Interview with: Bil Brown

Bil Brown is founder and Editor-in-Chief of Black & Grey Magazine, a publication profiling the Arts, fashion and literature. Bil is also a prolific photographer with regular features in Purple Fashion and Autre Magazine. We talk Ginsberg, Kurosawa, being true to one’s self and mood boards…


Tell us a bit about yourself; how long have you been shooting and what is it about photography that grabs you as a medium and as a form of expression?
Well, I’ve been a photographer for about 14 years consistently although I have had cameras ever since I can remember, Kodak, little Olympus, Canon AE-1 etc. Oddly enough, I never thought I would be a photographer; I’m trained as a poet. I’m a graduate of The Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University, a sort of utopian college with Buddhist roots founded by Chogyam Trungpa (best known as the founder of the Shamballa system of meditation) and the legendary poet Allen Ginsberg. Interestingly enough, it was Allen that introduced me to my first real photographer, Robert Frank. Both Allen and Robert were Leica junkies; I can remember around 1994 when Allen would carry his M6 around his neck and shoot anything that seemed to interest him. Mostly people. He also used a TLR, which I think was a Yashica. Just last year, I actually published Ginsberg’s India Journals in their original handwriting and typescript from the Stanford archives, with his photos from India in 1963. Bold street photography of the impoverished area’s around Calcutta and the dichotomy of wealth. Odd stuff. Karma, gods like Kali, severed arms from railroad accidents and beggar holy men in the streets along with his friends. He always shot his friends. I think this is important. In my own work, I try to know the people that I work with – as intimately as possible without being crass or invasive. It makes for deeper interaction and much better capture.

I used to be intensely concerned with concept and doggedly obsessed with multi-layered meanings in my shoots. Now I don’t even use or require a mood board. My question is, what is the mood? Fuck a mood board.

How would you sum up your photographic style? What do you want your images to say to the viewer?
I’ll leave any sort of style discussion or pigeonhole to others to decide. I will say that I have worked very hard to make my imagery as candid as possible, while not being concerned with the image-makers around me that all seem to being doing the same work over and over again. I suppose I am primarily a fashion-style photographer, although I haven’t shot a strict fashion shoot in over a year. In fact, I spent pretty much the entire year of 2015 intentionally not shooting fashion and no models. None. Interestingly this coincided with my Ginsberg article for Black & Grey Magazine, and when I started to develop a relationship with Leica Camera specifically the classic M series rangefinder bodies and the medium format styled S. It was really in the last two years that I started developing any sort of signature style, if you would call it that, and I think it directly relates to moving to a manual focusing, high quality photographic render while keeping everything as simple as possible. Meaning one source of artificial light, little or no editing, and high contrast monochrome or vibrant color. Oh, and many different cameras lately. Each one I think is a different palette, like how you would think as a painter. I’ll frequently switch between say a CCD sensor M8 or M9, then to the CMOS M240, even a film Contax G2 for fast shooting or my M4 and M7 for film. I typically even carry around a Ricoh GR digital and a simple film camera to capture whatever whenever. Shoot fast, ask questions later. And rarely direct or influence the photo.
I used to be intensely concerned with concept and doggedly obsessed with multi-layered meanings in my shoots. Now I don’t even use or require a mood board. My question is, what is the mood? Fuck a mood board.

You are quite the polymath – photographer, writer, poet, art director and magazine editor; how do you balance all of this and where does photography sit in among all of this – is it a profession, a passion or both (or neither)?
And an agent!! I also represent photographers, studio techs, stylists and have even been asked to be a mother agent for models! For photography, I’ve been a professional, money-scraping, do-it-right-for-the-clients photographer in the past. It was only so satisfying and the industry has changed even in the short decade or so that I have really considered myself a photographer. I realized early on that I had to truthfully make my own voice heard through the very consistent drudgery of young-guns that want to be like Terry or Mario, when even Terry and Mario have changed over time. Become more refined. More relaxed. In part, that was why, in 2010, I started Black & Grey Magazine. It’s been through a few different transitions. I worked with a few young designers early on, and they really took off. I’ve worked with models that I was literally their first test and now they are top 50 on I’ve worked with all types of photographic “stars” over the years as an art director and an editor. Commercially as an art director and creative in that world you sometimes have to be the client as well as the one that comes up with the whole story or concept. With a degree in writing, it was always easy for me to almost run circles around even the copywriters – and don’t even get me started about the account managers, and how slow they were to get it. Ha, even now, when I told my magazine’s advertising director that I would print the thing with or without advertising she looked at me like I was nuts! I don’t know if I’ve been lucky or it’s just simply obsession that drives me.
I guess, to answer your question, the best balance for all of it is the fact that all of it is pretty much the same thing to me. It’s all a creative life and some of it makes money, and some of it is just simply satisfying. Photography itself has been the mainstay; when I don’t do it, I get a little crazy and start to lose balance. My wife’s mother even asked, “Is he obsessed?” to wit she said, “Mom, he’s an artist. If he isn’t obsessed, what kind of art would he make?”

