We live in an awful world. Or at least we think we do.
In a world where beauty is just around the corner, we need to fall in love with ourselves again and connect with the power that surrounds us. We are all guilty of taking too much for granted and we don’t take a moment to appreciate the chance encounters we are fated to be a part of, or the love shared through the power of art. One such chance encounter, has led to a deepened friendship, a friendship where art and respect has stemmed from the depths of something magical.
Nathan Browning, an innovative photographer and artist, caught the eye of the Rolling Stones’ guitarist, Ronnie Wood in 2010.
With a passion to create something honest and emotive, it’s no surprise that that his work has garnered the attention that it has; Nathan Browning has a talent for capturing the underlying essence of his subjects, a flair for portraying the deepest of stories without saying much at all. Boasting a natural charisma and loving personality, Nathan Browning speaks fondly of his chance encounter with the aforementioned Ronnie Wood, subconscious aesthetics and self-discovery.
“As far back as I can remember I would use my dad’s film camera”, Browning began, “I would experiment taking photographs of flowers and cars driving past, I would experiment with the shutter to try and freeze the cars still”. With an Instagram flashback to a twelve year old Nathan Browning posing with a camera would suggest, art was always a passion during school, it was a subject that, unsurprisingly, he excelled at. “However”, he adds, “when I was 16 and about to leave school my art teacher told me, ‘whatever you do when you leave here, don’t do art because there is no money in it!’. So I followed my father’s footsteps and studied engineering at King’s College in London”.
A disheartening misconception to say the least, but it is a sentence bandied around designed to disengage any love [we] have for anything creative, because surely they’re right. It’s not worth it is it?
Alas, it is worth every ounce of your time, money or otherwise, and though in this story it took a broken relationship to realise missing dreams, Nathan Browning took charge of his life and embarked on a career change to follow his passion. “My girlfriend of the time bought a digital camera for herself, but I started using it, and she was so annoyed by me using it that she bought another for my 29th birthday! I starting posting on FaceBook and I was getting really good feedback, I started building a a portfolio, met Ronnie Wood and… the rest is history!
My friendship with Wood began after I spotted the guitarist and his then girlfriend in Chelsea, West London” continues Browning, “it was 2010 and I offered them a lift in my car. I turned on the ignition, completely forgetting that I had just been listening to a Rolling Stones CD. [Their track] ‘Under my Thumb’ comes on, Ronnie’s playing air guitar, and I kept looking to my left thinking, ‘Is this really happening?’ It was crazy. When I dropped the couple off, Wood agreed to let me take some photographs. He was so impressed by the results he allowed me to shoot him at his home and on tour”. This would be the start to a growing relationship that saw Wood lend a truthful hand in putting Nathan Browning on a road to clean-living after years of substance abuse, “Ronnie has fought his own battles with drugs and alcohol, and he introduced me to Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous (I began experimenting with class A drugs when I was thirteen years old); he shared stories with me of his struggle with substance abuse and when I failed to appear at one concert after blacking out following a drinking binge, Ronnie called to find out where I was and, when I admitted what had happened, the musician offered to help. That was when the journey of sobriety started and I have now been clean for five years”.
Nathan Browning cites Alan Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac as influences, particularly during the Beat Poets period in New York. Ambient and mysterious, Browning differentiates himself from pure portrait photographers by combining poetry within his photographs; his prose are either focused on the subject of the photograph or the photograph is influenced by the prose itself. There is an inspired depth of emotion within the layer’s of Brownings artwork, and with this a timeless journey is ensued. Philanthropy is another driving force in Nathan Browning’s life and he is involved in a number of charitable organisations at home and overseas. For example, Browning’s recent “HEROES” exhibition for the charity United Aid For Azerbaijan was focused on the carers of children in institutions in Azerbaijan. Nathan curated the HEROES exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in Baku.
“The HEROES project came about because m son is half Azeri (his mother is from Azerbaijan)”, adds Browning, “and I felt that I wanted to give back using my skills as a photographer because I felt my son was very privileged to be born in the UK. I worked for the charity United Aid for Azerbaijan photographing children in institutions. These images were exhibited at the museum of modern art in Baku. I continue working for UAFA whenever I can, I am also the director of art’s education for a UK charity called Inspire You Trust, which helps children in favelas in Brazil through art, sport, health and spirituality”.
The portraits in the series are honest, they have a haunting air that captures the reality of the situation. Tinsel adorns light fittings and stuffed animals are neatly aligned, and whilst the glances may be fleeting, the gaze of a child is never lost. There is a certain sense of content within themselves, they aren’t familiar with anything different, but it grasps the viewer with a force that unhinges our comfort. You learn to see how far our circumstance can stray from another, and we recognise that we are privileged to have been raised in a country where these facilities are often taken for granted and abused. It is cliche to note that a photograph can spell a thousand words, but the look in these carers eyes shows perseverance for a cause they believe in, the souls of our future.
Though renowned for portraits, both in popular culture and otherwise, Browning’s other personal projects take a different approach in style and aesthetic. “Blur” has no qualms in adhering to the definitive accolade it has been given; we see muted colours and abstract shapes forming recognisable scenes. There are snippets of detail seeping through as we long to indulge in the moment. “Art Intervention” on the other hand is a fusion of multi-media and endearing concepts. “I love working with people”, says Browning, “and I am fascinated about the stories and the characters of the people’s portraits. However, I always feel quite limited with just a camera so I use art and spontaneous prose on my photographs to add another dimension that the camera can’t reveal. It’s a very personal things and I find it very therapeutic in the creative process. I like images that give off an energy that creates a feeling that I feel the blurred images do. It allows the viewer to interpret however they want”.
