Forest Fires, Conspiracy Theories & Sci-Fi (oh my!) with Brian Z. Shapiro



After a brief hiatus, I’ve re-kindled my artist Q&A series and I’m proud to introduce Bay Area photographer Brian Z. Shapiro. I have followed Brian’s work for almost two years now, and I continue to get hooked by his investigative plot lines. For a still photographer, he does a remarkable job of stealthily weaving narrative and intrigue into his bodies of work.


Valerie Thompson: Why don’t you give me a brief overview about your history… like how you ended up in the arts…in photography.

Brian Z. Shapiro: So I kind of always knew that it was going to be something to do with the arts. In school I was just like …none of this is really for me. But I didn’t think there was anything out there until I was about ten  and then my father got me obsessed with films. Every Friday night we would sit down and he would be like “we’re watching a film, and then we’re going to talk about it afterwards.” And we’d go through the different waves and the different ‘auteurs’ and all of that and then we’d sit and talk about it; so up until about the age I was nineteen I was like I’m going into the film industry…I want to direct, I want to be an auteur. When I was about fifteen…[in order] to take a film class, we had to take one other class at this summer camp, so they had a photography one and I took that.

VT: …and was it film or digital?

BZS: It was film. Yeah, I didn’t learn digital until I was like nineteen. So it switched over at about nineteen when I transferred to SF state (University) and then it kind of has not stopped. I’ve always been obsessed with it. I’ve kind of always been a photographer that goes outside of the studio and goes out photographing places…versus one that creates a shot. I had a real obsession with making sure that everything in the shot I was taking was exactly how I found it…that nothing was moved.

VT: A lot of photographers approach it from the completely opposite way where they like the ability to stage things, so it’s cool that you’re coming from the other end of it where you have sort of a transparency that you like to promote.

BZS: Right. You know I think that it’s a shame that we put all photographers under “photography.” I think there are the photographers who kind of really want to be painters or sculptors – who use photographs to document the process. While there’s other ones like myself who are more coming from a journalistic, storytelling, point of view.

VT: Well the beauty of photography as a medium means that people implicitly do not question the validity of what you are showing them.

BZS: Right. Although, you can get away with that so much.

VT: Yeah, well there’s a lot out there these days that is completely falsified.

BZS: And there’s a lot of obsession over making sure everything is true as it possibly can be. I don’t think photography can do that.

VT: Well I think that this discussion is very important, in particular, to do with the kind of work that you make…and I’ve known your work for a while and just because you shoot with complete transparency doesn’t mean that there is lack of a narrative. There is some sort of fictional or real narrative going on in whatever you’re shooting…

BZS: Right.

VT: So how did how do you find that you make these images to support this greater narrative that you have…that are completely transparent and not staged. How does that work?

BZS: So, at least when I’m out shooting I will kind of focus on what is going on that day. I am constantly taking notes. I approach everything as a journalist, even though I try to avoid that term just because it does get into the idea of that “well-funded journalist…the number one job is to tell the truth or if you don’t, they’re going to crucify you.”

VT: It’s a loaded term.

BZS: Yeah. With this, I have a story in my head that I’m telling myself. And then when I’m setting up the shots, I’m trying to figure out “OK where in the story does this shot fit in?” Something that I’ve learned to do over the past five years is: if there’s a picture that won’t fit into the story, I won’t take that picture.

VT: Do you think that kind of curating…it’s not really curating…but that kind of decision, that careful selection…has been as a result of starting out in film? Because film provides a lot less opportunities to make just image after image; in digital photos, you can make those mistakes – you don’t have to curate before you take the photo, you know.

BZS: Correct.

VT: So do you think that behavior kind of stemmed from learning film?

BZS: Probably. I think – at least when I do shoot digital – I think it’s a hindrance, because you start editing and making your selection before you’re done shooting and I think the idea of “to go out and shoot” is something that you should be only focusing on that and experiencing that, and then not the experience of starting to think about the histograms and cropping and something that should be done on a computer, later.

