Cody Bratt is a San Francisco-born photographer with an almost uncanny ability to capture the glamour of pain. He’s one of those artists, like Rimbaud. Bukowski, or Lana del Rey, that somehow, some way, are able to portray decadence and loss in an irresistibly alluring and cinematic way.
Bratt has exhibited his work internationally at the Berlin Art Week, Brighton Photo Fringe festival and the Colorado Photographic Arts Center among others.
Love We Leave Behind is Cody’s first monograph, a series that serves as an “emotional documentary” that revisits the memories of a fervent, formative relationship from the past.
The series is captured like a road movie, portraying the ups and lows of that kind of love that is so passionate and self-destructing it’s almost impossible to quit. The work is meant to be taken as a recollection of unreliable memories, a portrait of those moments of broken promises and intimate secrets that only walls keep.
The series was a finalist in the 2016 Duke University CDS/Honickman First Book Prize and was included in Photolucida’s 2018 Critical Mass Top 50.
We had the good fortune of chatting with Cody about his book, his approach to photography, and of course, love.
What was your workflow when making this project? It almost feels as if you drove through the U.S. in a Cadillac with a couple of models and your gear, Elvis playing on the radio…
“What a vivid description! That sounds better than any explanation I can give. If I were perhaps more into tall tales, I would respond: ‘Yes, yes, that’s exactly how it went down, except less Elvis and more Bonnie Prince Billy.’
“My girlfriend, Nicole Lippman, is a wardrobe stylist. We have been discussing hitting the road with a model or two for a few days to see what we can make. If you’re a model and would be interested, shoot me an email.
“In all seriousness, though, the work of making the landscapes and portraits never formally overlapped in terms of the time spent making the photographs themselves. You’re not far off with the process of making the landscapes. Those photographs were made on many road trips crisscrossing the California, Nevada and Arizona deserts at all times of day and year, many times alone.
“I’ll talk about this a little later, but music is a significant part of my overall creative process, so the companions on many of those late night wanderings far from home were musicians — too many to individually list.
“The portraits were made in 2-3 hour blocks in collaboration with each of the models in a single room in different cities: New York, Palm Springs, and even Berlin.
“I’d usually describe the vibe I was aiming for and we’d play it by ear from there. By the end of the project, I’d sometimes have a landscape or portrait that I thought was missing a companion to make it a pair. So I’d either show the model where I thought their spot in the edit fit or I’d bring workprints of the models on the road with me.
“I’m glad to hear the two strands of work felt seamless enough to feel like they were made on the same timeline. They say a film is made in editing and I feel like the same is true for a photobook like this one.”
Speaking of gear, what gear did you use for this series? How did you approach the scenes, lighting-wise?
“Most of the photographs in the book were made on a Leica M 240 with either a 35mm or 50mm lens. There is one photograph in the book made on the Canon 5D Mark II. The biggest difference between the two in my mind has less to do with technical image quality and more to do with how each one offers a distinct method of making the photographs itself.
“I switched to the Leica M after I had the opportunity to work with a loaner and the first few photographs of what would become the book popped out – the photograph of the model huddled behind her knees with her arms criss-crossed.
“What I found – and continue to find – using the rangefinder is that the camera seems to just get out of the way. It allows me to have a much more immediate and present dialog with my subject, even if that’s the landscape.
“With regards to lighting, I take a lot of my cues from cinema.
“In the book, I’m either using found light or a couple of small continuous lights. For the first several years when I started learning how to make photographs I was exclusively making night photographs on a tripod with long, multi-minute exposures.
“There’s a scene in The Dark Knight Rises where Bane tells Batman: ‘Ah you think darkness is your ally? You merely adopted the dark. I was born in it, molded by it. I didn’t see the light until I was already a man, by then it was nothing to me but blinding!’. That’s how I was raised as a photographer who refused to shoot in the daylight for many years.
“Luckily, I moved past that phase, but the experience made me fall in love with shadows more so than the light itself. I describe myself as attempting to paint with the shadows more than trying to paint with the light. Most of my lighting choices are driven in service of the shadows; what “facts” do I want obscured?
“I once had a reviewer exclusively get on my case about the lack of shadow detail in several spots and I thinking to myself: ‘Fuck that. If I wanted you to see what’s there, I’d make you look there. But I didn’t, did I?’
How do you approach your framing and composition? Is there something in particular that you usually look for?
“Looking back at the period in my life that serves as the ‘bedrock’ of the series, my memories are frequently full of midnight drives and run down motels, since where else are two cheap college students going to stay?
“Like those recurring memories, most of the landscapes in the book were shot from the vantage point of the driver’s seat of my car. In a few rare instances – don’t try this at home kids – made while driving. Shooting from your driver’s seat forces you to do funny things to get the framing you want, like drive way too close to objects at odd angles.
“With the models, I wanted something more intimate, so I usually avoided any large wide angles with considerable negative space particularly things like walls. The few very wide-angle images that involve people are also jam-packed full of other details so they’re more tableau than studio.”
How do you approach working with models? What do you do to achieve the moment you’re looking for? Any tips for those just starting out?
“I hit on this a little bit earlier, but I tried to approach the sessions with models as a collaboration. I didn’t go into them with pre-visualized concepts or sketches, though I am starting to do that on my next body of work.
