Thirty years ago, Brian DeMint went to Missouri Southern for art—the worst art degree he could have earned at the time. Only one of his teachers, in his opinion, was a true artist–Darrel Dishman. In spite of Darrel’s watercoloring, Brian quit and went to work for Empire for thirty-three years. “What I learned about art, I learned on my own. I actually hadn’t painted anything in twenty-five years until I started shooting photography. The crucifixion scene back there was the last thing I did. All my others are ruined—I put them in storage and the roof leaked. They stuck together. Strangely enough, the crucifixion scene was the only one that didn’t get ruined. It’s like, ‘wow, that’s kind of cool… or creepy.’ Depends on what kind of life you’ve lived.”
I asked him to tell me about the first time he dressed someone up for a shot…
That’s kind of a weird statement, [chuckles]. Well… let’s see… we’ll have to skip over a couple. I think I started eight years ago around 2005. I was making websites. For twenty years I played video games. Started with an Atari 2600. Then I went through, y’know, about every iteration of console that came out. I didn’t have a Commodore 64, my buddy did. Skipped over Sega until the Genesis. Then Nintendo came out and destroyed everybody. Only game I play right now is Left 4 Dead. I play with my daughter—we kill zombies as a family. The first time we played she’s like, ‘Dad I really need to get to my homework.’ I’m like, ‘you’re not even going to school tomorrow if we don’t get to the next level.’
Anyway, I was retouching for a modeling agency because I knew photoshop from web design. I wanted to try it on my own. The agency set me up with my own model and shoot. I remember thinking… I never believed in divine destiny, not sure if I still do… but if there’s anything I was here to do, it’s this. Never had a feeling like that before. Since then, I’ve been obsessed.
He’s spends “every waking hour” studying images, art, fashion, or shooting, editing, and designing. Though he could go out on his own, he’s intent on retiring at fifty-five and then branching out. He thinks he would have to move away from Joplin to do what he wants.
When I first started, everybody was like, ‘You can never be a fashion photographer in Joplin, Missouri.” And I was like, ‘You know what? You can kiss my *ss.’ The internet has made it small. Fiori’s from Indonesia.
Brian creates fashion art. “It’s an artistic outlet with a fashion base.” He categorizes himself as creative fashion photography. Digital media changed the game, so often people refuse to consider him a fashion photographer, classifying him rather as a digital artist. Neither digital artists nor fashion photographers claim him. “For me it’s all about the finished product. It doesn’t matter how you get there, as long as you get to what you want for a finished output.”
Robert Rauschenberg, one of my favorite artists—can’t tell you how to spell his last name—came up with all sorts of new and inventive ideas for his time, him and John Cage. They did a lot of conceptual art. One of Rauschenberg’s most famous pieces is An Erased de Kooning. Basically William de Kooning was one of the most famous painters—in the fifties—of abstract expressionism. Robert Rauschenberg played with this idea of having one of de Kooning’s drawings erased and that would be the art. As he explained it, he didn’t feel famous enough. No one would care about an erased Rauschenberg because nobody knew who he was.
So he went to the most famous artist of his time (who happened to live upstairs in the same apartment building), to de Kooning, knocking on his door, hoping he wasn’t gonna be home because he’s afraid to ask. So de Kooning opened the door and he’s like, ‘Yeah, whatdya need?’ and Rauschenberg explained his idea and de Kooning’s like, ‘I understand. I’m not for it, but I understand it. I will do it, but I really want to make it something that I’ll miss, so I’m not only gonna give you a drawing, I’m going to give you my favorite drawing right now.
Rauschenberg spent a month erasing it. Rauschenberg was like, ‘He gave me a drawing that had ink and crayon and all these impossible things to erase.’ He spent a month on this paper and all you see are eraser marks and little marks. When it came out, people called it vandalism. ‘He should be arrested! He vandalized one of the greatest artists of our period. He defaced his work!’ Other people said, ‘If you could form a de Kooning in your mind, what would it look like?’ That type of thing.”