VT: So you work a lot more – in film – a lot more linear. You know, whereas you can self-edit on the job, using the L.C.D. screen on the back of a digital camera.

BZS: I think that is my biggest problem with digital…it’s that you can start making the decisions about your photographs before you swallow the experience.

VT: So as far as content goes…do you want to go over that?

BZS: Yeah. So for about the past year I’ve been photographing the area surrounding the Bohemian Grove, which is a retreat for [the] super wealthy, super rich, super white men of the world who make the decisions and decide how the money supply, the water supply and the air supply [is used.] So, every summer they have a retreat up there for about three weeks and spend the whole time getting super drunk and putting on pagan rituals.

VT: Where did you first read or hear about Bohemian Grove?

BZS: I’ve kind of always head about it since…I’ve always been obsessed with conspiracy theories and I really find them fascinating. But I think I first heard about it as a teenager and kept on reading, you know, going back and seeing something about it…I remember reading something that…I’m a huge Stanley Kubrick fan…but reading about how Eyes Wide Shut is secretly about Bohemian Grove. But I realized it was pretty close to where I live…about two years ago when I kind of had to put it on the map of “as soon as I get a car and I can be able to get there, I’m going.” Then, about a year ago I ended up getting a car for a day and decided to go up there and I go to the front gate, and I’m not there for about more than a minute before I’m swarmed with cars and there’s a security guard out there, and he’s making me expose my film and all kinds of stuff. As soon as that encounter was over, I was thinking like…this has to be a project.

VT: The fact that you were met instantly with such a mysterious encounter…

BZS: Yeah, and I think there’s the type of people who say “OK, never doing that again” and they learn their lesson, and then there’s the type of people saying “oh, nope, we’ve gotta go back in!” Even if I didn’t get that many photos that day, I still got the experience of it, and I think that was something more important.

VT: Well from what I’ve seen of your work, you do a lot of writing. In very much like a film noir…lone wolf…detective-journalist kind of way…

BZS: …gonzo way.

VT: A gonzo way, yeah…where you have the day, and the time, and the place and you write down your experiences. So, having that written account, but also the images to go with it just lends itself immediately to the format of a book, right? Which is what you ended up turning this work into.

BZS: I think I like the book a lot more as an art piece than any exhibition. Just because I think it’s very democratic, and I like the experience that people have of being able to have a book and go through it. I always imagine them sitting on a bed like I do late at night, going through books.

VT: Yeah, going over memories, or fictional memories…I was just talking about how memories are actually “virtual” because they aren’t something tangible, something real. So we do an element of fictionalizing…we inject things that didn’t actually happen into our memories as a result of them percolating up in our little noggins.

BZS: Right. So we go back and think about our memories, and memories are deeply…false, I think. But in our own minds they are real.

VT: Personal truths. But the medium of the book – I mean you said it…I do it too, even at my parents’ house with books that nobody’s touched in forever and I’ll go through them and it’ll be an experience where I’m connecting my memories from my personal archives to what’s in them, and it’s a new experience. You’re right, it’s democratic, it’s accessible to the masses, and it’s emphatically not “the gallery,” which I think is becoming troublesome for a lot of artists these days, the gallery setting…the museum setting.

BZS: And it’s not to say that I don’t like galleries or I don’t like museums, because I think those are different experiences in and of themselves. But, I really like the idea of somebody being able to own what I would consider an art piece, and have their own experience with it.

VT: So, you mentioned that it all started with films, and your father was really influential in exposing you to a lot of great film. What would you say then has been the most influential? You said Kubrick…

BZS: Kubrick of course and I think like any teenage, pretentious “snob” kid, they go through a huge Kubrick phase. But I think even going back, I’m still always kind of amazed by what he did. But, you know last couple of years it’s been the seventy’s era “movie brat” period. So, the Scorsese’s, the De Palma’s, Coppola, all of that…French New Wave was a huge influence on me, especially during college; basically all of the film snob criterion collection…you know, basics.

