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through the eyes of fine art photographer & journalist susan burnstine

In Focus: Brad Temkin

While attending Fotofest reviews a few years ago, my friend Dave Anderson suggested I meet his longtime friend Brad Temkin. He was certain we’d become pals and as usual, Dave was right. I was instantly taken by Brad’s work the first time I viewed it. Since then, we’ve been talking about working on an article or interview.

Last week, Brad was kind enough to chat with me about his photography. Here’s an excerpt from that conversation.

SUSAN BURNSTINE: What were your beginnings as a photographer and when did you realize it would become your chosen form of expression?

BRAD TEMKIN:   I began photographing in high school as a “fluff” class.  I was kind of  a derelict, and it was the first thing in my life that I had any kind  of control of.  It directed me to the positive rather than the negative,  and kept me out of trouble. My teacher David Currie, was so encouraging  and exposed us to all kinds of pictures.  He created a community where  all kinds of kids came together and all kinds of work were encouraged.  I  had gotten involved in taking Rock N’ Roll pictures, and I was lucky to  have found my way  into the hearts of promoters, Creem magazine, record companys and many of the musicians. It seemed I was in the middle of it all and then  Currie took us to an exhibit of Minor White’s work in 1973. I was so moved by the poetry of this work that from that time I decided I wanted to make picture instead of take pictures.  I quickly stopped taking  pictures of the Rock N’ Roll industry and began focusing on making pictures about form, content and the visual poetry I found in the world.


SB:  Can you tell me a bit of history about your series Rooftop and the actual rooftop movement as a whole (where they began, etc) ?

BT:   Throughout my career, I have always been interested in the environment and how we affect it.  We take our planet for granted, and I  think it’s funny what we do and how we change it.  Often times it can  have negative affects (which is not funny), but what we do with it is interesting.  I think this is one of my favorite aspects of people…how  dumb we can be, yet how we always seem to stumble into grace. 

In  Private Places,  I  am dealing with people’s stuff, and how we adorn our spaces.  I am  making somewhat humble and personal environments unreal and  exaggerated.  I was always interested in gardening and while making  these pictures, I learned  how the way we tend our garden is imperative  how it will look the following years.  In other words, the affects are  felt several years, maybe decades later.  

In Relics,  I am celebrating our folly by looking at the objects we leave behind.  My approach builds on the sculptural foundation that integrates theobject and the landscape.  The objects become beautiful and monumental “earth works”.   My hope is to symbolize the mark humans leave on the landscape by showing our impermanent, yet lingering presence. 

The color companion to Relics is  Focal Points.  Focal Points continues along similar parallels.  The sculptural foundation remains, yet it is more about sight and focus; in how and what we look at the world and the act of vision itself.   All of this preceded “Rooftop”, but had major impact on how I approached photographing it.  

As I was printing and re-visualizing Private Places,  for an exhibit with the city of Chicago, and heard a piece on NPR  regarding Chicago’s green initiative.  It spoke about green roofs and  walls, and how Chicago currently had the most green roofs in the US. The green roof and wall industry is actually in it’s infancy in North America (about 10 years) but in Europe it has been thriving for over 40 years.  We have taken their  (Europe’s) success, and built on it.  The industry is growing  expediently, with all kinds of new technology being introduced. So I contacted my connections with the city,  and asked if they could help connect me with the appropriate people for access.  This was a beginning however, I needed to get specific about what it was I wanted from this work. 

For the first time in my life I had done research before I went out photographing.  I reached out to landscape architects and roofers for help.  I was able to  gain access to spaces, and people were very generous.    It was different because I  had many more “hoops” to jump through as well as legal issues.  Also, with Private Places  I was interested in changing the reality of these small places, as metaphors.  In Rooftop I am  showing people that these large amazing vistas actually existed.  I am making  these unreal places, real.  


SB: You’ve mentioned that the series Rooftop is ongoing. What cities do you plan to photograph rooftops in the future?

