As a new exhibition of his work opens in Dallas, the photographer talks through his work, which captures the strange and surreal facets of American society
Hip-hop honeys, backyard fighters, and biker kids – oh my! Over the past two decades, photographer Brian Finke has embedded himself in an extraordinary array of communities across the United States. Whether it’s football players, construction workers, flight attendants or US Marshals, bodybuilders or Ms Senior America pageant queens, Finke revels in the intense commitment each participant brings to pursuing the American Dream.
“I love that shared space – that immediacy of being with somebody and photographing them,” Finke tells Dazed in advance of the February 26 opening of American Pictures at Kirk Hopper Fine Art in Dallas, Texas. Although Finke has no political agenda, his straightforward approach captures the surreal psychodrama of these high-voltage lives, offering a fascinating glimpse into the interplay between individual and communal identity. Here, raw desire and sheer determination blend into a hallucinatory vision of the American Dream.
Hailing from Texas himself, Finke got his start in 2001 photographing football players and cheerleaders for the series 2-4-6-8, which later became his first book. “I grew up in a suburb of Houston and was a yearbook and newspaper photographer for my high school in the 90s,” he tells Dazed. “I moved to New York and went to art school, then went back to Texas briefly. During that time, I started to photograph my sisters. They were in high school and went to cheerleading practice, games, and tournaments so the subject was very familiar territory.”
Quiet and unassuming, Finke comfortably blends into the worlds he enters and easily assimilates with his surroundings. Whether caught up in wild action or observing mundane moments that fall in between, Finke uses the camera to capture life as it moves to different extremes. Although competitions like Ms Senior America and backyard fighting might not appear to have much in common, the one thing they share is a relentless adrenaline surge. Like the eye of a hurricane, Finke positions himself at the center of an exhilarating storm, searching for moments of catharsis and calm that reveal his subjects’ inner lives.
Finke first discovered this working on 2-4-6-8 and has been chasing the dragon ever since. “At competition, the cheerleaders were yelling and crying because they got some score, and there was emotion everywhere. It’s insanely addictive,” he says. “I love when people have strong enthusiasm and pride, and there’s no holding back. They just put themselves out there with confidence.”
Moving fluidly between traditional documentary photography and staged portraiture, Finke adopts the necessary approach to best capture the mood of the moment. “My favourite thing about photography is the storytelling aspect. It evolves and needs to have time and space to go in different directions. I just let people exist, or I provoke them,” he says.
While photographing John McAfee for Wired magazine in 2012, Finke remembers the controversial antivirus software magnate had an extraordinary case of egomania. Before going to the photo shoot, the writer told Finke that McAfee liked to play Russian roulette. Inspired, Finke approached McAfee with an idea. “I said to him, ‘’You want to get your gun and hold it up to your head?’ He was like, ‘Of course!’” Finke recalls. “We went into his backyard, and I said, ‘You know, you look even cooler if you take your shirt off.’ Then, for the rest of the day, he was walking around showing off his tattoos.”
Although Finke can have a sense of how the work is developing, he doesn’t rush the process. Each of the projects, which can last anywhere from two to five years, becomes an obsession that calls him over and over again. “I love working on things over extended periods of time because my experience being somewhere and the types of photographs I make changes. In the end, what I’m looking for is to round out the story,” he says.
Drawing inspiration from photographers such as Jim Goldberg, Larry Fink, and Larry Sultan, Finke creates intimate scenes that are hyperrealistic yet unrestrained. Fully immersed in the theatricality as it unfolds around him, Finke searches for the profound and profane expressions of the self.
“When I started photographing the US Marshals, it almost felt like propaganda because it was so exhilarating. The first day, they were going to get a convict who escaped from Huntsville Prison. We were going 130 miles per hour on the freeway to meet up with several dozen law enforcement officers from the US Marshals, Texas Rangers, and the local police department,” says Finke, who initially got access to the federal law enforcement agency responsible for hunting down the most wanted fugitives, through a high school friend who became a Marshal.
Although the projects seem unrelated, for Finke there is an organic connection that ties them together – the photographer himself. “The things I photograph tend to relate to whatever is going on in my life,” he says. In his newest book Backyard Fighters, Finke traveled to Harrisburg, Virginia, to document StreetBeefs, an underground fight club started by an ex-convict named Chris Wilmore. What began on a hunch in 2006 has blossomed into a full-scale exploration of male anger, aggression, and stress.
“Chris’s initial motivation was to get people to put down their guns and use their firsts to solve disputes. I found a lot of guys just wanted to belong, to be a part of the group; after the fight they would check in and compliment each other,” says Finke.
Ultimately, Finke loves a good badass – someone fueled by passion and purpose who isn’t afraid to take risks, like the women who compete for the title of Ms Senior America. “These women are getting up on stage and owning it – and having a great time doing it,” he says. “I like celebrating people who aren’t necessarily in the spotlight when it comes to beauty. A lot of my photographs touch on social issues, but it wasn’t intentional going into it. It’s just from the time spent doing it.”
Brian Finke: American Pictures is at Kirk Hopper Fine Art in Dallas 26 February-26 March 2022