Growing up in Sacramento, California, Jeff Brown’s first foray into photography was a beginner’s black and white class in community college. Shooting some “pretty profound photos” of his grandparent’s backyard and living room, as well as his friends skateboarding, it was a sharp learning curve for Jeff in those early days. “The first roll of film I shot was developed by a partner in class because resources were thin. They blew it and only developed half of the roll,” he reminisces. “But you can’t blame your partner on their first go.” Enrolling in the intermediate class the following semester, it wasn’t until Jeff’s friend enquired about his plans post-college, to which he responded that he had none, that the suggestion of pursuing photography became a potential path for him.
So you can imagine his surprise in January 2019, when he was approached by Thea Traff, senior photo editor at TIME Magazine, to do a series of portraits of the American Congress – currently the most ethnically and gender diverse in the country’s history. “I’d already shot four similar series prior to this, so I emailed them to her that night,” he tells It’s Nice That. “A few days later she said they wanted to hire me and laid out the details of the project; I was ecstatic.”
Travelling from his home in Brooklyn to the United States Capital Building in Washington D.C., Jeff found himself in The House of Representative Press Rooms surrounded by his country’s leaders, including the U.S Representative for New York’s 14th congressional district, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. “When all the Congress members entered the room with their people and began to mingle and say hello, it felt similar to that odd electricity of excitement and dread that you feel on the first day of school,” he says. “We had a strict hour to complete the group shot and it took about fifteen minutes for the introductions to subside to a point that I felt comfortable enough to start organising everyone for the photographs."
Starting with the group portrait, Jeff says it was one of the most stressful – and rewarding – moments of his career: “All the Congress members were absolutely amenable, but asking folks who control decisions for my country to stand on a spot or switch places because of clothing colour, and needing to slip an apple box underneath someone due to height difference, was pretty surreal.”
With the individual portraits however, things became easier. Bouncing between simple held positions and then a short round of in-discussion moments, Jeff says the tone of these photos was simply the Congress member in front of the lens. Shot in Jeff’s trademark vivid style, the portraits give wonderful life to a group of people whose personality and humanity is often lost behind their suits. As a series, they are a quirky celebration of diversity, championing the different backgrounds, communities and cultures that make up America.
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