The imagination itself becomes part of the art. He also pointed to John Cage’s 4’33” in three movements:
Brian plays it in his lectures but can’t get an audience to sit through the piece. The art of 4’33” comes through ambient sounds. People reassess silence and ambience. “I did it in Dallas and had an assistant. Didn’t tell her what I was doing other than playing John Cage’s 4’33’’ and she’s like, ‘It’s not playing.’ And I’m like, ‘Yes it is.’ And she’s like, ‘There’s no sound. We can’t hear the sound.’ She came up and started fiddling with stuff and I’m like, ‘I assure you it’s playing.’ And she’s like, ‘Dude, there’s no sound.’ And I’m like, ‘I know.’”
“[chuckles] They didn’t know what was going on, so I’m sure they thought I was a lunatic.”
Those artists, people who subvert the status quo, who say something that we’ve forgotten how to say, inspire DeMint. He hates perimeters. “Ernest Holmes—‘All limitations are self-imposed.’ Comes from metaphysics.”
I mentioned G.K. Chesterton’s quip that art, like morality, consists of drawing the line somewhere, but he considered that ideology narrow. “An Erased de Kooning showed us that our work can be nothing.” Because of this, Brian tries to be conservative when speaking for certain crowds.
When lecturing for PPA, one of their big draws is their print competitions. For him, print competitions reward people for staying in the perimeters of what the PPA views as correct art. That’s why he urges against participation in such competitions and invites no critiques of his own art.
I’d been shooting for a couple of years and I had a guy write me. ‘You’re Brian DeMint. I just want you to know I hate every single image you’ve ever produced.’ My first reaction was like, ‘G*d, I suck!’ But then I realized that maybe the things this guy likes were baseball and, y’know, chinese food and Dallas Cowboys and crap that I freakin’ hate. Maybe he’s a demographic that I wouldn’t even want to like my work, I’d be embarrassed if they would like… put my picture on the side of their molester van. [Chuckles for awhile]. My goal has never been to please anybody but myself.”
Critics never malign him for fashion photography, but he gets hammered now and again for certain images. Once he shot an image of Jesus. “I never could really understand why everybody wa… well not everybody, a lot of people loved the image. There’s nothing that’s blasphemous in the image at all to me. It’s just a picture of a guy looking like Jesus, standing there, his palms are displayed. We had the nails through the hands, the spear in the side. When I put that image out (this was back on MySpace) I was shocked to get responses back that said, ‘This is blasphemous! You’re going to hell!’ and stuff. I could never understand why, and like I said, I don’t argue. But evidently they were seeing something in the image that I wasn’t seeing.”
He just wanted to shoot a picture of… well… Jesus. The craziest part about it was that it just… happened. He doesn’t sit at home generating “deranged ideas.” When models come into the studio, then ideas emerge. He’s not sure what prompted the Jesus image, but something about that kid prompted Brian’s suggestion for a crucifixion image. The kid agreed. Dena (his wife, makeup artist, and hair stylist) used latex for the marks on the hands. “And I know in Biblical whatever that it’s supposed to be through the writs, but I was thinking artistic. Maybe because I love Byzantine art. I love Byzantine art.” Dena grabbed some grapevines off the shed in the back. Though DeMint wanted a cross, he had no room. Plus there was something spiritual and haunting about this pose of him standing there. People responded with admiration or condemnation, but all of that was neither here nor there for Brian.
Criticism came in often during his early days when he shared his self-mutilation series. “People needed to be aware what kids are doing in their bedrooms and bathrooms. My God, I’ve got kids coming in here with scars running up and down both arms like they got back from the war.…When I found out at the start a girl came in with cuts on her arms and I said, ‘What kind of a moron would end up with the same cuts up and down both arms?’ You know? And she’s like, ‘I did it myself?’ And I was like, ‘WHY?! Why would you do that?’
“And she was like, ‘I was a cutter.’ And I was like, ‘What does that mean?’ Cause I didn’t know. I learned and I started to watch for it.”
To see more about Brian DeMitt’s influence, check out this photoshoot by Mark Neuenschwander of 9art photo.
This installment continued in next week’s Ask The Experts…
PS> If you have spent a significant amount of time on something, you might be an expert worthy of an interview. Send an email to lanceschaubert [at] gmail.com – I will take on all kinds of people from celebrity to lone wolf, filthy rich to newly bankrupt, foreign or domestic. “But Lance, what if everyone that knows me has no clue that I’ve spent so much time on this?” Email me anyways.