I know I have a lot of favorites when it comes to photos and sets of photos of our Susan. But one set (and one photographer) that I constantly come back to over and over is Brandon Herman’s shoot I Heart NY. The saturated coloring, the cozy clothes, the amazing New York cityscapes, and Susan front-and-center like we’re on a tour of the city together–it’s a story and I feel like I’m part of it. Anyway, Brandon most kindly agreed to answering some questions for us about his craft and his work with Susan. He’s a very interesting guy and we can only hope that he and Susan get together again someday.
SusanCoffey.Net: Tell us a little bit about yourself, Brandon.
Brandon Herman: My name is Brandon Herman (www.brandonherman.com) and I am a filmmaker and photographer. I also run the NY Pin Up Club (www.nypinupclub.com), which is a group celebrating the retro charm of classic pin-up photographs.
SCN: It looks like you’re a filmmaker at heart, based on your education and quite a bit of your past experience. Is that your first love?
BH: Filmmaking is definitely my first love and it’s what brought me down this path.
In grade school I thought I wanted to be a lawyer. In 8th grade I got a video camera as a gift and started to tape everything, but at that point it was just a toy. By the time I got to high school, I realized how much time I’d have to spend in a library if I was going to be a lawyer, and I definitely didn’t want that. I also started making short videos with my friends. I began to realize that making movies was actually a thing…..you could go to school for that. You could turn that into art and entertain people. So I went to NYU for film. The first year, you do one semester of sound work and one semester of photography. That was intriguing, but I really focused on filmmaking the rest of my time there….. This was ’94-’98, so it was the birth of miniDV and handheld digital formats. So I say ‘film,’ but really my focus became shooting projects digitally, which was new and exciting in a lot of ways.
SCN: When and how did you start doing photography? Does it occupy a lot of your professional time?
BH: After I graduated film school, I started to shoot stills again. First, it was landscapes and found objects. Then it was friends who would model for me. My focus was still making movies, but I was getting frustrated not being able to make them look like the stories in my head. Then there were about four or five years where I kind of got fed up with that and was really focusing on stills. Learning about lighting, composition, color contrast, etc…. A lot of trial and error.
Professionally, I generally get work in the video world. I pursue my own photography more as a hobby; as a way to train my eye and my style.
But my ties to photography go beyond just my own work. I’m the founder and organizer of the NY Pin Up Club, and we’ve been going strong for over five years now. There are two main aspects to what we do. First, I organize group shoots: I book the models, set up the lights at the studio, and bring in a crew of makeup artists, hair stylists, and wardrobe stylists. We split the cost of that among a group of photographers. It’s truly like the old photo groups that would get together and shoot pinups in the 50s. Susan has done a few of these shoots with us. There’s a shot of Susan in a pink corset in front of a jet plane…..that’s from a photographer at one of our shoots.
The other thing we do is produce a monthly burlesque show. Our show is awesome because we have absolutely beautiful performers and we are one of the rare shows that allows (and encourages) photography. It’s a really fun show, the girls are classy and sexy, and it’s a great night out with a group of friends or even a date.
The thing we’re just starting to prepare now is a web series about all of this. I don’t want to say too much just yet, but it’s going to be an exciting glimpse into what we do.
SCN: Pinup is obviously one of your favorite styles. Do I remember seeing that you also enjoy steampunk? What other genres do you shoot?
BH: I am involved in the Steampunk community pretty heavily. I started a group on Meetup (www.nysteampunk.com) and we produce our own events, as well as attending cons and parties as a group. We once did a Steampunk-themed group photoshoot, and we’ve done a few Steampunk themed burlesque shows.
I had shot some Steampunk portraits and boudoir photos. I’d like to do more, but it’s hard to keep up with everything I’d like to shoot.
Really, I have a very wide range of interests. I was shooting fashion-y stuff for a while, but it’s more fun bringing a theme to it. The one unifying factor is that I always try to create work that teases, and that elicits an emotional response. I don’t always succeed, but that’s the goal.
I think it’s important to be critical of your own work, and I often find my photos to be a bit boring. That, and it’s hard for me to see anything other than the flaws in my work. So I’m constantly trying to push things….whether that’s with crazier makeup, or sexuality, or the post-processing, etc…. I look at a lot of images from a lot of different people, and I just want to create something that stands out from the crowd, so to speak.
SCN: You’ve got a lot of irons in the fire, including the NY Pinup Club and The Digital Movie Company. You also state that at all costs, you want to avoid getting a “regular” job. How hard is it juggling all of these things that you love so much without trying to hold down that “regular” job?
BH: Well, it’s getting tougher. The last few years have been difficult for everyone, but I think artists got hit especially hard and no one else is really paying attention to it. There are three problems. One, the people who would have paid you for anything even vaguely artistic in the past no longer have the money to hire you. Two, the people who would have volunteered to help you now don’t have the time because they’re working a double-shift. And three, this “stop whining and get a job” mentally that seems to be growing in the general public. Being an artist *is* a job, and some of the artists I know work harder than anybody….they just don’t always get paid for it. Right now, I have a client I worked for over a year ago who still owes me a serious amount of money. I have another client who is late in sending me two checks for work I completed. It’s not that every job is like that, but it does make life harder. Also, I don’t get paid for the work I create on my own. In fact, I usually have to lay money out when I make a film or do a shoot for myself.
You know what, I’m going to add a fourth problem: the fact that someone can spend $600 on a camera, set up a webpage with a tumblr template, and call themselves a filmmaker. And you are immediately in competition with that person for jobs. This industry needs new, young talent, and it’s great that they have a desire to use these tools to tell a story. But it’s a shame that the role of apprentice has kind of disappeared in a lot of areas.
