Shooting Dreams and Nightmares: An Interview with the Bragdon Brothers

Great photography tells a compelling story. Weaving narrative into photos and photo series is a challenging task — the storyteller cannot simply make the world conform to their imagination as the author or painter can. Photographers only have one frame to convey meaning — motion and action have to be paraphrased and the moment of transformation captured.

The limitations of physical reality and framing a decisive moment to tell a tale are what makes being a good photographic storyteller so hard. You need to think laterally, as your story relies heavily on the imagination and subconscious mind of the audience, much like infiltrating someone’s dreams.

Gareth (above, at left) and Gavin (above, at right) Bragdon are two street photographers who do this artfully. It’s unusual to find someone who performs this effectively, let alone two brother’s whose work compliments each other in a style that blends dreams with nightmares, emphasizing the surreal aspects of the everyday. There is a meaning in here, but just like in a dream the meaning is unclear and muddled- strange things are illuminated people become alien lifeforms, and life the world becomes a surreal and scary place.

I interviewed them to divine some understanding of these surreal images they create.

James Cater (to Gavin): On your old blog you wrote that “I can easily see commonalities between my handwriting, photography, music, drawing and so on…for example, I tend to favor delay/reverb which to me would be the sonic equivalents to photography’s slow shutter speeds, multiple exposures, blur and the like.” This is an interesting way for an artist to find their element in photo taking — by looking outside the photographic art to find their ‘punctum’ as you called it. Things have definitely developed since this, but what kind of art outside of photography continues to influence your style?

Gavin: I would definitely say movies/TV…in fact, maybe more so than other photography itself. Books as well. My favorite genre for all of those tends to be science fiction as well horror if it’s well done, you know focuses more on the eerie, uncanny, surreal, atmosphere and so on. And at least nowadays, consciously or subconsciously those are the sort of things I try to capture.

And I think it reflects the real world at the moment. We are living in a sort of sci-fi/horror. Everything seems off-kilter, unwinding, surreal, not quite real, this twilight zone. You got Donald Trump, of course, Britain is committing suicide with Brexit because it’s collectively lost its mind, you got other similar movements popping up in other countries. There’s also the effects of climate change becoming more and more tangible. We’re in a very weird and dark place right now.

(To Gavin) Many of your photos look like they are from stills the X-Files. How are you influenced by the paranormal or surrealism?

Gavin: As far as the former goes, when my brother and I were kids we spent a lot of time reading about the paranormal- ghosts, UFOs, cryptids and so on. I suppose that came from the fact that unlike many other kids our age, we never were able to watch say Friday the 13th or the Freddy Kruger movies. I think all kids have something of a need for horror and scares of some kinds, so for us, the books and shows about the paranormal supplemented that. The only difference was that, supposedly, what we were into was non-fiction. And there is something very surreal about the paranormal versus Hollywood horror.

Incidentally, we were/are planning to do a documentary project on “paranormal culture” if you will, in Scotland, you know tagging along with ghost hunters, UFO watchers and the like. Because of circumstances involving my brother’s illness, its been shelved for the time being but as soon as he’s in a better state its something I really look forward to jumping into.

(To Gavin) Do you have any experiences with extra-terrestrial life forms, or do you have any beliefs that some may consider ‘fringe’ or conspiratorial?

Gavin: I tend to be agnostic about the paranormal/unexplained. I tend to think there is “something” that happens, like what we think of as ghosts or alien spacecraft are things that are real in a way – that something is happening, and not just a bunch of lies or sightings of Venus/swamp gas (some of the skeptical explanations are just as ridiculous and far-fetched as the explanations of some of the most out there “believers”). But of course, yeah, there is a lot of bullshit out there.

Ghosts and UFOs and so on seem almost like glitches in the Matrix…they don’t belong in our rational, scientific natural world and yet there they are. What are they? Are they what they seem at face value? I mean even if none of it is real, I still find fascinating to think that maybe there is a thin membrane between our natural/rational world and others that leaks over sometimes. If it is all a modern form of mythology, then it’s a fascinating one.

I can say I have a short handful of what would be considered paranormal experiences, things that I can’t explain otherwise. And believe me, I wrack my brain for alternatives because I don’t want to go around believing I had an “experience” for the sake of it. I have seen what I believe was UFO once, its small fry stuff, but it’s one I really can’t explain. Basically, it looked a bit like a star flying around in erratic patterns around a larger and brighter star before the former seemed to disappear into the latter, which then just stayed there like a star or planet would. It’s a weird one and doesn’t even quite make sense as an alien spacecraft much less anything natural.

