Interviewing strangers is a lot like going out on blind dates, except worse. Not only do you not know what to expect but you have to ask all the questions. Then, even if it doesn’t work out you still are forced to create something out of it for others to enjoy. Nothing good has ever come of any blind date that I’ve been on and so it surprises me that good things come from these types of interviews.
Enter Brook Pifer. Before the interview, I had never talked to her besides a quick call to say that I was on my way to her studio. I found out about Brook from my friend Carlos. He had e-mailed me a week earlier with a web-site link and a brief note that said, “Interview this girl, you’ll love her!”
From her site, I learned that she shoots musicians for a living [with a camera, not a gun] and that most recently, she shot Sean Kingston for the cover of JAMROCK Magazine. She has also worked with Hip-Hop artist Akon by his request. How does one do this from Orlando? I was intrigued. So I blindly asked her for an interview and graciously, she accepted.
Upon arriving to her studio, I had ran all the scenarios of the interview through my head. Like, is it appropriate to say “Hi stranger! Thanks for inviting me into your home. Now, tell me your secrets,” or what happens there is awkward silences, “Sorry, it’s just that I don’t know much about you.” Unlike most people I interview for this site, Brook has been interviewed a few times by other blog sites. And so, I was able to gather some information about her beforehand but not nearly enough to feel confident. It was the fact that her studio is in the penthouse loft above Cheesecake Factory in the Winter Park Village that made me feel edgy. I have always imagined myself in those lofts from way back in the day when I used to work in the Village—coincidently, I suppose my time had come.
Just like I had thought, Brook’s studio was like the NYC flat in the movie BIG—there was plenty of room for Tom Hanks to jump on his trampoline. It featured industrial concrete floors, space for her photography studio, an over-sized, modern conference table that sits in a sunroom, a client lounge, a working office, life-size photos she’s taken and a proclaimed “love den.” Immediately, I felt jealous as if it’s where I should be living and holding the offices for waringis.com.
Even cooler was that Brook subscribes to every magazine I do, plus more. They were placed neatly and all over the flat, like idols—something I can totally appreciate. I also could recognize her fridge. Like mine, it was filled with only soda and condiments. For a blind date, and technically (besides the fact she’s a happily married woman) it could be called so, it seemed promising.
Jana:So Carlos wanted me to interview you.
Brook: I know. Have you ever seen the photos that I’ve done of him?
Really? Well that can be rectified real quickly. Hold on. [Brook runs and grabs her lap top and begins to go to her site.]
Wait. Is he on your site?
Um, I didn’t even recognize him. But now that I think about it I bet I know which photo you’re talking about.
[Brook pulls up his photo.] See? That’s him and his dog.
Yeah and nope, I didn’t even recognize him. That’s funny. Well anyway, he’d thought you’d be a good person to interview. Why do you think he’d think that?
I don’t know. [Laughs] I guess because I take photos.
I read you went to an art school in Pittsburg. Is that where are you from? Yeah, I’m from Pennsylvania.
How did you get to Orlando?
I moved here with my then boyfriend/now husband. We met in art school. We were either going to move to Orlando or San Francisco and he got a better job in Orlando. Communication Arts is who he interviewed with in San Francisco but he was offered more money here.
That’s interesting. Orlando, generally, is not the highest-paying city.
I know. They offered him a lot to a lot more here and they were going to pay for our moving expenses. So technically, that’s how we got here.
No, it’s not. When I first came here I started assisting the best architectural photographers in the United States. It was completely unrelated to what I wanted to do in photography because I have been always drawn to people. But I needed to learn how to operate the business—no school will teach you how to operate the business. Once I had to that under my belt I went on to do my own thing and never looked back. I really like Orlando. I love the sun. I can shoot 24/7 all year round here while it’d be overcast in Pennsylvania.
Right now it’s helping. I really don’t see a problem with it. This has been, like, the best year of my life with regards to photography so … no complaints.
No, not now.
When I first started—like when I was assisting—it was a lot of Ramen noodles. But now, uh-huh.
Does the Cheesecake Factory deliver to your door?
No! And it sucks. No place in the village delivers. I would pay extra too because I’m very lazy. You saw my fridge; it’s like condiments and water. We don’t cook at all.
Yeah, I hear ya. I think I’d have cheesecake delivered to my door every night if I could.
Oh no, my weakness is Mexican food—like Chipotle and Tijuana Flats, although, we have to alternate because my husband doesn’t like Mexican food.
I hear New Kids on the Block are in town recording. Any chance you’ll shoot them?
[Laughs] If I am I can’t say. No … no … I’m not. But you know they have their reunion coming up.
Yes, that’s why they’re in town I thought.
Well, I think Jordan lives here. Doesn’t he?
Oh, I don’t know. I’m not in on the in-and-the-in. How do you have such privileged information?
Oh I don’t know. I guess just talking to people. [Laughs]
Describe a typical day for you.
A typical shooting day or non-shooting day?
How about both?
Well, a typical day is that some times I have interns or assistants come in to do office work and I’ll process photos. I’ll normally get up early in the morning—I’m actually a morning person—and I’ll run the business side. On photo shoot days, there is no such thing as a typical day. They can start at 2 o’clock in the morning or 10 o’clock at night. There’s nothing usually set when you’re shooting rock stars; they have really crazy schedules. Those are long days … but fun.
