Brian Oglesbee

All images below © Brian Oglesbee, All rights Reserved.

Brian Oglesbee was one of the first photographers I met in NYC. I remember seeing references of his work on random blogs and I specifically remember being shocked as most people are, that his images are no trickery. No digital manipulation or layering whatsoever, they are what the camera sees. Everything is shot in one go and Brian Oglesbee with his 4×5 (Large – Format) camera creates these fantastic compositions that look mysterious, graceful and sometimes just feel impossible to catch with one trip of a shutter. As soon as you think about how he did it, he has you. Brian’s beautiful work was recently compiled into a coffee table book called Aquatique.

Here is a cool story… Tony award winner Julie Taymor, so highly regarded for her creative productions such as THE LION KING on Broadway and the movies TITUS, FRIDA and ACROSS THE UNIVERSE came across Brian’s work while flying across the country. She picked up a copy of Entertainment Weekly from the seat-back in front of her and saw a piece called “View Masters” which listed the “Ten best coffee-table photo books”. The article was illustrated with a picture from “Aquatique“. This was the exact image that she fell in love with.

This image struck her so hard that she felt it was exactly what she was looking for as the embodiment of the character, Ariel, for her upcoming big-screen adaptation of Shakespeare’s, “The Tempest”. (Releasing Fall 2010 and starring Helen Mirren, Felicity Jones, Reeve Carney, Ben Whishaw, Chris Cooper, Russell Brand, Alfred Molina, David Straithairn, Tome Conti and Alan Cumming). She ordered “Aquatique” and showed it to cinematographers and special-effects people to see if they could figure out how these images had been acheived. None could so they decided to contact Brian to see if he would be interested in exploring the possibilities of working together.

A quote from Julie about Brian’s work

“Brian’s Water Series was a tremendous inspiration in the conception of my film of THE TEMPEST. His surreal play with nature and the human form is not only visually exquisite but quite mysterious and moving. Amazingly, it is shot without any digital or visual effects enhancement, and thus it has a true visceral feel while the play of lighting on the figures and the elements is magical.” – Julie Taymor

A little side story, Three years ago when Aquatique was hot off the press and only Mandy (Brian’s wife) had seen it, Brian was coming through the city, had the very first copy in his hands when he decided to meet this new kid in town namely Manjari Sharma.I wasn’t just lucky enough to have hit it off  super well with Mr. Oglesbee, but I also got to witness the very first copy of this book! Brilliantly printed and a joy to have and hold. Later I got the most awesome chance to to work with both Julie Taymor and Brian on this project in Brian’s massive studio in Welsville, NY. Here is a A view into Brian Oglesbee’s studio. Also the image above is Aquatique posters at Barnes and Nobles on 6th avenue in Manhattan. Brian and I hung these posters together!

Q and A with Brian Oglesbee

1) Tell us a little bit about “Aquatique” and how long you have you been shooting until you felt it was ready to be shared with the world?

My “Water Series”, which became the book, “Aquatique”, began simply as a single test and a challenge to myself to see if I could create a realistic looking natural body of water in my studio.
The story begins with two black & white pictures separated by 15 years. I had been working exclusively in color all that time doing 8×10 room scenes and still-life images, I hadn’t been working with the figure for a while and I decided it would be really interesting to do something different when someone offered to model for me. I decided to revisit an old black and white image from 1978 and ‘resolve’ it. Instead of 8×10 film though, I borrowed from my commercial work and used Type 55 Polaroid, which gave you a positive proof print and a 4×5 negative simultaneously. I was pleased with the result but didn’t know what to do with it, it wasn’t part of any series or body of work. Now, because it inspired what followed, I call that “Water-Series-00”

Normally, I let the picture (or pictures) I’ve been working on tell me what to do next. Many of my best pictures have been ‘suggested’ by things I see in previous images. Looking at the picture I had just done, I thought it be cool if the objects floating in the air were actually floating in water. So, I began thinking about what it would be like to work with water in the studio. I realized that for my purposes water itself is actually invisible.

What makes water look like water is mostly due to the character of its surface as it reflects and refracts. We see what is in it, reflected by it or refracted by it. When we look at water in nature we’re usually seeing the sky reflected by the surface of the puddle, pond, or river, etc. I figured that in nature water is always in motion, and the surface is usually shaped by wind, gravity and mechanical disturbances like swimming and splashing.

Along the way I learned to control the ‘optics’ of water to create fields of lensing bubbles and surprisingly other-worldly effects:

Intended simply as a test, I was very pleased with the naturalness of the image and immediately thought it would be interesting to refine the elements and make more elaborate images

Each new picture seemed to suggest further avenues to explore and over the next few years I had quite a collection of Water Series images. People who saw them would often say they should be made into a book. After a few false starts, an executive of Palace Press saw some of my prints through the window of the Volakis Gallery. The result is “Aquatique: Photographs by Brian Oglesbee”, published by Insight Editions (an imprint of Palace Press)

2) Did you have any particular inspirations for “Aquatique”?

