In the Frame

In the Frame

Irish Artists in the UK: Linda Brownlee’s photographic portfolio by Stephanie McBride

Persistence, made easy by passion and a real excitement about the medium’, is how London-based Irish photographer Linda Brownlee explains her approach and achievements. Her skill in film and photography unlocks different experiences, whether in commercially-based teamwork where the final product is someone else’s call or in her own projects where courage joins that passion to complete the project to her exacting satisfaction and her assured, seductive vision.

After graduating from Dublin City University with a degree in Communications in 2000, she spent two years in London assisting various photographers – mainly in portrait work, though some also specialized in fashion and still life, all of which she clearly relished and used to develop and hone her technique.

Brownlee’s enviable client list now ranges from Elle and Harper’s Bazaar to Nike, Virgin, Vodafone and the Wall Street Journal. Her portrait, fashion and documentary work features regularly in publications such as Dazed & Confused, Vogue and the New York Times. Her work has a refreshing fluidity as she works across art, commissions and commercial briefs. She points out that commissioned editorials offer ‘lots of freedom to explore a subject matter – they present opportunities I could never conjure up, they introduce and provide access to subjects and issues I often know nothing about.’ Her powerful series from Soho’s Windmill dance club for The Guardian in July 2012 is a measure of this kind of access and also illustrates her insightful approach (Figs 2&4). This was an exceptionally demanding, tricky assignment in a medium that usually relies on faces to tell the story, yet Brownlee’s responsive and intuitive lens manages to accomplish an almost impossible feat: protecting the dancers’ identities while presenting a discerning, sensitive insight into this world. The visual clues she uses to charge the narrative – hands tying red ribbons on red patent shoes, sturdy outdoor boots astride shiny dance shoes amid the makeshift backstage tawdriness – reveal in their impact the masquerade involved in that world.

In both her commissioned and personal work Brownlee continues to focus on the ordinary, intimate nature of people in domestic and local spaces – often documenting the everyday in all its beauty

This unerring instinct for the visual poetry in a wide range of situations – even, as in this case, the demi-monde of strip clubs – characterizes her work. Translating the seemingly banal into the sublime, Brownlee’s cafe setting for a portrait of English actor Matt Horne presents him in quiet repose in an empty caff where she harnesses lighting and leatherette booths in a Hopper-esque hymn to the ‘greasy spoon’, with inflections of the American diner.

In both her commissioned and personal work she continues to focus on the ordinary, intimate nature of people in domestic and local spaces – often documenting the everyday in all its beauty. In another image,
a strong diagonal draws us into and along a shadowy red passageway, where two young lads, a dog straining at the leash, are all focused in different directions in a gentle incidental moment (Fig 1).

Brownlee’s openness, ‘trusting and hoping things will reveal themselves’, delivers
a naturally exuberant ‘in-between moment’ of model Edie Campbell – at one with her horse, a world way from the catwalk.

Other prestigious successes include her selection for exhibition in London’s National Portrait Gallery for the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize in 2011, and again in 2013 with her portrait of writer Zadie Smith in a serene, Vermeer-like image using available ambient light and negative space to give a perceptive impact.

More recently, she has begun to work in film. Her commercial for Barclays Bank reprises the nuances and small moments of real life that mark much of her photographic work. Fluid, mobile framing, subtle glimpses of hands, gestures, foot tapping, reveal her subjects – whether in these commercial assignments or in her personal film vignettes which capture people absorbed in their love of dancing. Here too, her delicate precision in visual language and rhythm captures character in motion so that we cannot part the dancer from the dance.

In conversation, Brownlee reveals her energy, curiosity and a constant drive for excellence, frequently self-questioning until the final outcome, always treating her work as an ongoing process to explore and uncover new visions.

Stephanie McBride lectures in film at the National College of Art and Design.

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