The Camellia Grill stands at the corner of Charters and Toulouse in the New Orleans French Quarter. Seven days a week, it’s packed with customers, all sitting on metal swivel stools along a meandering Art Deco counter, seemingly unchanged since the 1950s, with lots of pink and chrome.
“Make that bacon well-done! Make it as dark as Wesley Snipes!”
Watching Lu work the crowd of hungry diners is like watching a young James Earl Jones as a Shakespearean actor in the round. His passion for his work is enviable and his excitement rolls over me like the breakfast aromas coming off the grill. With eye contact that bounces back, “I like you, too,” he is instantly likable.
With great attention to detail, Lu takes pride in placing knives, forks and spoons precisely, deliberately, on the shiny counter next to each bleach-white cloth napkin. He greets tourists and locals alike with warmth and charm. Minutes later, he stops everyone mid-bite with his booming bass voice: “If you’re happy, clap your hands!” Then he claps his own. Lu lets out a laugh and shakes his head at the customers’ inability to match his fire. He gracefully moves back to work, like an air traffic controller, with a perfect balance of focus. He remembers the details of every order while keeping an eye on the larger landscape of who’s coming through the door and who needs their check.
I want to know about who this guy is and what drives him.
”I enjoy being a dad,” Lu tells me and proudly displays the tattoo of his son, Savoy, inked on the inside of his right forearm. “I’m always excited to come to work. I like fine things. I’m touchy-feely. I love the company of women,” he says in a deep, soulful voice, a blend of Barry White and Lou Rawls. He turns his head to look out the window and carefully studies the tourist-packed sidewalk. His sexual radar is always scanning.
Lu notices some of his new fans about to pay their bill at the front register. He moves toward them, to a couple paying their check and wraps his arms around the guy’s girlfriend, enveloping her so completely I fear she will melt on the spot and never want to leave. She smiles from ear to ear, enjoying the glow of Lu’s attention.
More hungry customers enter from the street and wait for an empty stool.
Lu fills my coffee cup, always smiling. ”I could never get away with this shit at TGI Fridays.”
As a professional photographer, before I became a dad, I was constantly asked to photograph babies. My quick response was, “Can you take them to Sears and call me back when they’re about three or four?”
On the night I became a father, my soul went through a seismic shift. Suddenly, I was in love with tiny toes, fingers, soft wisps of hair and eyes that brimmed with the reflection of a brand new world. Poop no longer bothered me, pee even less. A baby’s cry became my challenge to decode, to understand and to sooth. The smell of a baby’s head was something out of this world.
All of the things I once thought were so important in my life had lost their glow. A new world order took their place, very foreign from my past priorities. My ambitions no longer focused on financial success, nor on worldwide adventure. In a spiritual transformation, it was as if one of my hands stretched out grasping the past, touching my father’s hand. My other hand was caressing the future, the life of my son, with me bridging the space between.
My dad had always been there for me and was a consistent inspiration. Becoming a father inspired me to relive many of the same things I had experienced with my dad. They became rituals: baseball, wrestling, building forts. Becoming a new dad gave me the opportunity to take the spirit of my own father and pass it to my son, so he could pass it on to his child. My world was no longer just about me. Now it was focused on an entire universe of connections and possibilities.
Soon after becoming a dad, I found myself running up to friends and sharing with them my new excitement, as if I was the first person on earth to discover parenthood. Many of my friends who already had children smiled knowingly. Others had a “just you wait” look of caution on their faces. Some warned, “wait until he is two…wait until he is a teenager”. Friends who didn’t have children offered up a list of reasons why not to have children (usually about their careers). No matter how hard I tried to explain my lightning-bolt conversion, I soon understood that my journey into the cosmos was something that could not be fully explained to someone who had not yet crossed over.
On the night my son Quincy was born, I wrote him a letter, about my dreams for his future, my own fear, my gratitude. A few months later, I wrote him another letter, celebrating his many accomplishments and profound new skill – crawling. Later, when Quincy performed the miracle of miracles: standing up and actually balancing alone, I wrote another letter about that joyful day and added it to the growing pile. After nearly 22 years I have a tall stack of letters – from a father to his son.
