Steven Brooks has been on my radar for a number of years now, with me first stumbling upon his work via Flickr. Looking through his photos, I saw a refreshing depiction of the American West that, for someone living their entire life on the East coast, was very compelling. From roadside attractions to burger joints, foggy farms to motels, Steven creates scenes straight out of a movie, with the main character always being the landscape.
We talked with Steven about his American Pickup series, the "film vs. digital" debate, and the American West, among other things. We're proud to have Steven Brooks on Cadillac Ranch Dressing.
All photos by Steven Brooks
Interview by Josh Sinn
Where were you born and where do you currently live?
I was born in the San Juan Islands of Washington State. My family moved around a lot within the state and also spent a bit of time in Northern Canada, but I’ve lived in Seattle for over 30 years.
How did you first pick up a camera?
I took my first pictures with my dad’s Konica rangefinder when I was 13. My parents were always great about encouraging creative pursuits, so when I expressed an interest in photography and asked to borrow my dad’s camera, he gifted it to me and promptly went out to buy the core of the Contax/Zeiss system he still owns and uses today.
Do you have any formal education in photography?
No, I studied music formally for a few years, but my photography education was acquired here and there, over a long period of time. My dad and older brother were both interested in photography and there were plenty of books and magazines in my house, many focusing on landscape and wildlife photography. I often found myself daydreaming in the pages of Arizona Highways magazine. My first pictures were scenics: landscapes, sunsets, etc. I also took a lot of portraits of family members.
We had a darkroom at home and I spent entire days and nights processing and printing, sometimes the hours passing like minutes. During that phase, I would often argue with my sister for going through the darkroom trash and hanging my rejects on her bedroom wall. (She didn’t see any difference between the keepers and the rejects. I swore she was blind.) By the time I was 15, I had saved enough money to buy a Yashica SLR, which accepted my dad’s Zeiss lenses. With those lenses and a darkroom at home, the technical learning potential was relatively limitless, but artistic learning and growth came quite a bit later. Spending so much time in the darkroom, I became obsessed with tones and contrast, but hadn’t yet learned to take interesting pictures.
In the late 80s, the Lee Friedlander exhibit, Like a One-Eyed Cat, came to the Seattle Art Museum. Seeing that exhibit was a pivotal experience for me. It simply changed the way I see, in all aspects of my life, and enabled me to see beauty in far less obvious places. I spent years experimenting with window reflections, and abstract compositions. I also started acquiring photography books, now a lifelong habit that needs constant feeding.
"I’m always looking for redemption and hope in the landscape."
Who are some of your influences in photography or elsewhere?
My photography books are hugely inspirational. This week, I’m spending a lot of time with three books: Peter Granser’s Sun City, Alec Soth's Ping Pong Conversations and Vivian Maier’s Out of the Shadows. The internet is probably my biggest source of inspiration though. I follow a lot of amazing photographers and photography curators on Tumblr and Flickr. I bookmark the stuff that inspires me and revisit the sites and images regularly. There is an astounding number of interesting pictures being made and shared every day. It’s humbling, to say the least.
I also find inspiration in paintings, movies, music and fiction. Sometimes I attempt to illustrate a particular mood that a work from another medium evokes. Lately, stories by Raymond Carver have had an impact on what catches my eye.
You have a lot of recurring themes and subjects, one of them being pickup trucks. You eventually organized those photos into a series called American Pickup. What about pickup trucks grabs your attention?
One consistency among my series is that my pictures focus primarily on the American roadside. Sometimes they are construed as coming from a cynical or ironic point of view—which is only sometimes intentional. More than anything, I’m always looking for redemption and hope in the landscape. To me, a pickup truck is the ultimate symbol of American pride and ambition. Despite the series title and common thread of pickups, I try to make the photos more about the landscape as a whole. The trucks just happen to be there, but they help complete the scene.
You choose to work in both digital and film, but what draws you to film when you do work with it?
The way I use film has certainly evolved over the years as digital technology has improved and certain film emulsions have been discontinued. I now use film sparingly alongside my digital cameras when I come across something that really excites me and I have time to set up an extra camera. Many of the pictures in my American Pickup series were shot on Fuji 400H and Kodak Portra 400. There’s a certain character to the grain structure and color rendering of those films that seems to add a special ingredient to the pictures, making them some of my favorites from the series. Shooting a medium format film camera without a built-in meter also requires me to take my time. I find that when I’m shooting rural and small town scenes—where pickups are plentiful—I feel like I can afford to slow down a bit. That’s often when I reach for my film camera and tuck an extra roll of film into my pocket. There’s something special about that loud “cluck” of the shutter and advancing the film crank that makes me smile every time, as if the scene were posing for me. Perhaps it’s nostalgia or romanticism, but certain subjects, scenes and circumstances seem to call for film and I know it the instant I see “the shot”.
"It’s all pixels on a screen anyway, no matter how they got there."
I think digital and film offer different advantages and I enjoy using them both. Having a background in film, I’m excited to see younger generations of photographers embracing it. I can’t help but roll my eyes, however, when I read “digital sucks” comments online. I Google myself about once a month to see where my photos end up. A while back, I found one of my pictures on somebody’s Tumblr with a caption saying something like, “You could never do this with digital.” Funny thing is that it referred to one of my digital photos. Regardless of that mentality, I have nothing against film-exclusive groups and media. It’s fun to embrace, share, and “geek out” over a common interest. Most film photographers I know and follow online agree that the film vs. digital debate is silly. They use film because they like the process and the result. No elitism whatsoever. In the online world, it’s all pixels on a screen anyway, no matter how they got there.
Your work has a very distinct look, in my opinion. There seems to be a strong focus on elements of the American West, which for many who live elsewhere, can be very iconic or even majestic. Did you consciously set out to depict this “western aesthetic” or did it develop on its own?
In our initial correspondence, you mentioned having a case of western wanderlust and photo envy. I’ve never thought of my pictures as having a “western aesthetic” but I suppose they must. Because I live in the West, this landscape is what I know. I imagine such an aesthetic is most prevalent in my rural pictures and has as much to do with space and light as subject matter. In rural settings, subjects have some breathing room and it is easier to create a visual rhythm in the compositions. The light also tends to be very even, which further simplifies a composition. Unlike many East Coast cities, “the middle of nowhere” is a relatively short drive in any direction out of Seattle. The iconic, quintessentially American roadside elements are definitely more prevalent in the West and I can’t resist photographing them. We certainly have some of that in the Northwest, but it’s everywhere in the American Southwest, which is where I long to photograph. I think we photographers always long to be somewhere else. Right now, Amarillo, TX beckons me.
What are your plans for the future? Any upcoming projects or series in the works?
I haven’t been as active this past year or so for several reasons, but I’m hoping to get back in the habit of shooting regularly in the coming months. I’m becoming increasingly interested in shooting portraits again. In the rare instance when people appear in my pictures, they usually do so as small figures. In the next couple of years, I’m hoping to break down whatever wall has been standing in my way. I feel like most of my series are incomplete and perhaps they’re just missing some faces.
To see more of Steven's work, please visit: