Q & A With Brian Merriam

Q & A with Brian Merriam

Artist Brian Merriam created a stunning landscape photograph, Untitled, Coast, during his residency at MacArthur Place in May 2021 (details here). This arresting piece lives in the central hallway of our historic Barn, across from The Bar. We sat down with Brian to learn more about his practice, inspirations and future projects. You can view his artist

You have a profound knowledge of and passion for classic literature, mythology, geology and the natural world, and the occult. As a true Renaissance man with such a diverse field of interests, how did you get into photography as a profession? 

I took, and honestly am still taking, a long circuitous route into art as a profession. Just to clarify, I think of photography as the medium I’m currently focused on, not necessarily what defines me as an artist. Anyways, I grew up drawing, painting, playing music etc. In my early teens I got really into skateboarding, which led to me filming and editing skate videos on old hi-8 video cameras etc. That eventually led to me getting a degree in what was called ‘art video’ at the time, but now goes by something more along the lines of ‘trans media studies.’ I took that largely useless degree to New York City in 2005 and promptly started playing in various touring bands for the next 5-6 years. Creativity in a band involves a lot of collaboration and compromise, and I eventually felt the need for an outlet of strictly personal creativity. Photo had long been a hobby and it slowly became more and more of passion as I began to devote more time and effort to it. A little over a decade later, here we are.

In your personal life, you have experienced unquantifiable loss. How were you able to transform this void into such a resonant expression through your work?

I spent basically the first decade and a half of my life watching my mom suffer through several bouts of cancer, from her first diagnosis when I was 6 months old until she finally succumbed to it just shy of my 16th birthday. As a young person without much life experience my mothers illness became the defining thread of my identity. Then in my early 30s, just as I’d finally started to get a grasp on things and loss had started to feel less like a monolithic experience, my dad took his own life. As devastating as the actual shock and loss were, it was equally as devastating to lose all the work I’d done to dig myself out of always defining my life based around loss. I was Sisyphus, the rock was back at the bottom of the hill. When life presents you with that kind of situation, honestly any difficult situation large or small, the choice is really to let it control and/or destroy you, or you learn from it, get to work and use it to build something even better. Alchemy you know? Transmute the lead of loss and sorrow into the gold of an elevated perspective on life and existence. Easier said than done I know, but that’s the honest truth. On the (somewhat) bright side, I have access to a reservoir of emotion and experience that people don’t usually have until much later in life, if at all. As an artist that’s an invaluable tool, regardless of how it arrived in my possession. As far as it coming through in my work, if my work is at all true to me, if I’m actually channeling what I’m trying to channel, it’s kind of inevitable that it will come through.

Scale is a recurring theme in your work. Many of your photographs, such as the Upper Mustang Nepal series, appear to compress distance and time, while magnifying size to an almost-hyperbolic scale. The result is powerful and humbling. How do you achieve this effect and what is the meaning behind it?

A good first step is going to places of unimaginable scale and bathing in the humility granted to you in such a situation:) That feeling is what I’m trying to get to come through in the photos. It’s difficult though. Take my word, my photos, and any photos really, do no justice to the Himalayas. The scale is hyperbolic in real life, almost comical at times, in the ‘it’s so hard to believe all you can do is kind of chuckle and shake your head’ way.  As far as the technical aspects of photo looking compressed, it’s the result of using really strong telephoto lenses, zooming in, and the lenses compressing the depth of field. I’ll spare everyone a technical description of the optics, but that’s the gist. As an artistic tool, i like it because it changes the vast wide open spaces into almost a flat plane that can look something akin to an abstract painting. 

Your travels have taken you far and wide into some of the loneliest — and most beautiful — corners of the earth. Now that travel has resumed, what remote and photo-worthy destination is next on your list? 

Honestly there’s another Nepal trip in the works. Fingers crossed. We shall see. There’s a long list of destinations, but I feel like I have some unfinished business in the Himalayas first. 

