Beginning in the mid-1960s, Nacio Jan Brown photographed practically all of the major anti-war and social protest movement activities in the San Francisco Bay Area. His photographs were published widely in the underground press at the time and since then in many books, magazines, and newspapers worldwide, including art historian Peter Selz’s recent book, The Art of Engagement, where a number of his photographs appear. His work has been exhibited in leading museums and galleries worldwide, including the M.H. de Young Museum in San Francisco, The Fine Arts Gallery of San Diego, Focus Gallery in San Francisco, the Ansel Adams Friends of Photography Gallery in San Francisco, the University Art Museum in Berkeley, and most recently, at the Berkeley Art Center as part of their traveling exhibit ‘The Whole World’s Watching.”
In 1969 Brown undertook a four-years-on-one-block street photography project in Berkeley, California, where he presently resides. That stark and revealing documentary coverage resulted in the publication of a brilliant and compelling book, Rag Theater. The American Institute of Graphic Arts selected this volume for its 1976 “Fifty Books” exhibition. Nacio Jan Brown’s photographs are also in the collections of The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, The Metropolitan Museum in New York, The International Museum of Photography at George Eastman House, and the Library of Congress as well as in many private collections.
Brown’s latest effort is a much-expanded version of Rag Theater, the seminal book first published in 1975. It documents with consummate empathy and insight, the vibrant, desperate, and rebellious street life on one block in Berkeley from 1969 to 1973. The website uses a blog format so that people who were there can share their recollections of the times. People have begun to do that and many of the posts are quite moving. More recently he has completed a project on the non-disposables in our throwaway society. Here in his own direct, incisive and thoughtful words is the second and final blog on Nacio Jan Brown’s amazing photojournalistic project.
Q: You indicated that your general working methods for the Berkeley street photography project were quite simple—making sure that the camera back was parallel to the plane of the subject to prevent keystone distortion, aiming the lens at the center of the subject when shooting with wide-angle lenses, and pressing the shutter release at the instant of eye contact. However some of your later shots are conceptually more complex—is that correct?
A: Yes, pictures became more complicated. I learned to do things over the course of this project, to create more complex compositions using diagonal lines, multiple points of interest, and different perspectives. I started shooting more expansive and oblique compositions from behind the subject, and including more details. I would have never seen that shot at the beginning. I learned to do it while I was shooting.
Q: The “young girl with dog” image conveys a masterful sense of precision and randomness at the same time, plus the technical quality is pretty high. However, there is something about her expression that doesn’t quite fit or something doesn’t quite belong, do you agree?
A: No, not really. She’s just a little nervous. Actually unlike most of the street kids she was very well taken care of. He dad was there and she was there at the presentation of these images. She’s a mom now. I just see her as a sweet a little girl but maybe nervous.
Q: Are you doing anything now that relates to this sort of photography?
A: No. My last project, my first one in years, is also is on Facebook on my public page. It was shot with a digital camera. For a month I took pictures of the packaging of everything that I bought that was not recyclable. It was called the “Landfill Times.” It turns out most of what I bought was junk food, and I would photograph the cappuccino in the paper cup with the plastic lid when I got it. Then I would photograph the part that I couldn’t recycle. And I did it for three weeks. There are 200 pictures in the series, which kind of gets the point across. That’s the last project that I did. But I have been reading reviews of the Leica M9P and also the Leica Monochrom and having fantasies. I’ve still got a bunch of Leica lenses, and I have an M6, I have an M4. We’ll see.
Q: In your last project you had a theme here, a theme with the recyclable stuff. You’re photography has a social dimension. Would you agree with that?
A: Yes I would. The way I think of it is that it has content.
Q: Okay but your content is specifically a social dimension. I mean you can have abstract content. You can have pure form content. There are all kinds of content. Your material has a social content. Whether it’s about protest or documenting a specific social scene or the business of recycling, it seems to me that you would really be able to do something great in the contemporary social arena with a Leica M9. Whatever it happens to be, you are very good at photographing people. These are very powerful images indeed. And certainly a message about recycling has to get out and if you can do it in a more compelling way then more power to you. But we would still like to see you go forth with a people based social situation that you are documenting for all time. How do you feel about that?
