Portrait of British jazz musician and Humanist George Melly, an ad campaign done for Sony (1990)

Born in Birmingham in 1948, Brian Griffin is one of England’s most influential and creative portrait photographers. He studied at Manchester Polytechnic’s School of Photography, where he first discovered a multitude of artistic movements to influence his work. Brian’s work draws from influences as diverse as Renaissance masters, through to Symbolism and Surrealism, with 'film noir' lighting often used in conjunction.

Graduating in 1972, Brian joined the staff of a business magazine called 'Management Today' which was based in London, and became a corporate photographer. This was at a time when he himself says that, 'if you weren't a fashion photographer and you did all that other stuff, you weren't considered a commercial photographer.' Art directed by Roland Schenck, the magazine allowed Brian to hone his craft, and learn to produce extraordinary images every time he picked up his camera. When the 80s hit, and the business boom took off, he was considered the corporate photography expert, and began to shoot projects for a vast number of corporate clients - all of whom wanted to go one better than their rivals.

Brian also started to work with a huge variety of music industry clients including Depeche Mode, REM, Elvis Costello, Iggy Pop, Ringo Starr, Peter Gabriel and Queen's Brian May; and his work can be seen on many album covers from the era. In 1989 he began to shoot TV commercials and music videos, and turned his back on stills photography for a period to concentrate on shooting films. 

Portrait of Madonna, taken in Iceland for a project for Reykjavik Energy called 'The Water People' (2006)

Returning to stills work in 2003, he shot 'People and the City' to aid Birmingham’s bid to become a European City of Culture. Since then he has gone from strength to strength - shooting a film documentary for Sir Paul McCartney in 2004, producing a corporate book, shooting the 'The Water People' project in 2006, and producing the exhibition and book, 'Team' for the 2007 State Opening of St Pancreas Station in London. He works for numerous worldwide magazines, and has shot advertising campaigns for companies including British Airways and Sony.

In 2009 he exhibited major works at Les Rencontres d’Arles Photographie (the Arles Photography festival in France). The following year, he was commissioned to shoot 'The Road to 2012' - a major exhibition at London’s National Portrait Gallery to celebrate those involved in the 2012 London Olympics. Later in 2010 a large retrospective of his work was shown in three venues in the centre of Birmingham. Returning to his roots, Brian recently completed a commission to photograph the people of 'The Black Country’ - the colloquial name given to the traditionally coal-mining region in the middle of England near Birmingham where he grew up.

Rotherhithe Girl - an ad for Shiseido, a makeup and skincare company (1984)

This year (2011) Brian has been commissioned to produce a major exhibition to launch Marseille - Provence 2013 European Capital of Culture. The European Capital of Culture is awarded to cities with internationally recognised cultural scenes, and has been awarded to thirty cities since its inception in 1985. For the last two years he has also been the Patron of the 'Format Festival of Photography' in the UK. His work can be viewed in numerous permanent collections in museums throughout the UK (and one in Iceland!). 

His work is always captivating, and transcends the boundaries between a simple photo and a work of art. He’s an extremely busy man, but I managed to get him to answer a few questions on his return from the Arles Photography festival in early July.

Interview

Why did you decide to become a photographer?

To escape from a boring day-to-day job in an office!

What cameras do you use?

I use a Phase One 645 AF Camera with a 30+ Phase One digital back, Hasselblad 500C, Mamiya 7, Canon 5D Mk II and an Olympus OM4 - all with a variety of lenses. I do use many fixed lenses, but I’ve always used zoom lenses - probably because I always used them when I was working in films. I love using zooms because you can experiment with the minute differences in using all the millimetres contained in one. And the lens is always on the camera, so you can see different effects instantly.

How do you come up with ideas, and what do you use as inspiration for your images?

I use mostly fine art and especially painting as inspiration. I make a monthly pilgrimage to go and see the Rembrandts at the National Gallery in London, and I’m fascinated by the Renaissance painters of the late 19th and early 20th century. Plus I walk everywhere and look at everyone and everything. Music also conjures up images and atmosphere, and I find it very cinematic. I mostly collect electronic music, but I do listen to some American and English folk. Lyrics often make me think of a band’s roots and inspirations, and where they’ve come from. The music can generate visuals.

What equipment is vital to you in the making of your images (lighting, camera accessories etc)?

My battery flash equipment, which is essentially Elinchrom with a little bit of Broncolor.

What techniques do you use in the picture-making process?

I do all my raw conversions using Capture One, but I’ve developed a habit of looking at the files I chose to convert in Adobe Bridge. I like to play around with the converted tiffs! I use Photoshop in a very basic way - just playing around with levels and curves, and altering the saturation a little. I tend to leave the skin in portraits looking fairly natural. I have a great printer called Mike at a company in London called Lighthouse Darkroom. He often does some more digital work for me.

What do you enjoy most about your work?

It helps to make me feel happier.

How do you see your career developing over the next few years?

Taking me more and more into the unknown.

What do you like about digital photography?

The advent of high-resolution digital technology has been very illuminating for me. The rendition of the subject is so life-like, and digital is a godsend for me because I’m obsessed with sharpness. I’ve just bought a Canon 5D Mk II with a 35mm f/2 lens and a 70-200mm f/4 lens, and I’m taking it to Iceland over Christmas to just go out on the street with. I’m really looking forward to experimenting with its capabilities.

What advice do you have for aspiring photographers?

Marry someone rich who can support you! Seriously though, you have to be prepared to sacrifice yourself for photography in many ways. It’s a precarious career and you have to really love it and be passionate about it. It’s very difficult to make a living from photography. I make a living from it, but it’s still precarious - sometimes I get paid very well, and at other times I have no money at all. You have to be single-minded about it - I do photography because there’s nothing else I want to do, and there’s nothing else I feel that I could do!

Nowadays you need to remember that digital technology has made photography far more accessible, and clients’ standards have dropped in many ways. There’s a feeling that everyone can be a photographer now, because you can see instantly whether you’ve 'got' a shot or not. There is very little demand for the top level of photographers now, and you can make a better living in many ways from the lower levels of photography.

A portrait of Photographer Brian Griffin. Explore his website for more
photos and film work: http://www.briangriffin.co.uk


Jo Plumridge is a British photographer and writer. She specializes in portrait photography, and writes photographic, travel and humor articles and books. View her work at: www.joplumridge.co.uk