One of Timothy Briner’s early photographic projects, Dixie, a charming series of large-format narratives depicted an inflatable deer and its escapades into human civilization. Made in 2006, it felt young, but read like an early stage lovechild of Jeff Wall and Les Krims. Today, nearly a decade later, Briner has produced numerous comprehensive bodies of work, including portraits of surviving American Boonville towns, one of the most sensitive accounts of Hurricane Sandy and other national disasters, and most recently, playful darkroom experiments that sandwich the medium’s past and its future. While not always linear, Briner’s work is uniquely consistent in its ability to tackle grave circumstances, and in arranging masses of imagery into a comprehensive story, regardless of how straightforward or abstract the pictures might be.
In 2007, Briner spent a year photographing six of the United States’ iconic, quickly disappearing Boonville towns. Shot in large- and medium-format film, and entirely in black and white, the work captures what he describes as a “single, unifying view of the country.” While photographic road trips can often veer into visual tourism, Briner’s immersion in each community, combined with a quiet, thoughtful gaze, helped him to produce work that transcended stereotypes and offered a stark and open-ended perspective on quickly fading communities. The pictures range from rural, often ominous landscapes to empathetic portraits that portray timeless small-town life.
When he returned, Briner faced the process of editing more than two thousand 4x5 negatives and several hundred rolls of film to make it all make sense. “When I got home to sift through everything,” says Briner, “I found myself bombarded with photographs on the walls and the floor of my apartment.” It took him roughly six months to get the work down to an initial edit of two hundred and fifty images, and even longer to develop a publication-ready selection of just under seventy – enough for a book. “Believe it or not, I still find myself editing the work from time to time,” says Briner. “It’s not completed until a book is published, in my opinion. It was overwhelming but in the end I ended up with many of the same images I chose as I was editing while on the road.
After Boonville, Briner went on a temporary hiatus from making pictures, focusing on narrowing down and making prints. He scored a darkroom residency at New York City’s Camera Club of New York, and immersed himself in figuring out how to turn so many pictures into a tightly crafted story. He exhibited the work at Daniel Cooney Fine Art in NYC, produced a handmade book of the work, and finally felt some sense of closure about the process.
Up to this point, Briner considered himself primarily a large- (and sometimes medium-) format film photographer. The slowed-down process, shooting a single frame at a time, was particularly effective in getting people to open up, and helped to foster a more personal interaction between himself and the Boonville communities he’d photographed. But his time spent laboring over prints in the darkroom and soaking up their chemicals made him more curious about the fleeting pace of digital, and how it might impact his practice. “I was still shooting with the 4x5," says Briner, "but my iPhone at the time is what I was really using to see and capture the world around me. I was surprised to find that I liked being away from the darkroom and having to spend a lot of my time and energy on printing and developing. It was easy and there was an instant gratification.”
In 2012, Briner purchased his first digital SLR camera, and was surprised at the liberties it gave him to take chances he might not have taken on his original trip to Boonville. “My shooting style,” says Briner, “although similar in many pictures, took on a new life and I had the freedom to explore, make mistakes and take chances like I couldn’t with the 4x5.” Shortly after, Hurricane Sandy hit. Living in a nearby neighborhood of Ditmas Park, Brooklyn, Briner felt a kinship to the communities that were impacted, and a responsibility to tell their stories, not only in their devastation, but also in their process to rebuild. Briner produced a series of heartbreakingly beautiful pictures that utilized the “slowed down” sensitivities he refined as a large-format photographer, and the newfound digital freedom.
While he initially intended for Sandy to be its own long-term series on destruction and rebirth, it has evolved into a larger ongoing story, A Little Help Here People, about the powerlessness of disaster on a more national level. He’s since photographed tornado aftermaths in the midwestern United States, and spends a few weekends each year photographing communities in Gary, Indiana. But Briner is hardly a storm-chaser, nor is he interested in sensationalizing disaster; rather, he looks to explore a larger, open-ended metaphor of unfortunate circumstance in the United States. “I didn’t feel like Sandy was fully fleshed out on its own,” says Briner. “I wanted it to be one story among other stories. So I took some of the entries and combined them with other disasters to create a larger story of hopelessness that stretches across all of those…so Sandy still exists as its own thing, but I really think of it as a starting point for this larger body of work.”
A few years after photographing Sandy’s aftermath and the beginning stages of A Little Help Here, People, Milwaukee’s Haggerty Museum purchased a portfolio of Boonville, sending Briner back to the darkroom to produce the work. The Camera Club of New York, where he made his earlier prints, had moved locations and closed their wet darkroom, but gave Briner their equipment, prompting him to build his own fully functioning darkroom in bathrooms and bedrooms of a newly acquired Staten Island studio.
As he began spending countless hours printing, Briner, despite his love for the process, was overwhelmed by its monotony. “Printing can be very boring,” says Briner, “so I began making darkroom experiments to pass the time.” This quickly grew into Time, Labor, Loss, an inward approach experimenting with the photographic process itself. Leftover color and black and white paper from the CCNY’s archives, expired darkroom chemicals and other materials became its playful, experimental bricks.
The resulting pictures range from abstract chemical droplets and James Welling inspired photograms, to literal studio views – photographs of his work hanging on randomly on walls as if waiting for critique. While Time, Labor, Loss initially may have seemed like a collection of B-sides used to fill Tim’s moments between Boonville prints, he began seeing it as a project with as much weight and potential as his earlier work. Instead of venturing into the already over-photographed New York City landscape, he became more interested in this insular process, one that recalled his original discovery of photography in high school. “My first experience with photography was in the darkroom in High School.” Says Briner. “I had a great teacher who promoted and taught experimentation in the darkroom and the studio. He fostered a love of the wet darkroom, teaching us to use old chemicals to spray on prints and exploring the techniques of Jerry Uelsmann and Man Ray.”
Just as this work was beginning to take form, Briner’s car was broken into, and much of the past year’s worth of work, including many final and unique prints were stolen. While this was initially devastating, it spawned a new layer to the project and inspired the series’ title. As he searched through digital files and early test prints of the work that had been stolen, Briner began re-photographing it, sometimes in fragments, creating new images that gave it new meaning. “The robbery gave me a clear opportunity to look through my archives.” says Briner. “I started to find pieces of the work that was lost, and much of that documentation actually started to take its place. I was cutting things, photographing them taped to windows, playing with optical glass and even burning photographs.”
While many of these images continued to take on a purely formal abstraction, they often involved collaging some of Boonville’s most prominent photographs, giving them an entirely new existence. In Nathan, 2015, for example, Briner takes an early portrait of a Boonville man holding a deer head in front of his face, burns out his eyes, and re-photographs the image with his assistant’s eyes in its place, imbuing it with both paranoia and sadness. In another image, Two Cheerleaders, 2015 Briner cuts and reconfigures a photograph of Boonville cheerleaders to resemble fragments of a broken mirror. Images like these help to punctuate his experiments with his own life experience, turning otherwise abstract representations into pictures thick with metaphor.
Whether he’s exploring the metaphors of declining small town America, the complex narratives of natural disaster, or abstracting personal trauma into visual masterpieces, Timothy Briner’s practice hinges on creating order – in many cases, visually stunning order – from unfortunate circumstance. His sensitive eye, whether in the studio or spending time with different communities across the United States, gives his work a unique and sophisticated gaze layered with trial, error, and rich curiosity.