Julie Dennis Brothers talks to us about how she got her start, what she uses on a shoot, and how she balances the commercial with the personal.
There is a parable, source unknown, that Julie Dennis Brothers treasures because it embodies the essential truth of her life experience—the tale of the cracked vessel. It seems there was a water bearer who went to the stream every day carrying two large pots, one on each side, to bring water back to his master’s house. One of the pots was perfect and always delivered a full portion of water at the end of the long trek, but the other was cracked and always arrived half full. After two years, the cracked pot spoke sorrowfully to the water bearer, lamenting his defect. "I am so ashamed of myself for letting you down and not supporting my end of the bargain." "Yes, I understand," said the water bearer, "but look along your side of the road and you will see a beautiful flower bed that would have been impossible without your defect. By means of your fault you have watered the ground, manifesting the force of life in another form. Indeed, it is not a fault, but a gift."
Brothers was born in the middle-class California Valley town of Woodland Hills, and nothing seemed amiss until age eight, when her third-grade teacher called to inform her parents that their otherwise bright and vivacious daughter did not know how to read. After testing, the reasons became evident: her vision was so bad she could not see the blackboard, much less read the words, and to complicate matters, she had a form of dyslexia. "I was soon wearing glasses that looked like Coke-bottle bottoms," she quips.
Could there possibly be an upside to this heavy-duty diagnosis? Yes, indeed. Every time the class had gone to the library, Julie had naturally gravitated to the picture book section, becoming completely absorbed in stories told in pictures, and animal illustrations and photographs. "My spatial awareness skills really blossomed at that time, and my sensitivity to the visual dimension was definitely heightened by studying photographs," she says. "I think I must have developed some innate sophistication in composition and the use of space."
By high school, Julie was well on the road to overcoming her dyslexia and discovered she had a genuine talent for math and science—she was especially adept at geometry, trigonometry, and chemistry—although she was still "uncomfortable" with English and history. Since junior high school, she had been assisting her veterinarian dad during the summers, so with her science background and her parents’ encouragement, she entered UC Santa Barbara as a pre-med major. "By applying my visual capacity, I could see molecular structures in my head, which was a great help in studying college chemistry, and I found I could chunk a lot of information in math as well," she recalls. "I also took a few photography classes because I enjoyed the art of it, and passing some time creatively, but I thought of them as basically elective fun courses." Brothers got her first inkling that her photographic abilities might portend something more significant when she was invited to submit some of her photographs to the UC Santa Barbara annual art show, and her roommate, an art major, wasn’t so honored. "I felt bad for her, but I didn’t take much of it personally," she says. "My attitude was ’everyone can do art.’"
The critical turning point for Brothers came in her junior year in 1983, when she took a month’s vacation in Europe, armed with nothing more than a Eurail Pass, 300 bucks in her pocket, and a camera. "I went everywhere the train took you," she remembers, "and I shot lots of pictures, mostly scenics and landscapes taken from the train. When I got back to school, I assembled the images into a slide show, which I projected for Linda Lebovics, a friend of mine who was majoring in journalism." Linda was astonished with Julie’s images. "You’re a natural—you should be a photographer!" she enthused. Julie, unsure of her post-graduation plans and bored with the humdrum of the college grind, gave the idea serious consideration. "Finally, much to the dismay of my parents, who thought I’d make a great doctor, I decided to do the unpredictable thing and become a photographer."
When serendipity strikes, it doesn’t always knock discreetly; it sometimes blows the door right off its hinges. Happily, such was the case for Julie Dennis Brothers, who was initially drawn to landscape and scenic photography. It just so happened that her next-door neighbor was the late, great Joseph Muench, a renowned landscape photographer, who proceeded to teach Julie the fundamentals of landscape photography by encouraging her to shoot the cactus in his own garden. "He also had an awesome library of images of Native Americans he’d photographed in the late ’20s," she recalls, "and he told me how he would bring them coffee and sugar, and they would let him practically live with them and take unposed pictures. Muench is remembered mainly for his phenomenal western landscapes published in Arizona Highways and other mainstream magazines, but he also had an abiding interest in and respect for human culture, and I think that has influenced me too."
So, Julie Dennis Brothers became a full-time landscape photographer, but soon found out it wasn’t such a great way to make a living. Shortly afterward, a promised position as a photographer for a magazine fell through and, as she wistfully admits, "I went back home broke, with my tail between my legs, and had to endure my parents’ disapproval. But I also realized that I knew how to shoot the great outdoors, that photography was my passion, and that I just needed to develop some additional skills. So I enrolled in a class in architectural photography at the UCLA Extension. It was there that I also learned I could support myself by assisting other photographers, and that’s exactly what I did for the next four and a half years. I assisted architectural photographers, car photographers, fashion and celebrity photographers . . . and believe me, there is no better on-the-job training. You work your butt off, but what you learn is priceless."