VT: Stylistically, do you think film has had an influence on how you work?

BZS: Somewhat. I’m realizing now that I need to switch over from a square and a six by four medium format to a six by seven, and I’m thinking that I like it more because it reminds me of a cinema screen, versus what a square does – were you immediately see it and think that’s a picture. But with a six by seven, you have to wonder if it’s a film still.

VT: You can definitely achieve cinematic qualities in the still image. As you were mentioning, you like to leave your scenes untouched by your hand, you don’t like to curate them, you don’t like to set them up – which, of course, would lend itself immediately to the cinematic, creative set-making – but you find these scenes so organically, yet you manage to retain a sort of cinematic feel.

BZS: Yeah, there’s a dogma 95 aspect to it.

VT: Well I suppose my next question would be: have you ever forayed into the moving image?

BZS: Here and there. I was scared of it for such a long time because it was something that I quit, and I moved on from…you know it was a weird thing in that I only had two years of film school, and not the whole four. And it was something that I loved so much that I almost didn’t want to touch it…but I’m slowly getting back into it. I’ve been looking at a lot of the works of Terrence Malick lately, and finding that I’m really loving a scene where he will let something…let the camera go…and have what could only be described as a picture, but nothing’s actually happening. We’re just enjoying the image. The only difference is that we’re kind of seeing the image move, seeing the things move back and forth.

VT: Like a prolonged .gif?

BZS: Yeah OK, I like that idea!

VT: …in sort of contemporary terms…

BZS: Yeah, I’m wondering who’s going to be the first artist to…

VT: …be the .gif artist of our age?

BZS: Exactly. Or is it .gif (pronounced: jiff)?

VT: Well I guess, in asking that question: “why not the motion picture?” It seems that you really enjoy the classics. There is a certain timelessness to the style and the process that you use, and so I think particularly in the moving image these days, in that area, it’s really changing. It is a lot of like “oh film is so fifty years ago”…and even now video… “oh that was so twenty years ago.” So I feel like now it’s hard to probably break into that, whereas …I don’t know, I mean would you argue that film photography has achieved a little bit more of a permanence? Or not?

BZS: Yeah. Probably. I think there’s always going to be…in the fine art world there’s going to be film photography, versus you know digital might still be “cheating.” One of my professors refers to it as a “photo vest” …you know, the guy wearing the Safari vest, going out …it’s those types that still believe in filters and light meters, and all that, and not altering anything.

VT: Well, your content is very much there – it’s not just the medium that is the art – but I think there are a lot of film photographers out there…fine art film photographers… who use simply the medium as their craft. They hone it, and they know it so well that that has become the art in their work.

BZS: It’s part of the thing of… “well everything’s been photographed at this point so what’s the point of going out and photographing it, so I’m going to go back to the studio and play with the medium, itself,” versus my idea that I still think there are things to be photographed.

VT: That’s a good point that you bring up that perhaps everything really has kind of been photographed. Do you think that’s the first step in a photographer’s method…that they need to “realize” that?

BZS: Yeah, but I think you also need to know how to make something interesting. You know, I’ll never photograph the town I grew up in – just because I’ve seen everything so much, and I think everything is boring but I’m sure that if I go back and spend time there, I will find photographs of things that will be interesting. But I think you can’t believe that lie that everything has been photographed and think well then I’m not going to go photograph things.

VT: You can’t get discouraged about it. You mentioned that you wouldn’t photograph something so close to home, you wouldn’t photograph something that you’ve seen your whole life. And that’s an interesting point because I feel like a lot of times what people expect from us is for us to photograph what is the closest to us. You have fresh eyes when you witness something that you haven’t seen before and that, sometimes, is more beautiful than if you’re just so familiar with it that you’re an expert.

