Brad Wilson's interview for Surround Art Gallery

An adventure full of surprises marked July of 2018 for the creators of Surround Art Gallery, Russia's first private Fine Art photography and sculpture gallery. Traveling into the deep of the American continent, Surround Art sought to meet Brad Wilson, whose work the gallery proudly and respectfully represents. Guests of the gallery have always expressed vivid interest in Brad’s personality as well as his artistic ideas, so heading to Santa Fe where we would have the opportunity to get some long craved for answers and, more importantly, get to understand Brad’s relations with his craft and the contemporary art community as a whole, was a top priority.

It was no accident that Brad Wilson chose Santa Fe to live and work in, and so it went for our journey, for which we drew inspiration from the brilliant and mysterious history of the region as well as its prominent feature — being the art center of North America. Galleries’ and museums’ count is easily in the hundreds and every street in the Downtown area has dozens to display. Genres and types of art are not bound to native peoples’ however, although the pre-colonial culture of Indian tribes is being rapidly resurrected in craft and architecture. This culture’s vibrance can only be rivaled by those awe-inspiring spanish buildings of the first settlers. This diversity peaks off the unification of modern creative ideas of the Americas, where paintings and photographs coexist in a colorful and harmonious fashion. The historic outlook of the city remains an ironclad rule, a building’s buyer can’t change the facade and so all the galleries are located in spaces that haven’t experienced a change in appearance for centuries. All this sets up Santa Fe for popularity among designers, painters and people having a keen interest in art. Exhibitions follow festivals and vice versa in all this swirl of joy and glory humming on the streets year round.

The 3 days we were accompanied by Brad Wilson and his charming partner Saro, we discussed some of the questions which were most important to our project and its mission. The resulting interview, drawn from long walks around the city with its galleries and those hikes along monumental mountain slopes, came out to be quiet informal and yet dense, providing both us and Brad with much needed openness thanks to those natural and friendly conversations.

SAG: — So Brad, what about this small, yet lively city that is so calling out for you? What is it here that attracted you, a photographer who’d spent most of his life in New York becoming the best and accomplishing some astounding results in his career?

BW: — Great question… The first thing that comes to mind is my impression of New York coming here as an enthusiast in photography. Everything about this place was different from how I understood the world at the time - and I loved that. The stark contrast with North Carolina, where I grew up in a conservative environment with a closed community of people lacking interest in new experiences, was very clear. For generations they lived the same lives as their parents, failing to express any natural longing for new ideas. I, on the other hand, have always felt that there was more to life, and I couldn’t stand the idea of becoming another doctor or lawyer in the family. Facing an unknown future, I left for New York after college - but the city was not very welcoming at first. I was all alone and everything was far more expensive than I anticipated. My savings were plummeting while I was looking for an apartment and seeking work as a photography assistant. After many difficult months, I got on track and started working for some big names in photography - and I came to realize that this was what I wanted to do with my life. Practice, more practice and practice again was my daily routine, but soon it paid off and I began to understand photography in a new way - both technically and artistically. I started to see a broad expansion of my creativity and my technical skills, and I was lucky enough to start my own successful career as a commercial and fine art photographer. After 12 years in New York however, I needed a new environment to further mature as a creator. The city’s fast pace and constant turmoil was wearing me down, and once I spent time in the small, creative town of Santa Fe, New Mexico, I quickly realized that this was where I needed to be. It was a relaxed and beautiful artistic community, and it ultimately became my sanctuary.

SAG: — That is very uplifting. What are you thoughts on contemporary art, since you are prolific in the field?

BW: — Apparently I am, why else would you say so? (laughing). In general I don’t think about it since not everything considered art these days is art in and of itself. More accurately, most of it isn’t. And I share my position with that of Surround Art Gallery — there are specific traits of what can be considered art: it’s hard to produce, it takes mastery, talent, persistence, hard work and a flawless result. But even people who understand this can be easily manipulated by those who have the means to propel trends followed blindly by the masses. I see no value, moral or financial, in offering people something unfinished or imperfect, something I could save time or money creating and then selling it nonetheless. I can’t cease to reach for perfection in what I do. It’s my life’s work after all, and I have to evolve constantly.

SAG: — Exactly. The resulting inability to understand what constitutes something of great value, requiring talent, time and effort, and tell the difference between it and some absurdity that can be easily reproduced in minutes, by people of today is depressing. It devalues the very concept of art and strips people of natural ideals. We really hope that by telling us about your work we’ll be able to address the issue of misunderstanding and shed some light on the topic for those with an interest to go beyond the surface.