(To Gavin) How did you shoot this? Was it come across by accident with no explanation? What is the back story to this pic?

Gavin: I did indeed come across this by accident, as to what is really going on…I feel in this case it is best to say a magician never reveals his secrets. In some cases, I think the photo is best served by keeping the back story to one’s self, to keep the mystery. This is the kind of shot I really really actually hope to find every time I go out and shoot. A scene that, when framed correctly, is truly surreal and creates its own bizarre reality as a photograph separate from what really transpired in life. I really wish I would come across stuff like this more often!

(To Gavin) How did you light this? Who is this person in the photo?

Gavin: This is actually a staged shot. Back in college, I was working a project about, incidentally, the paranormal and I was trying to create photos that sort of resembled allegedly real photos you find in books on the subject. This is my brother on a rooftop in Malta. I put the flash behind him and put the camera in P-mode on a high ISO. The camera exposes for the ambient light, so doesn’t know the flash is there so thus things the flash hit end up being overexposed and seem to glow. The eyes are just basic “light-dots” I added in Photoshop. My PS skills are quite basic actually.

(To Gavin) Is this lit with a flash? Or just natural light? How did you achieve this hyper-realistic look?

Gavin: Natural light. Very straight ahead shot, point and click. I didn’t do very much with it in post-processing so I figure the hyper-real look is just from the layers in the scene.

(To Gareth) From an except I read on your bio from Forward Thinking Museum, you mentioned that you were learning photography in the hope of becoming a photojournalist, I read also in a 121clicks article recently that you have been struggling with a diagnosis of Lyme disease. How has this impacted your aspirations?

Gareth: It’s honestly a bit painful and unimaginable at this point to think I once such aspirations. The interview with Forward Thinking Museum was done back in 2013. My symptoms had suddenly started in February of 2012. I was having hundreds of skipping heart beats a day, breathlessness, random dizziness attacks. All the doctors assured me these symptoms where simply being caused by “anxiety” and “panic attacks.” I constantly felt like I was one missed heartbeat away from death. Despite this, my fascination with photography was only growing and my will power was stronger than my fears. When I look back at my old B&W pictures I can really see that weird mixture of passion and physical discomfort of the time reflecting off the pictures themselves. Living like that was hell and I still have no idea how I managed to capture those pictures, study photography, work or be in a relationship well dealing with that shit. I was sick but I was also healthy enough to still dream. What I did not expect is how much worse I was going to get over the coming years. By 2015 I started having daily headaches and migraines and by 2017 I was deathly sick having memory problems and crippling fatigue. It was not till the eleventh hour that my invisible illness that made my body into a torture chamber was finally exposed and diagnosed. Right now I’m undergoing treatment, but it’s been very difficult and is a slow process. For right now all of my dreams aspirations are being kept in a metaphorical shoe box until I’m better.

(To Gareth) When I read the quote, “I think the streets will prepare me for future battlefields,” it made me thought of a Bruce Gilden video, where he is walking around NYC and talking about the really dangerous place is ‘right here’. In any disaster area, working as a journo, you have a press pass that gives you permission to take photos. But being just a shmuck with a camera means anyone can do what they want to you. With your in your face style of photography, what are some of the most interesting reactions you have inspired from an uninvited flash to the face?

Gareth: Shooting this way, of course you’re not invisible but most of the time the reactions are fine. Sometimes people laugh or say thank you if you compliment them, sometimes it elicits a conversation. Bizarrely enough, there are quite a few people who don’t seem to notice it. However and inevitably you will get the odd bad reaction. One time I shot this guy smoking a pipe. He literally punches the camera into my face and starts having this big go at me, saying he’s a lawyer, he’ll sue me blah blah blah.

I stood my ground saying what I was doing was not illegal but physically assaulting someone was, which is what he just did to me. Usually when you get a bad reaction or whatever I try to be apologetic or defuse the situation not always “stand my ground”, but when someone acts like that and starts getting physical over their photo being taken, then no. Anyway, I was later informed that this guy was a lawyer — in fact, an infamous one well-known for his hard unionist and anti-Catholic leanings. He’s been caught out singing sectarian songs and jokes. He’s a bigot. After learning that, I did not feel bad in the least for ruining his day.