Beside the box of letters to Quincy, I have a vault of photographs, documenting nearly every breath he’s taken. With every snap of the shutter, something inside of me tapped on my soul, reminding me that this moment would soon be gone. My camera was the only way I knew how to freeze time. As each of his birthdays approached, I brought Quincy into my studio, dressed him up in my black – size 42 long – tuxedo and posed him in front of a paper-white background.
As the grid of annual tux photos grew, the changes through the years showed every transformation: his developing happy personality, his brief interest in football then his growing passion for tennis. The sixteenth photo, one of him tossing up the car keys on the day he got his driver’s license, documents a classic life passage. Later, standing with his bicycle wheel, after his first pedal across America, is another Quincy benchmark. Last year’s photo shows my son, looking into the future with a symbol of his new passion – and metaphor – a sailboat next to his bare feet. This growing tapestry-like riddle tells the story of Quincy’s metamorphosis into the man he has become.
I’ve been a dad for nearly 22 short years. When friends and clients ask me if I would be willing to photograph their baby, it’s as if the clouds part and bright rays of sunshine warm my face.
” Are you kidding? Please, give me that honor.”
*The opening images were taken from my Instagram feed. You can follow my account by clicking @ChrisBriscoe.
Not many years ago, we snapped photos with a camera and made calls with a telephone. Now we take photos with a phone and use our camera for a doorstop.
Steve Jobs helped change our world. Instead of a select few, now we all have the opportunity to be photographers. The iPhone became the best camera ever because it is always in our pockets, ready to capture every moment of our lives – busting open film’s 36 exposure limit to an unlimited amount of processed images instantly shared with the world. The iPhone was It. Could there be another device that will change all that?
I can’t tell you how I obtained the Panasonic CM1. I’ve been sworn to secrecy, but when I opened the black box, I gasped. It wasn’t a phone that took pictures. It was more like a camera that also made phone calls – with a beautiful 2.8 Leica lens no less. It’s got a 20 megapixel, 1 inch sensor that will capture images with enough digital information to make stunning 20×30 inch prints. The Panasonic CM1 looked as though it had been displayed under glass and then shipped to me from the Museum of Modern Art. It’s not even available (yet) in America – only in parts of Europe and Japan. It costs nearly a grand. Every time I pick it up, I carefully cradle it with both hands.
Did I mention it even shoots in RAW?
With the battery already charged, I ran out the door, ready to see if it performed as well as it looked. I approached a dad with his little girl and asked if I could take a few photos of them. He was very hesitant – until he looked at the camera – I mean phone.
Rusty, a homeless guy leaning on his shopping cart, was more than happy to have his photo taken. Later, Mark, a surfer on the beach, had the same reaction. If nothing more, this classically designed beauty has given me access that an intimidating SLR could never do.
I took a writing class recently at San Diego Writers, Ink. The instructor, Clayton Truscott, asked to see some of my work. When I showed him a few of my books after class, he brought out his tape recorder and interviewed me for about an hour, for his site These Walking Blues. I was looking forward to reading what I thought would be a paragraph or two about my work. What I recently saw, frankly, blew me away. Please let me know what you think:
Making Connections With Photographer Christopher Briscoe
Photographing high profile celebrities, politicians, Burmese refugees in Cambodia, musicians in New Orleans, and many others, has taught Christopher Briscoe to connect with people, and to join the dots that connect all people. To be more than an observer and an objectifier. We recently caught up with him to talk about his craft, his methodology, and what advice he’d give other photographers starting out today.
Heraclitus said that a person’s character is their destiny.
For some people, finding personal fortune means heading out into the night, armed with a tiki torch and a butterfly net, and looking for it under the dark bridges that most people avoid. This has been the casual, wandering approach that has given Christopher Briscoe’s career such an entertaining trajectory. After three decades, his work has undergone changes with new technology and evolved with his personality, but his subject matter – people and the links that tie our species together – has bloomed.
