2014 Night. Two photographers. A city of rooftops and unlocked doors.
URBEX shows Houston, glamorous and glittering
By Lisa Gray
November 12, 2014
For the last year and a half, photographers (and best friends) David A. Brown and Paul R. Davis have taken to Houston rooftops at night -- sometimes by invitation, usually not. URBEX, the photo series growing out of those excursions, is gorgeous. And it's extra-mesmerizing if you work downtown, as I do: Instead of the familiar street-level daylight city, you see an elevated, nighttime place, glittering, glamorous and strange. You recognize the outlines of Kansas, even as you're looking at Oz.
Earlier this week, I talked with David about URBEX. Here's an edited version of what he said.
"It's been so ridiculously fun. Paul and I would scout locations on GoogleMaps, then just go around checking doors, like the emergency access to parking garages. Because I do commercial work as a photographer, I have liability insurance. So I'd pull out my cell phone and type in the address of the garage, so that my insurance would cover that address. Then I'd print a .pdf of the proof of coverage to my phone.
"That was half so that if anything happened, we'd be insured. And half in case we got caught. When we got busted -- well, we never really got busted -- but when we got busted, I'd show the security guard the photos we'd taken and the insurance .pdf on my phone. The .pdf made us look official.
We never really get busted.
"We've been approached five or six times by security guards. Usually they'd say, 'Those images are cool! Will you send me one?' Only one time did a guard ask us to leave.
"Once we started posting the photos online, we'd get discreet invitations to shoot places where someone had access. That climaxed with an official invitation to shoot from City Hall.
"The series started out of sheer frustration with commercial work. I wanted to re-engage with the math of photography, the calculations. Shooting into darkness is hard. And shooting into darkness in a city with a huge amount of ambient light pollution is even harder. You have to take into account all sorts of factors -- the weather, whether it's cloudy, whether there's a full moon.
"It's very meditative: The photos are long exposures, tripod-based. They take at least a minute to make. I'm barely letting any light into the camera. That gives them a great depth of field. And it gets rid of starbursts. I'm not a big fan of the starburst.
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"We're playing around with the idea of a book -- a book about the poetry of night in the city. In New York, I shot a few times for the project. It's so different: There's lots more density and the streets are active. In some of the Houston images, the streets are hauntingly empty. Downtown seems like a ghost town, except for the lighted windows in the skyscrapers. In a few photos, if you look close, you can see people in their offices, still at work. It's kind of voyeuristic.
"I hope we can get more invitations to places -- places all over Houston, not just downtown. Over time, the trespassing part has gotten less attractive to me. I'm 42. I have kids. It's not so exciting anymore to do something illegal.
"These days, my idea of a fun night is sitting on a rooftop. I like the solitude."
URBEX: Urban Photography by David A. Brown and Paul R. Davis by Troy Schulze – Houston Public Media
[ VIDEO INTERVIEW ]
Photographers David A. Brown and Paul R. Davis talk about "URBEX," an exhibition of photography captured in long exposures atop parking garages and other rooftops in downtown Houston.
The exhibition is on view through October 30 along the wall of a tunnel underneath Houston City Hall.
2014 URBAN EXPLORATION PHOTOGRAPHY
Photographer takes urban exploration to new heights with amazing rooftop views of Houston in unique exhibition
Houston photographer David Brown is taking his craft to new heights — literally.
Working as a commercial photographer by day, Brown teamed up with his friend and fellow photographer Paul Davis to explore Houston's skyline like never before — by shooting from on top of some of the city's tallest buildings.
"We had just finished shooting a gala, and I was like, 'we need to figure out something fun to shoot.' (Davis) said, 'let's go right now.'" Brown says. "So we just went to this parking garage and started shooting."
"For the first year, we were really just checking doors and trying to get places," he says. "Our intention was always just to get the images."
This illegal practice is frequently referred to as urban exploration, shortened to URBEX, which is the title of Brown and Davis' exhibition, currently on display in the tunnels below City Hall.
In this photo essay, Brown explains the motivation behind the project and comments on each photograph shown.
