Photographer Q&A: Brent Rowland
This was your first shoot for Dwell - Were you excited about the assignment?
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Absolutely! My wife has a degree in interior design, so we were already big fans of the magazine, its aesthetic, and modern design in general. It's great to work with a dedicated photo department that cares about getting the best work possible. You know they're going to take care of your images.
You live in Salt lake City - were you familiar with the Green Ant before getting this assignment?
Yeah, we definitely knew the store. I'm pretty sure my wife visited the Green Ant within a week of us moving to Salt Lake. We couldn't believe all the mid-century modern furniture, but the best part is the atmosphere Ron has created. It's a place you can drop by to say hi, check out the new stuff, shoot the breeze for a few minutes. Without fail, every time I'm in there, someone walks in and Ron knows them by name. He also plays great music. Being a California native, he's often in shorts and flip flops. Never pretentious. It's basically a surf shop vibe with amazing mid-century furniture everywhere.
How did you prepare going into the shoot? Did you scout the location and spend time talking with the owner?
I'm a people photographer, so the most important thing for me is always the person on the other side of the lens. Their story comes first. Everything else—lighting, location, lenses, etc, etc—is ancillary. I stopped by two or three times just to learn about Ron. He's extremely easy to talk to, and he has some great stories (for example, Danny Boyle's film crew once remodeled Ron's entire kitchen to shoot scenes for 127 Hours). Connecting with someone helps my process a ton. If I have two minutes to shoot a portrait, I'll try to spend a minute talking with the person and a minute shooting. Trust and empathy are two things that really interest me about photography. Both go into making a decent portrait. People need to feel they can be themselves.
I also brushed my teeth; people don't like bad breath.
Any funny and favorite moments from the shoot?
So, Ron has a dog named Hana. She's a bulldog. You'll often find her sunbathing in the Green Ant's front window or wandering sleepy eyed around the store. She's like the dog version of Ron: chill, friendly, happy to meet new people. Every time I visit Ron, she's hanging out with us. As soon as the camera comes out on shoot day, she wants nothing to do with anything! It's diva mode all the way. Watching Ron interact with her was great, and he finally coaxed her into some shots.
My favorite thing about the shoot was it took place 14 years to the day that Ron first opened his doors for business. I learned that in the middle of shooting, and it was pretty special for me to be a part of that. Also, working with Ron's good friend Jackie Bunnell was awesome. She's an experienced visual merchandiser who helped create the floor design for the shoot. She was attentive to minor details and super easy to work with, one of those people you just feel you've always known.
Do you have a favorite image from the shoot?
The portrait of Ron with Hana for sure. I wanted the shot to feel very organic and laid back, like Ron and the Green Ant. He told me he doesn't like having his photo taken, so that's when connecting with your subject helps a lot. We talked about all sorts of things throughout the shoot and this allowed me to capture Ron in a very Ron mood: leaning casually against a chair, Hana at his feet, talking about a rock show he went to last summer. I had no say in it, but you guys ran my favorite frame from the day, which made me super happy.
What was it like seeing your images in print when the issue came out?
It was great. I'm sort of a print junkie, with subscriptions to several magazines and an ever-growing personal library. The English major, bookworm part of me will never get over the feel and smell of printed media—all the better when it's your own work.
If you could have one piece of furniture from the store, what would you choose?
A set of Eames molded plastic armchairs with wood dowel bases. It's a very clean, simple chair that looks absolutely amazing with the dowel base (seriously, Google that sucker right now). My wife has been wanting them for a while.
Tell us a bit more about yourself...
I grew up in the Mojave Desert shooting T-Max and working in my dad's darkroom. I always thought I'd go to photography school, but my interest in literature and writing led me to an English degree with an emphasis in American literature and creative writing. I wanted to study Humanities and learn how to think about the world before setting out into it. This dual interest in writing/storytelling and the visual medium of photography came together for me in a huge way in the world of cinema, something I've become obsessed with during the past three years. Last summer, I worked as the cinematographer on a feature-length film and also wrote and directed my first short film. I'll start the MFA program in film at the University of Utah this fall.
I have a Yorkie named Mingus, after the legendary jazz musician. Seeing Dave Brubeck perform at Blue Note was the highlight of my first trip to New York City. I ride a bicycle. I like good books, good food, and good conversation.
Where are you from?
Ridgecrest, California, a small desert town at the base of the Sierra Nevadas. Near Mt. Whitney and Death Valley. It's hot.
What type of assignments are you shooting these days?
Fortunately, in the past year that I've been seriously pursuing freelance work, I've been able to shoot mostly editorial assignments for magazines, which is exactly the work I want to be doing. I'm at the stage where the majority of my work is for local magazines and media outlets, with larger assignments starting to happen. I like shooting environmental portraits, this idea of story and place tied to the subject, and I'm happy that people in Salt Lake know me as that type of photographer.
I worship the old Life and Look photographers, so I'm always pushing myself to shoot photo essays as personal work. Last summer, I spent six months documenting local agriculture and CSA farmers across Utah. This year, I'm working on a series called Aspiring Rappers. It's going to be very raw and intimate.
Type of camera?
Canon 5D MKII
Film or Digital?
Mostly digital, but this year I've returned to shooting and processing my own film. I'm really trying to mix up my workflow and diversify—push myself to a new place. My dad, who taught me everything I know about film, dug up his old Mamiya C330 and I just about cried when I discovered he still had it. I have plans for that camera this summer. We'll be spending a lot of time together.