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Best of 2011: B. Proud


In 2009, B. Proud decided to undertake a personally meaningful project with the potential for social impact. Her still portraits and videotaped interviews of same-sex couples in long-term relationships visually explore these unions and address the issues her subjects confront. After documenting more than 40 couples, and with a growing list of willing subjects, Proud and her project are currently garnering important attention, including a recent broadcast as the governor of Delaware signed a bill allowing civil unions in her home state.

B. Proud, Wilmington, DE

Web site: www.bproudphoto.com, www.firstcomeslove.org

Project: First Comes Love, a photography/video personal documentary project based on same-sex couples’ long-term relationships.

© B. Proud
© B. Proud

ASMP: How long have you been in business?

BP: On my own, for 23 years.

ASMP: How long have you been an ASMP member?

BP: Since 1992.

ASMP: What are your photographic specialties?

BP: Lighting. I suppose I’m considered a generalist but I really enjoy shooting environmental portraits and food.

ASMP: What do you consider your most valuable tool or piece of equipment?

BP: My “Rabbit” corkscrew.

© B. Proud
© B. Proud

ASMP: What is unique about your style/approach or what sets you and your work apart from other photographers?

BP: I really try to collaborate with my clients and my subjects. I find that the images are best when we make them together and I don’t just delegate how things should be.

ASMP: Please describe the processes and techniques central to the making of this work.

BP: Well, the photos are pretty straightforward. They are digital captures with minimal retouching other than conversions to black-and-white. I’ve been using Lightroom or Nik SilverEffects Pro for that. The videos started out on tape but now it’s all shot to digital media and edited in Final Cut Pro.

© B. Proud
© B. Proud

ASMP: “B. Proud,” what a great business asset! When did this moniker first occur to you?

BP: In high school, I think, when I took my first photo class and started signing my work. It’s funny because my mother is Blanche and my sister was called “Bunny”, but neither used this form of their name. People often think I made it up, especially in the gay community.

© B. Proud
© B. Proud

ASMP: Where did you live in Europe and during what time? How has this informed your work?

BP: I like to say I got out of the country during “the Reagan Years,” which was most of the ’80s. I lived in what was then West Germany. Living in another country for a while is something everyone should do. It gives a new perspective on the world… and I learned another language. Plus I was able to travel to many other countries in Europe, Eastern Europe and Africa.

© B. Proud
© B. Proud

ASMP: How did you end up basing your business in Wilmington, Delaware? Do you feel economic pressure to be more of a generalist in this regional market?

BP: I grew up in Delaware, so it was home base, and I came back to help care for my parents and aunt and uncle as they aged. I just lost my 95 year-old aunt this past May, and my mother is also 95. I’ve been the primary caregiver for both of them for the last 11 years. So once I landed here, I just never left.

Most of my work is in Philadelphia, where I also teach. The nice thing about Wilmington is that it is two hours to Washington, D.C. and two hours to New York ,and I work in those cities as well. That’s been a blessing. I have to have clients in a broad region. And yes, many of the photographers around here are generalists, but I have to say, there are some really amazing photographers living here.

© B. Proud
© B. Proud

ASMP: In your experience, is Wilmington an open or closed-minded place to do business? Have you encountered any client prejudice in your commercial work from being perceived as what some might consider a “gay photographer” due to your personal project?

BP: Delaware is a wonderful place to do business. We have the best tax laws for corporations. You can even become Vice President of the United States!

I would say that Wilmington has historically been somewhat conservative artistically speaking, but Delaware just passed a bill allowing civil unions… and medical marijuana. My clients have been very open-minded and I have never perceived any prejudice that I am aware of regarding my sexuality and my commercial work.

© B. Proud Photo by Elyssa Cohen

ASMP: Are you doing First Comes Love solo or do you work with assistants? Is there any special combination of gear that you like to work with on these shoots?

BP: I’ve always had at least one assistant with me, sometimes two. I really need a whole crew to do it right, but there’s no budget for that so I end up wearing many hats. I need to be the photographer, videographer and interviewer all at the same time. That’s a lot. I would love to have someone shooting video from the moment we arrive at a location while I’m getting to know the subjects. My former students have come through in a big, big way for me as assistants on this project and I think they’ve learned quite a bit about the gay community in the process.

I’ve been dragging a lot of equipment with me to pull this off. I’m pretty much using DSLR’s or a Phase back on Hasselblad and my Sony video camera with Sennheiser laveliers.

© B. Proud
© B. Proud

ASMP: One of your goals in producing First Comes Love was to learn how to shoot film and video. What kinds of resources did you tap in getting up to speed with this skill set?