In the seventies, he sailed to Tahiti and spent a year there, and followed this up by cycling across America three times. His most recent sojourns have been to Cambodia, and several extended stays in New Orleans, where he has broken bread and made lifelong friends with the offbeat artists who’ve moved there to do what they love. After many years behind the lens, he is still doing what he loves – going places, meeting people, and capturing it in his camera and in his books.
On Having “Connectors”
Through my career, I have established what I like to call connectors. In the early ’90s, a family came to see their in-laws in Oregon, and I did their pictures. We had a genuinely fun connection. It wasn’t the greatest portrait session I’ve had in my whole life, but two weeks later they called me from DC and said, ‘Chris, we’ve got ten families who love your work. You’ve got to come out here.’
I totally resisted at first, but ended up going along with it. And over the next ten years, twenty years now, that list turned into nearly one hundred. One of them was the quarterback with the Redskins in the 90’s. He got traded to the Broncos, so he was my connector in Denver, as I started going there for the Broncos. So that connector thing has really served me well.
Last Saturday, I was shooting Sheryl Crow, who was at a friend/client’s house in DC.
I started out with another friend, connector, who knew all the movie stars in Santa Barbara. And movie stars don’t shop the Yellow Pages for their photographers. It’s all trust, it’s all word of mouth. So I started staying in this friend’s guest house there for many years, and she would call up movie stars, writers, whoever. Rob Lowe, Dennis Miller, Gorbachov. And because the referral is coming from her, I’m now in the bubble.
Amzie Adams – one of Chris’s most beloved connectors and friends, in New Orleans.
On Being A Photographer Today
I got married and live in La Jolla. I usually stay here for six or eight weeks, and then I’ll go up to my studio in Oregon and work for two weeks, and then I’ll come back.
The biggest positive for me is having choices…. I’m at the time of my life and career now, where being a photographer after all these years, where I don’t have to struggle financially and think about who is going to pay me, and how much.
I’ll jump on the train or a plane to go somewhere far away and do a book, with a plan that I made, without a publisher, just because I want to do it. And that’s a great freedom.
I have to say, also, that in all my years as a photographer, I can’t remember ever taking a job based on the paycheck alone. I’ve looked at who I’m going to photograph and made the decision based on the connection I’d made, or the possibility of one. I’ve always followed my passion instead of a paycheck, and most of the time the money has followed. But the passion is what I really focus on.
On Paparazzi Photographers
One of things I love most about photography is the shared experience that results in a personal connection to the people I photograph.
Paparazzi are what I’d call disconnectors. It alienates everybody from them, and it’s all about making money. Totally the antithesis of what I do.
When I photograph celebrities, it’s not about who they are in the media, it’s about who they are as a person – as a mom or a dad, and their relationship with their family.
When I was photographing Catherine Zeta-Jones, with Michael and the family, they were generous and kind to me. I took their family photos, honored to be with them.
So a short while after that shoot, I jumped on a plane, and a few days later I’m in the middle of a really rough area in Thailand, with these Burmese children who’d escaped across the river, living in these huts, wearing clothes they’ve found in the trash.
I took with me a little HP Printer that ran on a battery and had it in my camera bag. You see tourists all the time taking pictures of people on their travels, and they show them the digital image on the back of the camera. I wanted to give them something. So I made prints on the spot and handed them what could very well have been their first portraits. To me, that was another shift in my career. There I was, with a mother and their children, who were peeling the label off cans so that they could collect a recycling fee, their feet covered in ash from the burning trash where they were searching. I saw the same kind of love and the connection that Catherine Zeta-Jones has with her children in those Burmese families. Their worlds are physically and metaphorically worlds apart, but the lady helping her kids peel the labels off cans wants the same thing as Catherine Zeta-Jones wants for hers – safety, happiness, food and health, education – the same thing as any mother.
On What It Takes To Strive As A Photographer?
There are three things that I’ve put together, that I need to focus on to thrive.