Brothers’ big break came when she was assisting Bob D’Amico, a full-time internal network photographer at ABC TV. "The head of the photography department was evidently impressed with what I was doing, and he asked me to work full time for six weeks. Instead of meekly accepting what amounted to a nice assignment, I demanded to know ’What, as an assistant or as a photographer?’" "Both," he replied. "Well, that six weeks turned into nine months, and it was during that period I was able to build a fairly impressive celebrity portfolio. Then, they decided to ’cut the fat,’ as they put it, and I was let go. But by then I had just enough feathers on my wings, and had made a sufficient number of connections at ABC, to be able to wing it on my own. That was really the beginning of my career, 18 years ago. As a celebrity photographer with a track record, I was able to work in that genre. Today, as then, I am really a one-person business, but I do have an East- and a West-Coast agent, as well as a full-time studio manager."
One of the underlying reasons for Brothers’ success is her uncanny ability to adapt her mindset to suit different genres. "It’s like landing a plane in completely different environments," she says. "You have to use a different approach when you’re landing at sea level or at high altitude." With celebrity portraits and fashion photography, her approach is freewheeling and intuitive. "To capture the essence of your subjects and bring your unconscious truth to the image, you have to develop skills in navigating an invisible playing field, what I call the ether of the spontaneous. By embracing this ethereal aspect of serendipity, trusting and letting go rather than intellectualizing, you can actually believe that something great will find you, and it usually does. You have to go with your intuition. Fortunately, the editorial world usually allows you to express yourself in this way because it places a high value on spontaneity and unfettered creativity." Included in her celebrity portfolio are memorable images of Angelina Jolie, Jimmy Carter, Phil Collins, Lucy Liu, Mark Wahlberg, Jada Pinkett, Enrique Inglesias, LL Cool J, and Rosario Dawson.
"Advertising photography is quite different," she observes, "because the basic concept is nailed down through a process that takes place in the marketing department. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a can of beer or a movie, the basic idea of how to promote it is already in place and it’s the artist-photographer’s job to internalize that concept, and then to articulate it and bring it to life in visual form. In short, I must ask myself, how can I take this soulless matrix and fill that matrix with soul. It’s the same question faced by performing artists like actors and musicians, namely how can they take the unadorned words or notes on a printed page and transform them into living characters or real music. The answer is by using the established framework as a vehicle for conveying emotion and expression."
There is yet another aspect to Julie Dennis Brothers’ work, and it may well be the most emotional of all. It's the personal or non-commercial side. As she proclaims, "The biggest and best-kept secret of really letting your creativity go wild is to volunteer. Nothing is more egoless or empowering than being a vessel; that is, making yourself available to others with no thought of personal gain." One day, perusing the L.A. Sunday Times, she happened to read an article on a non-profit organization dedicated to bringing kids from all corners of the former Yugoslavia together to attend summer camp. These were Serbian, Croatian, and Muslim kids who had been deprived of their childhood by the ravages of war. Here they would come together and play. They would meet their so-called enemies face to face, get to know each other, heal their emotional wounds, and perhaps even make friends. Brothers was determined to help the organization by using her considerable talents to document this transformation.
When Brothers approached the founders of the organization with her idea only four days before camp was scheduled to begin, they were suspicious of her motivations. Besides, they didn’t know her from Eve, her timing was atrocious, and they had no money for film, processing, or accommodating another person. Brothers was passionate and committed. "Whether I go or not, I want to present you with 150 single-use cameras that were made available to me by Kodak and PRS rental service so these kids can take pictures of one another," she told them. That got their attention. She then "made them realize that I was willing to do the entire project on my own dime, paying for my own, film, processing, and other expenses." Finally, she agreed to sponsor one child’s stay at the camp at an out-of-pocket cost of $2,000. They finally understood that they were dealing with someone very special, and they agreed to let her be the official photographer.
Ironically, she was only able to stay at the camp for 10 days because she had to fly back to the States early for an advertising and publicity photo shoot for the Seinfeld show. But even in that short time, she managed to create a poignant documentary that, standing on its own, could serve to establish her credentials as a photojournalist of the first rank. You can see some of these beautifully executed and heartfelt images by going to the personal section of her website. Brothers also incorporated the pictures into a handmade book to help the founders raise money and bring public awareness to this unique and compassionate humanitarian project.
While Julie Dennis Brothers has clearly established herself as a master of specific genres, she is essentially a free spirit who bristles at the thought of being type cast. "I don’t want to be classified as representing one particular frame of mind," she states emphatically. "I have attained my wings and I fly wherever I choose. Being a photographer is like being an explorer, which is why so many photographers grew up loving the National Geographic. What they do is emblematic of the creative process of photography itself—you get to go on a journey of exploration, even opening peoples’ closets if you like. Your clients or sponsors trust you to come back with the gold. It’s like kings and queens in the age of exploration sponsoring explorers to venture out into the far reaches of the known universe and come back with untold riches. They contracted with those explorers because of who they were, people capable of bringing back something of great value. Photographers are the same, only our sponsors send us out to bring back treasures to share with the world, and that’s even better."
To say that Julie Dennis Brothers is an immensely talented photographer who has built a successful career by using her artist’s eye and instincts to create memorable and compelling celebrity, lifestyle, and advertising images is to state the obvious. To add that her photographs display an uncommon mastery of composition, lighting, and technique, and a brilliant ability to conceive and express ideas and emotions in graphic form is something that is immediately evident to anyone viewing her portfolio. What is far from obvious is how she achieved all this, not merely by overcoming her disabilities, but by transforming them into the very creative force that underlies her artistry.