Capturing time in black & white

March 15, 2019

MICHIGAN CITY — While walking the shores of Lake Michigan, area resident Joel Brussell used to be in the habit of collecting fossils.

He searched after Petoskey stones and coral, evidence of the equatorial climate dominating the region some 350 million years ago when it used to be more like the Caribbean, and there used to be coral reefs.

Head always down, Brussell liked to think of himself as a snorkeler on land, sifting through the sands for a new prize.

But one day, about two and a half years ago, he looked up.

Something about the play between the sky (with moving clouds) and the water of Lake Michigan caught his attention. He pulled out his iPhone and took a picture. Then he moved on.

Later, when he looked at the photo, he didn’t think it was half bad. So on his next fossil hunt he pulled out his camera again.

That’s how Brussell, a full-time Michiana resident for the past 20 years, describes his first incursion into digital photography, and what led him to his current artistic focus.

His photographs, black and white and largely sans people, feature deserted landscapes exploring the interaction of water and sand, 2-inch tall icicles distorted to the size of massive sculptures, and manmade structures left abandoned on the shoreline.

And that work will be on display at the Michigan City Public Library, 100 E. 4th St., starting with a reception 4 p.m. Friday. During the event, Brussell will talk to visitors about his work and what led to its creation. Ten prints will be on display, all taken within five miles of the library.

“I like to capture a little otherworldly-ness in something you see, or may see, every day,” Brussell said. “And that’s why the angle of the camera and perspective can be very important.

“You see something that looks ordinary, but if you change the angle of the camera and the composition in front of your eyes, it might take you someplace else.”

Although most of this work is recent, Brussell originally dabbled in photography in his 20s, when professionals were still using film and developing it themselves in darkrooms. He wasn’t a fan of the technical end.

“If I did one print, there would be a cat hair on it. If I did it again, there would be a dog hair. Or dust,” he said. “It didn’t fit into my less than immaculate personality. Too many variables.”

He also needed to develop his pictures first to see if there were any composition issues. When photographing icicles, that could be problematic. The ice can melt, or melt and refreeze into a different shape by the time he develops the film, discovers the mistake, and gets back out to photograph it again.

Digital photography, however, allows him to see the results immediately, and take more pics until it’s right.

“I still use my iPhone for shooting,” he said. “I don’t have a camera, which, for some of the things I shoot, is very handy. Some places would be hard to put a decent-sized camera.

“A lot of the time I will shoot with the camera really low to give an exaggerated impression of size… And a lot of the time I shoot blind.”

For Brussell, intention is overrated.

“It’s been my philosophy that you stumble into most things in life.”

Prior to photography, he focused on writing, namely a form of comedic poetry based on absurd moments in life and “milking them for all they’re worth.”

Back in the ’80s he wrote a spec script for “It’s Gary Shandling’s Show” on Showtime. It centered around a comedian who discovers, while eating a rack of hot ribs, that blowing into them creates beautiful pan music. This eventually leads to a competition between Shandling and noted pan flutist George Zamfir.

The script was never produced, but made it to a writer and cast member on “Saturday Night Live,” who forwarded it to the producers of the then in development sketch comedy show, “In Living Color.”

Brussell said producers initially offered him a writing position, but later rescinded the offer due to concerns over staff diversity (having too many “white Jewish writers,” he explained). This was after he lined up an apartment in L.A.

“That was nerve wracking to say the least,” he said.

He later turned down an offer to write comedy for a TV show similar to “America’s Funniest Home Videos,” and decided to remain in the Midwest.

About the upcoming exhibit, Brussell said 90 percent of the photographs were taken within 4 or 5 blocks of his home in Michiana.

“Many of the same places I go to to shoot pictures are the same places I go to for rocks,” he said. “The goal is to shoot images that look timeless.”

This isn’t Brussell’s first exhibit. He’s shown his work at the Box Factory for the Arts in St. Joseph, Michigan, and Fernwood Botanic Gardens in Niles, Michigan. He’s also expecting a show in April at The Nest in Michigan City.

For more information on Brussell’s work, or to purchase prints, visit his website at brussellphotography.com. For more information on Michigan City Public Library, call (219) 873-3044 or go to mclib.org.