Vision, passion and courage. There’s lots of other things that could go on the list – authenticity, integrity. But these are my three.
Vision is very important; it’s all about having creative ideas. But anyone who has taken a hot shower has had great ideas – it’s what you do with those ideas when you get out of the shower that makes the difference.
Passion – you cannot take a class in passion. We all know people who have vision, high IQ’s, but lack passion. To me, they’re duds. A firecracker that doesn’t go off.
And the third is something that we all struggle with, courage. The only class in courage you can take, is life. And the only thing you can do for homework is practice – constantly challenging yourself to get out of your comfort zone. Whether you’re a teenager waiting to ask the beauty to the prom, or you want to be a writer and you go to the Writers, Ink and take a class, or quit your boring day job and pursue your passion.
On Gear & Using New Technology
Digital photography is one of the greatest things that’s happened to my craft. I used to stand in the darkroom, in a fog of chemicals, after shooting rolls of film. A roll of film gave me 36 photos with 36 possibilities, which in retrospect was a good discipline. With the digital age, my darkroom has become my iPad. I can create art with a .99 cents app that I couldn’t do in a week in a darkroom.
If I were starting out now as a photographer, it would be tough, because anyone who can afford a Canon Rebel can go to Costco and buy one for $500, and become “a photographer.” It’s not the same. We live in a world of point-and-shoot. Without a real understanding of light, form, and color, you won’t reach the same destination. Whether you’re using an iPhone or a Panasonic CM1 or an expensive Nikon, without knowing the fundamentals, no app is going to save your ass.
I’ve always shot with big Canons, big Nikons. I wrote a book recently on street photography in Manhattan. I watched other pros shooting with long, white lenses, as if they were hunting prey. I was reminded of a conversation with some friends, who invited me to Africa to photograph gorillas. They emphasized how important it would be that I not get any closer than twenty feet, and in particular that making eye contact with the gorillas could provoke an aggressive response. I think pointing large camera lenses at people, no matter what your relationship is with them, evokes a defensive reaction.
This is why I made the switch to the new Sony mirrorless camera system. Their cameras are small, lightweight and really sharp, but the cool thing is that they have a little flip-up screen. If I’m taking your portrait, instead of me pointing a long, intrusive lens at you, my Sony is at my waist. I’m looking down into a flip-up screen. It’s a totally different experience for the person being photographed. If I am shooting the shoes of an exotic woman in Times Square, I no longer have to lay on the pavement. I just bend over, lower my camera, look into the flip-up screen, ‘click’ and I’m off to the next shot.
When I was shooting my book about street photography in New York, I had a little sling camera bag under my arm. In it were two Sony bodies and three lenses. When I spotted the ballerina on the sidewalk, I jumped out of my cab, nailed the image, then jumped back in the cab without missing my train to DC. I love that camera!”
In 1980, Rick Smolan, a photojournalist, wanted to compile A Day in the Life of Australia, a book of images shot by 100 photographers in just 24 hours. That amazing project lead to many books, documenting a single day in countries around the world.
One of the by-products was an Oregon book project in 1983 called One Average Day. About 90 photographers from around the state documented a day in the life of Oregon. I was chosen to be one of them.
Fast-forward 30 years when a University of Oregon grad student, Brian Burk, stumbled upon the book in a used book store. His brain exploded with ideas then contacted the Oregon Historical Society for the backing and got the ball rolling.
Burk assembled about 170 photographers from around the state to participate in Dayshoot30. I was grateful when I was invited to be one of the original photographers for this project. KOBI in Medford asked me talk about the project.
It was the last day of my two weeks in New Orleans. My feet ached with blisters from all of the endless walking through neighborhoods. Sal was on my list of interesting characters to photograph. Last year, Adrienne, a street musician known as The Bob Dylan Girl told me, “One night I was on my bike headed home. My light was out. I got hit. I was okay, but my mandolin broke in half. Sal fixed it for a really good price.”
I’d been wanting to meet Sal for a long time.