I realized early on that I had to truthfully make my own voice heard through the very consistent drudgery of young-guns that want to be like Terry or Mario, when even Terry and Mario have changed over time.

In your role as editor of Black & Grey Magazine, what are the attributes that make a photographic submission stand out from the crowd?
Honesty. Maybe a touch of different perspective. And no, I don’t mean that literally. I don’t want 400 submissions from photographers that think because they shot a girl in her skivvies with a 15mm Voigtländer from two feet away that that is what I want. In fact, I don’t take unsolicited submissions. Even after six years, I pretty much hand-pick my collaborators and contributors. Each issue has a theme or story to tell. Some will get it, and some will just see it as pretty pictures and the words. Those that get it, come back. Truth be told, I guess I am looking for the auteur in still photography. Those whose work has, or is capable of, influencing others and whose personal influence over the work they do makes the photographer themselves the sole author of the work. This of course often puts me at odds with the stylists and fashion people because they think they are in control when they really shouldn’t be, not from my perspective. Sure, a collaboration, but not in control.
I remember one photoshoot I was a part of where the fashion director got in an argument with the photographer and said to him, “Well, you know, at the end of the day it’s about the clothes”. Bullshit. If a PR company or a showroom gets a blazer button in a shot and the rest is indistinguishable, as long as I list the fucking clothes I think they are winning. It’s not like they are paying my print bills or my rent. I think we get too caught up with labels, with this brand and that. I know one make-up artist that has a major fashion brand tattooed on the side of his neck. Really? I get it, I guess. I really respect designers with a vision. In fact, I agree with my friend Olivier Zahm, founder and editor of Purple Fashion Magazine, in saying that I would rather a designer’s total look from the runway than a stylist that has to come up with a concept in a day. It makes more sense, and I feel like the photos will be stronger without the atrocity of making sure you get everything in focus and clear. Fuck, by the time the editorial comes out, those in the know have already seen the damn look. It’s then art, and not interpretation of how this or that will look on someone. I mean, fuck, I’d rather see an inspired street shot or a nude instead of that!

What is the best piece of advice that you could offer an emerging photographer in today’s market – particularly those looking to get their work published?
Be yourself. In all of your quirks and eccentricities. Be yourself, and make sure you throw in the parts of what you see that are the intrinsic voyeur in you. Be specific. The more specific you are, the closer you are to the subject at hand or even literally the model or whatever it is that you are shooting, the more universal it becomes. Even if it is something everyone has seen before, you will be giving your perspective, your voice. Don’t ever, ever follow a trend. Acknowledge it, but never follow it. It will do you no good in the long run. Also, like my friend Eric Kim says, buy books not gear. Travel. Research. Open your eyes to different types of photography, even films, especially old ones where the director was the cinematographer. Kubrick, French New Wave, Bergman, Kurosawa. Remember 35mm photography came out of a need to test 35mm motion picture stock. This is your source. Brautigan, “All watched over by machines of loving grace.” That’s what these little boxes of light transformed are. Love, what you love has to be the source. You are creating a body of work, think about the photos and photographers that inspire you; their best work likely came after a long, long time. Don’t be hard on yourself if you aren’t the biggest bad-ass in photography at 21, let’s hope you aren’t!! Then what would you have to look forward to? And lastly, and I get this from my friend Michael Donovan, don’t listen to anyone’s criticism. No one. Not me, not the biggest art critic in the world or Anna Wintour. I remember having Allen Ginsberg critique my work at 22, and he just didn’t get it. That’s okay, I wasn’t ever going to be him. I had my perspective and that was what I was writing from. When he did get it, later, he introduced me to his biographer as a poet, not his student, a poet. That was enough of a compliment to keep going. You don’t have to kill your idols, but you do have to at least remember they were once where you are now.

You don’t have to kill your idols, but you do have to at least remember they were once where you are now.

What does 2016 have in store for you? Are you currently working on any projects that you can tell us about?
I can’t be too specific due to confidentiality agreements, but I am doing an ongoing weekly series for Autre magazine, and working with Purple Fashion Magazine by Olivier’s request, both magazines I tend to share some cultural perspective with and even some politics! I also have the current Black & Grey in the can and that will come out soon; a much thicker issue than we have ever done before and we are taking some risks with very young photographers and artists coupled with some old school hard-edged work. I am also looking for other like-minded publications to put my photography in; I used to only publish elsewhere if someone asked, now I am being a bit more aggressive. I have a book coming out this year with an actress/artist and a gallery show in Paris but I can’t really say anything more about that, it’s still in the development stages and I don’t want to jinx it. It will be good stuff, different, but also intensely the same at the root. Because all of this is about joy, joy and what is often left unseen. But hey, we have Instagram right… we see everything, except for nipples of course! Ha!

See more of Bil’s work at:

Black & Grey Magazine / Black & Grey Instagram / Personal Instagram

All images copyright Bil Brown.