Letting the Fur Fly: The Photographs of Brian Berman (Part One)

A month or so ago, I got e-mail from Brian Berman, a photographer who often works with fannish subjects. Here’s part of what Berman shared with me about the trajectory of his work:

Several years ago I was watching a television report about a group of men who get together once a year, show each other their vacuum cleaners, and then race the vacuums against each other to see who can pick up the most dirt. I was immediately riveted, for obvious reasons, and then rushed to contact the president of the club. I was convinced I had to photograph them. Two months later, while flying back from Los Angeles after having done the shoot, I knew I was on to something. Since then I have been to quite a few conventions/competitions (About fifteen or so). Some of the others include Taxidermy, Furry, Cosplay, Ventriloquism, Dog Disco etc. In the summer of 2007 I photographed at Anthrocon in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and the fall prior at Onnafest in Newark, N.J. These events are represented by the photos here. I really enjoyed these events and photographing the people that attend them.

The subculture that the participants created is extremely fascinating and something which I admire. It is as if it’s their second family. It is an environment where people can create a new visions of themselves and find a place to fit in. At home they live their normal lives, and maybe they aren’t happy with that, but at the furry convention they are a sexy tiger skunk or a vicious wolf. At a Cosplay convention they possess super hero powers. They can see through walls and leap over tall buildings. For the other 362 days of the year they exist anonymously on the periphery of their high school or at their jobs or within society in general. But, on that one weekend a year when the convention happens, they can be something completely different.

These photos act as a simple catalog of these unique events, the people that attend them and the worlds they have created.

Brian was willing to let me share these images with the readers of my blog.

I’ve struggled a lot with my own reactions to these images, which sometimes strike me as haunting, sometimes comic, sometimes highly sympathetic to the subjects and sometimes coldly distanced. I am very much reminded of the work of Diane Arbus, who similarly adopted an almost clinical gaze upon subjects who are often considered “freaks” or “outcasts.” Arbus’s work continues to evoke controversy because it is often hard to tell what she feels towards the people she photographs, but the very nature of being photographed by Arbus pushes these people from the fringes of society towards greater visibility. Arbus’s photographs invite us to take a second look and in some cases, to see ourselves in people who otherwise would not garner that attention.

My sense is that Berman’s photographs will spark debates among aca-fen and I see that debate as potentially very productive. Technically, these photographs are beautifully constructed and each one shows us a distinctive human personality underneath the costumes. Does the objective gaze of the camera necessarily leave us trapped outside or is it possible for us to see some of ourselves in these people? Do these images estrange us from these Furries (featured today) or Cosplayers (featured next time)? Or do they allow us to recognize the creativity and craftsmanship of their work, the ways that they draw together personal mythology to move beyond the more mundane aspects of their everyday lives? What do you see when you look at these images?

Today’s images were taken at Anthrocon 2006 in Pittsburgh Convention Center, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

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Dehner and Tank

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Firehopper

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Fisk Black and Shane LaFleur

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Phoenix D

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Smash

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Zig Zag

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Lucy

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Lucky Dog

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Moonshadow Luna

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Silk Paws

Brian Berman was born in New York City in 1971 and grew up in the suburbs of New Jersey. After graduating from both the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and the School of Visual Arts in NYC he started shooting professionally in New York in 1996. He shoots for, and has been featured in, publications such as the New York Times, Esquire, Ojo de Pez, and Capricious Magazine. He has also been featured in shows at the Houston Photo Festival and Wallspace Gallery. The project featured here is part of larger project about how people fulfill a basic human need to fit in by creating their own subcultures. He does not watch anime or own a fursuit.