Maybe, like me, you first encountered Robbie Brindley’s photography by way of social media, where his work jumped off the screen with kinetic depictions of Hot Springs revelers, fresh off the dance floor at the town’s annual Valley of the Vapors festival or frolicking in front of a minimalistic backdrop on the way in to a documentary film festival afterparty. Those frenetic images, Brindley told me, “don’t feel like me anymore. … You get a little older. You stop drinking so much. You don’t go out to bars. The newer, rearranged version of myself is calmer. And, one hopes, a little more humble.” What you’ll find in his new book, “Kudzu and the Usual Erosion,” in fact, is unabashedly still, heavy, humid. Brindley doesn’t own a digital camera anymore, and the images in ‘Kudzu’ were shot between May 2018 and November 2020 on 120 film on a Mamiya RB 67 camera — big enough to require a tripod and, Brindley told me, using a process that’s “a lot more like fishing. You have to be very calm and patient.”
In keeping with that spirit, the book is quieted by generous use of white space, and sparse captions accompanying each image. That tone was inspired, in part, by the original intentions for the photos. Before the pandemic upended art shows, Brindley — a native of Mountain Pine — had initially hoped to exhibit some of the images from ‘Kudzu’ in gallery spaces. “I was like, well, each photo would have stood on its own, with just a title, in a gallery. So let’s do the same thing with the book. No words under the photos. My wife made me put page numbers in; I didn’t even want, like, a little tiny ‘24’ below it. You know what it’s like to drive through the Delta. It’s slow. And it’s calm. And it can be a form of meditation, and I wanted people to go through the book the same way.” I talked with Brindley about the book, which might best be summed up by this passage in its introduction:
“At some point, we all start to crumble; the things that once made us feel strong are soon made weak, and remind us of just how vulnerable we are. We’re the same as an old house on a humble road or a storm moving across the Delta. We’re here and we’re strong, then we aren’t. …
This is a study on those things — on understanding childhood or the people that influenced it. It’s a constant reminder of how frail we are and how nature always wins. It’s a way of coming to terms. It’s a desire to live peacefully with demise.”
How did you pick these subjects? They don’t seem like the sorts of things you pick out beforehand as destinations, but things you happen upon on your way to somewhere else.
It was definitely just driving around. Going for a drive is a good way to deal with anything. Especially in the Delta. If someone is, like, right on my tail, I’ll just pull over and let them go around. ‘Cause I just wanna be out there and listen to NPR, or some music. There were plenty of days when I went out and didn’t even take a photo. … It’s really odd and it was scary, but I did this project without developing any of the film prior. I shot a roll and I would keep that roll. I developed it all at once. Because I didn’t want to be like, “Oh, here’s this photo, it needs this other kind of photo to complement it.” If the whole project came out and it was all roads or something — like, subconsciously, I was doing that — then that’s how I wanted it to be. A friend was telling me, “You’re absolutely an idiot, because you don’t know if you have a project or not. Like, what if the rolls all come out black or something?” But I didn’t want to have a photo and have it start to become this ego-driven thing. I just wanted it to be like when I was younger. When you’d just take a Polaroid because you felt like taking a Polaroid. … It’s very honest, and the way they were chosen is almost childlike. Just because they looked neat, or odd.
And whether or not you like it, decay is part of the South. Decay is everywhere. It’s hard to keep mold out of a house in Arkansas because it’s so humid. The grass grows fast. It’s great, but when you’re trying to be a human living in that space, it can be hard. … I wanted it to feel like West Helena in August, which is an awful thing. What’s weird is that I find those things endearing now that I’ve embraced living in the South. I started wearing tank tops, and I was like, “OK, now I get it. I look like a redneck, but I get it.” Those sorts of things are funny to me. Like, “This field is really beautiful, but do not run through it, because it’s full of copperheads.” I like it here. I find it very romantic.
Yeah. I find that as I get older, I mark the year differently. And maybe more like the way I marked it when I was a child, when the first firefly of the year felt like the beginning of something.
Yeah, and the past year did that to us, too, where we were very slowed down. You notice when the dogwoods or the Bradford pears start to bloom, like “It’s almost here.” And then it starts storming. And then the fall comes and it gets quiet. Or you mark time by how bad your allergies are.
Right?! I definitely didn’t carry Claritin with me in the car until the last few years.
We’re wisin’ up! It feels good to get older.
So obviously you took a huge risk developing the film last thing, in such a volatile way. What was your reaction when you started to see the work?
First, I was really happy to see that there were photos on the film. My friend Annie Gerber scanned all of it for me, and she’d send them to me. And I was surprised at the diversity of what I’d done. … I’m not one to trust myself. And with this project, it was very personal, because I had to trust myself, and trust what I was attracted to. … not pushing ideas away or pulling them in, and trying not to have pride in an unhealthy way.
… . If there’s anything the photos get across, it’s humility, right? It’s the idea you talk about in the book’s introduction, that nature always wins, and that we are very small, and all these things will pass.
Yeah. The losing of one’s self is a beautiful thing. I still struggle with all of those things, but I’m in a lot better place than I was before the project, as far as humility and patience. And hopefully grace and kindness.
And I wanted the work to be clean. I used to shoot a lot of Polaroid film and I liked where it looked like a painting and it was all disrupted and chaotic. But little did I know, my brain was also chaotic at the time. And this was like a come-to-Jesus kind of moment. I wore all white for a long time, to symbolically remind myself to be clean and live clean and create clean-looking work.