Making the Invisible Visible

Westin Book Cadillac Hotel, by Brian Day. From the “Detroit From Above” series.

It seems the list of photographers who at some point liked to paint/draw or were musicians before picking up a camera is endless (and, increasingly, people who work in IT before discovering photography as a pasttime).  Someone should probably conduct some sort of study on what seems to be a higher than normal correlation compared to other occupations.  Of course, perhaps it’s just confirmation bias on my part.  Anyway, before I got into photography I loved to draw.  As the computer became more prominent in my early teen years, that led to an interest in graphic design, which eventually led to motion graphic design (particularly opening and closing film credits, for some reason).  One of the reasons I moved from motion graphic design to photography was the insatiable need for computing power to render graphical timelines and all the fun associated with video editing meant more time behind the keyboard rather than being out doing the thing I really loved: seeing things from new and fun perspectives.  But a few names made an imprint on my early years of graphic design and film which taught me some interesting lessons about photography: Sidney Lumet’s “Making Movies”, the early work of Kyle Cooper at Imaginary Forces, Hollywood legend Saul Bass, and the late, great Hillman Curtis (as did Stefan Sagemeister and even Colin Moock‘s Flash scripting genius).  Lumet’s perspective on improvisation, Coopers’ cinematic depth and sense of drama and the combination of whimsy and cool from Bass are emotional reference points of some for my photographic ideas today, but it was Curtis’ simple but effective “Making The Invisible Visible” that stands out the most.  

Parking Structure, Greektown Casino-Hotel, by Brian Day. From the “Detroit From Above” series.

A musician who transitioned to graphic design and later filmmaking, Hillman Curtis deconstructed his processes and sources of inspiration as coming from many seemingly unrelated disciplines, while emphasizing the importance of experimentation and reinventing oneself.  Emerson’s quote, “Imitation is suicide” may resonate as a call to avoid repeating what others are doing, and in photography it’s increasingly difficult to do something that hasn’t been done before (or that isn’t quickly imitated and improved upon by others).  But, put aside what others are doing for a moment, and consider the risk of imitating yourself.  Aesthetic consistency is one thing, but losing creative inspiration can come from being desensitized to a given subject because of familiarity.  Perhaps you’ve been photographing your city for years, decades even.  In some respects, familiarity can unknowingly breed contempt; an unwillingness to explore new perspectives or formats of capture can make your surroundings practically invisible and sap inspiration for future work.  

One Ford Place, by Brian Day. From the “Detroit From Above” series.

Having been born and raised in Detroit, I’ve taken that principle of experimentation and literally forced a new perspective by using aerial photography around the city in a project called “Detroit From Above.”  While I haven’t done much research to see who else is out shooting in this way, I have no doubts that it is being done elsewhere.  What counts for me is that this approach has made the invisible visible again; I feel like I need to completely start over and revisit everything I thought I knew.  Granted, many of the experiments could be considered failures, as some things may even look less interesting from a completely new angle, but there have been many surprises and moments where improvisation paid off in creating not just a new angle, but a new sense of awareness.  Eventually (and logically) I may (will) move on to another approach, but in a crowded craft where the tendency is to look at world through a jaded lens, I’m enjoying the view.

Eastern Market, Shed 5, by Brian Day. From the “Detroit From Above” series.

**Editors Note: I fly safely, with a registered FAA certificate and an aircraft that respects geofenced areas as well as the 400ft vertical limit.  Don’t put yourself or others at risk by flying recklessly or breaking laws and guidelines.