Cody Bratt is one of a kind photographer who fell in love with instant photography early on. Working with a Polaroid camera certainly shaped his photographic style and allowed him to capture the pure essence of photography- both heart and soul. Love We Leave Behind is his first monograph that he truly feels passionate about. In this interview, Cody opens up and talk about Love and reveals what was the hardest thing he had to leave behind, as well as what makes instant photography so dear to his heart.
Hey Cody! Happy to have you here. Tell us, what projects are you working on at the moment? What gets your attention these days?
Hi! Thanks for having me, I’m excited to be here! I hope I don’t ramble too much. Working on my first monograph, “Love We Leave Behind,” is occupying the lionshare of my time. I’m actually heading to New Mexico on Friday to work with my publisher, David Bram and his team at Fraction Editions on the first cut of the book. Outside of this, I’m usually toying with small photographic experiments which may or may not turn into my next major series.
After the US election, I put out a limited edition Polaroid zine which sold out with 100% of proceedings going to charities for causes I care deeply about. I’m excited to do something like that again later this year and explore how my photographic voice can lend itself in some helpful way to the current political situation we find ourselves in. Delving into working with the 8x10 Impossible instant film is, lastly, on my 2017 goal sheet. Big gear and learning curve there, though.
One of the first cameras you’ve ever used were couple of Polaroid cameras. What attracted you specifically to instant photography? From this perspective, would you say that this type of photography shaped your photographic style over the years?
During college, my mom -- a multi-media artist -- asked me if I wanted to take a Polaroid image transfer workshop with her. The class used a DayLab to print Polaroids of 35mm slides, but I wasn’t shooting slide film so I was just messing with her slides. She bought two cameras from eBay which I promptly confiscated. Although I love developing and the darkroom, I’m a tad too distracted to follow through with it. I’ve always been attracted to the convenience and rawness of shooting instant film. It’s funny because after I shot my first actual photograph series on SX-70 my senior year of college in 2005, I didn’t end up picking up the medium again until 2011.
I got distracted with night photography, another first love. But, in 2011 I was preparing to go to Marfa, Texas with Phoot Camp I wanted to get over my fear of day shooting and decided to bring a bunch of different cameras with me. I was just at the beginning of searching for my voice at that point. I found a lone, expired, pack of Polaroid 669 from the class I took with my mom and brought it with me. The first image I took off that pack (of a West Texas landscape and trailer) made me immediately fall in love again.
Working with instant film has definitely shaped my photography outlook. It balances both an extreme simplicity and an extreme complexity. On one hand, it’s easy to shoot. Most of the cameras don’t even provide much control other than an exposure slider and focus. On the other hand, the film (especially the expired stuff) is prone to accidents and unexpected results. These elements are things I try to carry into my work broadly.
I now shoot primarily with a digital rangefinder because it’s as close as I can get to the experience of using a Polaroid camera. I don’t want to fiddle with technology. Polaroid taught me how important random chance and happy accidents are to photography, something I try to embrace even in my commissioned work. More than anything, I want to capture heart and feeling in my photographs and I think that’s something Polaroid taught me, regardless of whether I’m actually shooting that film for a project.
What is your dearest photographic memory? Do you still keep the first photograph you ever made?
I think the most vivid photographic memory I have is actually from a couple of years ago. I had wanted to make portraits for a long period of time, but I was shy and didn’t know where to start. Working with models was this weird, dark photographic magic I had no idea how to harness. In 2014, I finally decided to fight through that by taking a workshop that involved models. The last day of the workshop, I had hit a bit of a block.
Rallying, I grabbed one of the models for a quick session and everything just sort of clicked into place in my brain. One of those “moments of clarity” you sometimes hear about. That photograph became the jumping off point for “Love We Leave Behind” and I knew it was crucial while I was shooting with her. My photographic work before and after that moment is probably easily divided. Tough to explain, but I’ll never forget the feeling of that breakthrough.
After years of doing photography, what is it that drives you to go outside and take photos? Can you describe your creative process?
Simply stated: I have to make things. It’s a bit of a compulsion for me. If I go too long without making something, I start to get a little stir crazy. My creative process is really messy. Nearly all of the work that doesn’t involve models is taken on long car trips. I’ll get out of town for 2-3 days at a time and drive as far as I can each day while just looking around. Music also has a large influence on my creative process. Although it’s usually not a literal interpretation, I often feel as though I’m trying to bring the intent behind the song into visual existence.