I dialed his number, half expecting to be put off and told to call back another time. Instead, Sal listened carefully, as I told him about the book I was writing. He jumped in and said, “Come by any time. I go to lunch between noon and one o’clock.”
Twenty minutes later, after a long trip up Canal Street, I found his tiny shop and parked in front. As soon as I stepped through the door, I thought I might be on the set of Storage Wars, looking into a room filled with piles of decaying wooden instruments. I stood in wonder, trying to make sense of it all, scanning the walls where violins, guitars, mandolins, tools, bottles of glues, stains, and violin bows: all in various condition, all covered in a thin blanket of sawdust, and all waiting to be restored by Sal.
Sal greeted me with the warm, sandpapered hand of a craftsman. He smiled, standing behind a cluttered counter, working on the bridge of a splintering bass, with the focus of a man who loves his work. To his back was a workbench littered with a hodgepodge of tools, parts, and scraps of wood. A boiled-over can of blackened glue sat on top of a rusting hotplate. Sal’s weathered face and long hair reminded me a little of Neil Young, his skin a bit sepia-toned, aging like the rest of the orchestra lining the walls.
“You can shoot as many photos as you like, but I gotta just keep working. I get so far behind with getting this stuff out. Customers come in and say, ‘You know how long you’ve had my instrument?! When is it going to be finished?!’ I just tell ’em, ‘It will be done when it’s done.’ I never know. I don’t own this shop. I don’t run it. It runs me.”
He plugged in his amp, sat on his small couch and played the Blues for me with guitar riffs and a raspy voice that gave me goosebumps. His warmth and humility filled my soul.
Late that night, Little Freddie put my name on the guest list at the door of the DBA Music Club on Frenchman Street. The place was packed, everybody standing with drinks in hand or dancing. I made it to the foot of the stage. Freddie was in his groove and was rock’n the house.
Dr. Bones with his electrified harmonica, offered up his own power keeping his eyes on Little Freddie’s left fingers as they slid up and down, over the frets. Mr. King, wore a red vest that was as electric as every note he played. His contrasting white hat and signature dark glasses completed the package of a 74 year old man who loved filling the room with his passion.
Shooting live music is always a challenge – multi-colored lights, constantly changing the exposure – low shutter speeds, praying for a sharp image. I snapped, leaning in for the perfect shot.
After a while, I stopped shooting and just stood there, watching and listening to the best Blues ever. I was in awe and filled with respect knowing that this guy has had a life!”
Taken for a newspaper story I did in the 1980’s about a class reunion at the Pinehurst School. Pinehurst, in the area known as Lincoln, was one of the small sawmill towns along an early stagecoach and wagon freight route between the Rogue Valley and the Klamath Basin. This road, also known as the Green Springs Highway, was the original route of the Applegate Trail.
There are so many benchmarks in our children’s lives: the first smile, the first wave, the first missing tooth, the first day of school. Another benchmark for many, is the first family pet. There is something special about a boy and his dog. It is a unique relationship that few will never forget. Someone once remarked, “Every boy should have two things: a dog, and a parent willing to let him have one.”
When my son, Quincy was about 6, he begged me for a dog. Finally caving in, I promised him I’d get him a dog by summer’s end. It was a promise that was not well thought out, but closer than, “we’ll see.” Frankly, I did not want a dog. I did not want to feed one, take care of one, let alone pay for any vet bills. When “Dog Day” finally approached, we went…
When was the last time you danced in the soaking rain…during a funeral?
Everyone in New Orleans has a story. That’s why I authored Bathtub Blues. Bathtub Blues is a photographic journey through the back streets of New Orleans. It is also an exploration of the creative process. Through insightful conversations and revealing portraits, Bathtub Blues explores how post-Katrina artists and musicians who survived the hurricane – and chose to stay – turned their inspiration into art … New Orleans Style.
“Briscoe’s humanity, sensitivity and involvement play out in every shot … This whole book is a major artistic accomplishment.” John Davis … Davis/Cline Gallery