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Beauty in ruin

Rick Coates - December 1st, 2008
The buildings of the former Traverse City State Hospital (Northern Michigan Asylum) are among the most photographed in the region. The stunning architecture captures the eye of the professional and amateur photographer alike. For Geoffrey Vail Brown, just moments after setting foot inside one of the buildings yet to be restored, he visualized a photographic project of capturing “the ruins” by contrasting the gradual decay against the beauty of the nude body.
“I walked through a section of Building 50 a year ago and I was immediately struck by how the building’s architecture was such that it captured optimal lighting,” said Brown. “I saw an opportunity showcase the contrasts in the architecture by using nudes, so I have described this work as a celebration of the beauty within the ruin.”
That celebration will come this Friday night as Brown will host an opening reception at the Inside Out Gallery, located in the Warehouse District of downtown Traverse City. The evening will feature 20 originals from Brown’s collection as well as a book launch of Beauty in Ruin – The Asylum Nudes.
This is Brown’s first book of photography, which he self-published. His decision to publish a collection of photographs was driven in part by economics.
My thought with this project is that people are more likely to buy a book than go out and spend $800 to $1,200 on a print,” said Brown. “So essentially, I am testing that theory.”
As for choosing nudes versus clothed models, Brown sees it this way:
“Most of my photographic work is figurative. Had I used models with flowing dresses, that would have been a fashion shoot ,and that is something I do not do. What I wanted to accomplish was to show the contrasts, and with nudes I am able to do that. The bodies flow with the architecture and the lighting showcases the contrasts, whereas with clothed models, the focus would end up being on the fashion.”

“With these pictures the model is not necessarily the focal point of the picture. At least that is my attempt,” said Brown. “I wanted to create a balance between the scenery and the model.”
So how did Brown find the four models willing to pose completely nude for the project?
“I took out a classified ad in the Northern Express,” said Brown. “Once I find models that I like to work with, I have a tendency to use them for various projects.”
Brown started with some general concepts as he began his project. He took close to 1,000 photographs to select 100 pictures for the book.
“I was very fortunate that the Minervini’s (the developers of the restoration project of the buildings) gave me access to the buildings and permission to photograph the buildings this way. I went in with some general concepts and locations that I liked,” said Brown. “From there the photographs become a process of being half the model and half the photographer. These models were very good at adapting to the environment and made suggestions on poses based on what that felt would work.”
With the exception of one photo, only natural light was used. For Brown, this posed both the biggest challenge as well as serving as the essence of the art.
“Lighting is such a big part of photography and by committing to using only the light afforded to me naturally, that made it a challenge. It was all about timing. I did an initial walk-through with a model to get a sense for the optimal lighting and shadows,” said Brown. “Artificial lighting would have taken away what was such an important element of the original concept the architect had for the buildings.”
It took Brown about a year to complete the project from conceptualization to completion.
“In all it was a total of five photo shoots with the models, but I went in and did 10 shoots without a model first,” he said.

Brown grew up in East Lansing and took an interest in art and photography at an early age. While in high school he worked for the school paper taking sports and human interest photographs. Upon graduation, he attended college to pursue photography but as he puts it, the trappings of “the proverbial white picket fence” led him to put his camera in the closet and pursue another line of work.
In 2005, Brown felt an internal nudging to revisit, or has he puts it, “reinvent” himself.
“I began a process of reinvention. I spent a great deal of time alone, isolated from my family, friends, and sometimes, the world in general, and began looking deeper within myself, attempting to unlock those things that had been buried for many years,” said Brown “I painted. I wrote. I found a muse or two along the way. And I began shooting again on a daily basis.”
He decided to open his own studio in Traverse City.
“In the fall of 2006, I opened a new studio, and dove into my work again. Though I strove to put my focus back on photography, I wanted to produce images that went beyond merely capturing a split-second in time, and create work that was deeper, deliberate, and more emotive. While my studio is not the traditional portrait type I do take on commission work. Typically this is for people looking for something specific usually a piece of art that features them.”
During the winter months Brown puts his focus on his “hybrid” works -- a concept of blending film and digital photography. He also likes creating abstracts from his photos. Plus, Brown keeps busy with two web-based businesses.
He started MuseCube ( a portfolio hosting and talent directory service for models, photographers and artists. His ImpactFolios ( business allows artists to create their own websites.

“Business has been very good,” said Brown (whose wife runs a computer training operation in the same building as his gallery). “I started this project six years ago and now I have clients from all over the world. We have down casting calls for films and television through these sites. It is essentially a networking site for models, photographers, makeup artists and other artists.”
While his computer work is paying the bills, Brown is excited and passionate about his own artistic projects.
“I am already starting work on some new projects,” he said. “I have been focused on figurative work to this point, and now I am looking at some nature work with my own spin on it. Also, I have some ideas in conception that I could use a muse or two to help bring the projects to maturity.”
For now Brown will focus on selling his new book and prints from his Beauty in Ruin collection. Books and prints are available at the InsideOut Gallery and at Brown’s website.

Geoffrey Vail Brown will debut his “Beauty in Ruin – The Asylum Nudes” at the InsideOut Gallery December 5, with an opening reception and book launch. The evening reception (7-11 p.m.) will include wine and light appetizers and an exhibition of 20 prints from the book, with Brown on-hand to sign copies. Check out where links to his work (MuseCube and Impactfolios) may also be found. The exhibition will continue through January 7, 2009.
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