Elliott Jerome Brown Jr. -
“A Simple Song ”

Profiles - 03.02.2019
Baxter Street Photo Club In conversation with Kerrin Smith Photography: Elliott Jerome Brown Jr. & Kerrin Smith

Elliott and I met in a sociology of fashion class somewhere between figuring out what we truly wanted to be when we grew up, and knowing deep down there there was a set of values that would govern the kinds of things - and the ways of being - we might aspire to. Our friendship has often lived at this intersection. Elliott is a conceptural photograher, based in New York, but currently in New Orleans for a residency at St. Roch Commuinty Church. His work has been featured in domestic and international galleries, and he was a participant The New York Times Portfolio Review and Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture. His show A Simple Song was featured at Baxter Street Camera Club, where we sat on the gallery floor catching up on the kind of things that are hard to put words to before going downstairs to put words to what was started upstairs. This is that conversation.

K: Who or what moves or inspires you?

E: I’m inspired by people who are committed to their own specificity and then,doubling down on that, I’m inspired by people who understand their specificity but are also agile enough to make space for what they don’t know. I think everyone is constantly learning and expanding, but what is at the forefront of my mind, every day, in every interaction I have with someone, in every conversation, is how I’m thinking about the differences in perspective that lead us to this moment, and the differences in experiences that make up our individual paths and influence how we understand the present.

I think there are a lot of difficulties and limitations in that - maybe this is a futile effort, and I should just accept that people are different, and I don’t have to be in a position to make sense of everyone or make space for everyone, but I think that because I live in a world with other people, and because we are all impacted by each of our individual decisions, making space for others is important. I intentionally try to do that every day. Again, I acknowledge I am probably not always that great at it, but it’s something I consider in every interaction that I have. That’s the guideline for the person that tends to inspire me.

K: It’s like you’re inspired by your aspirational self.  

Yes, that is actually what I described. It’s fine to be so invested in your aspirational self. I think that’s okay. 

K: What do you burn for? What are your dreams?

My dreams are really to be in alignment with my body and mind - maybe not at all times - because a degree of distraction is healthy...or maybe that’s an excuse. But that’s really what guides me - trying my best to stay in tune with what’s internal.  I think right now “internal” looks like - I’m not sure if it looks like making the work that is seen upstairs, which has an asterisk to it, which is that I find the work to be a prompt, a guide, or a synthesis of ways of being in the world, and it’s a labor that I find worth investing in because this is what keeps my body afloat -  thinking about visuals, thinking about how visuals show up in people’s lives and how they make people feel, and just thinking about experiences in general and what those experiences can generate.
K: What ways of being do you feel are captured in the work upstairs?

I think of the photos as a prompt for me and maybe for other people to think about how you make space for others. How do you be a really excellent listener? A part of my work is listening with my eyes, but also listening with my body, my ears. I’m invested in how people take space for themselves, and I’m interested in those things that can’t be communicated. I guess in that way I’m grateful for what does end up taking a form that is legible. My work is a reminder of how to be patient with others and myself, and  a reminder to respect everyone’s space. And their interiority.

K How did “a simple song” come to be? (Where, too, did the title come from?)

I am a fairly sporadic person, and I had some ideas last year when they gave me the date of the show. The true formulation of this show didn’t come until I moved to New Orleans for the residency in September.  Again, time forces you to make a decision and be comfortable with whatever that decision is regardless of it being the “best” one. It’s more like, alright this is happening, let’s go for it. The photos I selected all suggest a view that the viewer is not privy to the scene in any accuracy -  imagination is useful, but not useful to really imagine what is (actually) happening in those spaces. What results from making this work in the way that I do is more bodily, in that your body tells you how to relate to these spaces, how to relate to the space and the individuals in the space, and the actions that are taking place in the space. Specifics are unnecessary. When people try to make too much sense of the scene, it’s not fun - it becomes a little romantic and nostalgic in a way that I think is a low hanging fruit in the takeaways from the work. Imagining is there in these various scenarios, but there’s something more important than that.