"These buildings are so iconic from the fall of Enron to the rise of Chevron. My focus was to deconstruct without removing its identity completely. I am excited about the additional upcoming building. This image was from one of earlier rooftop sessions."
2014 BEST PHOTOGRAPHER
Best Of Houston :: Arts & Entertainment
This is the second time David A. Brown has won the nod for Best Photographer; the first was in 2010. His most recent show, "New Works by David A. Brown: trying to find my way...," at the Jung Center of Houston, featured large-scale photographs of reflected images — that is, a multitude of images, all simultaneously seen in the same space (for example, Brown shot through store windows and captured the scene outside on the street reflected over the inside of the store). Brown is working on a new series, and while we've seen only bits and pieces of his latest work — a "chopped and screwed" technique that incorporates the passage of time — we're excited about what he's got coming up.
2014 "New Works by David A. Brown: trying to find my way..."
Many Houstonians got their first look at David A. Brown's "trying to find my way ..." photographic series at the Darke Gallery four years ago as part of FotoFest 2010. His "New Works by David A. Brown: trying to find my way ..." exhibit, just opened at the Jung Educational Center, an official FotoFest 2014 participating space, continues his exploration of reflected images with two important differences: composition and medium.
Brown captures a multitude of images, all simultaneously seen in the same space, in each photograph. The windows of an office building lobby, for example, become a canvas for dozens of reflections, all layered over one another. This isn't trick photography; Brown captures each image with a single exposure.
Most of the images seen at the 2010 exhibit were landscapes and still lifes. The current exhibit at the Jung Center includes a fair number of still lifes, but many more photographs show the reflected images of people as they walk down the street or look in a store window. (One shows a fellow photographer adjusting his camera settings between shots.)
The 2010 photographs were printed with a 3-D-like effect. (Brown had to work with a company overseas in order to achieve the desired quality.) The images seen at the "New Works" exhibit are printed, sans the effect, on fabric and 99+ year archival paper.
"Things have changed over the last couple of years," he told us at the exhibit's opening. "I'm looking more at interaction now. Before I was looking at composition and now I'm more focused on capturing the interaction between people with other people, with the space."
"The original work was an only Houston portfolio. Since then I've done London, Paris, New York, LA., Nashville. I went to portfolio reviews in Houston and Paris and got lots of good feedback. One thing I heard people say was that the images were strong enough on their own and didn't need the [3D] technology. The work became a little gimmicky with that effect."
While he's made some changes in the series, Brown says the central idea is the same. "The idea that I'm trying to talk about is universality, how we're all the same," he says. "Everybody has the option to take a moment to stop and look at what's around them. If I'm in a business center and I'm surrounded by glass, I'm [seeing] all these different [reflections] that are happening at the exact same time. People don't normally do that; they look for the door of the office they're going to...and that's all they see. But there are reflections of all sorts of other images there, too.
"All I've done is I've found areas of reflected and refracted images. If you look at a reflection, it makes things backwards, but it's pretty true perspectively. Sometimes the light goes through the glass, then it becomes refracted and two things happen. The photons degrade and then shift. The refracted light starts to degenerate. When I'm in a business center where you have all this glass, I'm capturing nine or ten realities all happening at the same time. They've been bouncing down the street through all this glass."
Brown hung some of his new photographs unframed. "It's [on] free-floating fabric; it's not framed so as people walk by there will be movement. It lends to the fragility of the moment [the photograph captures]. I'm excited about that.
"I've lived out one of my fantasies at this exhibit. I took one image, broke it down into four images and printed it on [roll-up] banners. I've put one image in each corner. (See right.) They look really wonderful individually, but if you put them together it becomes a 70 x 180 inch photograph which is totally ridiculous. It's fine commercial art. You want to look at it? Put it up. You want to put it away? Roll it up. You want to put it outside on your patio? Go ahead, it's water resistant!" he laughs.