“I’d usually relied on the model to bring a handful of wardrobe options and we would pick out the final outfits on location depending on the location and how the session was feeling.
“Since I was aiming for more natural and emotional scenes, I tended to cast freelance art models who I find have a bit more emotional range than agency models. Many freelance art models can also tend to be figure models, so in those cases, I had to coach a bit less of a posed performance from them.
“I’m a pretty silent type director which I find more often than not opens some nervous tension which can be leveraged at the right points between poses for something that feels more authentic. That strategy can backfire if the model has less experience or if the two of you happen to be off the same wavelength, so your mileage may vary.
“A few tips for those just starting out working with models? Be patient, kind and understanding with your models, especially if you’re working in the context we were.
“They’re likely doing something much braver than you are.
“Pay your models and try not to haggle with them unless you’re legitimately struggling to pay them in the first place. Paying your models has a few positive side effects besides just being the right thing to do: you (usually) make better photographs since you’re both invested properly and you always get a model release.
“Clearly set the expectations of the session with regards to any potential nudity when negotiating rates and always respect the model’s boundaries during the shoot, regardless of what was negotiated up front.”
If you were to pick three songs that would serve as the perfect companion for Love we leave Behind, which ones would you pick?
“I’m so glad you asked this question! Music is the other foundation besides cinema upon which my photographic practice is built. I even made a Love We Leave Behind playlist while shooting and editing the series.
“Someone once described a few of the images in the book as ‘Lana Del Rey songs come to life’, which was a keen observation given the number of her appearances on the playlist.
“Getting down to three songs is difficult, but here it goes.
“Ride by Lana Del Rey. Where to start with this song? It’s the perfect combination of that open roading feeling and the impulse to run and escape emotionally when you’re right on the edge of breakdown. That combination of elements is lethal, really. I feel like the book is trying to distill this song and reconstitute it into those two raw component parts displayed visually.
“The Desperate Kingdom of Love by PJ Harvey. This song also has a striking dose of emotional loss and forward momentum. She says it all in the first 15 seconds of the song: ‘Oh, love, you were a sickly child and how the wind knocked you down. Put on your spurs, swagger round, in the desperate kingdom of love.’
“The Moth by Aimee Mann. Of the moth unable to resist the flame: ‘he’ll beat his wings till he burns them black.’ Has anyone ever written a more vivid depiction of codependency than Mann has with this song?”
The book was born out of the cinders of a very important relationship in your life. What does your ex think about the project?
“Her and I haven’t spoken in close to 10 years, so I doubt she’s seen it. I would hope it would resonate on some level though I am sure that her version of the journey was in some ways similar, but altogether distinct.
“She was 18 and I was 22 when the relationship started. In hindsight, destruction and youth are in some ways always deeply intertwined so I’d say that the book is only loosely rooted in these events.
“The way I describe it is using the vague recurring memories I recall throughout the time period of that relationship and the period that immediately followed as the initial seeds.
“Those memories are so re-interpreted – on top of their inherent inaccuracy – that I wouldn’t describe them as anywhere remotely resembling fact. I’m not sure the journey described in the book even necessarily must remain rooted in romantic love.”
If you had the chance to live your life again, would you go through that relationship one more time?
“It would be easy to say, ‘of course!’ But I honestly think it depends. What set of rules are we playing by for this specific scenario? Do I have all the knowledge I’ve accumulated the first time or am I simply re-starting as if I had no memory of what has preceded?
“If I knew everything that experience taught me and I chose willingly to go through it again in the same fashion, I think I would not have truly learned all the lessons of the experience to begin with.
“On the other hand, if you’re asking if I could magically redirect my stupider and younger self in a different direction in hindsight, I’d say no. I had to experience the ups and downs of that journey in order to not only learn how to be a better partner myself, but this book ultimately wouldn’t exist.”
Why did you pick Fraction to publish Love we leave Behind? As far as I understand, there have been plans for it since Fall 2017.
“This is a descriptively complex question. There are a lot of factors that go into selecting a publishing model, in general, and then an individual publisher, specifically.
“You’ve got to ask yourself all sorts of questions: do I have the time and skill necessary to self-publish? What aspects of the book do I want to collaborate on? What is my budget? Can I distribute it and how would I distribute it? – amongst many, many others.
“I’ll bottom line why I ultimately chose to work with Fraction: One, they believed in the work in a really honest fashion, I could trust them to be a champion of it.
“Two, they brought skills to the table that made the book greater than it would have been if I had executed it on my own. David Bram and Bree Lamb both have a razor-sharp editing and sequencing eyes and Shawn Bush pulled the whole package together from a design perspective utilizing color in a way I wouldn’t have been able to.
“Three, the economics of the project were feasible for everyone involved.”
What is the easiest way for the public to acquire your book?
“I’m selling both signed and unsigned copies, though I can’t imagine why you’d want an unsigned copy. They’re available at my website.
“Folks should order fast, there are only 500 copies and they won’t be around forever. I’ll even throw in free shipping for those reading this interview.
“Use the promo code FEATURESHOOT at checkout.”
Love We Live Behind is currently available as a gorgeous 10 in. x 13 in. hardcover limited to 500 copies, and a in special Collector’s Box Edition of just 25.