For nearly a quarter century, Brent Kollock has been painting and drawing with a unique visual language that cannot be confused with anyone else. He is also an accomplished writer of short stories and poetry. But in the last few months, Kollock may have found his true calling as an artist with street photography. Looking through the lens with the eye of a painter, he picked up a digital camera. Within the space of a few months he started producing images that have been turning heads internationally, finally getting the recognition he has so long deserved.
Kollock is no stranger to photography, but just started using a digital camera in the last few months. A glance at a few SD cards worth of images in chronological order first reveals what looks like a typical, modest attempt to simply get used to a new device: Pictures of animals, the sky, various landscape shots. But then the switch is made to black and white and Kollock takes to the streets. At first you see shots of all sorts of different people caught unawares, mainly in downtown Dallas. But in addition to everyday gestures, homeless, disabled, and inebriated people start to appear and quickly become a primary theme.
Taking pictures as a painter makes for some fascinating portraits. Downtown near a DART stop, he effortlessly shoots one masterpiece after another. It's an exhilarating thing to witness and it provokes a heightened sense of awareness. Being in the presence of a creative genius hitting yet another stride is profoundly humbling. What Kollock captures on his camera looks much different than anything else we see in art or life. As simple as he makes his process look, his attention to unique details cannot be taught. Focusing on gestures moving all around him, Kollock's images are shot split-second, mostly from about 100 feet away. But his shots are so specific that he often had to point out who was just photographed.
Kollock often doesn't realize just how much detail he has in a photo until he blows it up on his computer screen. To him, it has the same feel as using a dark room for a traditional camera. He puts his SD card in a computer and photos look different than how he remembers them looking on the small screen of his digital camera. He usually works during the day. At night, he has to turn the ISO up so high that it creates noise and looks more digital. He enjoys the soft light he gets during the day and the black and white colors make the images seem timeless.
Kollock's portraits aren't just random images and he doesn't shoot hundreds of images and cherry-pick the good stuff; he is going on the same spur-of-the-moment instinct he uses for his paintings. He starts with a general idea, but doesn't know how it will be executed or what it will look like. "There are times when you just see something that you know is going to happen," Kollock explains. He will notice someone sitting down or walking and something will tell him to keep an eye on them. Kollock will put his subject in focus and wait for the shot.
"She's a good subject," says Kollock, looking at a picture waiting to happen. "That hat blowing around and sitting in that chair." He puts the woman into focus and starts reminiscing about an old friend. Then she turns around, facing him, and points at a soda can, instructing a man to pick it up. Kollock stops midsentence, takes his shot, and the results are impressive as usual. In the photograph, the woman looks like she is staring and pointing at the viewer. "There's actually a lot going on today," he says. It's a very true statement. He keeps proving his point with great photographs, wondering why so many people seem unaware of what is happening all around them. "Life is there if you want to look," he shrugs.
He has been caught in the act several times. "I would say the vast majority are fine with it," says Kollock. "I've never had a confrontation." They often tell him crazy stories and pose for pictures, but he doesn't care for those shots. However, the stories they tell are sometimes poignant, adding depth to the photographs. "To me the whole notion of street photography is getting involved and getting close to people," he continues. When he started taking pictures he was clean-shaven and had a nice haircut; people often asked him for money. Now that he has a beard people often try to sell him drugs.
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There is nothing exploitative about Kollock's photography. He truly enjoys the interactions, often sees some of the same people, and has clearly spent a lot of time thinking about them. "One of the great tragedies of our culture is that we don't take care of these people," he says. "The mentally ill, in particular. They're sick. It's like having cancer." Mental illness can affect anyone at anytime, and yet many of those inflicted are left to fend for themselves on the streets. Some of his subjects are caught in psychoses of detachment. In many cases, Kollock frames them in ways that restore dignity; sometimes they look biblical or even Shakespearean.
Kollock is currently completing a book called From Everywhere To Here, which pairs his photography with his poetry. Initially a collaboration with another photographer, he has been working on the project for years, but hopes to have it out within the next few months. His plan is for it to be the first in a series. As a writer, he has published short stories. Kollock has many interesting friends. One of them, who just happened to be dating Hilary Swank, gave actor Tommy Lee Jones one of his stories. The Academy Award-winning actor liked it so much that he met with Kollock and is considering a film adaptation.
Kollock has an upcoming exhibit of his photographs in Norway. Other exhibits, both national and international, are in the works, but not yet official. The recent attention he is getting for photography has also been rubbing off on his mixed-media paintings. These works of art are just as distinctive. He cites Francis Bacon as an influence and it is fair to say that fans of the British artist's emotionally charged, raw imagery will appreciate the aesthetic that Kollock has been perfecting for decades.
Although he may be taking photographs that are great enough to be compared to Walker Evans using a camera hidden in his coat on a subway in 1938, Brent Kollock is modest and seems to have no expectations for the future. He has been a busy, multi-talented artist living life to the fullest for years and that will not change. But in more ways than one, he now seems poised to make his mark on the art world and beyond.