Named Best Photographer in the 2010 Houston Press Best Of Awards, Brown says the Jung Center of Houston is the perfect venue for his show. "Jungian analysis speaks to that [same idea]. We project what we want to see. It's all there, but it's like it's too much information to process at once, so we just focus on one thing. The rest of it's still there; we just aren't seeing it."
Regular viewing hours for "New Works by David A. Brown: trying to find my way ..." are 9 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Fridays, and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturdays. Through March 28. The Jung Center of Houston, 5200 Montrose. For information, call 713‑524‑8253 or visit junghouston.org. Free.
2014 Braque, Magritte and Brown
Are artists in Houston paying attention to Braque and Magritte, given the abundance of their work currently on view in the city? The answer appears to be yes, and not just painters, judging from photographer David A. Brown’s unveiling of recent single-exposure images in his trying to find my way series on Saturday at Jung Center. Brown name-checks the two modernists in ode to magritte and sometimes i want to be georges braque.
I’d say the Braque affinity is especially strong–the spatial play, the push and pull–and that Brown’s photographic approach is at its most interesting when it suggests cubist, rather than surrealist, ways of seeing. ode to magritte feels like just that, an ode. He’s trying to be Braque in sometimes i want to be georges braque, and the resulting image packs a stronger punch.
Brown’s show continues through March 28, 2014 at the Jung Center of Houston.
Devon Britt-Darby is a Houston-based writer and artist.
Arts And Culture Texas
2013 Best of Houston Instagram
THE REST OF THE BEST
Compiled by Olivia Flores Alvarez, Jeff Balke, Cory Garcia, Jef with one F,Mai Pham and Brittanie Shey
Best Instagram Feed
David A. Brown is a wonderful photographer and an accomplished artist. He even picked up a Best Photographer award from this publication in 2011. But his focus on geometric shapes in everyday objects on his Instagram feed is not only fascinating but a particularly interesting approach to the complicated relationship between professional photographer and cell-phone camera technology.
2011 100 Creatives: David A. Brown
MAY 31, 2011
What he does: David A. Brown is a photographer and entrepreneur motivated by non-profit organizations, environmental causes and his family. As creator of his photo company DABFOTO he and 40 contractors focus on digital imaging, consultation and web services. He is founder and former executive director of Spacetaker and has worked for 10 years to provide artists and small arts organizations with access to economic development, further education and networking opportunities. His current project, "Trying to Find My Way," uses photography to capture the details that the conscious mind overlooks and has been exhibited in Houston, Los Angeles, New York, London and Paris. "My objective is to arrest the brain's split-second arrangements, assumptions and filtering systems by pausing the subconscious deconstruction process." His work has been exhibited at DiverseWorks, FotoFest, space125gallery and Darke Gallery. He is currently a part of Leadership Houston Class XXIX.
Why he likes it: Brown most enjoys the chance to meet people from different walks of life and industries. "I get access to really great, unique and rare moments and experiences," Brown says. While working on a project with the Houston Endowment for the Arts, he got to learn how 17 non-profit organizations developed their projects from start to finish and says it was a great way to have access to industry experts.
What Inspires him: As a father, Brown is motivated by his obligation to provide for his family. "I've got a 5- and a 6-year-old. Paying for their college; that inspires me." In addition to parental responsibilities, he's intrigued by how psychology and sociology create human perception, and for the past two years has worked with scientists on "Trying to Find My Way."
His proudest moment: He received positive feedback at the FotoFest 2010 Biennial Meeting Place where "Trying to Find My Way" was critiqued by gallery owners and museum curators during 45 different one-on-one portfolio reviews. When he asked if they'd ever seen work like his before, not a single one said they had. "My ego was fed the most by understanding that the work I was making was new and hadn't been seen." Brown also says that training Jenni Rebecca Stephenson for a year and half and naming her as his successor at Spacetaker was a proudest moment. "It's kind of like send your child to college. As a founder it's an amazing feeling."
What's Next: "I don't know, ya know? I think that's the great part," Brown says. He's still developing and searching for more places to exhibit "Trying to Find My Way," while continuing with Leadership Houston Class XXIX to creating a quarter-mile multi-sensory trail for the visually impaired.
