anyone draw someone standing upside on their head before.” Maybe that was a start to something.

I played soccer my whole life, ever since I could walk. And then I started skateboarding and hanging out with my friends in junior high, and did that a lot. I mostly got into photography, and making art when I started taking art classes, but I never took it seriously. Then I broke my wrist skateboarding, and I couldn’t do much, because I was in a full arm cast. I couldn’t skate, so I just picked up a camera and started shooting pictures. I mean, we all did; we would shoot with disposable cameras, and that’s when I started getting really interested in photography, when I was injured and sidelined. I still could hang out with my friends, but I became an observer.

What is your first memory of photography? What about it felt right to you?

The first exhibit I ever remember seeing was a Matisse show at the Zimmerli Museum, in New Brunswick, New Jersey, which is affiliated with Rutgers (University). It was just a couple prints, and I think one painting, but I still remember, at just this very base and simple level, the vibrancy of the colors, and the tone, and that his use of line and shape generated texture, and created an actual sense of depth and dimension, with a really flat palette. I still have a postcard from that show; I must have been six or seven years old. I tried to copy little Matisse squiggles, using the post card. They were kids drawings, so of course they were great. (laughs)

When I got injured, later on, is when I started taking pictures of things other than skateboarding. I would venture out on my own, and roam around and shoot when I was still in high school. At that point, I was supposed to play soccer in college, and I didn’t want to do that at all. I just got burnt out. I didn’t like the regiment of the coaches in club ball; they were just kind of overbearing assholes. So I just started driving around, sometimes by myself, and taking pictures. That became an activity. Sort of like when you’re skateboarding, and the landscape changes and becomes an arena for you to perform, and also spend time on a 45-degree angle piece of concrete for four hours. The same would apply to walking around in the woods with a camera, like, sort of re-sculpting it with a camera.

The thing about skating too, is that my friends and I all skated, but that’s not what we always did. There were plenty of times when I just wanted to go out alone, and I had as much fun going out alone and skating, as I did with them. And I think that kind of mixture of like, not necessarily collaborating but having a unit, a group of close people where you’re doing things that were ephemeral. I mean, we weren’t recording things. One of us finally got like a VhS recorder at one point, but we never took it super seriously.

I just started driving around, sometimes by myself, and taking pictures. That became an activity.

Who did you learn from, gravitate towards, or discover during this early period, when you were first discovering photography as an art form?

I remember seeing a Walker Evans show. You know, super traditional, and kind of the opposite of what you see in this studio. But I admired the clarity with which he described things, and how he broke a lot of rules, even though we was considered a traditional modernist photographer. He cut a lot of his negatives down; he shot on an 8 x 10 camera and cut them down to 5 x 7. He literally edited his negatives by chopping pieces off of them. He just cropped everything like crazy. He was considered this old rigid white dude modernist person, but within those parameters of being a black and white photographer, he was pretty wild.

I would also say Malick Sidibe, when I first saw his work. I went to FIT for a short stint, and I remember seeing his work. His work just, more than any other photographer at the time, made me go “whoa”: those backdrops he used, the styling he did of the people, what he got out of them, you know, the exchange between the photographer and the subject. The exchange between the people in the photograph, and you as a viewer, just felt so genuine and raw and real, as opposed to someone like August Sander, being very rigid and German, so to speak. I heard that in his studio there were two different cars people could stand in front of, and they didn’t have engines. People would just push them in as props, so there were a lot of really fun and off-the-cuff things he was doing.

His work just, more than any other photographer at the time, made me go “whoa”: those backdrops he used, the styling he did of the people, what he got out of them, you know, the exchange between the photographer and the subject.

How has your style or inspiration evolved since you were a kid?

I spent, as I think a lot of people who go to art school do, pretty much my whole undergraduate education copying things I really loved, and making other people’s pictures. And it wasn’t until I got to grad school that I really started making photographs that I felt were something that I owned, and that I was really invested in. Not that I wasn’t invested before, but it was really a matter of trying to figure out how to make the same pictures as other people’s pictures.

In grad school, I learned to stop thinking so much, and trust my instincts, and sort of de-skilled photography a little bit. This is something that came from the 70s, with a lot of artists who used photography, and a lot of performance artists and sculptors. Some of the work from that period is a lot more interesting than the photographs that are being taken now by people well-known as photographers, because they just didn’t give a shit about print statement, or proper technique; it was more about executing an idea. Conceptual artists too, like John Baldessari photographing every truck he saw on the highway because he didn’t know what to paint.  He was like, “alright, I’m going to use a camera. Or try to create a triangle with four orange balls.” And the painterly aspect of that comes out because, he’s not going to choose tennis balls, because that would look stupid. He chose orange because it contrasts well against blue. There’s a lot of painters, especially him, who used their instinct for color, and ramped up photography and used conceptual frameworks to actually do something that I found was much more vibrant and intriguing than more traditional photography.