BT:  It is ongoing!  One thing leads to another, and from there it just gets more interesting.  As I make pictures, more situations present  themselves.  Meeting the people behind the Rooftop’s is also  interesting.  Most of these leaders have the same goal  in mind, the good of common man…and coincidentally, they work on many  of the same projects. Some of the cities I am planning on photographing this year are Portland, OR, Toronto, New York, Boston, San Francisco & Vancouver.


SB: In  2005 your series Private Places: Photographs of Chicago Gardens was published in a monograph. Can you tell me a bit about that body of work  and how it began?

BT:  Private Places began out of my interest in gardening and my exploration into color.  I was never really satisfied with color photographic output, and then one day I saw David Adamson’s Iris prints.  I contacted David and spoke with him about working together, and what I had in mind.  This led to the inception of Private Places in where I “pushed” and exaggerated certain colors to lead the viewer.  These Private Places became shared moments…inviting a person to escape into their own mind. 

This was an important time for me, and my sense of color.  Being able to define boundaries.  I feel like this idea is resolved for me.


SB:  Is the book still available? If so, where can it be purchased?

BT:  Yes.  Amazon and Photo Eye Books, besides a few bookstores.


SB:  I’m  quite fond of your series Focal Points. Can you talk a bit about the genesis of this body of work, where the images where photographed and if  you plan to continue the work in the future?

BT:  Thank you!  Focal Points is the color companion to my Relics work.  I’ve always photographed in black & white and color simultaneously because I see things that way, and can’t not photograph both subject matter.  You know, sort of a “yin” to a “yang”.  They usually relate, but I don’t worry about it when making the pictures.  I simply trust they do. 

So anyway, as I was making pictures of these obscure, sculptural objects in the landscape in black & white, but I was also interested in just the space of it all.  That’s how Focal Points happened!  It was simply how I looked at space.  I didn’t need an object, but I did need some color - which of course, I muted.  These pictures (Relics & Focal Points) still happen for me, but less.  I think they were more relevant a few years ago.  What is also interesting for me is how I relate these pictures to events happening in my life.  My work helps me to do that because it is a time I can truly be mindful. 


SB:  Your  work has an extensive reach from Relics to Christiana to Delta to Irish Stories and your most recent works Rooftop and Private Places. As a  whole, your imagery focuses on documenting the human impact on the  contemporary landscape. What is your personal impetus for this overriding theme?

BT:  That is a good question, and one I have pondered over and over.  I don’t want to sound trite, but that question keeps bringing me back to one thing:  that the world is a wonderful place!   People are good, rather than evil.  We are dumb, yet we continue to stumble into grace, in spite of ourselves.  Understanding the world and becoming a better person through my art, is my biggest goal.  I like to think my pictures affirm how wonderful it is to be alive, and life is a gift. 


SB:  You are also a teacher at Columbia College? How long have you been teaching there and what types of classes do you teach?

BT:  I began teaching because of the teachers I’ve had.  It’s sort of a “pay back” for helping me discover my path.  I’ve been teaching at Columbia since 1984 as an adjunct.  It is a terrific place to teach because of the diversity of students, and my colleagues.  I usually teach a few classes per semester, and have taught everything from Photo 1 to Zone System.  It’s a great facility, and I’ve been lucky to have the opportunity to share ideas with some great folks.


SB:  What are you working on now?

BT:  I’m always working.  When I don’t work, I get unhappy…so I have to work.  It’s like chocolate!  Of course, I’m right in the middle of Rooftop and hope to do a book of it in the next few years.  There’s so much that I am finding that it’s hard to see the end to it all.  It’ll probably just morph into something else.  Rooftop has also really gotten me interested in infrastructure, and I am thinking about making pictures about that.  I also love to make portraits, and really admire the work of Nick Nixon, Paul Strand and Joel Sternfeld.   It’s great to be able to stare at things and when asked what I am doing, say: “I’m a photographer, so it’s OK”.


To see more of Brad’s work pop over to his website

And if you live in Houston or attending Fotofest next week, come by and say hi to both Brad and myself. We’ll both be at the Session 2 Portfolio Walk next Friday night, March 23 at the Doubletree Hotel Ballroom. See you there. 

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