Tell us a bit about the piece, Untitled, Coast, that you created during your recent residency at MacArthur Place. What was the inspiration behind the work, how did you shoot it and how does it reflect your experience in Sonoma? 

My apologies for the inelegant title! I basically never title single photos, usually just series. That image was inspired by the rebirth of spring along the coast. During my time up there, wild flowers were blooming everywhere. I was inspired to use the wildflowers as a sort of lens or filter to add color, symbolic of vibrancy, youth and rebirth to an image of the stoic coastline, symbolic of deep time and the slow geologic processes of erosion from tide and wind. 

Brilliant, almost surreal, color is a striking presence in your photos. How do you capture such vivid hues in the natural world, and is any of the vibrancy achieved through digital enhancement? 

I’m glad you asked this. The short answer is not always, but yes, and it actually brings up some larger points I’d like to discuss. First off, every photographer you know and like digitally edits their work to some degree, unless they are the most rigorous film shooting diehard purist. Which is cool too, don’t get me wrong.  Even Ansel Adams for example, had a litany of dark room tricks he used to alter his negatives.  Granted that’s a more hands-on analog process, but it’s a direct analogy to what anyone using lightroom or photoshop today is doing. Secondly, I consider myself an artist working in the photographic medium, and not necessarily a ‘photographer’ in the conventional sense.  Photography often comes with a weird idea attached to it that it’s supposed to tell objective truth, but I don’t work for the Associated Press, I’ve never claimed to be a journalist you know? Art, to me, is about connecting subjective experience to universal truth. People don’t enjoy a song on the radio and immediately say ‘that sounds great, but you surely didn’t double track the vocal, or add digital reverb did you? The guitar wasn’t running through any effects pedals was it?’ It’s clear that someone produced a piece of art, presented it to you, and regardless of the process, it resonated with you or it didn’t. Not to say the process isn’t interesting and important, but I don’t think it should in any way invalidate a piece of work because it has been edited on a computer. Basically I’m here to convey my personal vision, symbolically, through light and shapes and colors and representations of archetypal forms. Sometimes I present my work in negative as opposed to positive, I also shoot with a camera that has been converted to capture the full light spectrum as opposed to standard visual light. (Before you ask, crazy fantastical colors is the answer)  I also implore a bunch of analog techniques like using flowers and foliage as filters to add color, or simply wait for periods of vibrant/unique light ala sunrise/sunset and before or after big changes in the weather. All of it is equally valid in my opinion. Tools and techniques to help me better describe my vision. My apologies for the rant, but I appreciate the space to clear out some things I’ve been thinking about:)

Can you share any details of your exciting collaboration with friend and poet, Kai Carlson-Wee? Are there any excerpts from his poem you can share?

I wish I could share more details aside from that the project is long and ongoing. It started as a photo series of mine that I asked Kai [Kai Carlson-Wee] to compose an accompanying written piece for. It’s turned into a much more involved thing with each of us considering, absorbing and reacting to the others’ next additions or revisions etc. There’s a rough facsimile that you can see on my website, but Kai’s poem has been revised numerous times over since then, thus my edit might change whenever the final product (ideally a book) comes together. Here is the excerpt he read at MacArthur:

luna: blackberry: little boy blue: body that orbits the curve of the earth as

its only natural satellite: bound by gravitational waves: black seas:

gradually increasing the distance between its source and infinite space:

death’s head: wanderer: cradle of eternal dark: boundary between the

immutable elements (earth, air, water, fire) and the vast imperishable stars:

memento mori: master of tides: mirror to the burning sun: grazing

occultation: devotional returner to the face it cannot touch: blood dog:

selenium: harbor of the holy night: mother that turns for the weight of the

world and sings at the border of dreams

What was your favorite hike / place to explore in Sonoma? You covered a lot of ground during your residency, so you’re an honorary expert! 

Honestly that little preserve place you took me, Bartholomew Park, was a real hidden gem. The coast is amazing and dramatic and honestly maybe better for me photographically, but there’s a lot to be said for a peaceful hike like that that’s not too crowded. Thanks again for that:)