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Q&A: Brian Shumway, New York

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Brian Shumway is a New York City based photographer whose work blurs the line between portraiture, documentary and fine art photography. He has worked for Reader’s Digest, Smart Money, Newsweek, Time, XXL, TV Guide and the New York Times, among others, and has appeared in American Photography, Communication Arts, Shots Magazine and the Photo Review. Brian was one of Magenta Foundation’s top 25 ‘Emerging Photographers’ in the USA in 2006 and 2008. La Chureca, his story on the city dump in Managua, Nicaragua, was a finalist for the (Santa Fe) Center’s 2008 Project Competition. He is represented by Redux Pictures. This selection of pictures is from Happy Valley, which is a personal look at Utah Valley, misunderstood suburban home of the Mormons and ironically known as Happy Valley, through the daily life of his family.

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What was the spur to start on this series, Happy Valley, and what is your relationship to this area in Utah?
‘I lived in Utah Valley (aka Happy Valley) during high school and then in Salt Lake City during college. Much of my family lives there, so I know the place in a quite intimate and subtle way. I left the Mormon (lds) church as a teenager and thus have both an insider’s and outsider’s perspective. I suppose I started it out of a need to connect with my family and try to understand my own past’.

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This is an ongoing project involving your family. Can you talk a little about your creative process?
‘A project like this takes time, and a benefit to shooting my family is that I can spend literally as much time as I need without feeling like I am indebted to them, that I’ve overstayed my welcome, or am taking advantage, as happens with typical documentary projects. I take a “fly on the wall” approach, and more or less wait for something to happen or to catch my eye. I don’t have any concrete concept or idea in mind about what I’m looking for, but just let the shooting happen spontaneously and instinctualy. There are one or two portraits that I’ve “directed” by just simply putting someone in a place until a nice quiet moment comes along. Other than that, I’m hands off and shoot freely’.

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You mention that Happy Valley is “the misunderstood suburban home of the Mormons”. Can you explain what you mean by this?
‘Utah and Mormonism are essentially synonymous in the public mind, and practically no one that is not from there knows much, if anything, about it. Utah is the physical headquarters of the Mormon religion, and is still erroneously equated with polygamy. I always get questions about their “special underwear” and blacks being denied the priesthood (a God-given power only men can have). A lot of mystery surrounds the place, the people, and the religion; I hope “happy valley” can dispel this mystery and make the place and people seem normal, despite their quirks and odd beliefs’.

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Can you talk about your decision to portray this area through children as opposed to adults?
‘Though there are a couple of pictures with adults, I am drawn to children more. They are less guarded emotionally. An important aspect of this project is to capture the emotional experience of Happy Valley, how it looks and feels on a psychological level, and children facilitate that better. I also empathize with these children because I was also young in Happy Valley and had a tumultuous experience struggling with the stringent beliefs and mental conformity that pervade its culture’.

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