It’s a rare thing to discover a photographer who makes you stop your Aeron chair in its tracks and just breathe deeply as the talent washes over you, image after image. No, this isn’t hyperbole. That’s how I felt when I came across the work of William Brinson. With the preponderance of digital technology, post-production tools and great lighting gear, it’s not easy to make still life images look both beautiful and simple. Brinson does this regularly from his 2000 square foot Manhattan loft which serves as both his studio and his home.
A native of Maryland, it’s appropriate the current iteration of Brinson’s Web site’s Food section starts off with crabs in various stages of consumption. In this series of photos, small dishes of melted butter, empty shells, plates, and a pot of cooked but unmolested crabs sit on pages of The New York Times. Lit from behind, seemingly by available natural light, these photos are not only the work of a professional, but by someone who knows how each dish is created and consumed in the real world. Regularly sharing recipes on his blog, which also features entries such as thoughts on a knife skills class he attended, vintage plastic food picks he found in New Jersey, and his vast bottle opener collection, Brinson is nothing short of a food magazine photo editor’s dream.
Beginning his formal education at Montgomery College in Rockville, Maryland, Brinson eventually graduated from Savannah College of Art and Design with a degree in Photography. Sheepskin in hand, he immediately moved to New York with his high school girlfriend, who is now his wife. Susan Brinson regularly contributes to their blog, House of Brinson. The couple moved to Brooklyn for five years and Brinson honed his craft while assisting other photographers. He narrowed down his possible career choices in photography to fashion, food, or still life. “I pretty much found my niche in the still life and the food world,” he says. “The next step was, I was getting busy enough shooting that I started to stop assisting.” They moved to their first Manhattan apartment, a tiny live-work studio in Chelsea.
Working in his current loft located between Koreatown and Murray Hill, Brinson’s food and still life work encompasses everything from fashion accessories to food packaging, and anything imaginable in between. In addition to his photographic prowess, Brinson considers himself a food stylist, and the double duty he pulls in this capacity enables some clients with limited budgets to choose the House of Brinson for their food photography needs. He enjoys larger shoots with proper budgets because he feels there’s more than enough worry about photographically, and has a group of food stylists he entrusts to bring dishes to their perfection before he begins shooting. The photographer is now represented by the Marnie Rose Agency.
Brinson is at the point in his career when clients seek him out because they want him for the style he’s cultivated. “Photography is problem solving,” he explains. “You figure out what the client’s parameters are and you ask yourself, ‘What can I do to make it look like it’s mine and also theirs at the same time?’ It might sound cheesy, but I really believe in the sense of my work. I love layering and building natural elements into it. You can take something really mundane and if you photograph it beautifully, it just takes it to another level and makes it look gorgeous. I love to make it feel obtainable, in a sense. I call it natural luxury—that’s how I describe my style, because it’s something very elemental. But also the way I try to photograph things, I try to make it feel more luxurious, even if it’s just a simple thing.”
Working with others is a primary element of the natural-looking alchemy which happens in the Brinson loft. “It’s always collaboration. I love collaborating with clients,” the photographer says. “The best thing you can do is get in a meeting with somebody and create this fantastic job. If you’re both super happy with it, then it’s golden, and you keep getting more work that way.”
Brinson’s still life photos, especially his non-food images, are possibly even more impressive than his food photography. The “stills,” as he calls them on his Web site, are stunning examples of controlled color and light palettes, particularly the ones involving textiles. They are comparable to still lifes by the Dutch vanitas still life painter Edwaert Collier. His work leads one to think if Brinson photographed raw meat, it would not look unlike some canvases by Jean-Baptiste Oudry, the French Rococo master painter, although Brinson has his own thoughts on the influence of painters.
“I’m definitely inspired by Vermeer paintings. Not to be too cheesy, but I think I freak out clients sometimes when I just use one light,” Brinson laughs.
Clients sometimes stare at the results Brinson achieves, asking how he makes his photographs look like a Vermeer. “I balance a lot,” he laughs. “I love balanced light. I guess it’s the tools I use, too. I hate to do any direct lighting. Almost everything I do is indirect lighting. I use a lot of Plexiglass, and a lot of deep dish reflectors. I don’t even really point the light necessarily at the subject. It’s usually scraping off of a piece Plexi and that Plexi almost becomes the light.”
Originally, Brinson was driven by the desire to make his work look “daylight style.” Back then, Martha Stewart’s daylight-drenched catalog shots were all the rage. Not having the proper studio at the time, Brinson was forced to adapt and invent. Not only did he figure out how to recreate daylight, he developed the ability to truly control his lighting to the point of simulating different times of day. He can make shots look like daylight, but he can also dial in something like five in the afternoon, or a cloudy dusk at 3pm. Brinson estimates five percent or less of his portfolio is shot with natural daylight.
Regarding cameras, Brinson finds what he likes and sticks with it, unlike the way he constantly challenges himself with new lighting techniques. “I have to give big props to Mamiya, because I bought a Mamiya RZ Pro II in college, and I still use it today,” he says. “That thing’s a workhorse. It has not been in for repair, and I’ve had it since ’98 . It’s a fantastic camera, I’m really vested in it. I’ve got an adaptor for digital plate, and I shoot Phase One.” For lenses, he relies on a 140mm, a 65mm floating lens, and a 50mm. He hasn’t shot film since 2006 or 2007.
For lighting, Brinson owns Acute2R 2400 units, and sometimes uses D4 Air units. All his reflectors are Profoto. He fires these with a PocketWizard Classic. “I actually don’t know how old it is. It’s just been around in my studio forever. It works great every time,” he says.
When it comes time to pulling all these light sources together, Brinson measures everything with a Sekonic L-508. “I got it about the same time I got my camera. It never lets me down. When using flash, I’m experienced enough to know the values. When I involve natural light, I use the meter to make sure I know exactly what’s happening and with what intensity. It’s never been in for repair, and it looks brand new. I don’t need it for every single shot, but there are just some things you don’t want to screw around with. You don’t want to shoot your first exposure, and the client’s staring at the monitor, and it’s completely white,” he says, laughing.
A new part of Brinson’s workflow is using the Phase One Capture One software and Apple iPad app. He has his clients relax in a corner of the loft and they can follow along with what’s happening on the shoot by viewing the iPad.
In the future, Brinson hopes to continue learning and expanding, with an eye on travel food work, where he is presented with the challenges of shooting in situations where he’ll be reliant on what he has available and the minimal rigs he brings himself. “I’ve always loved the darker subjects. That’s just something that sticks with me. I really love creating a certain amount of depth—as much depth as possible. No matter how dark the image is, it still has layers, whether it’s layers of fabric or it’s just layers of light. I’ll always have that style, in a sense, but my lighting changes. I hope it’s always evolving.”
Written by Ron Egatz