I like to challenge myself in my work and I get inspiration from doing things I have never done. The human figure is perhaps the most powerful symbolic icon and working with it can be inspiring, too. In all but one of the photographs in Aquatique, the camera, or viewer, is on one side of the surface of the water and the figure is on the other. Sometimes the camera is above and sometimes below, yet it is always focused on the surface of the water, which I see as a metaphorical membrane, intended to symbolize that which separates—and binds—the physical and the spiritual.

3) Tell us a little bit about being on set for The Tempest

Because my work is done entirely in front of the camera and there are no post-exposure effects manipulations, Julie thought we might be able to get some amazing things to happen. So she came to my studio in Wellsville, NY, and together we experimented with my techniques and digital video equipment to see how it might translate into moving pictures. After our successful testing here at my studio the sets were duplicated and greatly enlarged (to accommodate moving actors and cameras) in the former Brooklyn Navy Yards at Steiner Studios.It felt like I was having an ‘out-of-studio’ experience. I went there periodically as the sets were being constructed to make sure they would work and for some testing with stand-ins in place of the actual actors.

When I work in my studio there is just the model and me. For The Tempest, when we did the actual filming, there were 50 or 60 other people in addition to the actors. In my studio I do everything except pose for the camera. At Steiner Studios it seemed there was a special person for every conceivable thing. There were people for handling the lights, the camera, the foliage, the set, etc. If something needed to be moved there was someone whose job it was to move that thing.

(The image below is while the shooting on the set of The Tempest was still in progress at the Brooklyn Navy Yards)

4) Was it complicated to translate your still images and tailor them to be used in a motion-based piece? Can you share with us some challenges you had to tackle perhaps?

The translation to motion-based imagery wasn’t complicated for me, in fact, it actually felt very ‘normal’; like I was working on a Water Series picture. After all, Water Series pictures always involve the motion of the water. I think it may have been strange for some of the people there who had no experience working the way I do. Julie Taymor and Lynn Hendee, one of the executive producers, had been in my studio for some time working with me so they had an idea of what to expect but for the majority of the people there I think it was a new and different experience.

(The image below is while the shooting of The Tempest was still in progress at the Brooklyn Navy Yards, Pictured in there are Brian Oglesbee and Julie Taymor)

What I expected to be the main difficulty is what might be called the ‘patience factor’. In order to be in one of my pictures involving water you have to be very patient. There is a lot of set-up and tweaking that has to take place, and because the water is always moving you have to be prepared to shoot the same thing over and over until you get it just right. I had no experience working with movie stars like Dame Helen Mirren and Ben Whishaw so I was very surprised to find out how patient they could be. I was truly impressed with their patience and profiency as we worked on the scenes. I have to say they were very easy to work with and so professional in their approach.

5) What was is like to work with Julie Taymor?

Julie was great to work with. She is very down-to-earth and, of course, very creative. I enjoyed my time working with her. In fact, everyone I worked with on the film was very, very nice.

(Below is a shot from Brian’s studio in Upstate, NY. The flat-screen in the foreground shows some of the transitions of the initial test film shot and in the background is Julie Taymor working away.)

6) What is next for you project wise?

I’ve been working on a new body of work called, for now, Figure/Foliage. I’m pretty excited about it. I’ve been working on it for a little over a year (which is not very long at all for me) but I’ve been able to produce quite a few new pictures I’m excited about:

I also want to produce some new pictures for the Water-Colors series I started a few years ago but put aside while “Aquatique” came out and The Tempest was being shot, etc. I’m looking forward to working on these pictures again:

After this greatly insightful interview I would like to leave you with this incredible video interview of Brian Oglesbee that aired on AOL UK

And I would suggest get your own copy signed by Brian Oglesbee by contacting him directly at this email address:, don’t wait too long, I already have mine!

All images above © Brian Oglesbee, All rights Reserved.

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8 Responses to “Brian Oglesbee”

  1. Ed Says:

    What a fantastic interview. Your blog and work is excellent. I am a big fan of Julie Taymor and now Brian Oglesbee’s work. Thank you again for a great interview. I’ll be emailing him to see if I can get a signed copy of “Aquatique”

  2. Brian Oglesbee, Julie Taymor, The Tempest « Manjarisharma’s Blog Says:

    […] those of you that don’t know about this story…. you should refer to this post of mine for the back story on how I know Brian and got to meet […]

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