Brian Finke on Sustaining a Career Through Personal Work
Photographer Brian Finke is never anything but himself. He has made a career out of channeling his unique empathetic vision while showcasing the vast diversity of American subcultures, from body builders to drag queens, BBQ pitmasters to pot barons. And though he has a laundry list of A-list editorial clients like The New York Times Magazine, GQ and The New Yorker, it’s his personal projects that have fueled many of those assignments.
“Personal work has been important to me forever. It’s important to me now,” Finke tells PDNedu. “It’s where all of the other work comes from.”
At 41 years old, Finke has published four highly regarded monographs that span a range of subjects and took years of relentless curiosity and shooting to produce. Each, in its own way, has formed the foundation on which he has built his career. His fifth book, Hip Hop Honeys, featuring years of images of music video vixens, is due out in the spring.
Finding a Voice
Finke had been shooting for years in the grainy black-and-white style of documentarians such as W. Eugene Smith and, while he was netting minor assignments, he had to set himself apart. His inspiration came from an unlikely source: the 2000 teen comedy Bring It On, in which rival cheerleaders spar off at Nationals.
“I thought to myself: ‘This is amazing. I want to shoot this,’” recalls Finke, who said he had been looking for subject matter that spoke to him and a style that “felt more recognizably my own.”
Finke grew up in Houston, Texas, where football is exalted—this was his world. He decided to contact cheerleading associations and began to photograph competitions. From there, he broadened the project to include football teams. At the same time, he eschewed his hard-nosed black-and-white style and started experimenting with color and flashes.
The “stylized documentary” style that Finke created was, in part, a response to what he was trying to capture.
“When I was shooting cheerleading and football, there was this explosion of energy — winning, losing, crying,” Finke says. “I wanted to exaggerate those moments and make them feel larger than life.”
The project became a door opener for Finke. The New York Times Magazine director of photography Kathy Ryan published an edit of his work and hired him to shoot a number of stories on collegiate athletics. When Nike got wind of the images, the shoe company hired Finke for his first major campaign, a shoot of sprinters for Nike Running.
The Personal Turns Commercial
A distinctive pattern has emerged in Finke’s creative process: He gets intensely interested in a subject, shoots it obsessively and then gets assignments based on that body of work.
In some cases, the editorial and the commercial projects push his personal projects to new heights, as with his “Flight Attendants” project. His cheerleading work led to a steady flow of clients who flew him around the world to shoot. With so many hours spent on planes, Finke became fascinated by the men and women who had become his everyday companions in the air.
“With flight attendants we’re used, of course, to seeing them on planes, but I wanted to also take them out of that context and show them in the everyday, at home, in the store, picking up their kid after school,” Finke told the Los Angeles Times in 2012.
The project resulted in gallery exhibitions and his second monograph, Flight Attendants, in 2008. Less than two years later, Air New Zealand hired Finke to shoot its “Forget Everything You Know About Flying” campaign, and, a few years after that, Delta Air Lines and ad agency Wieden+Kennedy tapped him to shoot the airline’s new global campaign, “Keep Climbing,” which traded years of Delta ad work shot in black and white for Finke’s signature bold and colorful style.
Even now, the interplay between Finke’s personal work and his professional career has continued to drive him forward.
Finke’s personal interest in grilling, showcased on Instagram, caught the eye of National Geographic director of photography Sarah Leen in 2014, as she looked for a photographer to shoot a cover story on meat. National Geographic hired Finke for the shoot, and he’s continued to shoot for them since.
These days, Finke has found a new subject to dissect and obsess over: fight clubs. Like everything else, he came to the project through a bit of serendipity. At a bar, a friend told him about how she used to attend backyard-boxing events with her father while growing up in South Dakota. Finke was captivated by the drama of the fights, which often serve as a way to settle local disputes and avoid lethal violence, so he searched for ones he could attend.
When asked if he thinks that the fight club project will result in similarly aligned editorial or advertising work, Finke laughs. This time he doesn’t think so. Then again, he never imagined that much would come out of his other fascinations, either.
—By Harrison Jacobs, excerpted from “Getting Personal: Brian Finke on Sustaining a Career Through Personal Work.”