In grad school, I learned to stop thinking so much.

Yes, and you can see that progression, and all of the tries, and you can imagine him throwing those balls in the air.

Yeah, and also, the introduction of chance, by conceptual art, too. Obviously there’s chance for street photographers, who didn’t know what they were going to get, and there was a juggling of chance. But I like the simplicity of the chance, with a lot of the more conceptual artists.

If you could collaborate with anyone outside of photography, in a totally different industry or medium, who would it be?

My answer would change every minute, so I’ll try to answer in the next 30 seconds.

I would say Danny Brown. I was thinking about some of the other visual artists who I really love, but the chance to do something with someone like him would just be incredible.

Each album is totally different in his ability to be a chameleon with his voice and his approach. His new album (Atrocity Exhibition) is kind of like a concept bounce album.  His previous album, like Hot Soup, was just like, a lot more hip-hop, and his voice isn’t as high. There is this change in pitch and tone, and the way he’s able to take a chance in doing that. I’m sure there are a lot of people who responded to his new album who probably fucking hate it, because it’s something totally different than what he did before. But I love it. You never know what he’s going to do. And he’s also funny, and his sense of style is on point. And I loved that in an interview, in this small little part, he’s like, “50 Cent reached out to me, but my pants are too tight so, I don’t think I can be part of G Unit.”

How do you keep track of ideas or concepts for your work?

Poorly. (Laughs). I just moved into a new studio so I’m still in the middle of getting everything together, so once I have everything labeled and sorted out, they go into different groups. There are some works that bleed into other exhibits or bodies of work, so I’ll have prints that are multiples in different sections and categories.

I basically work on everything all at once: I’ll work on a photogram or a more abstract work, at the same time I’m working on a portrait or a landscape or a still, or something more traditional, or a book. Everything all kinds of bleeds into one another.

This isn’t always the case, but I find that if I get bored with what I’m doing, then more likely than not, the people who will eventually see my work will feel that boredom too. There’s a certain level of wanting to check yourself: to stop doing something when it’s not working, when to push through, and when you’re just not giving it enough time. And you just learn on the job with that. It’s about making a ton of mistakes, and failing, and then remixing them, and playing with everything again to see how it works.

What is the most uncomfortable you’ve ever been, and how has that experience shaped you?

Aside from right now (laughs), there have been so many times. I’ll try to think of a good one.

Oh, easily, in grad school critiques at Yale (in the MFA program), and my entrance interview there. And when Tod Papageorge is running the program…he was basically like the judge and jury, but they also set up a panel. I remember walking in for the interview, and – I think a lot of people did this – like, I began to open my work, and he’s like “no, no, no. So, how are you?” And you’re just like, “wait, what?” And then, I remember him asking me, “What book have you read recently?” And at the time I was reading Independence Day, by Richard Ford, but I just couldn’t think. It was early in the morning, I’m intimidated in front of all these other people, and I really want to get into the program. And he gives me probably five seconds, and then he goes, “Have you ever read a book before?” And I’m just thinking, “Oh shit, I better answer.” And then I remembered, and told him I was reading Independence Day, and luckily Tod loved that book too, which gave us something to talk about and was a little bit of an ice breaker, but it was so nerve-racking. It felt like forever.

It’s about the freedom of the viewer to have their own mind, and their own ears and eyes to perceive something,

Do you feel that way about your shows now, that you anticipate criticism or other people’s opinions, or do you feel detached from that kind of concern?

I don’t have a concern. If anyone wants to write anything one way or another, about my work, then that’s great. I don’t really get excited about good criticism, and I don’t get pissed off about bad criticism.

When I taught (at Maine College of Art), I had this 50% rule that I taught my students, about someone that’s willing to meet you halfway. Because art is a funny thing: I’m not out there doing a public service announcement. I consider what I do as pieces of persuasion, so sometimes I do have a conceptual framework, and I work in conceptual art, and other times it’s more instinctual and it’s just about the rhythm, or working with colors as content. And sometimes there is no content, and it’s a relationship between the images.

