Brownie Harris: Forty Years In Focus

When you walk into Brownie Harris’s office on Front Street, you may think you’ve walked into some sort of physical Shutterstock folder. There are photos of all shapes and sizes lining the wall, piled up on the desks, and spilling out from boxes on the floor.  He isn’t your typical messy madman without an organized filing cabinet. This is his life’s work, and there are hundreds of photographs spanning over four decades. He’s compiled quite the collection; he has pictures of Miles Davis, Sophia Lorren, and David Brinkley, to name a few. The back wall of his office is dominated by a larger-than-life portrait of JFK Jr., who is chuckling behind his hands. “I think he was nervous,” says Brownie, “so I said, ‘John, don’t worry about it, it’s not as hard as going to the dentist’ or something stupid like that.” The result of that fleeting moment is a rare image of the younger John that not taken by paparazzi or a family member. That photo, along with a portrait, is now in the permanent collection of the Kennedy museum.

For those of you old enough to remember Kodak’s “Brownie” cameras, the real Brownie wants you to know he was not named for that bit of technology, though it would make the perfect namesake. “I was actually named for my uncle,” he says. Both his father and uncle were avid photographers when he was a growing up in Maryland, so picking up the camera was second nature. He taught himself lighting before he ever got any proper training, and learned the rest of the basics by snapping endless shots of family pets. He graduated from VCU in 1971 with a BFA in Communication Arts and Design, then took a break to travel. He then spent one year working in Morocco and Switzerland, picking grapes and delivering wine for locals.

His first professional gig came when he returned stateside. At twenty-two he moved to New York City, and painted lofts in Tribeca while living in a small attic over a bar in SoHo. He even drove a cab for a few months. “It was just like that movie ‘Taxi’; I ended up hating it quickly,” says Brownie. A friend of his who worked at WNET, the flagship PBS station in New York City, brought him in to work as a graphic designer. There was no permanent photography department in the mid-70s, with producers relying on freelancers who could make up to 350 dollars a day. “I created their in-house department and worked as Dick Cavett and Bill Moyer’s photographer for seven years,” says Brownie. He worked with the other branches in the corporation and billed out the work at twenty-five dollars an hour.

After eight years, he got tired. “It got to the point where I felt like I was taking the same picture every day,” says Brownie. Using the same sets, the same lighting, nearly the exact same environment day in and day out might sound simple, but it’s just not that easy to get the right shot in a controlled atmosphere. He moved to industrial photography, taking shots for GE and Raytheon’s annual reports. One of his biggest challenges was the world’s largest gas turbine housed in Greenville, South Carolina.  Aside from having to use twenty-seven strobes to light the room, he was also hoisted up in the air from a crane to get the shot. “They couldn’t really stabilize the crane that well,” he said, “so I was swinging back and forth, capturing whatever I could.” He ended up using a roll and a half of film before getting the shot he needed.

He kept doing industrial work for the next seventeen years, including the Mars Observer Satellite, which was lit and shot in under an hour. This kind of work was very demanding; he would get an assignment and a location and then have to work everything out for himself. Photographing people presented a whole new challenge. In 1982 he captured Andy Warhol for the second edition of USA Today. Warhol didn’t say a word to him, which naturally got on Brownie’s nerves. “I made him turn his chair around so he would be in his own little world,” he says. While the shoot may have been hectic, a bit of technology used at the end piqued his interest. “They said ‘we are going to scan the photograph and transmit it to our printer from an AT&T satellite’,”. Like most people at the time, Brownie had no idea what scanning was. The founder of USA Today, Al Neuharth, was one of the first people to use the technology well before it became common. Brownie picked it up later, using scanned contact sheets to replace his own lost negatives.

It wasn’t until he was divorced in 1993 that Brownie came to Wilmington. His brother invited him to come down and chill out for three days, and he never left. “Why go back to New York?” he says, “I could have a house here for the same price as an apartment there.” At the time, he was still doing industrial shots for GE.  “Revolution” was the first work he did that got him involved with the film industry. At first, he had his doubts. “Why would I go back to what I had been doing in the 80s?” he says. However, his decision turned out to be one of the best he has made. “I did 20 episodes with [Revolution], and they have the best crew in the world,” says Brownie.

The work kept coming. After “Revolution”, CBS called him for “Under the Dome” with three seasons worth of work. “Secrets and Lies” picked him up next for one season, followed by “Sleepy Hollow” for two seasons. TNT recently hired him to shoot the first season of “Good Behavior” and he’s hoping to pick up some work when “Six” begins filming this month. He’s responsible for all of the promotional shots you’ll see, meaning long hours of hard work, but he enjoys it. “I love the camaraderie of the crew,” he says.

Along with the steady paychecks, he’s also been making lasting friendships with the cast and crew. “Wilmington has some of the greatest actors I’ve worked with,” says Brownie, including Giancarlo Esposito (Revolution, Breaking Bad), Tom Mison (Sleepy Hollow) and Michelle Dockery (Dowtown Abbey, Good Behavior) in his list. All of them could sense when he hadn’t gotten the shot he wanted, and would often recreate a scene just for him to capture. Tom Mison left him with an especially memorable remark that he would never forget. “When he was in theatrical school in London, the teacher told him, ‘treat the still photographer the best because that will be the first image anyone will see of you from that show,” says Brownie.

In 2010 Castle Branch CEO Brett Martin presented Brownie with an opportunity to use his photography in a completely new way. The idea, called Hearts Apart, was to provide photographs to soon-to-be-deployed service members with their families at no cost. The pictures are placed on weatherproof bi-fold cards that fit squarely in the soldier’s breast pocket. Martin wanted Brownie to head up the marketing and photography for the newborn idea. “At first I thought he was crazy,” he says. For six months, Brownie worked on marketing the project by himself and coordinated with Marine bases to shoot the photographs. It wasn’t until after an interview in October of 2011 that the project gained major traction. Even though the interviewer mistakenly said Brownie was a native of Hollywood, he appreciated the tidal wave of support that followed the broadcast.

Brownie admits he didn’t understand the significance of the project until after he had taken the first set of photos. When the couple was leaving the studio, the wife started crying, saying she didn’t think anyone cared in this country. “They really appreciate it,” he says.  There is a strong response from those in service; many send back their own pictures from deployment, holding or looking at the photograph card. “The hard part is taking the photos and not knowing whether you’ll see that person again,” says Brownie. Another special part of the project is taking photos of the babies that are born while their fathers are deployed. Brownie took one such shot of an infant wrapped in his father’s military jacket; he looked over to see the mother Skyping with her husband. “I took the camera over so he could see the picture,” he says. As you might expect, the floodgates opened up for both parents, and a couple people in the studio.

While Brownie did a lot of the legwork for the first six months, he’ll be the first to admit he couldn’t have done this without Brett. “He’s one of the most intelligent and creative people I’ve ever met,” says Brownie. Aside from him, there are over 350 photographers around the country involved in the process, not to mention wardrobe, hair and makeup, and the editors that actually assemble the cards.  Their hard work was officially recognized in 2012, when they were chosen to be honored at the White House for the Joining Forces Community Challenge.  “There was a ceremony on the South Lawn where Dr. Jill Biden mentioned us,” says Brownie, “and that really knocked us off our feet.” They completed the circuit with a walk-through at the Pentagon with the Joint Chiefs of Staff and an invitation to the Congressional floor, where they were mentioned on the official record.

Hearts Apart is still providing their services around the country; if you’re interested in being involved, or just want to learn more about the project, check out www.heartsapart.org. For more information on Brownie Harris, visit his site at www.brownieharris.com and check him out on Facebook.

By Adrian Gerth

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