BP: Video is much harder than I thought, but I got a lot of support from the equipment-room staff at the University of the Arts. They helped me to understand the cameras, how to import tapes and work with sound. We have a musician on staff who was very helpful with learning the mics. As a member of the faculty, I was also able to take a tuition-free course in documentary video. There were only four people in the class and it was terrific. The entire university environment is a wellspring of talent and resources.

© B. Proud Photo by Judy G. Rolfe

ASMP: In your learning process with video (or in the overall progression of your project, for that matter) are there any actions you took or decisions you made that you’d do differently now, given the benefit of hindsight?

BP: For the first few shoots, I was doing the video first and then the photograph. I thought people would loosen up more if they spent some time talking about themselves first. But I started to feel like the portrait part was getting too rushed so I switched. It’s working much better that way. I would also have started off shooting HD instead of standard definition.

© B. Proud
© B. Proud

ASMP: How do you find your portrait subjects for First Comes Love? Do you find there to be any difference in photographing and gathering stories from subjects you already know personally vs. those who are strangers?

BP: I’ve found most of my subjects through the grapevine. I sent out a mass e-mail to my friends and asked them to forward it along. I also passed out flyers at events and people have recommended their friends or other people they know about. With Bishop Robinson from New Hampshire, I was lucky enough to be asked to shoot a magazine cover of him while he was in Philadelphia. He really liked what I did so I asked him about participating in my project and he said yes. He’s pretty much a rock star in the LGBT community and is the first openly gay bishop in Christendom.

Yes, I think knowing people, their styles and environments in advance is helpful to a point in making the photos. As for the video, I sometimes already know some questions that I can pose to direct the flow of conversation due to what I already know about a couple’s lives. And on a few occasions, I’ve been able to have my partner be the interviewer because she knew the couple as well. That left me more flexibility in the filming of the video.

© B. Proud
© B. Proud

ASMP: Is there any one couple that would be the ultimate photography subject for this project? Are there subjects who are high on your list to photograph that you have not yet approached, or anyone who has not yet responded to a pending portrait request?

BP: Yes: Elton John! He’s a huge photography collector and I would love to photograph him, but I’m not sure how to make that happen. And I would love to photograph Duane Michals; I think that would make for a very interesting photo shoot. I did meet him when he lectured at the University of the Arts, but I have not asked him yet. He and Fred have been together for decades. I think Rachael Maddow would be fabulous and maybe Wanda Sykes. I have tried to contact both of them but have gotten no response. Other than that, I would love to photograph a couple who has been together for 50-plus years. Also, [I would like] as much diversity as possible. I’ve recently spoken with a transsexual couple and we’re working on a shoot date.

© B. Proud
© B. Proud

ASMP: How long do you spend with your subjects during these sessions? Do you always do the video interview at the same time as the portrait? What is your procedure for this and which one comes first?

BP: It takes about four to five hours to do both the portrait and the video. Ideally, I like to do them together but people don’t always have that kind of time. Scheduling is the hardest part of this because most of the subjects are only available on weekends and it’s common for them to have to reschedule for various reasons. If I don’t do the video during the first session, it’s really difficult to get a second date.

© B. Proud Photo by Julia Mead

ASMP: Do you provide images or copies of the video interview to your subjects after their session? You mention that the most rewarding aspect of this project is the thank-you letters you get. Please provide a few brief samples.

BP: I don’t provide the subjects with the video but I do give them a print. I post a gallery of images for them to see and I ask them to tell me the ones they like. We don’t always agree on the image I choose. Ultimately I have the final say, but I do like to get their input and get them involved. However, most of the couples want to be smiling and looking at the camera. I find other moments from the session that are often much stronger emotionally.

No one has actually written a letter, but they have all thanked me profusely after the session for doing this project and bringing visibility to this community. Every couple, without exception, has thanked me. Oh, and one couple invited my partner and me to their re-affirmation ceremony last New Year’s Eve.

© B. Proud
© B. Proud

ASMP: You’ve received two grants for this project to date. What are these funding sources and what kind of support did you receive?

BP: The first was a Faculty Enrichment Grant from the University of the Arts, where I teach. This was at the start of the project. The second was from the B. W. Bastian Foundation in Utah, of all places. I applied to them through the university and they gave me a very nice financial grant. Bruce Bastian is a huge supporter of LGBT causes and gave much support to fight Proposition 8.

I knew who he was because I had photographed him at many events over the years, so I reached out to his foundation.

© B. Proud Photo by Lou Caltabiano

ASMP: Please tell us more about your process in applying for funding. Are there grant proposals you’re currently working on or submissions that are in process?

