The Instant (Film) Decay of Brian Henry

I first met film photographer, Brian Henry without realising who he is.

You see, around 2011, Brian was processing my film pretty regularly at a lab in Baltimore.  Somehow, I connected the dots between our interactions there and his posts in the Film in Baltimore group, so I began following Brian’s work.  I also take vicarious pride in stating that many of his images were set in some of the same local abandoned hospitals where I was also shooting.  But frankly, Brian’s take on those scenes was much more creative and compelling.

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Brian Henry is America’s answer to Ellen Rogers.

He shoots on instant film and also does darkroom print manipulations.   I’m honestly not that educated on the details of his craft but man, do I love his results!  Manipulating film and chemistry has always appealed to me as such a specific and unique art form.  For years I’ve been amazed by the striking personal honesty that Brian’s work depicts.  He conjures very specific emotional and intellectual responses.

There’s reflection and solace in his drab, faded coloring and ghostly monochrome.  Provocative textures echo his medium across scenes of vacancy and loneliness.  Yet compositions open up and to welcome viewers to share in his introspection.  Brian fills the emptiness he finds in abandoned architecture with surprisingly relatable private narratives.

[edited for clarity]

MARTYR: Hi Brian, please give me an overview of what type of photography you practice.  How did you learn about and get interested in these techniques?

HENRY:  My focus is on creating meaningful, timeless photographs of abandoned places, self-portraits, travel and models. I do this by creating tangible photos which I often manipulate or distress to achieve effects which often make a photo one-of-a-kind. Most of my technique comes from trial and error. Additionally: through research, knowing my camera, how it responds to the film, and what the film is capable of producing. This all comes from my curiosity about experimentation and my appreciation for the unexpected.

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MARTYR: What are some of your favorite/most used cameras, lenses, films, papers, chemistry etc?

HENRY: Polaroid SX-70 with Time-Zero Film, Polaroid Spectra with Polaroid Originals Spectra Film, Pentax 67 with 55mm and HP5, too many papers to pick a favorite. Really depends on the image!

MARTYR: With so much changing in the instant film market since Polaroid stopped making film in 2008, Impossible Project came on line and Fuji discontinued peel apart several years ago, how has your work been impacted?  What have you done to keep your head above water?

HENRY:  Before the announcement of discontinuation, I was lucky enough to stock up on enough peel-apart film to last me 20+ years worth of shooting. The Integral films from Impossible Project were suitable for the rest of my shooting, so I wasn’t impacted too much. Of course, I was an avid shooter before Impossible announced their production. During that period, I was very reluctant to “waste” film. The new prices have impacted my work however. I’ve grown used to buying expired material at a cheap price, for film that may or may not work. This is what I used to do most of experimentation on. Now that I have to pay a fair price for fresh material, I feel less ambitious about trying new things with it. Not to mention, that emulsions of new films are being improved, so just as I would begin to get the hang of it, there would be a slight change that throws off a processing technique. I look forward to their success at creating more stable films.

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MARTYR: What do you think of Impossible Project dissolving and joining in with Polaroid again?

HENRY:  Bittersweet! It made me so happy to see them work their way to brand their film Polaroid again. A full circle and amazing accomplishment to have films available again at stores like Target and Best Buy. I knew several of the founders of Impossible and to see this dream come true is unreal! With that said, as the company grew and expanded, a lot has changed. It seems like the connection to artists is no longer there. Their marketing is very boring to me and doesn’t showcase as much diverse content. There was a sense of connection that Impossible had with the art community and now that is gone. I also run a shop that carried Impossible Project film and once they re-branded, we could no longer carry their films due to their updated wholesale policy. Impossible was willing to work with small businesses and Polaroid Originals is not. That is unfortunate. With that said, I hope them the best and will continue purchasing their film as long as it’s made.

MARTYR: Do you work in a conventional darkroom to create your non-instant work?  Tell me a little about that workflow.

HENRY:  Most of the work that I am making today is done in my mini-darkroom. It’s a half-bath in my basement that is so small, that I have to kneel to expose each print. This is not ideal, but is much better than my previous darkroom that was made out of trash bags! At least I now have ventilation and running water! I’ve been prolifically printing in my basement for the past couple years, sending out monthly prints through my Patreon page and to collectors.

