Photographers Gone Wild
Three shooters team up to photograph the rituals of Spring Break and come away with a multimedia promo piece and exhibition
By Kristina Feliciano
For most adults, just the thought of visiting Panama City, Florida, during spring break is enough to make them gag. So props must be given to photographers Stephen K. Schuster, Emiliano Granado and Steven Brahms, who endured four days of beach-blanket bacchanalia this past spring and came back not just with astonishing photos but also with a clever, inexpensive self-promo piece that showcases all three of them at once: "Time of Your Life," a white, 4 x 6 glossy-finish box containing 21 full-bleed postcard images. The back of each is printed with one of the three photographers' names, depending on who shot it.
Produced as a limited edition of 100, each box is stamped inside with the photographers' names and the edition number, while the outside bears a gold foil palm tree. It's spring break in a cardboard box yet surprisingly fresh, given the familiarity of its beer-soaked theme. "It was kind of interesting to photograph the same subject matter but in three different ways," notes Schuster. "We wanted to see how we could present the work in a collaborative way but keep the integrity of our different visions." And, says Brahms, "We wanted [the final product] to be something you can collect."
Even before Schuster and friend-collaborators had given PDN box No. 1, the project had already gotten some serious exposure via nerve.com, which devoted a giant feature to it called "Spring Loaded." The Web site had approached Schuster, who along with Granado (chosen as a PDN's 30 in 2008), occasionally shoots for Nerve, for an assignment, and when his schedule kept him from accepting it, he told them about the Panama City photos: Crisp, colorful images of well-toned young bodies in skimpy swimwear and wet T-shirts, bare breasts and bare chests, bros with board shorts and mouths open wide to take in a downpour of booze. All were shot with the curiosity of an anthropologist and the flair of an artist. "This is the most gorgeous photography of the stupidest tradition ever," commented one nerve.com visitor.
Schuster, Granado and Brahms are all young Brooklyn-based photographers with a pop-culture bent. Schuster was the director of photography for the now-defunct Mass Appeal magazine, where about three years ago he crossed paths with Granado and Brahms, whose work he published. The three say they all regularly seek each other's feedback on their photos and enjoy a supportive, creative friendship that they regard as rare in the protective, competitive world of photography. "We respect each other highly, so we can say, 'I think that's a stupid idea,' and no one's feelings get hurt," explains Brahms. "And usually, when it's a great idea, we all agree."
They'd never collaborated on a project, though, till this self-promo idea came about. Brahms decided to document spring break in Panama City and invited his friends to come along. "It's this kind of American iconic moment in time," he says. "It's been photographed to death, but I personally just wanted to shoot it from a voyeuristic standpoint, almost like it was an ad campaign from the early Eighties: suntans, muscles, wet T-shirts." The actual work of it was far less ecstatic, though. "The beach is a soup of beer and sweat and grime," says Granado. "I'd consider this the hardest thing I've ever photographed," insists Schuster, who says it was more arduous even than the four years he's spent on his "City Kids" series about the youth in Manhattan. "It was so overwhelming. I needed a week to decompress."
Upon returning to New York, the trio reviewed their photographic booty with an eye toward making a book out of it, but their varying formats made it too difficult logistically: Both Schuster and Granado shoot medium-format, while Brahms shoots 35mm digital. Then Brahms suggested postcards, and the box idea was born. They envisioned it as a fine-art project, as opposed to a straight promo, and in fact the boxes intentionally lack any elements that are endemic to photographers' marketing efforts—namely, contact information of any sort. "It's got a little mystery to it," says Schuster, adding that in a Google world, we are all eminently findable. The trio's plan is to hand deliver the boxes to art directors, photo editors, and other creative-industry people they know and use it as a leave-behind at meetings.
The trio also shot video footage and got their friends at Weird Days, a Brooklyn video collective that has also done work for the band the Black Lips, to edit it into a short montage, complete with graphics and a soundtrack (including, at one point, Abba's "Dancing Queen"). They're planning to mount a one-night exhibition of the photos and video in Brooklyn this month, a party at which beach-related attire will be welcome, refreshments will be served and live entertainment will be provided by the attendees themselves. "There's gonna be a beer-pong table," says Brahms. Granado has also created a splash page for the project at his online photo magazine, quesofrito.com (where a link to the video can also be found). The guys' cross-platform approach is intentional. "Everything has print, Web and video. This is just how we operate now," observes Brahms.
They estimate the project cost them between $1,500 and $2,000, with the bulk of that going toward printing. (They used an online service that they declined to reveal.) They were caught off guard by how difficult it was to source white 4 x 6 boxes, which, again, is why they're not saying where they eventually found them. In addition to distributing their portable spring break to industry connections, they're also hoping to sell it in local bookstores, priced according to the legal drinking age: $21.
As for teaming up on the project, well, that was priceless. "I've missed that sense of collaboration since Mass Appeal folded," says Schuster. "We exchanged ideas all day long. Ever since it folded I've been looking for a photo community where people propel each other to make work. I've really taken it up with these two."
(Published in the August 2009 issue of PDN)