A: I would like to do that, but I’m sort of thrashing around for what scene that would be. One of the things I remember is some young photojournalist once said to me “I want to document the artichoke pickers.” They had done the grape pickers and they had done the lettuce pickers but nobody had done the artichoke pickers. Well that’s ridiculous. Trying to find something that’s compelling without it being emotionally involved and committed to the subject is not the way to go.
Q: Where do you live?
A. I live in Berkley still. I’ve lived here since 1965.
Q: About a month ago I was at a press event and they put us at the Fairmont hotel at the top of Nob Hill in San Francisco and just walking around that area you could call it snob hill, and I wouldn’t be the first person to say that. They are very rich people and they aren’t interested in publicity. That’s sort of a cloistered environment but if you walk around for even a few blocks there are great pictures waiting to be taken. In other words there is stuff all around. There are certainly scenes with young people. There are areas today in, say, Seattle, that are reminiscent of some of your pictures from the 1970s, and I’m not saying you have to pick an environment like that—it’s all over the place. It doesn’t make sense to me that finding a suitable subject is that difficult. Great subjects abound.
A: Well it has to grab me. And I tell you the one thought that I had of something that I really would enjoy doing, you’ll probably nix the idea, but I think I would be really good at being the still photographer on a movie set.
Q: Absolutely not. I think that is a great idea and I wouldn’t nix it in the least. A movie set is a stratified social phenomenon if there ever was one and it’s a fascinating subject.
A: I actually looked into it but the photographers that do the production stills are in a union. And if they hire someone who is non-union, they have to pay the same amount that they would have got if they had hired a union guy. It becomes too expensive for someone who’s not in the union to do that.
Q: The answer is you got to wangle your way to do it for the union. You’ve got a track record. And you are going to immortalize them in your fine art photojournalism. I mean it’s a sell. Since you brought up the subject, it would seem to be a sell worth the effort. You have done really fine work. And there is plenty of it that needs to be done now. You could have done something on following the Romney campaign and some of those people are mighty interesting. Or the Obama campaign for that matter. That already happened.
A: No, I see your point. There is stuff all around to shoot. I just got to find something that grabs me, something that engages me to shoot.
Q: I give you a quote from Emily Dickenson, “Not revelation ‘tis that waits, but our unfurnished eyes.” In other words, it is your duty as an artist at this level of excellence to find a subject that moves you, not sit around and wait for something to engage you. It’s an active quest. I don’t usually get on my high horse, but your work inspires me to want to see more of the same caliber. I’m not trying to flatter you. This is photojournalism as art of the highest order that you have done. I just think you should continue doing it.
A: Very encouraging, and I will actually take the Emily Dickenson quote to heart. You’re not the only person that’s encouraged me to do this, to keep shooting. There is interesting stuff I have written on Rag Theater. And if you want to get a fuller picture of this Berkeley scene, there are a number of posts by people that were there about their experiences and some of them are very poignant.
Speaking of Nob Hill, by the way, I have a picture of them digging outside the Fremont in 1969 or ‘70. This is a shot that ran in the front of the National Catholic Reporter, industrial conference. There are a couple of fat cat industrialists in the background and in the foreground there is three or four or five Tac Squad police forming a semicircle to keep them from being harmed by the rabble. It’s a good social documentary shot. And you can just the awning where it says Fairmont or you can just see enough of the word Fairmont. to see where it was taken.
On Facebook there is an album called “Dissent” and an album called “The Arts” that were all taken with a Leica. In “The Arts” there are maybe 10 or 12 pictures of movie directors like Michelangelo Antonioni and Martin Scorsese in the back seat of my Jaguar. Those were done in the mid 70s.
Q: Thanks very much for talking with us. You certainly did give some great insight into your creative process and how and why you created some of these pictures. We have one last question about the Leica Akademie. Do you have any upcoming workshops or would you like to talk about any of your experiences?
A: I did a workshop with Tom Brichta. He invited me to conduct a street photography workshop this past August. I enjoyed it a lot. From what I understand from Tom the participants got a lot out of it and enjoyed me being there. When I gave my presentation for the opening of the journalism school at the University of California, at least two or three of the people that had been in that workshop came for that presentation, so I guess I made an impression.
Thank you for your time, Nacio!
– Leica Internet Team