For the title “a simple song,” I saw If Beale Street Could Talk as a part of the New Orleans film festival, and the song that closes out the film through the credits is a song by Billy Preston which I believe is his rendition of My Country Tis of Thee. That song just stuck with me - I found myself singing it in my house and had almost forgotten where I found it. When I did find it, I started listening to Billy Preston a lot more, and he had this urgency around the way he made music about self empowerment. The album that that song (My Country Tis of Thee) belongs to is called “I Wrote a Simple Song,” and on that album is a song of the same name, I Wrote A Simple Song.  When I heard that song, he was talking about having made something so simple - let me find the lyrics, which told me this was the right thing to do:

I didn't care if it made the charts

I only wrote it for you and me

They think they're so smart now

They're not as smart as they want to be

It’s that re-iteration throughout the piece of because I wrote it for you, it’s yours and mine girl - I only wrote it for you and me -  that’s the way i make work  in that. I can’t necessarily say that everyone I make a photograph of finds use in the image, or that this is a work that was made for them, but it is a work that was made in consideration of them, and of their privacy and of the intimacy that allows us to spend time with one another to some extent.

Photo at left: “She threatened most people off the dance floor. Fingers now laced quietly along the red countertop.”
2018, by Elliott Jerome Brown Jr.

K: a simple song begs questions of what it means to be seen, calling particular attention to the respect that comes with granting somebody anonymity. Would love to hear more about this concept…

I’m curious about really taking from something - taking what you need from what you experience and what you have access to. I think in considering privacy while making these images, I am insisting on an individual’s self possession, but also on what it might mean to take a smaller bite of something - or what it means to not know everything - Encouraging others to just be courteous of others’ space and others’ development and allowing complexity in human experience. I’m interested in bounty, pride, transcendence, and abundance, but I’m also interested in perversion, melancholy, sadness, and there’s something about working in ambiguity that allows that complexity to be at the forefront.
A person is two things at the same time. This energy is always multiplying itself. That is really the way I want to make images - in a way that respects the various states an individual moves through. There’s something about focusing on contemplation and inaccessibility that allows for that because there are so many things that folks go through that can’t be communicated in form or in tangible form. I am really moved by that sense of privacy.  The images are offering the spaces of privacy, but everybody already occupies privacy on their own in terms of how they decide to share, how they let people in, how they are making sense of themselves form past, present, future. Those are things that are constantly morphing and reshaping - nobody is ever truly stagnant so I think focusing on these moments of inner reflection allows me to emphasize that.

K: I find myself very moved by the idea of giving the people the courtesy of having their own experience and honoring the complexity in human beings. It’s a gentler and smarter way of moving through the world. It allows us to not be so hard on ourselves or hard on other people, which begs the question of how do we build that muscle in ourselves?

How I’ve built that muscle in myself is taking more opportunities to listen, to truly listen - compartmentalizing my presumptions so that I also leave a space for learning and things that I could not have assumed. When I operate from expansion instead of confirmation, there is a lot more to generate from that space. The work itself is asking people to consider expansion as opposed to affirming any one understanding of what is assumed to be happening here. It’s probing a sensation that allows for a certain groundlessness. In another context, that could be really off-putting. All of what I’m saying comes with balance - it’s not a one size fits all understanding.  
When I’ve taught high school photography students, what I enjoy about teaching is helping someone develop a language for themselves - telling them “hey, you’ve made a decision - what does this do for you? How do you see it in alignment with X,Y, and Z? What things were you considering when you made this decision?”  So I’m being careful with language not to impose anything on this student. I think it’s really important to support people from where they are and provide them with options - not being insistent on what I think something should look like and instead asking questions about their decisions.

