Interview with Brian McSwain

The work of Brian McSwain brings me a rush of feelings that I can only recall from dreams; you know - the dreams where unfamiliar surroundings feel like home. Whether it's a beautiful, obscure dirt road or an eerily vacant street corner, something about his photos makes me feel like I've been there.

Following his work for a number of years now, I always get excited when I see a new photo from Brian so it was only natural that we got him on board for an interview. We connected with Brian to discuss his move from New Orleans to Florida, influences like Robert Adams, and so much more.

We're honored to have Brian and his work up on Cadillac Ranch Dressing!


Photos by Brian McSwain
Interview by Josh Sinn

Portrait of Brian McSwain by Patrick Joust

Portrait of Brian McSwain by Patrick Joust

You’re currently living in South Florida, but you’re originally from New Orleans. What was it like growing up there?

Growing up in New Orleans is one of the most precious experiences I’ve ever had. It’s home and always will be home. It was the only place I knew for much of my life and it wasn’t until I moved away that I realized how unique it is. From an early age I was able to appreciate how beautiful the city is -the old oaks, the French and Spanish architecture, and the unique atmosphere to each neighborhood. I used to ask my mom to take me for rides around the older parts of the city and I used to just look out the window and soak everything in. But there’s substance to the style. There’s resilience, a heart and soul, not only in the architecture and landscapes, but especially the people. The sense of community is healthy. I think that was heightened post Katrina.

How did you first get into photography?

It had interested me for a quit sometime before I ever picked up a camera. My earliest influence is from skate photography. I used to always check in magazines who took the photographs.

I had a period in my early twenties where I was partying a lot and that’s pretty much what I did. It was a pretty dark time and I wasn’t getting what I wanted for myself out of life. I got some help and once I quit doing what I was doing the world really opened up to me and I was able to follow through with my convictions, I needed new outlets. My stepfather had an old Nikon D60 that he shipped to me from New Orleans and I started walking around shooting really democratically. I didn’t know about Eggleston at that time or the notion of the “democratic camera” but that’s what I was doing. I fell in love instantly.

Do you have any formal education in photography?

I don’t, but I wish I did if only for the opportunity to meet other photographers. Plus that would mean I would have picked up a camera while I was in high school instead of my late twenties.

With no formal education, what were some types of ways you built your skill in photography?

I started out shooting digital, which allowed me to take tons of photographs, which I could instantly assess. I forced myself to shoot on fully manual mode, that really helped me learn how to be technically sound as well. I think shooting digital really sped up the learning curve. I also constantly look at work by other photographers. I study what I like, but I also pay attention to what I don’t like and learn from that as well. But more than anything, constantly photographing has helped me the most. I learn so much from my own mistakes. I spend a decent amount of time studying and editing my own work. I can honestly say I work hard at my photography and at times I’m maybe too hard on myself. I always want to be evolving and getting better. It seems that making a good photography is pretty hard to do though.  

Who are some of your biggest influences in photography?

Robert Adams is someone whose photographs (and writings) I keep coming back to more than any others.  I have the most consistent emotional response to his work and I think watching and reading interviews with him really helped me connect to what he is trying to portray in his photographs - it’s subtle, yet effective, it’s quiet, but moving, hopeful, but often sad. While I don’t know him, I feel some connection to him and his work, and maybe that’s the mark of a great artist. I’m a fan of the man as well, not only the photographer. Todd Hido, Luigi Ghirri, and Saul Leiter are also personal favorites.

 "Photography has caused me to pay attention and it seems to be a switch I can’t turn off."

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the photographers I follow on all the social media platforms. So I just want to say thank you for putting your work out there. I also can’t leave this question without mentioning a friend of mine out in Texas who is one of the most talented photographers I know and a huge influence. He goes by @kleeche on instagram. I value our conversations about photography a great deal.  He keeps a pretty anonymous profile with his photographs, no website or blog. His photographs are so well composed, clever, and thoughtful - always a source of joy.

Moving from New Orleans to Florida, has photography made your new surroundings more familiar to you?

Photography has caused me to pay attention and it seems to be a switch I can’t turn off. I can’t tell you how many hours I’ve spent driving and walking around Florida in places only photography would have taken me. I’m hyper sensitive to my surroundings because of photography. While I do feel connected to my surroundings, I don’t feel at home in Florida. I still feel like a visitor. But I think that has more to do with being from New Orleans than living in Florida.

When you go out shooting, do you have specific shots in mind or do you let them happen as they do?

Usually I’ll have a general area in mind, a street or section of town, but sometimes I do have a specific shot in mind, which is usually accompanied by a certain time of day I want it taken (usually around dawn). Nothing beats a long walk though. I’ve discovered I can drive around as much as I want, but everything changes once I get out of the car.

"I never want to pigeon hole myself into one style of photography."

Much of your Florida work depicts natural landscapes, often with very subtle marks from human activity: lightly traveled dirt roads, hand-painted sign, smoke stacks over the horizon. These works reflect a lot of what the new topographics movement was about. Would you say that you’re heavily influenced by the work of the movement?

It’s what I currently enjoy shooting the most and it’s conducive for long drives and walks which is just as pleasurable to the process as the actually picture taking. Wessel, Shore, and Adams are all photographers whose work I’ve spent a great deal of time with, so their influence is there. But I never want to pigeon hole myself into one style of photography. Lately I’ve noticed a shift where I’ve opened up my photography to not being so dependent on a scene.

Why do you choose to primarily shoot with film?

For the way it looks and that’s pretty much it. I do enjoy the process, while not as instantly gratifying; I do feel more connected to my work. I think film, especially medium format film really lends itself to the topographical subjects we touched on earlier because of it’s tonal range and ability to capture detail. Scanning and post processing can be a very tedious process as well.

Do you have any upcoming projects in the works?

There are five counties in the south central portion of Florida called The Florida Heartland which I’m particularly drawn to, and I’ve recently started to focus much of my work there with the intention of making a project. I’ve got a few photographs, mostly landscapes that are in the working edit thus far – it’s in the very beginning stages. The process of making a project has presented a whole different set of challenges to my work. I don’t want to just collect 30-40 “good” photographs from this area and call it a project, so I’m going to take my time with it and pay attention to what this area of Florida gifts me and see what evolves. With that being said I try not to let ideas get in the way and always keep “seeing” at the forefront of my photography.

Any parting words?

I just want to say thanks, Josh, for asking me to do this. I’d also like to thank my girlfriend for being so supportive and understanding of my photography. And to anyone who has given their time to look at my photographs and share their thoughts with me about them, thank you so much.