Meher Manda leads you into the work of Brian Brake and takes you through a journey spanning regions and people.
This happened around the 1960s. A 16-year-old girl, who was also a regional actor, was being photographed by a Magnum photographer. She was asked to stand and look up towards the first droplets of rain. Only, the rain was actually sprinkled water and the photograph was set up. Aparna Sen, the young girl in the photo and now, a critically acclaimed film director, said a decade later, “He asked me to wear a red sari the way a village girl does, and asked me to pose on the terrace. He also asked me to wear a green stud in my nose. Trying to be helpful, I asked if I could wear a matching red one. Adamantly, or rather, brusquely, he said, ‘No, I think a green one…’ It was stuck to my nose with glue because my nose wasn’t pierced. Someone had a large watering can, and they poured water over me. It was a very simple affair that maybe took half an hour.” The image went on to become one of the most famous photographs made by New Zealand’s premier photographer, Brian Brake. The fact that a Magnum photographer actually staged a shot, in contrast to the agency’s documentary ethics, was debated the world over.
“Brake’s experience of making films established in him a documentary habit of seeing photography in storytelling terms.” -Athol McCredie, Curator.
Tearing into Photography
Brian was born in Wellington, New Zealand, and was adopted by Jennie and John Brake. Educated in the Christchurch Boys’ High School, Brake’s early encounters with photography were encouraged by his aunt Isabel. She inspired him to make contact prints of the scenery around him. In 1945, Brake moved to Wellington to assist Spencer Digby, a portraitist in his studio. Under Digby’s hard and stern tutelage, Brake developed his interest. On one occasion, he presented Digby with pictures that were still wet and fresh from processing. Digby tore his apprentice’s work onto the floor. This incident spurred him to improve, which showed in his latter work.
Dabbling in Film
Brake joined the National Film Unit in 1948 as an assistant cameraman. He specialised in a genre of movies called Mountain Films, as they depicted New Zealand’s breathtaking panoramas. Among them, the most famous one was Snows of Aorangi, which went on to be the first New Zealand film to be nominated for the Academy Awards. However, eventually fed up by the bureaucracy, he quit the Unit and left for England in 1954.
A Tryst with Magnum
A visit to the Leica factory in Germany to purchase the popular Leica M3 resulted in Brake running into the world’s most renowned photographers, Henri Cartier- Bresson and Ernst Haas. On liking Brake’s candid shots, Bresson offered him nominee membership to Magnum Photo Agency. One of his early photo assignments was to cover Queen Elizabeth’s 1956 royal tour of Nigeria. During this assignment, Brake observed other photographers around him and was particularly impressed by the approach of a photographer who was shooting for French magazine Paris Match. “That photographer was always sauntering in the background. When he moved, he moved just before he wanted the shot, then quickly melted away again. So I did what he did.” This skill of making himself inconspicuous helped Brake make his most iconic images and eventually, earned him a full membership to Magnum.
“I loved to shoot the Southern Alps, maybe because I was brought up among the mountains.”
Monsoon and China
When any of us think of photographers who have depicted the Indian monsoon, Steve McCurry’s name is one that immediately comes to mind. However, did you know that he was actually inspired by Brake’s depiction of India’s rains before he started the work? McCurry writes on his blog, saying, “I was 11-years-old when I saw Brian Brake’s photoessay on the monsoon in India in LIFE magazine. His work established his reputation as a master color photoessayist. The inspiration stayed with me. 20 years later, I proposed a story to National Geographic to photograph the monsoon myself, and that is how that body of work began.” The LIFE essay that McCurry writes about, was iconic indeed, with the magazine dedicating 10 double-page spreads to the essay, with publications like Paris Match, Época and The Queen following suit. LIFE also featured his work on China, where he had based himself for 14 years. The Chinese government’s appreciation for Brake’s work was such that he was the only independent foreign photographer to be invited to cover the 10th anniversary of the revolution.
“He enjoyed versatility in colour and black and white reportage.” —Te Papa
Giving Back to the Community
In his quest to give back something to his country, Brake founded the New Zealand Centre for Photography in 1985. Since his death in 1988 at the age of 61, Te Papa, New Zealand’s national museum, has successfully helped commemorate Brake’s work by touring the world with his images. Brake’s reach as a photographer can be credited to his need to explore different cultures and lifestyles unknown to him. More importantly, it is his search for a deeper meaning that has made his photographs truly immortal.
This article originally appeared in the March 2013 issue of Better Photography.