K: This reminds me of something I discovered a year or two ago - when friends would come ask me for advice, I noticed that I had a very strong opinion about the content of what they were saying. But I also recognized that in certain situations, that (opinion) wasn’t going to get them anywhere, so I started to get really interested in how to coach them around the container of the content rather than actually digging into the content. So I would start to ask them things like, what’s really important to you in this situation? what do you really want? what is the point of trying this? what are you trying to accomplish? I changed modes from having an opinion and being an advisor, to being more of a shaping guide to help them come to the conclusion that would serve them. There is a lot of freedom in that!

Yes, because there is also a lot of judgment that comes with being an advisor. We all have a different set of experiences to lead us to the things we do. I find that asking why for people is much more liberating. Giving your opinion on something asks you to experience this in the way that the person is experiencing it, and that is just inaccessible. It’s more important to ask questions because at the end of the day this person is coming to you for a new context regarding themselves, and it’s better to forefront that conversation with questions.

K: Which piece is your favorite? (...and why)

Today, I was really taken by “She threatened most people…” I made that image during a portrait session for this person so the images I gave to that person look very different than the one I have shown here.  I really like that image because from a fact perspective we have an individual on their side, and I am positioning behind them, addressing the camera so that it moves up their body and up the wall…I think that there is the option of seeing the image outside of that fact, where the clothing does not look like it’s dressing a form. What I like about photographing humans is that they animate the space. With the space that looks object-heavy, I like thinking about it as animated by human warmth. I just like how the image moves, I like what it communicates, I like how soft it is, I like the sensitivity of it. I also like the boldness of it - there’s such a great harmony to it.

K: Last question on the show, recognizing that all these questions are interdependent: I know this show has a special resonance for you - why is this the case?
I think this show is a reminder for me to be patient and to create power from that patience. So it isn’t being patient as in being dormant or waiting for anything in particular to happen, but patience is the power to discern how to take your time and when to take your time. Patience is also the power of accepting time to an extent. This show is a reminder to me to be a patient, listening, grounded body. Because I think that’s the kind of person people deserve - that’s the kind of person I think I deserve. The people I gravitate towards the most are those folks who use a degree of patience with me, who are willing to move though this life with me and allow my own pace even if my pace might differ from theirs. I would like to be that person for other people. In some places I think I am, but there are cases where I’ve felt that for others. It is a daily work to develop that practice more unanimously.

K: What’s something you are practicing or improving on right now?

E: Curbing the desire to make things tangible or to produce a certain social experience in a certain way. That looks like maybe being in conversation with friends and we’re talking about something, and not feeling the pressure to formulate a sentence in response to that discussion if I don’t feel that confident in what I’m sharing or if I’m not taking my time in the matter. It looks like being out in a social setting with people I’m not usually around and not over-performing myself. I don’t have to be smiling, I don’t have to be exaggerated in the scenario - I can just be, and that will be a much more fulfilling and truthful experience for all of us. I’m willing to take the risk of seeming cold or removed, but I’m definitely exhausted by being overly gregarious, which is my natural disposition! My friends know I’m loud and vibrant. But with people I’m less comfortable, that might take a second, and I don’t have to be there always. What I’m saying is that I’m practicing measure and being comfortable with the ways that I show up at any given moment.

K: What I hear underlying that is being okay with the risk that you might seem aloof or cold or whatever Not-Gregarious is because you know in your heart that either a) that’s not who you really are or b) if that’s who you are, it doesn’t mean anything about you. So it goes back to a settledness in yourself to give yourself permission to show up however you might be showing up in the moment. The pressure is off.

That is a better way to put it - I’m practicing releasing a certain pressure off myself. Through that, I’ve been able to approach a number of things with greater ease, reading being one of them. Reading always kind of freaks me out. It’s such an overt focus and it makes it really difficult to get through things when I’m too focused on the text. When I remove that pressure from myself, I’m able to read like that and I’m able to make sense of the information in real time.

K: I’ve been so taken as we’ve been spending time recently with how you are processing the world and how you are speaking about the world, and I can’t help but wonder what are you reading?