It is this level of interpretation that transcends across the entirety of Nathan Browning’s portfolio. With artistic pieces it it an inevitability that you and I will see two completely different things, but even within a portrait there are glimpses towards something more; whilst you might see just see a beautiful face and appreciate the craftsmanship, I might see the weight of the world through the subject’s eyes, the subconscious choices made every day, the notion of willingness to open up to a complete stranger, and that is what we begin to see here with Nathan Browning’s work. Though firstly commissioned to contribute to album artwork, Nathan Browning formed a close friendship with Ronnie Wood and began to photograph, not only his professional life, but those private and enchanting intimate moments too.
London plays host to Nathan Browning, it’s both his home and working environment. After studying at King’s College, Browning began to study privately with renowned Royal Photographer, David Montgomery; he worked with Montgomery for two years and became his assistant photographer for a further year before going solo. David Montgomery does however continue to mentor Browning, and when talking about these moments he says, “I had reached a stage in my career when I felt that I needed more professional direction. I knew people who had studied with David, and I had also met his son Max, who is also a photographer in New York. I begun my studies with David when I moved back to London from St. Tropez after living there for half a year.
David is a huge inspiration in my life” he continues, “he taught me how to use light and how to analyse a photograph. He continues to mentor me, I always ask his advice and he is always available for me. Each time I do a shoot, to this day, I have David’s voice in my head directing me”.
The “London Seen” exhibition, which continues through till this Sunday, is set within a beautifully restored 18th Century townhouse that was originally built for officials of the Royal Family; The Exhibitionist Hotel offers eight galleries for visual artists to showcase their work, with two penthouse suites having been completed by the Swedish design duo Jimmie Martin, who enthroned Madonna and turned photographer Terry O’Neill’s iconic images into couture furniture, and rock chic designer Squint. “London Seen” as a collective, was the idea of Guy Portelli, an artist who has gained a reputation for classical sculpture and continued to work to secure backing to develop his “Pop Icon” collection, which is subsequently exhibited alongside Nathan Browning’s never-seen-before photographs of Ronnie Wood. Sculptures of Elton John, Amy Winehouse, Jimi Hendrix and The Spice Girls (amongst others) highlight the age of an icon and suppport the exhibition; “Guy Portelli has been a friend of mine for many years” adds Browning, “I admire his Pop Icon sculptures, which are based on musical icons, ‘London Seen’ was his idea whilst we were all sitting in a bar. The Exhibitionist Hotel had approached me and once I had taken on a tour of the hotel and understood their concept, which I loved, I felt this would be the perfect platform to launch the exhibition, and hence I feel this is the perfect collaboration [with Guy Portelli]”.
Guy Portelli commented, “I am honoured to show my work alongside Nathan’s images of Ronnie Wood and there is great synergy between my ‘Pop Icon’ sculptures and Nathan’s images of the icon that is Ronnie Wood”. The sentimentality of the word ‘icon’ comes from within, and whilst it can be a very personal interpretation, there is no denying the gravitas that surrounds Ronnie Wood, and the Rolling Stones. When asked about the opportunity to work with one of his heroes, Nathan Browning continues by saying, “Of course when you are around one of your heroes and somebody like Ronnie, who is such an icon, sometimes you do have to pinch yourself. But then, after time, he becomes like anybody else and you don’t look at him in any other way but as a friend”. The works exhibited are portrayed with a very intimate longing, Ronnie Wood is an enigmatic character showing a side to him which might have otherwise been unknown; “The pictures of him at home, which are very intimate, came about as he wanted some photographs of him painting as he had just signed up with the Housing Group. It was a new house that he had just moved into so he said ‘let me know you around first’. I grabbed my camera as I knew this would be the shoot. They came out very intimate as it was unexpected and off the cuff”. This is the allure of the photographs, they are unexpected. They show Ronnie Wood in a different light to what the media portray his as in the press; “As a person he is very kind, talented and full of energy and that’s the side of Ronnie I wanted to capture”, Browning adds while knowingly telling how Ronnie Wood is an open and genuine person, with all of his friends. The artistic nature of the photographs encompass the story of an ordinary man, “The exhibition is an intimate portrait of Ronnie Wood”, continues Browning, “it illuminates his warm, charismatic personality and his sense of fun. I am so proud to have been given the opportunity to work with one of my heroes”.
If this were to be called a project of sorts, the future is uncertain to whether this venture will continue with other music icons and though there are moments of time spent with Jeff Beck et al, Nathan Browning says, “I have never really encompassed a relationship with any other icon like the one I have with Ronnie. I don’t know about the future, who knows? I have a lot of friends in the industry, however most of my projects are art at a professional level”. But one thing is certain, “if my ex had not dumped me” Browning retorts, “then I would still be an engineer, so thank you DC!”
Nathan Browning is an artist in every sense of the word, from emotive narratives to a powerful stance, his work embodies a sense of reality that we often overlook. We are allowed a way in to see the finer details of an otherwise placid existence. Through experience and prose, Nathan Browning offers a new-found satisfaction that inspiration can be found in the smallest of gestures, “Never be scared to approach anyone” he finishes, “no matter how famous they are. Always be yourself around others”.