It was like Mel Bochner said, back in the 70s, “there’s more content between pieces than there is content individually.” And I thought that was interesting too, as far as in a series of photographs, how the content can be what the viewers perceive, from image to image, and the accumulative quality of that, rather than one individual piece. More and more I’m finding that if I’m generous enough in what I’m thinking about, even if it’s from pure instinct and not a conceptual idea that’s like a puzzle to figure out, that if someone can meet me halfway, then we have an area to talk about, whether I’m right there in that same place or not. 

It’s about making a ton of mistakes, and failing, and then remixing them, and playing with everything again to see how it works.

It’s like they’re able to project onto the work in a way. And you’re engineering, or rather, allowing for that space. In other words, it’s intentional to create the kind of work that people can kind of project onto.

Absolutely, they can project and also absorb, and get what they want out of it. I’m not a doctor, I’m not writing a prescription for you to feel something or think something. It’s all about what you get from it. One of the great things about making art is that, if I’m in a conversation with you and we’re looking at this piece, and you point out something that I’ve never even considered, then that’s what it’s about. It’s about the freedom of the viewer to have their own mind, and their own ears and eyes to perceive something, which I think sometimes gets bashed away a little bit with certain artists, where they just have this certain program that they want you to see and feel. Nobody wants to be told what to see or feel or think. I think persuasion is a very important tool, instead of dictating.

I’m not a doctor, I’m not writing a prescription for you to feel something or think something. It’s all about what you get from it.

Is there a book, magazine, or other written work that made your mind shift, or made you think a little differently about life?

Ultramarine, Raymond Carver’s collection of poems, which I actually re-designed the dust jacket for for my own personal library. I’m starting to do that with all my favorite books: I’m making analogue darkroom prints, then I’m making a dust jacket out of it.

Peter Doig’s Blizzard Seventy Seven catalogue were all paintings that started with a series of black and white photographs of close-ups of his paintings that set a mood and an environment for the book. It’s a really great book, and it’s hard to find, but it kind of changed the way I looked at making books myself.

Philip Levine, The Simple Truth. Both that poem and the book are just so beautiful and so clearly and simply said. Especially the poem, where he just talks about boiling potatoes for dinner, melting butter. It’s just written with such clarity.

And Joan Didion, The White Album. Just the structure of it, and how it formed a sense of place by the narrative ellipses from story to story; the sequence of it was so imagistic. It couldn’t have been arranged any other way.

I actually re-designed the dust jacket for my own personal library. I’m starting to do that with all my favorite books: I’m making analogue darkroom prints, then I’m making a dust jacket out of it.

Is there a city or place you’ve been, to which your mind or heart seems to return? Why?

The Adirondacks in upstate New York. I have gone backpacking there since I was 15 years old. I used to go a lot with my dad and my uncle and my cousin, growing up, and now I’ve been going up there for the past 9 or 10 years intermittently, and then every summer I go there. I know the lay of the land and I just feel at peace up there. I love going swimming in the lakes and going backpacking and hiking for days. And the rhythm and pace is just exactly my own pace. I mean, I love the city. I grew up in the shoulder of the city, in New Jersey, but there’s something about that place that just hits me.

What quality do you value most in yourself?

Myself, meh. (Laughs). No, but…I work really hard. If I can say anything about myself that I know and that I really value, it’s that I work hard and care about what I do. I love what I do. The rest of me is suspect.

What quality do you value most in others?

A sense of fidelity, someone who you can – well, “trust” is an overused word – but someone who will actually know when to give you honesty and know when to back off. I value my closest friends. They’re family. I’m old school like that; I don’t need a lot of friends.

Do you have any guiding principles or truisms that tend to impact the way you live your life or make decisions?

I know what I value, and I know what I do and don’t have time for. I won’t let anyone disrespect my friends or if I’m seeing someone. Especially nowadays. That’s just part of my character; I’ll overreact, but it’s because I care.

What are you most excited about right now?

This interview.

Good, you’re not allowed to change that answer.

This interview, and putting my book together. I’m about a third of the way there; I still have some more scanning and some more works to rifle through. The publisher and I were hoping to have it ready for the LA Art Book fair in about a month; I’m not sure if that’s going to happen. I might need to take some more time.

I basically work on everything all at once...Everything all kinds of bleeds into one another.

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Explore the things that have inspired us and made our minds shift



The White Album

Joan Didion

Blizzard Seventy Seven

Peter Droig

The Simple Truth

Philip Levine

Mel Bochner

Artboard 7

Hot Soup

Danny Brown


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