Surrounded by photography from an early age, Brandon Schulman’s love for the photographic process comes from a lifelong respect for passionate craftsmanship, storytelling and how subjects' identities and environments inform their narratives. Brandon splits his time between Brooklyn and the Catskills, where he shares a mountain farmstead with his wife, Japanese photographer and food enthusiast Chiaki Hara. Brandon graduated from the Brooks Institute of Photography with a focus on advertising and has earned international honors such as a Hearst Biennial, a Px3 and a Pollux Award.
The Enduring Power of Photography
How did you get started in photography?
My father was an avid amateur photographer. He saved up to buy a Rolleiflex in the fifties and built a makeshift darkroom in his childhood bathroom. When I was born, there was already a darkroom in my home; I was six when I got my first camera. He is the reason I am a photographer today. By the time I was in high school, I was already shooting concerts for small music magazines and printing wedding albums in a color darkroom.
Where did you travel in your A Portrait of America Left Behind series?
I realized I was not going to be able to pull off the original project financially. Initially, I was looking at abandoned amusement parks overtaken by nature in China, Ukraine, Chile and Japan.
At the same time, I was shooting America along the way and loving the photos. I decided to go on the road for three weeks through West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi and Louisiana. I followed my gut wherever it took me. I drove down small, dirt roads, in the spirit of the great road trip photographers Bresson, Frank and Evans. The project grew into a social commentary on Main Street USA and the way we disregard our communities to get savings from large corporate stores, which were also shuttered in some of my pictures. Ironically, I slept mostly in Wal-Mart parking lots.
What inspired you to start Project Handmade, a video and photography series spotlighting modern artisans?
This was a great way to immerse myself in motion. I’m in the early stages of my career, and I didn’t want to become obsolete by the time I am 50. In my eyes, we all need to be content providers or creators to stay viable in tomorrow’s workforce.
I have always been an appreciator of fine objects—I’m actually a watch freak. I really loved documenting Fitzgerald Jewelry because they were making my and my wife’s wedding bands. It was such an amazing experience to film every moment, from the wax carving to the casting of our wedding rings. I also documented the making of our wedding Ketubah by an incredible artist named Stephanie Caplan. Now I have something to remember each person by.
How do you balance personal work with assignments and commissions?
In the beginning, all I had was personal work. Then I started to get commissions, but still not enough to make a living. Eventually, I stopped doing personal work outside of Project Handmade and focused mainly on creating my business and really starting my career. After a couple years of that, I am now starting to focus again on personal projects and balancing the two. I am about to start a new fine art series, but we’ll leave that a secret for now!
Your String Theory series focuses on a group who rarely get the spotlight: physicists. What made you interested in photographing these rarely glamorized scholars?
Several years ago, when I decided to stop pursuing fashion photography, I realized that thematic photo series were the way for me to go. At the time, I was really into Brian Greene and his book about string theory, Elegant Universe. When I traveled to Santa Barbara for a wedding, I called their physics chair, David Gross, who was also a Nobel Prize winner. After that, I started contacting physicists at Harvard, Princeton, M.I.T., École Normale Supérieure and Fermilab. So far, I have photographed 22 physicists and three Nobel Prize winners. It got my foot in the door for editorial work by showing photo editors how I think and shoot portraits. The series got me a meeting at New York Times Magazine and my first portrait gigs shooting for CITY magazine and Barnard Magazine.
Who you would love to photograph?
Leonard Cohen. He is one of my mentors in life and spirit; I dream of just having a conversation with him. The image would be secondary.
What concerns you about photography right now?
I am tired of sexuality being used in a cheap way. It is too easy and slightly sad when people play off of female sexuality to make an image. I’m not saying nudity and sexuality don’t have their place, but they can’t be everything.
Where do you see photography industry headed?
I do not see photography going away like some might believe. Right now, there is a niche in the marketplace for photographers who can also do video, and the challenges of motion are really quite exciting to me at times.
But I am a lover of the still image—it creates a quicker, more cerebral interaction with the viewer than motion. Its potential to create a narrative in the viewer’s mind is very powerful. Americans saw thousands of hours of Vietnam War footage, but it was an image of a little girl running down the street naked, burning from napalm, that brought the American populace to a standstill and ended the conversation on the war. The photograph will have a very special place, I hope, for generations to come.