You made a stunning series of photos called “Love We Leave Behind”. What was the story behind these photographs? What was the hardest thing you had to leave behind?
The photographs in “Love We Leave Behind” are searching for answer to the question of whether or not our interior emotional lives are detectable in the spaces we live those lives as time crawls forward. I’ve long been fascinated with the idea that we have raw and intense emotional experiences in spaces, yet we tend to discard those spaces (and sometimes the memories themselves) behind as we continue the journey of our lives. What is left behind at the end of the day after years have faded things?
For a couple of years when I was first starting to photograph, I had a very intense relationship that was emotionally and intimately complex in ways that I was not remotely equipped to handle at the time as a 24 year old. Leaving that relationship behind was a very difficult, but necessary experience which lasted much longer than the immediate aftermath. To a limited degree, this series of photographs is me attempting to reckon with that experience or acknowledge its mark on me in some way. But, my hope is that the images are accessible enough to viewers that they can inhabit the narrative and explore their own experiences within the work’s context.
Your Polaroid Diary is a collection of beautiful instant photos taken at different locations. Let’s say there is only one instant film left in the world and it’s yours. What would you shoot?
Oh, this is tough! I’ll eventually face this scenario in my own way. My absolutely favorite instant film stock is Type 100 peel apart film. Fuji announced last year it would discontinue making it and they were the last manufacturer of it. Unless someone else gets into the game, this will become a dead film stock within the next 5-10 years. I’ve got a stockpile of maybe 100-200 packs, but I don’t expect I’ll be buying much more since the prices are getting out of hand. So, it won’t be particularly long until I face this dilemma.
I think I’ll be likely to use my last pack to make portraits of people I really love and, of course, a final self-portrait using the material. Instant film really took off as a solution to instant family photos and it feels fitting to me to see it off in the same way. I think Dr. Land would be proud of that decision.
Since you also enjoy taking portraits, how do you succeed in transferring human emotions into a photograph? How do you connect with the people you shoot?
It depends on what the portrait session is trying to achieve. If it’s a model session, they usually have a sense of previous work I’ve shot, as well as vague idea of a character or emotion I’d like them to inhabit. Since they’re used to being in front of cameras, I spend a lot less energy worrying about mechanics and focusing instead on molding the environment, my goals and their reactions into a cohesive whole. I imagine I approach it like a musician approaches playing with other musicians. I tend to give a lot less direction than other photographers and linger in the silences. That can sometimes be uncomfortable, but I find it leads to more honesty.
If I’m making more traditional portraits or working on behalf of a client, I usually talk the subject through it more, or at least more up front. Who are they? What do they like? What are they doing here? Spending even just 30-60 seconds on this at the beginning of a session can be tremendously helpful with folks who have never sat before. Offering some form of reassurance throughout can really help put them at ease. In short, in either scenario, I try to get out of the subject’s way or at least act something to magnify or focus them rather than instruct them.
If you could chat with your younger-self now, would you advice him to do anything differently?
I don’t think I’d tell the younger me to do much differently. It’s hard. There’s a lot of “what ifs” in a question like this. I might have advised myself to start taking portraits earlier, but it’s not clear to me I would have been ready to interact with people, especially women, in this way. I think the best advice I could offer my younger self would be to be more kind and patient with people.
Can you describe one day in the life of Cody Bratt when he is not busy taking photos? What do you enjoy doing beside photography?
I’ve got a day job which has me traveling a lot. It’s really rare to capture me when I’m not either on the move for my job or photography. In my down hours, I’m probably hanging out with my girlfriend and friends or family. I’m forever inspired by film, so it’s not uncommon for me to hole up in San Francisco’s Alamo Drafthouse Cinema for a day.
My girlfriend and I are huge Tiki enthusiasts and can probably be caught hanging out at the Tonga Room or Pagan Idol. It’s also not uncommon for us to drive up the California coast for the day to stop at Marshall Store for their wonderful oysters and outdoor seating.
Do you have any upcoming projects you want to share with us?
We’ve touched on the monograph for “Love We Leave Behind” some. It’s the starring attraction in 2017. I’m working with Fraction Editions to get it to press by June so it should be out in Fall 2017. I’ve been inspired by all these vintage foil stamped linen book covers recently and I’m hoping to carry some of those elements into the final product.
As a part of the book release, I’m working on finding gallery venues for the series. Folks can sign up for my mailing list on my website for updates on when the book is available or shows are scheduled.