What inspires you to shoot?
What other creative aspects do you participate in?
I don’t paint or draw. I’ve tried it and that’s how I ended up behind a camera. I loved art class but I’d get an A for effort, and then a D so that I’d pass. I was never good at it. I do photography in my spare time, like my own personal stuff separate from work. As far as creativity though it’s nothing but listening to a plethora of music and watching movies, like psychotic movie marathons on the weekends if I’m not working.
Most everything you shoot is digital. Did you ever use film?
Do you miss it?
No. I learned on film and I had to process and do the paper stuff … it’s cool but for me, I hated handing my stuff over to the lab. So when digital started to creep in I was relieved I didn’t have to do that anymore. Because really, you trust someone with all that time and effort you put into the film. Then hopefully they don’t melt it and you have saved a few rolls, just in case. I love digital just for that—everything is triple backed-up on shoot days. I also like digital’s immediacy, not that it is a timesaver because sometimes you have to do re-touching, but I love it.
Do you do many alterations to your photos after they’re taken?
Surprisingly, no. I’d say in about 2004 I switched to a medium format and with that came some really rad software. I don’t have to do Photoshop for anything because it’s really how I light it, other than composite stuff like I did with Akon’s photo.
Let’s say you’re in the midst of a photo shoot. What do you say to make people comfortable?
Anything I need to say. If I can’t get someone comfortable, the photos are going to suck. I’ve pulled out fart jokes; I’ve whispered so nobody can hear what I’m saying. It takes practice. I’ll do whatever it takes to get someone to loosen up.
Would you say that making someone comfortable is the most important thing about photography?
It’s probably not the most important thing but it’s crucial.
Then what do you think is the most important thing?
Delivering the photos …
So there is a lot of pressure involved regarding expectations?
How do you cope with that?
I do yoga.
That’s awesome. How do you prepare for your photo shoots? Do you research your clients?
If they’re a musician, I’ll listen to their music and try to have a good understanding of them. If they have a blog or are famous, I‘ll read their articles. So I’ll do that research before hand.
Prior to shoot day, the locations are picked, the clothes are picked, it’s decided if we need extras or props so that way there are no variables. Well, at least as little variable as possible. Some thing can always come up but I try to make sure that everything is neurotically taken care of.
Are you the creative director for all your shoots?
So then I’d say, “I’ll shoot you on white, but now we’re going to do this.” That’s how I got people to start shooting what I wanted.
One of my top three is Nikki Botelho. She is the raddest make-up artist in the world; she works magic. I have a digital tech who’s name is Mat and he will remain nameless with no last name. He makes sure the photos come in, backs them up and takes care of anything technical while I am shooting so I don’t have to worry about it. Then, I have a roster of assistants that help me out. If I had to carry all that equipment myself I’d be exhausted and couldn’t hold the camera. So, they do a really amazing job.
One of you’re latest projects included Sean Kingston and MTV. How was that?
That was crazy. Have you ever seen that show My Super Sweet 16? Well, they’re doing his mega-18-year-old birthday bash for that show. I actually have a crazy fear of being photographed, like hard-core uncomfortable. So I got the call from MTV after we went down to Miami and they asked if they could film the shoot the next day. I was like, “Yeah.”
Then I was thinking, “Don’t panic.” I have to get used to this, like 100% have to get over it. So it was fine. They filmed mostly over-the-shoulder stuff and it was the perfect test. I did it and now I’m over it.
Do you think this may have opened the door to more opportunities?
Yeah, certainly with the software I use. I shoot tethered to my lap top so clients, art directors and magazine editors can see the photos come in on real time and we can perfect the small details. Like on the Sean Kingston shoot, his mom was there, MTV was there and we were able to provide the shots for them to see right away. When Sean saw them he was like, “Damn, those are hot.” Everyone was just so excited on the shoot.
What did you and Akon talk about on his shoot?
[Laughs] Stupid stuff. The iPhone had just come out and I was like, “Hey, hold my phone. Don’t use yours; it’s ugly.” From there we started talking about iPhones and Apple … Akon is a very reserved guy; he’s very polite and totally nice.
You’ve mentioned most of your business comes from word of mouth. What do you think keep the people coming back for more?
I think I do a good job and they like the photos.
How do you feel about being a woman in the industry?
I think when I was assisting I was lucky because I saw other girls get treated like crap or not paid very well. Even now, my name is not spelled with an “E” so sometimes I think people expect a guy when they meet me for the first time. I’ll see that flicker for a second but then it’s gone. Overall, the industry is very male dominate. So it’s nice to see girls … you know … sugar and spice—whatever.
Tell us 5 things you like to do outside of photography.
Walk my dog, take ph … oh wait, I can’t take photos. Can I? [Laughs] Spend the entire day at the movies, go to the beach, Melting Pot desserts and … watch reruns of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
Lately, it seems you’re the one being sought after for interviews and such. How does it feel to be on the otherside of the spotlight?
Kind of amusing, strange, surreal … but I don’t mind sharing stuff about work and life. I just won’t share my chocolate.
Interview date: 2/4/08
* To keep up with Brook go to her blog at http://brookpifer.blogspot.com.