An Interview With Brian Griffin
It is very rare that someone can get to meet a photographer who has unknowingly had an influence on your life at some point in the past. Without realising it Brian Griffin is one such photographer; unknown to me at the time my record collection contained some of his work and although he has rarely been heard of outside Britain, his work has been essential in shaping the photographic imagery of our time.
After seeing Brian Griffin give a lecture on his past and present work as a photographer, I became intrigued to know what made Brian the man he is today and hoped that maybe I could learn something from what seemed like a vast wealth of experience acquired as a top photographer. Some of his works include; album covers, band portraits, annual business reports, advertising jobs, corporate imaging and editorial portraits. I met up with him at a pub near his home in Canary Warf, London and asked him these questions.
What made you decide to become a photographer?
“Life! I came from a very humble background, a two-up-two-down terraced house in Lye, Birmingham. Kicked out of school at sixteen and shoved into a factory to earn some money for the family. I never wanted to leave school because of doing so well but never had a choice”. While in the factory he was approached by a work mate and asked to join a photography club. After a series of events that included a relationship split, he began to write applications to various colleges; Guildford, Regent Street Central Polytechnic, London College of Printing and finally Manchester who accepted him for a placement. His talent was soon recognised by tutors and nurtured to allow him to become a fully capable photographer.
Your artistic career spans several decades, but is it possible to distinguish one particular decade where your work reached a creative peak and if so why?
“Two decades really, the eighties, and now”. The best decisions Brian has made in his life have been fundamental. “The greatest invention on earth is the most obvious, not the most complex”. He made a choice to set up a studio in Rotherhithe, London, from which he could work on his lighting technique and build on confidence. The studio was a stepping-stone towards his future as a prolific photographer who manipulated the power of light to a maximum level. “I started to develop my own unique way of using light to my advantage. By understanding how light works inside, you can use the same understanding outside as well”. From this moment on, his work became a lot more interesting to him, which in turn allowed more experimentation that produced even more outside interest toward his art.
The eighties brought him fame, fortune and plenty of new projects to work on. Unfortunately, being a self-confessed workaholic, this also ended his marriage and a corrupt accountant was stealing his income, “I was so busy that I never noticed my financial side”. Although all this pain was going on in his life, Brian honestly believes that he produces his best work when he is in personal turmoil, “when I’m happy, my work is weak”. More recently, in the last three years, Brian believes that he has produced “some of the best works that I have ever done” and is confident that he has plenty more to give.
What do you enjoy most about your work?
“I enjoy working and meeting people very much, I am very much a people’s person”. His work is “like a mirror”, helping him to find out about himself. His images act as a diary, constantly documenting his life’s moments. “My work is all about myself and it gives me great pleasure to look within”.
How do you think that you have inspired the creative practices and processes of other artists?
“I know I have in the sense that a lot of photography, certainly in the eighties, was a derivative of my photography, in my area of photography. I had covered so many fundamental issues, that it was impossible for other photographers to avoid them really”. Brian believes that one of the main areas of his work that has inspired others is his corporate images. “I moved the corporate imagery forward to a large extent”. His belief is that if your work is around long enough, then people are bound to get inspired by it and look a little deeper into the processes behind the picture. “I have made boring subjects interesting”.
Would you describe your art as political and if so, why or if not why not?
“Very good question. One of my first jobs was in an office and I was quite bitter at the way I was treated by my bosses’, so I was political, yes! All the way through the seventies, all the way through the eighties. Now, because of my age and the work I do, I’m not so political”. His work now is more about celebrity portraits so there is no need for him to be so political. The corporate side of his business is more artistic rather than political.
Who are your major influences and how do they affect your creative practice?
His industrial background seems to have inspired what he has photographed in the past. He was also influenced by German expressionism, German painters, Russian constructivists and capitalist literature, and Renaissance painting. All these were his main inspiration during the seventies and were the foundation for his future. Brian’s studio work was inspired by “religious paintings, along with paintings from Spain and Italy”.
How do you generate ideas and when are you at your most creative?
“I don’t have a car, I walk everywhere and I use public transport. By walking everywhere I can look at everything and it gives me space to think”. He tends to watch people and study their mannerisms. “I tend to be quite spontaneous with my ideas and act on them as soon as possible”. The only time he ponders over a job is when it is site work, in which case he spends a long time pondering over the whole area, waiting for inspiration. Having an assistant has also helped to take some of the burden off his shoulders; this also gives him a little more breathing space and time for him to think. “Ideas come when you do nothing, or when you cook pasta or make a cup of coffee”. 8. What is your preferred media, film or stills?
“Stills at the moment, definitely, but if I have a feature film to do then I will move over to film, of course! But it’s essentially stills”. Brian goes on to say that he prefers the instant access to his still images, whereas the film process is much more tedious and time consuming.
How important is it to be London based?
“I don’t think it is any more, it certainly was when I started, but not any more. If you wanted to be at the forefront of commercial photography, being in London was essential but not anymore”. He says that a lot of portraiture is shot in London so to have a studio there is much more important because the more prominent people live in London and do not want to travel too far to have a picture taken. “General photographic work could be anywhere in Europe, but if you want to do a portrait of Diana Rigg, she is going to be in a London theatre so you need to be close”.
Do you work with an agency and if so what are the advantages and disadvantages of such an arrangement?
“I often think that I would like to work through an agency because I’m sure that they are constructive things but I think that my personality is such that I find it difficult to work with other people. So at the moment I work for myself.” Some of the apparent advantages of an agent could be to introduce you to new clients, in the case of syndication they can open your work up all over the world. The major disadvantages are that if you work with an agent they can take 20 to 25% of your income. A picture agency could take up to 50% of the sale of an image.
Do you ever wish that your artistic career may have taken a different path?
“Never, no! I’ve gone through a perfect path actually. I am really happy with my artistic career. I have no misgivings or no frustrations at all, I’m really happy about it”.
How do you envisage your career developing over the next decade?
“I believe that I will be recognised as one of the best photographers that the country has ever produced. I think that I will be the oldest commercial photographer in the country”. He also believes that he will be one of the last original photographers prior to Photoshop in his particular area or field of photography. “Martin Parr has made his mark big strides in his area and I have done the same in mine. I hope that in ten years time the history books will recognise me but until then I will keep on making pictures”.