BW: — I don’t know where to start if you want to know everything. As you know I came up with the “Affinity” project back in 2010, but I won’t go into the details of risks involved. In a nutshell, I spent a whole lot of money to get the shooting process going (equipment, lights, a studio, transportation, paying for the animals and the support crew etc.). All of it amounted to $100 000, and that was just preparatory work. I could vaguely imagine what the process would be like and how much effort it would require, but the result was very clear in my imagination. Remembering those early days of the project when I was full of inspiration despite all the setbacks taking place due to the intrinsic novelty of the process, I, to my surprise, still find myself working on it disregarding any trouble. And it is in that climactic moment when I was sitting at my desk going through the resulting work that I have come to realize that only a third of the job is finished — thousands of pictures that I have to meticulously open and sift through, zoom way in and mark those I will be working on in great detail. Those few images will go through processing and retouching for weeks or even months. This is the time period when only I can tell what image the screen is actually showing, because the crazy magnification renders it unrecognizable to an uninvolved observer, and I have to check every detail for even minor flaws.

SAG: — Funnily enough, not everyone knows that fine art photography is a result of hundreds of hours of scrupulous retouching, and that’s after you take the picture which itself takes experience and knowledge to carry out.

BW: — Yeah, I used to hear people say “I can do that, too!”. I would just nod and say “Go for it!” and then never see them again (laughing).

SAG: — Nowadays, unfortunately, the viewer often finds comfort in opposing himself against the object, trying to compete with it or to find out what’s wrong about it, rather than enjoying and contemplating or, do it himself, taking his time to learn the skill and raise the bar.

BW: — Everyone wants to be a celebrity! Yet most wander in blissful ignorance by virtue of blurry boundaries between right and wrong.

SAG: — Speaking of celebrities, we have our undivided attention on the animals that were prominent in your “Affinity” collection. Can you tell us more about the details of working with them?

BW: — With pleasure! You know some aspects from earlier interviews, like that wild animals remain wild even under handler supervision. We wrongly take their tamed look for granted these days. With all the passion whirling inside me I wasn’t very careful during those first sessions, sometimes coming too close to an animal or moving the camera right up to its face. Thankfully, the handlers were well trained and stepped in if they sensed dangerous interaction before it was too late, warning me to back off.
The black panther was easily one of the most impatient models. It was a male and he was explicitly irritated by being in the spotlight all the time and didn’t hesitate to show his annoyance after I’d gotten to take just a few pictures. We had to finish early but in retrospect I can say that I saw immense energy in the portraits and I am very grateful to the animal but at the same time feel sorry for being so intrusive, albeit necessary.
Horses were surprisingly nervous, I had no idea they’d be so sensitive to flashes of light during the shoot and how uncomfortable my presence and attention would make them. We were low on time and it was incredibly difficult. I tried really hard to finish as fast as possible, focusing on efficiency in every shot to set the animal free from the studio walls. I know for sure who’s the most capricious model now.

SAG: — You’d think birds should be the worst in this regard.

BW: — Surprisingly, that’s not the case, really, birds were very calm - at least most of them were. At times they keep still for so long compared to other animals that I can take my time to work my way through several angles in depth.

SAG: — And what about the mandrill?

BW: — I am fairly confident that no one will be able to reproduce a shoot like this in quite a while - at least in the U.S. The mandrill has grown into a full-fledged alpha male, and getting close to him with a camera poses a real threat. I am so glad we had the chance to spend so much time in close proximity, and he won me over - despite the fact that he wanted to fight with me the entire time we were working together. (The mandrill was raised by a sanctuary owner after his mother abandoned him. During adolescence he was aggressive - but manageable due to his smaller size - however, as he developed his canine teeth and a larger body mass, he became very dangerous to be around - especially if you were male).

SAG: — An interview usually ends with a question about the author’s creative plans. Do you have your mind set on something particular in regard to the “Affinity” collection’s future?

BW: — Well, you know the interesting part: I am seriously considering coming to Russia to take pictures of animals on the Eurasian continent (brown bear, siberian tiger, wolves and horses). This is actually an idea that Surround Art Gallery came up with and it resonates with me in the context of my participation in this international project. A short-term plan is shooting new animals in the Americas, but I don’t want to lay my cards on the table just yet.

This was part of a conversation that took place during those few days we spent with Brad and it spurred optimism within our group. We can’t wait to meet Brad Wilson in Moscow to help the master whose talent speaks for itself begin shooting Russia’s fauna. To summarize the impression Brad made on us not as a business partner or an artist, but rather as a person, we think that people like him simply make the world better off. His quest for ideals and moral beacons find way in all of his endeavours, not just the creative side. He’s on the front line of those who seek to change the world around, and it’s a value Surround Art Gallery unabashedly supports and shares.