Form & Function in Photography: House of Brinson

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TV’s obsession with foodie chic spotlights the complex balance between preparation and ingredients, but the final product is still greater than the sum of its respective recipe ingredients. You could say the same for eagle-eyed food and lifestyle photography duo, the Brinsons.

Former Manhattanites, William and Susan Brinson transcend their unbelievably expressive photo spreads for cookbooks, print pubs (Martha Stewart Living, The New York Times), and high-caliber clients (Saatchi & Saatchi, Mastercard). Their increasingly ubiquitous blog, House of Brinson, cuts across categories, offering adventure stories alongside tips on interior design, recipes, and a range of other aesthetic concerns for the aspiring aesthete. It’s fueled by a (literal) breath of fresh air echoing from the spacious and incredibly vibrant environs of their upstate home / restoration project, the Stonyford Estate.

We caught up with them in the middle of a busy cookbook shoot to share a quick nip of Woodford Reserve, find out how they balance their personal and professional relationships, and to get a taste of the method behind their many forms of food madness.

Flavorwire: The “New York City exodus” has been having a moment. Why did you leave? Were you seeking a different energy? A different kind of creative space?

Susan Brinson: We were at a point where we were looking for change. We moved to NYC straight out of college for our careers and worked our way up in the photography and advertising industry. After 13 years, we were toying around with getting a weekend country house. Just as a little escape from NYC. It’s pretty amazing you can go 60 miles north of NYC and can stand in the middle of a corn field.

FW: That’s a bit different than pulling up stakes, though…

SB: As we began the search for a country house, we found out our landlord [in NYC] was selling the building we were living in. They wanted to raise our rent in a NYC kinda way, so we decided to move to the country full time. We normally don’t work in the city five days a week, so it was ok if we had a bit of a commute. I think after you’ve lived in NYC for over a decade you have to get to a point where NYC needs you more than you need it.

FW: Sounds scary.

SB: We were a bit worried at first. I’m not gonna lie! Commercial photography used to be so rooted in NYC, but it’s changed over the past five years. It’s worked out for the better because we travel for work more than we imagined. It’s been a really nice change.

FW: I’m interested in your approach to different mediums. Are there differences in your process when you’re shooting for web vs magazine vs, say, a book or fast food joint?

SB: I would say they are all different processes. The medium with the most wild card attributes would be magazines because the images get used in print and on the web… and by separate editorial teams. You have to be a bit looser with your composition, but still make sure it holds your initial vision.

FW: Is ad work the same way?

SB: Advertising is so much more structured when dealing with the end use of photographs, because the placements of ads has been dictated before we even shoot. That being said, in advertising we are shooting each image for a specific use and the vision follows through much more closely. With the addition of social media, we understand that people have a really short attention span! It’s a matter of seconds, and images have to connect with a person, so we simplify.

FW: What’s the most essential element you focus on when deciding how to frame a given food?

SB: We wouldn’t say there is one special element to look for in shooting a specific food. It’s all about how that food makes you feel and how to evoke that in others. Each food item calls for its own approach depending on what story you want to tell about it.

FW: To what extent does liking (or not) a food yourself influence the way you approach it?

SB: We try to approach food as a subject and be objective, or think about the audience a certain type of food appeals to. It helps when we love a certain type of food, but overall we look at the angles and presentation of the food we are shooting.

FW: The revamped House of Brinson site seems to be anchored on the idea of simplicity. That’s interesting given the lushness and detail of some of your other work. Why so much white?

SB: We don’t like to get caught up in the online world of blinky things, pop-ups, and too much “stuff” on a page. We make a museum-like space to view our images with very little distractions… Big, beautiful images with no distractions is our focus.

FW: Lastly, a personal one… My girlfriend and I work in the same studio and work together a lot. She’s an amazing collaborator but that much proximity definitely has its difficulties. I’m wondering how you mediate / segment your work vs personal relationship with such a lifestyle occupation.

SB: This is a tough question! First, we try to keep regular business hours. We are kinda strict about this, because if not, you don’t know when you have on your work hat and when you should be relaxing. The weekends are ours and we like to have a nice dinner after a weeknight work day as well. That’s not to say if a project or idea demands it we don’t make exceptions, but this allows time for a relationship outside of work. The second thing is being really honest with each other, even if it’s hard. We openly discuss what’s working, and what’s not. The most dangerous thing in any relationship is resentment. If we are open and discuss issues as they arise, for better or worse, it seems to work out.

This interview has been lightly condensed and edited for length.