Jul 20, 2007

Timothy Briner in Boonville

I've been intrigued by NYC photographer Timothy Briner's newest project, Boonville, for several months. It's an ambitious effort, which will see him crisscrossing the country in true American photographer style. As he makes the final preparations for his six month project, I had a chance to ask him a few questions recently.

Our transcontinental interview:

"Boonville USA: The Death and Life of America's Small Town" is a six-month photographic journey to six different towns named Boonville. Created by Timothy Briner and underwritten by Cannery Works, a nonprofit arts organization based in New York, "Boonville USA" will begin in Boonville, Missouri on August 1, 2007."

Ben: When did you originally have the idea for the Boonville project, and has the scope of the project changed in the last few months?

Tim: The project has gone through many, many stages over the last few years. The project first manifested itself in 2003, after I spent a week in Boonville, New York with a good friend. We spent that week mostly photographing in and around the town. We both quickly formed a bond with the town and its residents. This was important for one reason: I never forgot Boonville. I often spoke of it and referred back to it. I was very happy with the series of work I produced there and I wanted to go back to shoot more. I began to do research and explore where I wanted the work to go. At the time, most of my work was narrative and based on the "establishing shot" often used in film. I was also using diptychs to create a wide film-like format: using one image as an establishing shot and then the other as a detailed shot -- both images were meant to represent the same moment in time. This was very limiting and my work eventually suffered from it. My frustration and struggle with this may be part of the reason that Boonville has taken four years to become a reality. This format is no longer my practice and my ideas for the project have transformed since then.

Back to the point: I began researching the town of Boonville, NY online and quickly found five other Boonvilles in states all across the country. This immediately fascinated me. No two places are the same. No two regions are the same. Yet, when people discuss small-town America they often have a very specific idea of what they think it is. Expressions like "The Boonies" or "Boondocks" reflect that judgment. By using a common and evocative name like Boonville and showcasing the six different regions and towns, I am attempting to explore the connection small towns have to each other and to the rest of America. The fact that these six Boonvilles were spread out all across the country was just the beginning. I quickly found out that Boonville, Texas is actually extinct; Boonville, Missouri has a population of 8,775, which is up from 7,090 in 1990; Boonville, California has a population of only 600 and created its own language in the late 1800s called "Boontling." All of this information further altered my original idea of the project. I became fascinated with the sociology of the towns. With "Boonville USA," I'm attempting to explore the many facets of small-town life. For example, I'm looking at how the extinction of a town affects its surrounding areas or how population gain may influence local business or the bond of a community. I'm focusing on the psychology of each community and how the town and its residents relate to me, each other and the rest of the country.

©Timothy Briner

Ben: A trip like this is so romantic from a photography perspective. Do you have any books, or photographers, in mind as you head toward the first Boonville in Missouri?

Tim: Romantic is a great word: As far back as high-school I can remember dreaming of crossing the country on my own, with just my camera in hand. Traveling with no boundaries and focusing 100% on your surroundings sounded very romantic to me.

There are many photographers/artists I have on my mind on any given day. But there is only one that has consistently been on my mind since the beginning: Duane Michals. In 1958 Michals traveled to Russia. The portraits and stories that he captured were raw and beautiful. It was his first attempt at photography. After he returned to NY, Michals began photographing restaurants and barber shops through their front windows, after they had closed for the day. He once mentioned that he liked to imagine people going about their normal activities in these pictures; He was creating his own visual story inside each of these worlds and he wanted us to do the same. These two bodies of work have stuck with me over the years because they represent the beginning of his long journey. They're untouched by the essential Duane Michals elements but they still posses his passion for story telling. They're truly honest.

With that said, I am traveling with only novels, books on philosophy and photography, and poetry. I am not taking any photography books. I am trying to step outside of myself and what I am accustomed to seeing -- taking a new and "honest" approach to this body of work.

Ben: you've developed a blog for the project. Will you be posting words and photos as you travel?

Tim: Yes. I will definitely be posting words, short videos and stories from the road. I created www.boonvilleusa.com to be my "headquarters" for the entire project. I will be posting photos as well but they will most likely not be a part of the series. I am still debating whether I am going to reveal the work as I go.

The "blog" is a funny thing, as you well know; It allows a connection and a
level of attention to be garnered without much of an effort. It may very
well be my best friend on the trip.

Ben: Thanks so much for your time Tim. We'll be watching your progress.

Tim: Thank you for my first interview Ben


Darren said...

I love Tim's project and his spirit. His photographs really make his subjects come alive - they stay with you. I contributed money to his Boonville project, and I encourage others to do the same. He sends his contributors polaroids from the road, which is a pretty neat thing - a good way to feel a part of the project.


ben huff said...

darren, thanks for stopping by. i'm so pleased to hear that you have invested in tim's project. your support and excitement of photography is encouraging.

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