“When I say I want to photograph someone, what it really means is that I’d like to know them. Anyone I know I photograph.” —Annie Leibovitz
Bradley Ennis knows something about getting to know people with a camera. The Brooklyn-based fashion and editorial photographer (and former Leibovitz assistant) is all about people; they are his muses and his inspiration, the lifeblood of his creative career. His work is inventive and intimate, from his recent series “Pastel Burst,” shot as an editorial story for Modo Magazine and inspired by holi powder used in traditional Hindu color festivals, to his photojournalism work documenting blind children in Ethiopia, Ennis has a knack for capturing the human spirit in portraits that are expertly composed, lit and framed while also containing an imaginative spark. The photographer chatted with Resource this week about his Florida origins, getting a kick in the butt from Leibovitz and why photography matters.
How did you get started with photography?
I first started to experiment with photography as a senior in high school while I was living in Italy for a year. I had a common impulse to capture moments but then I realized that I wasn’t just taking the same pictures as everyone else. Instead, I was starting to explore my vision of the world through a camera. The camera was a means to question everything and an excuse to document the way I saw life around me.
Did you study photography or are you primarily self-taught?
For the first year shooting with my own camera I was self-taught. In college, I began taking some b/w film photography courses, which solidified my love for photography. After that, I took every course Eckerd College had to offer. One of the main benefits of going to a small liberal arts college was that I was able to work closely with my professors and create my own courses to help develop my work and interests. That allowed for a lot of self-teaching by constantly looking at other photographers’ work, reading extensively through online blogs, YouTube, magazines, books and continuously shooting.
Why fashion photography? What excites you about editorial?
Fashion to me is a boundless realm that borders on reality and unchained-creativity. The ability to work as an artist to bridle that creativity into a beautiful image is a thrill that I thrive on. Fashion photography allows me to creatively showcase contemporary trends and beauty—something that we always have, and always will do as humans. To me, the really exciting side of fashion is shooting editorial. When shooting an editorial, I am able to let loose and work with a whole team of creatives to produce a cohesive story. In essence, editorial fashion photography becomes a creative playground where playing in the sandbox may just land you a masterpiece.
What do you think makes for a great fashion photograph or spread?
A successful fashion photograph will not only showcase the designer’s work, but will also brand itself with the photographer’s identity through vision and creative insight. A well-executed fashion photograph should be beautiful, but a great fashion spread will put that beauty into a new perspective that makes you look twice.
You worked as an intern and then photo assistant for Annie Leibovitz. What was that experience like? What did you learn from working with her?
My experience interning and assisting for Annie was life changing and propelled my knowledge of photography immensely. It was an honor to step into the world of such a prestigious photographer and artistic icon. I definitely spent all of my time there with ears and eyes wide open and absorbing everything that went on. Being on such important and sometimes large-scale shoots taught me not only how a well-oiled machine must run but also all that really goes into the production of high-end fashion shoots. Besides learning invaluable technical knowledge assisting on set, the whole experience with the studio helped my confidence as a shooter—almost like a kick in the butt constantly reminding me, “Hey! Now YOU go and do it!”
You’ve also worked as a creative branding assistant. How does that experience help you as a photographer? What can you bring to the table that other commercial photographers can’t?
When I first moved to NYC and was interning/assisting at Annie Leibovitz’s studio, I was lucky enough to work part time at TronvigGroup. James Heaton, the president of TronvigGroup was also an alumnus of my college, and I had previously shot several projects for their clients while I was in college. Although the branding firm didn’t need an in-house photographer, I was able to help out with numerous other projects ranging from retouching, colorizing, creative strategies and some front-end web development. My experiences working with a branding firm helped to extend my knowledge about running a business as well as the larger scope of brand implementation. Many other photographers may not truly understand their client’s brand needs. From my experience working at a branding firm, I am able to approach my clients with a well-rounded arsenal of creative expertise.
Talk me through the creative process for one of your shoots. Where do you find your inspiration? How much do you plan or sketch before you’re actually in the studio?
The creative process for my shoots is constantly happening. I am always seeing the world around me with the idealistic goal of someday creatively replicating all of it. I find inspiration in a lot of different ways, sometimes by seeing locations, sometimes by the way light falls in a certain corner on a certain day. Sometimes my inspirations show up as sudden ideas that come to me while walking to the subway. I keep a Moleskin notebook to jot down bullet style ideas and notes but my main database for my inspirations is on my computer. I keep a folder where I drag every image that inspires me. It is like a visual database of stimulation. I often look at current fashion trends and then go through this visual database in Lightroom to create shoot folders. These subfolders then eventually get whittled down into mood boards for upcoming fashion stories I am planning to shoot.
Do you prefer shooting in studio or on location? Why?
I want to say that I prefer shooting in studio but I don’t think that I should have a preference. The appealing aspect of a studio is the idea of having a blank canvas. Since making photographs comes from a process of shaping light and shadow on your subject, there is something to be said about starting from pure darkness and molding away from there. That being said, if I spend too much time in the studio I always begin to feel confined and restricted. When this is the case, shooting on location can be an amazing way to transplant your ideas and models into a predetermined visual space. It takes creativity to see the location in a way that separates the image from the norm, and this challenge can be what makes shooting on location super fun.
Do you prefer shooting for a client or for your own personal projects?
I think I am happiest when I am able to really click with a client and see a project with the same vision. When this happens, I am able to inject my creativity and artistic direction into a project that comes together as if it were one of my own personal projects. The nice thing about shooting for yourself is that there are no limits. None. By feeling free and unchallenged I am able to express myself in new ways, but sometimes having a specific project to channel that energy into for a client is the most rewarding.
Though you bill yourself as a commercial and editorial photographer, you’ve also worked extensively in photojournalism, documenting humanitarian and environmental issues around the world. Does your work as a photojournalist influence your editorial work (or vice versa)? With such a diverse range of interests, how would you describe your personal photography style?
At the end of the day I would tell anyone who asks that I love photographing people. People have always interested me, and once I got a camera in my hand, I had an excuse to explore humanity. My first few years as a photographer I was also traveling extensively to places like Ghana, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Bhutan and Thailand. Documenting my travels on humanitarian trips quickly morphed into shooting as a freelance photojournalist and cemented my love for photographing people. Along with my travels and shooting portraits around the globe, I also was beginning to play with lighting back home in the studio. The combination of manipulating light and photographing portraits culminated in my personal photography style. I believe that even when I am shooting editorials with beautiful models in a studio, all of my photojournalism experience comes together to dictate how I frame my images and sets my work apart from other photographers. I am somewhat of a purist when it comes to photojournalism and think that a captured image should be relatively unaltered. Although I will always want to pursue photojournalism in my personal work, I love the unbound creative realm of editorial fashion photography.
Why does photography matter?
I believe that photography matters just as any other art form matters. It is a form of expression and, as we know, the arts are often at the forefront of social change. Photography is so many things at once depending on how it is used, how it is seen and how it is perceived. Photography can be a form of documenting the world around us, or photography can be a way to manipulate the world into believing what you want. But to me, photography is important because it is a creative outlet that shows everyone else my take on the world one frame at a time.
What’s in your camera bag?
Do you have any upcoming projects you’d like our readers to know about?
Although I am continuously shooting fun and creative editorial work, I am always on the lookout for new and inspiring projects. One area I would love to venture into is celebrity portraiture. I know that I can bring out the true characteristics of my subjects and working with athletes, musicians or actors is something I would really like to pursue.