E: Right now, I’m reading Kindred by Octavia Butler. Listening to Images by Tina Campt - was reading that too. I was reading a review upstairs about Marlon James’ new book, but one of his first books is called John Crow’s Devil, and I want to read that because I think the way I’ve understood people’s reception to Marlon, (is that) there is a bridge between the way he constructs his stories and the way I’m interested in working as an artist and human. He makes the kind of work that is lush and juicy and layered, and that I’m interested in.

Photo above: “Sssummmmmwhhhhhhhhhhere"
2018, by Elliott Jerome Brown Jr.

K: To glide into some of your own practices and touchstones that help you stay grounded and be present - we talked about listening. Is there anything else you’d want to share?
Being alone is really important to cultivating that practice because it helps me understand what space I need. Being from New York and having formed my adult life, creative life, and career here, there is never a point where there is nothing to do. What allows me to show up in those places in a way that is one hundred percent true is taking time for myself. I (also) love taking care of my body. My recent obsession is taking care of my hair - it’s like watching a plant grow over time. I really like taking showers and finding what products my body responds well to. Those are all daily efforts everyone goes through. Nonetheless, I use them as opportunities to take into consideration a certain care for myself. At this point, it feels really important to take care of my body, and I think a lot adults go through that. When you really feel like you have lost control, and you’re looking for something to take control of or to take care of, your body is that one thing that requires you one hundred percent of a time. You might be looking for lover to take care of, but you have your body. You might be looking for a child to take care of and that is not showing up in the way that you would want,  but you have your body to lend yourself to. Similarly, people who self harm, taking harm against their body is a way of controlling an experience. It is maybe naturally important to just gravitate towards these very banal forms of “self care.” I also love staring out the window. I like letting air in and out the window control the temperatures in the space and seeing how my body responds to these temperatures. What really joys me is when I have a friend or a person who respects that (taking time for myself) - who will indulge that privacy or that isolation. I have a friend who will come over, and we’ll cook together in silence, maybe we’ll work together in silence. I think that’s really special, and I really appreciate people who are grounded enough in themselves so that they don’t depend on you in a violent way, and in fact, they encourage you to depend on yourself fully.

K: There are probably threads of this woven throughout our conversation, but to ask it explicitly: what’s a favorite learning you’ve had recently?

I’ll go with something technical: I really enjoyed building the structures for my show and learning how to do something outside of photography in the service of photography. A lot of these ideas I’ve had for a long time but have been more or less fearful of approaching them because I felt inadequate in terms of my learning and background. Just really trusting myself to just go for it and allowing myself to be responsive to mistakes instead of being crippled by them. If something goes awry, how can I work with that damage or re-pivot to make that work how I’d like it to be? And what have I learned in the process?  When you are making something physical, you are just so aware of how Point A is just that - an initial thought. As you move forward in making a thing, it ends up taking a different life that in some ways, you didn’t anticipate. There is a great deal of attention that has to be paid when working physically because every step of the process is really useful to that final thing. I’m grateful for that learning of how to make use of my hands in service of this other craft.

K: What does being Cool And Thoughtful mean to you?

When you first told me about this project in college, how you were defining what it meant to be cool was already something I was attracted to - people who moved with a certain ease and they did so because they made space for others and because they were sensitive to others. I think that is what being Cool And Thoughtful means to me. A person is cool when they are comfortable being themselves - so comfortable that they don’t infringe on other people’s ability to be that for themselves.

K: What difference do you think being Cool And Thoughtful (embodying this particular ethos) could make in the spaces you travel in?

It allows for a greater degree of learning. Full stop on that.

K: If you could wave a magic wand and generate a productive solution to something, what would it be?

E: How people make money. I would love to think differently about how people support their lives - maybe relocating money as a peg in that support as opposed to a dominant force within that structure. 

© Cool And Thoughtful 2019

©️ Cool And Thoughtful 2020