(To Gareth) In your series “Breathing Mannequins” you bring a high fashion style to the streets. It seems with this series that the intention is to make photographs that contrast human skin to the unnatural covering of clothing. What inspired you to look at people this way and how did you learn to shoot in this way?

Gareth: When I was first exposed to street photography I was attracted to its unpredictability and the unforgiving nature. I remember trying to find the “decisive moment” when I first started shooting the streets and completely failing to capture anything compelling. It was not until a Halloween night when I decided to use the pop-up flash on my camera that I discovered the potential of the flash. Soon afterward I purchased a flash gun and a set of flash triggers.

Much of my inspiration to capture subjects up close and off guard came from looking at the work of a local street photographer and friend Paul Cruickshank. I was drawn in by the feeling of energy and intimacy in his pictures. Armed with my flash gun and lots of courage I began getting closer to subjects. The black and white lighting storms soon led to interesting results and further pursuit of that aesthetic.

When I was shooting in black and white I was thinking in black & white and looked for people and things that would fit the dark and eerie look. It was not till I reluctantly switched over to color that I begin to see the visual potential of the subjects that peacocked their way down Edinburgh’s busy high street. I was also simultaneously being inspired by the surrealistic color work of Guy Bourdin. I believe his work had an even greater impact on me than most of the well-known street photographers.

(To Gareth) Do you yourself wear clothing that draws attention to yourself, that sacrifice practicality for fashion?

Gareth: No, not deliberately unless my clothes are falling apart. I used to wear this leather jacket where the sleeve was torn to shreds, but I was too skint to replace it for ages. One of my friends said it looked like I’d been run over by a car. That’s as flashy as I get with my fashion.

(To Gareth) How much warning did you get to take this- did the umbrella reverse itself just as you hit the shutter?

Gareth: Not very much warning. I was crossing the street and the umbrella reversed itself right in front of me and it was thanks to fast reflexes that I was able to catch this at the drop of a hat.

(To Gareth) Did you know this guy before you took the photo? It looks as if you were just having a drink with him?

Gareth: This was in Monmarte in Paris. There was a camera crew around this guy and I just jumped into the middle of this crowd and took the photo. Had no idea who he was but was later told he is something like a famous owner of cabaret clubs or something like that. Some celebrity anyway.

(To Gareth) What is the story behind this wretched creature?

Gareth: I caught this just as its owner was about to pick it up into a taxi cab. It’s some sort of particular breed. No idea which.

(To Gareth) How was this lit? How did the copper react to you flashing his horse?

Gareth: Lit with an off-camera flash from under the horse’s snout. It was years ago I took this, but I don’t recall the cop really reacting. I guess sometimes you have to be careful with horses. Horses can scare the shit out of me sometimes.

(To Gareth) When putting together your portfolio or an exhibition, what do you look for? What are the themes or feelings that speak to you to create a series like Under Grey Skies?

Gareth: When we put together things like that, I suppose not only are we trying to pick strong individual photos, but also have a sort of consistency to them. Not necessarily something literal, or something you can express with words, but the sort of thing you can see coming together when you’re actually in the act of putting it all together. I suppose the same can often be said of when we have series like the one you mentioned. Like when those photos are taken, we’re usually just out to take photos, not necessarily with a particular theme in mind, not consciously anyway. It’s later on that you notice when you have enough of these pictures does the “theme” become apparent.

(To Both) What is a vivid dream that you can pull from recent memory?

Gareth: I had this really vivid dream recently that involved a really strange lighting storm with these sort of UFOs in the sky and everyone looking up at them and then this apparition of a girl appearing in the hallway. It was really eerie and a bit omen-y. Then the dream moved on to going to the theater with my brother and parents and having a bad feeling about it and getting us to leave in a taxi, only for it to bring us back to the theater which then gets attacked by these guys with samurai swords. One of those dreams where you end up feeling really weird when you wake up.

Gavin: I had a dream where I found out Karen O died from meningitis or something. I was proper tore up about it.

(To Both) Lastly, this wouldn’t be a photographer interview without a gear shot, so show me what you shoot with!

About the author: James Cater is a digital and analog photographer, film lab operator, and model. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. You can find more of Cater’s work on his website and Instagram. This article was also published here.


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