All that being said, I think we are on the cusp of something really exciting. There are nearly 7 billion people on the planet, and they all need to be entertained. Many of them have a computer, HDTV, tablet, smartphone, game system, etc, and all those devices have to be filled with content.
I’m developing a few things for tv and for the web, and I’ll be shooting a lot this year. I see some new opportunities for sponsorship, advertisements, and branded content. In other words, getting someone else to pay me to create content, in a scenario that’s a win for all involved. That’s the best; when everyone can benefit.
So, this is going to be an interesting year.
SCN: Where did the name TheSurfaceOfThings come from?
BH: Huh…I honestly don’t really remember. I was kicking around ideas, and that sprang into existence. I liked it because, in the most literal sense, all photography is able to see is what’s on the surface. Of course, the goal is to try to reveal some deeper meaning or truth.
SCN: When and how did you learn about Susan?
BH: I think the first photos I saw of Susan were those by another NY photographer, Insuh Yoon. I like his work quite a bit. I think I saw a few other people shoot with her before I finally approached her about working together.
SCN: Initially, what about her struck you and made you want to work with her?
BH: Well, she’s quite beautiful. Do I need a more complex answer than that?
Susan clearly has the qualities of a top model: great, slender figure, pretty face, eyes that really pop…..but the one quality that always stands out to me is that she always comes across as *real.* Many of the models that are big names right now seem artificial….they’re products. They also have a kind of hard beauty, where Susan has a soft, delicate look.
I wouldn’t say ‘girl next door,’ but I do think she has a quality about her that seems kind and approachable.
SCN: How did the shoot you did with her for Liberating Style Magazine come together?
BH: At that point, I had ready done a shoot for Liberating Style, which is published as an online magazine. A model I knew had a contact there, and the model had asked if I would shoot a layout for her. So we did that and it went well. A month or two later, the editor asked if they could use a photo I had taken of the Empire State Building for a piece they were doing about New York City. I asked if I could instead put together a shoot, with a model, taking shots around Manhattan. They were interested in that, and Susan was the only model I approached about it.
It had been a mild October, but the day we shot was one of the coldest days I can remember. The weather kicked our ass, and we were moving in slow motion. We didn’t get to a few ideas I had, but we still got some cool stuff. There is one photo from that day that I still really like, and it’s the one of Susan in front of the graffitied wall with the two huge Marilyn Monroe images. I also like the one of Susan in the ‘I Heart New York’ shirt, drinking coffee, but that’s almost a snapshot. It was the end of a long, hard day.
I have to say, Susan never complained. She’s a real trooper, and it was very impressive. I really appreciated it.
SCN: Just how many photographers showed up to the Airpower Museum and Wildwood shoots? Those looked like they were a lot of fun.
BH: Those are our most popular shoots. By the very nature of the locations (large areas as opposed to small studios) we are able to accept more photographers. We probably average 30 photographers every time we shoot at the American Airpower Museum, and 20-25 when we do the overnight trip to the Starlux Hotel in Wildwood, NJ.
SCN: Where did the idea for the boy scout uniform come from?
BH: I had found that Boy Scout shirt at a thrift store and thought it was funny. It was for a Staten Island den (is that what they’re called?) and it had an arm-patch with the Staten Island Ferry on it.
The day we did those shots, I brought a mix of explorer-ish type clothes and colorful lingerie.
SCN: Ever consider her for any of your video productions?
BH: I would love to do a video or film with Susan! I’ve often wondered if she’d be interested in acting in a narrative film.
I’m sure people have heard that Susan is incredibly sweet. But what people might not know about her is that she’s very soft spoken and comes across as a bit shy in person. It’s an endearing quality, but totally unlike that of the actors and actresses I know. I’d love to talk with her about it one day.
There was actually a script I was writing a while ago and I kind of pictured Susan while writing one of the characters. It’s sometimes easier for me to write while imagining someone I know, or picturing an actor friend in the role. Nothing really came of it, but maybe I should work on it some more!
As a separate thing, I’ve been working on these short projects that kind of combine photography and film. I started making them about a year ago, because I had been feeling a bit burnt out on still photography.
So what I’ve been doing is shooting short video scenes with a strong photographic look. They’re usually under 90 seconds. Sometimes, they’re ‘video portraits;’ essentially an image of a model with just a little motion in it.
There’s one I did with a model I’ve worked with a few times. It’s a glamorous shot of her against a bright red backdrop, and we had a hair and makeup team that day so everything is super polished. And I could have clicked the shutter and it would have been a decent photo. But she makes her living as a baker. So instead of a single photo, it’s a short video of this girl giggling and smiling and eating a cupcake. It’s fun and silly and a little sexy.
A few have a short story to them. Well, not really a story….it’s kind of like one moment taken out of a movie, presented as its own thing.
I shot one where it’s a girl getting dressed. But it’s intentionally out of focus. So you know that she’s there, dropping her towel and deciding what to wear, but you can’t see any detail. It’s a big tease.
I’m still figuring out what these video clips are, and trying to stretch what they can be. But I’m always looking to make more of them if I can find the right models.
SCN: Any hints on future collaboration with her?
BH: I would love to work with Susan again. I think we’d be able to collaborate on a video that can really capture who she is. Or we can go the other way and she can portray a character totally unlike herself. She’s also one of the most popular models we’ve ever had at the NY Pin Up Club, and I know we’d all be thrilled to have her join us for a shoot again. In the meantime, I keep checking her site to see all the great stuff she’s up to!