BZS: It’s like when you go to another country, you want to photograph everything because everything is completely foreign to you. And then you see people here – especially in San Francisco – who are taking photographs of the most boring things…like why are you taking that photograph? …but to them it’s completely fresh.

VT: Well I mean that dredges up a whole different topic of conversation. Maybe we won’t delve into that today, but it is interesting and something that you face as a resident of the Bay Area. And you grew up here…

BZS: Born and raised. Hella Born and raised.

VT: Alright, conspiracy theories.

BZS: Talk about those? Yeah. OK. Oh I really like it because…I think that word gets used quite a bit. We’re living in the age of conspiracy theories, where they’re coming to prominence so much. And there’s so many different aspects out of it that I think every…you know to call somebody a conspiracy theorist is kind of doing them a disservice because you’re not seeing what their politics and what their beliefs are, and where those are coming out and I think there are conspiracy theories that come out of…straight out of just pure racism; I think there’s conspiracy theories that come out of class issues, and there’s conspiracy theories that come out of this anti-social aspect of it. So I think you really can’t classify them just as one thing but it’s also these people who live in a different world, and believe different things than us.

VT: Well I think it’s a greater attempt at coming to terms with what is…reality, the day-to-day.

BZS: And there’s comfort in conspiracy, because it’s easier to believe that five people in the world rule…or just one person rules…or that that reptiles rule the world versus the fact that this world is full of chaos and you can’t figure it out.

VT: It’s easier to believe that reptiles rule the world than to accept the chaos. (laughs)

BZS: You know I think that’s why so many conspiracy theories are kind of cropping up out of absolutely horrible events that we have absolute proof of what happened…because they are so horrible that to believe the truth about them is really a lot scarier than to believe that this was some sort of inside job. You know I think that’s why the two biggest conspiracy theories out there right now are 9/11 and the Newtown (CT) school shooting. That it’s easier to believe that this giant government conspiracy theory brought down the towers, rather than nineteen assholes with boxcutters…or one weird dude with a machine gun.

VT: To accept the truth would potentially be to dehumanize… to accept that maybe we’re not as “human” as we claim to be…as the human race.

VT: Well it’s certainly very interesting. Science fiction is probably along the same vein. I have read texts that draw convincing parallels between science fiction and conspiracy theories and all that as a way of envisioning a solution to a projected dystopian present or future.

BZS: I think you can tell a lot about somebody’s politics and personal beliefs through what science fiction they like.

VT: It’s crazy how the media influences and governs how people think in such like a polar kind of America that we live in.

BZS: And there’s just so much of that. I think it scares people that you get so many facts, and that they’re not all right.

VT: And even just the sheer volume of the content, the sheer volume of the media that we’re receiving these days. You get it on Facebook, you get it in your inbox. Every morning, if you ask a lot of people what the first thing they do when they wake up is, it’s that they roll over and check their phone.

BZS: Because something might have happened in those six hours.

VT: Well we live in such a fast-paced world that we come to expect to know about these things as they happen.

BZS: I think one of those things might be that we’re waking up to check to see whether another terrible even has happened.

VT: …or if the world is still there. (laughs)

VT: So what are you working on now?

BZS: So kind of what I’ve been working on more recently is the effect of forest fires over certain parts of California. This past summer was really bad for forest fires because of the drought. It’s something that kind of fascinates me because it’s something that if you want to manage it, you have to let it happen sometimes…it’s part of a cycle. If you let things burn sometimes, it’s going to keep the big fires from hitting next summer and it’s part of nature, so that when small fires so happen, it means that more trees are going to come back next year. But it’s also something where people still live pretty close to these fires, and a lot of people [have] lost their homes. So, how do you make the difference between letting something happen but also making sure the homes are ok, and making sure we can still be there next time…and I think that’s something that is a really big issue coming up… how much of the earth can we use for us to live like we are, versus just letting it be…letting it happen.


For more on Brian’s work, visit his website:





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