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Surfer Dude

Kenny Braun talks about waves, waterproof cameras, and the perfect picture.

By August 2003Comments

texasmonthly.com: For the August Texas Monthly article on getaways, you used black and white film for your photos of the Gulf Coast. What motivates your decision to use color or black and white film?

Kenny Braun: I actually used both color and black and white when I started working on my “surf Texas” project because I was thinking about mixing the two. However, it became too cumbersome. I’d stress over which to use or to try both, and I decided that I just didn’t want to have to think about it. It was too distracting. I wanted to keep it simple and just concentrate on what was in front of me.

I’m also a big fan of the gelatin silver print, and I love the printing process. There are several variables in photographic printmaking, especially with black and white, and I like having control over how my negatives are interpreted.

My darkroom is not set up to print color, so I have to let someone else do it for me. But I do like to shoot color—it just depends on the subject matter.

texasmonthly.com: What kind of time frame do you typically require to capture a photo spread that satisfies you? Over what period of time did you photograph the Gulf Coast for the August issue?

KB: I’ve been working on surf Texas for about two years now. I live in Austin, and the closest beach is about a four-hour drive, so I don’t go nearly as often as I’d like. But now when I do, I have more of an agenda. It’s not a strict agenda because I don’t want to feel like I’m forcing the pictures. I just try to get into that zone where pictures start showing themselves to me.

For me, there is a direct correlation to the time I spend on a project and the success of the images. I think that eventually one reaches a point of over-saturation, but I haven’t gotten there yet.

texasmonthly.com: Your photos of the Texas shore include several people. How is photographing people different from photographing landscapes and still lifes? Do you have a preference?

KB: I think that most pictures with people in them are more interesting than those without, but I do enjoy shooting landscapes and still lifes too. I think it’s nice to mix them up. I like the variety. My goal is to reveal something that’s truthful and telling about whatever or whoever I’m shooting, so I will work as many angles as I can think of at the time. And I always think of something after I’ve left that I should have tried. But I won’t go into that.

People constantly change their appearance and are usually self-conscious so that presents challenges. I try to make them comfortable and get them to do what seems natural. I watch them while they aren’t being photographed to see how they hold themselves; I look for certain gestures. With landscapes, it’s more about getting myself situated rather than the subject. Mother Nature also plays a big part when shooting outdoors.

texasmonthly.com: What frames the surfer who is leaning over? How did you capture that fabulous shot?

KB: That is a cement tube at Isla Blanca Park on South Padre Island. I think it’s supposed to be decorative, or something for kids to play on. I saw this surfer who was bent over waxing his board and decided to try shooting him through the tube. I think I shot three to four frames, and this was the last one.

texasmonthly.com: What do you do to take candid action shots, like those of the surfers? Are they the most difficult photos to take?

KB: I’m still working on my technique for shooting surfers in the water. I want to use my plastic Holga camera because of its skewed vision, but it is not waterproof so I have been relegated to smaller surf where I can walk out to about chest deep. The best waves, however, are out much farther. I’ve tried paddling out on my surfboard with the camera in a zip-lock bag, but that didn’t work very well. I think that the best way to get the kind of pictures I want would be to ride on the back of a jet-ski with an experienced pilot. We would be out in the larger waves actually dropping into the wave slightly ahead of the surfer or riding across the top of the wave photographing the surfer below. It sounds good on paper anyway.

texasmonthly.com: What type of dialogue did you have with the people you photographed?

KB: I usually just walk around with my camera and look for things. If I see someone who I want to photograph, I’ll tell them exactly what I’m doing and usually they are fine with that. Other times I’ll try to be nonchalant and go unnoticed because everything changes when people see your camera, especially if it’s pointing in their direction: they start posing and acting self-conscious. I guess I belong to the “shoot first and ask questions later” school of thought when it comes to getting spontaneous pictures. But I am never rude or intrusive about it. I’ll usually ask for their name and contact information for captions so that I can send them a print.

texasmonthly.com: When did you discover photography?

KB: I got my first camera when I was in high school. My best friend who lived next door got one at the same time, and we would have friendly competitions to see who could make the best picture of a given rock, log, and so forth. We’d go camping or on surf safaris together, and when we got the slides back, we’d all sit around and have slide-show parties. And everyone was a critic. “That one sucks” or “Now that’s good. Who took that one?” It was like preconditioning for what came later.

I happened into Dennis Darling’s photo class in 1990 while studying radio, television, and film at the University of Texas at Austin and was really inspired by his work and the work of others that he showed. It was there that I became more aware of and interested in the personal and expressive nature of photography. In 1995 I decided to get serious about taking my photography to the next level, and in 1996 I quit my job at the PBS affiliate in Austin and went into business as a freelance photographer.

texasmonthly.com: As a professional photographer, do you see yourself as an artist or journalist?

KB: I don’t think about it much when I’m shooting. I try to convey certain things with my pictures, especially when I’m assigned to illustrate a story. But basically, I just try to make pictures that I like. Afterward, when I’m editing the film, I’ll take into consideration what context the images will be used in.

I’ve seen pictures that were shot by photojournalists on assignment that were marketed and sold as fine-art prints, and I’ve seen pictures made by artists that were used to illustrate a piece of journalism.

I’m just not concerned with deciding what is art and what’s not. I do try to make artful use of my camera every time I click the shutter no matter what I’m shooting.

texasmonthly.com: What does photography communicate or express that other art mediums do not? Why do you use that medium?

KB: Just about everyone has taken a picture that’s made them stop and marvel at what their camera has done, and it’s a wonderful experience. I think that this long and personal relationship with the medium has given people a natural insight into how to interpret and appreciate photography. Of course, one can take that as far as they are able, but I think that photography has something to offer just about everyone. It’s a democratic medium in that regard.

I’ve always loved taking pictures, and photography just seemed like a natural thing for me to pursue. And the more I found out about it, the more I liked it and the people who did it. Music was the same way. I always knew I wanted to play the drums, and I got my first drum kit about the same time as my first camera. I find many similarities between the two. Music is a strong influence on how I think about and pursue my photography.

texasmonthly.com: What do you like to photograph and why? Do you seek out familiar subjects for your work, or do you like to explore new territory with your camera?

KB: When I decided to get serious about photography and started to think about personal projects, I thought that it would be good for me to get back to my roots. So I plotted out an area that included my old home in Houston, the farms where my parents grew up, and other places that meant a lot to me, including the Texas Gulf Coast. It’s all familiar, but it’s different now that I’m older and trying to make sense of it with my camera.

I also love to travel to new places and just be a tourist—and try to bring some of that back with me on film. It’s a great way to keep a journal and helps to keep my personal history a little more accessible. I’m sure that I’ve got memories that wouldn’t even exist if it weren’t for the pictures.

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