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MARTYR: You often are your own subject.  Are your images autobiographical?  What are some themes you feel most driven to represent?

HENRY:  Yes! I started doing a lot of self-portraits for me to run experiments on. A portrait is simple enough of a subject to distress without loosing important details like you would with a complex scene. From there, I began getting a little more comfortable being in front of the camera and began being my own model as I explore abandoned places alone. In this process, I have learned a lot about myself, my fears, my anxiety and mortality. Now, it’s therapeutic for me to do. I encourage everyone to go to an abandoned hospital and pose nude in front of a camera! We get old and die. Special places come and go. Your problems seem a little less significant when you are focusing on unstable floors! Photographs perfectly preserve and appreciate these temporary moments of existence.

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MARTYR: What are some favorite locations?  Do you travel much or stay around Baltimore?  How do you choose a location for an image?

HENRY: My favorite location was a storage building for a wax museum. It was a small, incredibly unsafe building full of decayed mannequins, historic items, Victorian wallpaper, antique clothing and furniture. Lot’s of original architectural charm throughout the building, down to the decorative hardware on the doors. Unfortunately, with all of the rain that we had last year, the floors finally gave out and it’s now just a deathtrap. 

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A large part of what makes photography enjoyable to me is the adventure. So I am often more excited to leave the city and surround myself in a different environment. I usually remain within a few hours of Baltimore, but have really enjoyed the traveling I did through Europe and the Balkans a few years ago. Most trips these days are often spontaneous on my days off.

MARTYR: What is your process for coming up with an idea for an image?  Do you make a series of similar images all at once or concentrate on creating them one at a time?

HENRY:  I often carry a couple cameras and film types with me. Once I get a sense of he location and mood, I will decide which camera and film combination feels right. Knowing what the camera, film and paper are capable of producing then play a role in my composition and subject for the photo. It can sound like a lot of thinking, but it has become rather intuitive after shooting with the same equipment for years. While my photos may take place at the same location, or of the same subject,  I end up focusing on each photograph as it’s own piece.

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MARTYR: Do your manipulations sometimes not go the way you expect?  What do you do with those prints?

HENRY:  Yes! If any manipulations do not go as expected, I will make all attempts to salvage the image or materials in some way. I really do not like to waste or throw away anything unless I have to. If there is no hope for an image and it is just taking up space, I will burn it, eat it, or see if anyone wants them. I recently found a collector who is interested in these kinds of “failures”!

MARTYR: Unlike most photographers, your images are more or less one-off’s and selling them is more like selling a painting.  Most photographers have the pleasure of selling, and keeping copies of their work.  Do you find it difficult to sell an original, un-reproducible piece?

HENRY:  Absolutely! This is why the pricing for my pieces can appear all over the place. Certain films/papers that have been discontinued are more valuable to me because they are irreplaceable. Polaroids are often the hardest for me to let go, as it’s the complete, negative/print/memory in one. If a location has been demolished, I then have a harder time parting with images from there. If I spend a week working on one print, I obviously connect with that piece more so than an unaltered one. These are all things for me to consider if I decide to part with a photograph. With that said, I do occasionally make reproduction prints by request.

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MARTYR: Do you have any upcoming projects or exhibits that we should look out for?

HENRY: I’m excited to announce my first solo show at Steve Amadee Gallery in Tribeca, Manhattan on May 1, 2019. The exhibition will be a collection of experimental silver gelatin prints and Polaroid originals; crossing themes of abandoned places and experimental nudes. Many of the images are ones that I have never shared before!  

I was also selected to participate in the Revela-T residency in Barcelona this June. It’s a selection of experimental analog photographers from around the world, to unite and exchange knowledge and technique. An exciting year ahead!

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MARTYR:   That sounds fantastic, congrats.  Thanks so much for your time, Brian!

You can keep up to date of the works of Brian Henry at the following links!

Instant Decay

Instagram

Patreon

Thanks so much for reading, happy experimenting!
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