2010 BEST PHOTOGRAPHER
Best Of :: Arts & Entertainment
David Brown BEST PHOTOGRAPHER
It's hard to stand out among the hundreds of participating photographers during FotoFest, but David Brown did so easily this year. His "trying to find my way" exhibition at Darke Gallery was a highlight of the festival. Brown, whom many know as the founder of Spacetaker, trained as a sculptor under Luis Jimenez. When he later made the leap to photography, that background added an extra element to his work. For the "trying to find my way" exhibit, Brown shot a series of street scenes as reflected on shop windows using a Sigma DP1 camera, capturing images both inside and outside of the stores (one photograph showed a Goodwill store window, the furniture and clothing on display inside layered under a ghostly image of the clouds and street outside). According to Brown, a person looking at the same window would physically see all of the same imagery, but his brain would compress the images into something less confusing. Using a lenticular printing process added to the effect, producing a combination 3-D/holographic/WTF image that seemed to move when seen from different angles. The show was a surprising breath of fresh air for art fans that were in danger of a FotoFest overload.
2010 THE ARTIST'S VOICE
Photographer David Brown finds his way in the urban realm
Consider David Brown as a 21st-century embodiment of Baudelaire's flâneur — a "gentleman stroller of the streets." Untouched, single exposure prints bathed in reflective light make up his latest portfolio chronicling the urban realm. Entitled "trying to find my way...," the collection mirrors our busy, post-industrial lives.
Brown studied at University of Houston under Paul Kittleson and Luis Jimenez. The founder of local arts powerhouse Spacetaker, he has exhibited his work at DiverseWorks, FotoFest and Darke Gallery. Here, he shares his photographs taken in Houston and New York. He recently returned from an excursion documenting Los Angeles, and is finalizing plans to take his camera to the streets of Paris.
2010 David Brown: Artist’s Eye
DECEMBER 2, 2010
Most of the speakers in The Menil Collection’s Artist’s Eye lecture series select a painting or an artist to discuss. Photographer David Brown, who leads today’s discussion, will take on a slightly larger subject; he’s discussing The Menil Collection itself, from the building to the art collection to the ongoing expansion of the Menil campus. “The Menil has just always been a really important part of my life. It’s kind of my home away from home,” he explains.
Brown first visited the collection when he was 20 and was stunned by what he saw there. “The Menil offers a very intimate environment. The building is really special because it, for the most part, has all-natural lighting. That’s very different from going to the [Museum of Fine Arts, Houston] and getting lost in its catacombs.” But it’s not just the inside of the building that excites Brown — the outside is spectacular as well. He points out that the lawn in front of the building, which is also beautifully designed, is already used a community park. “It’s used for everything from Tai Chi to Frisbee to picnics — it’s just really brilliant how they’re continuing Dominique [de Menil’s] vision to have this be more than just a museum.
“There’s that huge tree outside that has created a wonderful interior space where the branches reach out and touch the ground. It’s become a fantastical tree house for us. We actually collected some acorns from there when my daughter…said, ‘Let’s plant more of these trees!’ So we’re dropping Menil acorns all around the city.” 3 p.m. 1515 Sul Ross. For information, call 713-525-9400 or visit www.menil.org. Free.
Sun., Dec. 5, 3 p.m., 2010
2009 David Brown: “20/40”
THURSDAY, APRIL 2, 2009
Apple Inc. ought to be paying David Brown for his “20/40” photography exhibit, since he shot all of the images in the exhibit with his iPhone. That’s not a big deal, right? Well, actually, when you get high-quality, expressive images like Brown did, ah, yeah, it kinda is a big deal (hence the “they should pay him” bit). Brown shot scenes around Houston, everyday images that he saw as he went through his normal day of family and work chores. The end results remind us that photography isn’t just about point-and-shoot, even if you’re shooting with your iPhone. 6:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. Mondays through Fridays, 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Catalina Coffee, 2201 Washington Avenue. Starts: March 26. Continues through April 30, 2009