Words: Meagan Thomas
Images: Brian Kwan (film pentax67, pentax645n, Leica m2, and Leica m3)
Colorado Collective photographer Brian Kwan got involved with COCO because he loves showing off amazing people that are passionate about what they do, but Brian himself is passionate and talented. A former teacher and an avid traveler, Brian has a way of seeing and connecting with people that comes through in his photos.
How did you first start taking photos and when did you realize you were talented at it?
My dad used to have a darkroom. He had an enlarger and used to make prints. In the spring, he’d take us out to the wildflower fields in Texas and take photos of me, my sister, brother and mom. When my parents separated, I was in possession of his old Minolta X-7A film camera. Photography was my way of connecting with my dad, even though I was upset with him at the time.
I used to hate the idea of photography. I thought you could either photograph or be present, but not both. When my dad passed away, I realized that I only had a couple dozen photos of him. Most of them were very old film prints, all of which I treasure, but there were large gaps of time where he wasn’t in front of the camera at all. Since then, I’ve been a lot more intentional with photography. Everything from choosing which camera I use, to which film stock, to what time of day, to how I develop and scan the film - everything is done knowing that the photograph matters. I think talent can be tied to intention.
When did you realize you could do this as a career and what made you come to that realization?
I was sitting in one of my last Masters in Urban Education classes before graduating and I was that student who kept looking at the clock. I could not wait to leave. We were talking about privilege and bias and it was absolutely suffocating my soul. But I had a couple weddings lined up, and knew that I couldn't be a masters student, a middle school teacher, and a photographer. I could do two max, but not all three. So, I quit my masters and put all of that energy into photography. I didn't know if it was going to work or not, but I tried anyway, and here I am today. After I quit my masters, I finished my teaching year that next month and quit that too and have been a full time photographer since then.
Were you scared to quit or was it a relief to know you were trying to make something you love your job?
Quitting is scary. It's not very fun. It sounds fun and adventurous, but when it's happening, it's not fun. Luckily for me, it wasn't a cold-turkey switch. I was photographing as I was teaching so that made the transition a little bit easier when I quit teaching. I would say that that a fear as big as not making enough to live off was eventually not loving my job. Fortunately, the opposite has been happening.
What types of photos are your favorite to take?
I love portraits. I'm a portrait guy for sure. I love people and documenting a slice of where they are and what they're doing.
What is your process when setting up a photo? Do you have favorite equipment or locations?
My favorite equipment is my Pentax 67, Mamiya Universal Press with a polaroid back, my RB67, and my Leica M2. It's a lot of favorites, I know, but they're all for different purposes. For portraits of strangers, I'd say that my favorite is the Mamiya Universal Press. That's what I traveled around with in Israel instead of a digital camera, and when I was backpacking around Europe. It allowed for me to just get to know the individual, place them in good light and I'd have one shot to get it right. I'd then give the photo to them to keep or give it to their friends or family.
What do you do to regroup if you are having issues capturing the photo you want to take?
Anytime I have issues capturing the right photo I'll either switch cameras, or walk around to look for better light, or put on some music that's reflective of the mood that I'm going for. Sometimes none of that works, and that's fine too. It's all a process and no one is 100 percent all the time. More often than not I'll look back at the photos a couple months later and see that they weren't as bad as I thought they were.
What do you do when you aren't taking photos?
When I'm not taking photos I'm climbing at the Sport Climbing Center or making myself a bourbon old-fashioned, or hopping on a plane to somewhere fun.
Do you have a favorite place to travel to? Do you incorporate taking photos into your travel?
I don't have a favorite place. I've found that the countries that have a special place in my heart are the ones where I've met good-hearted, genuine people. There are good-hearted, genuine people everywhere we turn if we keep our eyes open for them. Whenever I travel, I'll carry a polaroid and a film camera so as to be present and not photograph with the intention of sharing on social media.
What is your favorite picture you've taken?
My favorite picture that I've taken was of my dad. It's an iPhone photo. There's nothing great about the photo, except for the fact that it's the last photo that I ever took of my dad. He's holding his hands out with eggs that his chickens had laid that day. I purposefully backed up and got his face in the shot.
Brian is a huge asset to Colorado Collective’s team as well as to the Colorado Springs community. Along with photography, Brian is currently working on a book with Alive Literary Agency about "the loss of baba and how that led to the most adventurous pursuit of abba." Baba is Mandarin for dad, and abba is Aramaic for heavenly father. He’s hoping to have it finished by next year.