BP: Applying for grants is a full time job, for sure. I have an Excel spreadsheet with lists of upcoming grants and their deadlines and I try to keep on top of it. The frustrating thing is that every grantor wants something different. They want the images sized and named differently for each grant. Some want 20 images, some want 10. They want the proposal to be 700 words or only 300 words or 150 words. I keep re-working the same information. It’s maddening. I just found out that I didn’t get a grant that I was really hoping for but I have a few others in the works and one that’s due in just a few days.

© B. Proud
© B. Proud

ASMP: What kind of contact do you keep with those who have funded your work? Has such contact provided you with any insights or behind-the-scenes details about the grant-making process?

BP: I have a mailing list that I use to keep everyone informed about the progress of the project. And I have a Facebook page. This week I launched a Web site dedicated solely to this project, which will include a blog element. I also conducted a successful Kickstarter online funding project and I can contact those funders through that Web site to keep them informed. I’m constantly learning about the grant-writing process. You can reach out to project funders in advance sometimes and get some feedback on questions, as long as it’s not the day before the deadline.

© B. Proud
© B. Proud

ASMP: Are there requests you’ve made for funding or support that have been unsuccessful? If so, please share any strategies you’ve developed to continue moving forward with your work after receiving news about an unsuccessful grant request.

BP: I have applied for so many grants and entered many juried contests and been denied or rejected many, many times. It can be quite discouraging, but I remind myself that J.K. Rowling was rejected 25 times for the Harry Potter book. Besides, I believe in what I’m doing so I have to keep going. That’s the bottom line. When the funds are low like they are now, I work on parts of the project that don’t involve travel and assistants. And being selected for the Best of ASMP 2011 was a huge boost, so thanks for that! I’ve also shared this entire process with my Professional Practices class at the University of the Arts. I let them see the highs and the lows and how I have approached portfolio reviews and marketing.

© B. Proud
© B. Proud

ASMP: What kind of marketing or networking do you do for your photography? Do you pursue different marketing channels for food, commercial portraiture and personal projects such as First Comes Love?

BP: Honestly, this project has consumed all of my marketing efforts for the last two years and my commercial work is suffering a bit because of that commitment. I’ve done portfolio reviews in several cities, I have promo cards and a press packet, a Facebook page and now a Web site that just launched today. I’ve made a Blurb book, of course, and having that to show people has made a huge difference in the reaction I’ve received from people who don’t quite grasp the scope of this project.

© B. Proud
© B. Proud

ASMP: Is there any aspect of marketing yourself that you find difficult but necessary? If so please talk about how you motivate yourself to do this work.

BP: Marketing is so important, but the hardest thing for me is calling people on the phone. I’m not a fan of the telephone. The motivation for marketing this project is how passionate I am about the subject. This story needs to be told and it needs to be told right now. The momentum is there.

© B. Proud
© B. Proud

ASMP: Besides your commercial work in food and still life, do you ever shoot weddings? Given the level of visibility you’ve achieved with this personal project and legislation about civil unions and marriage equality in the news, are you pursing any plans to market yourself as a photographer for same-sex weddings?

BP: I have shot weddings but not on a regular basis. I’ve shot weddings for several members of the du Pont family here in Delaware, but it’s never been an avenue that I wanted to pursue in a huge way. I think part of that was because I couldn’t have a wedding myself. At some point during the ceremonies, I would find myself tearing up, not out of joy for the couple but out of sadness that I couldn’t have what they have. My partner and I have been together for 23 years and now, finally, in January we will have the right to become “civil” partners.

I do admit, however, that I am a bit intrigued by recent developments in both Delaware and New York, and I see that as maybe an opportunity for some work that might also benefit my project and foster some new connections.

© B. Proud Photo by Susan Herrick

ASMP: You also work as an educator, teaching at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. As part of this job have you established a set teaching philosophy? If so, what is it?

BP: I absolutely love teaching! Who knew? I teach the technical studio and business classes in our department, mostly to juniors and seniors. I try to bring my commercial experience into the classroom to give them a sense of what the “real world” is like. I push the students to do their very, very best because I know how difficult it is to be successful in this competitive industry. But I also treat them with respect and I don’t try to make them photograph exactly the way I do. I encourage them to develop their own style and I teach them how to think about what they are doing in order to solve the problems.

© B. Proud Photo by Susan Herrick

ASMP: What, if anything, do you learn from teaching others about photography? What is your overall perception of the current generation of photography students?

BP: Teaching has taught me everything. They don’t realize it, but my students definitely teach me as much as I teach them. I have learned to be a social worker, a friend, a confidant, a counselor, an instructor, a mentor. The list goes on. And I know that I have to understand something pretty thoroughly before I try to teach it, whether it be a shooting technique or a software program. The students ask questions and they need things to be presented in a way that they can grasp.

My students are typically 20 to 25 years old. They keep me inspired. They are so eager and fresh and in love with photography and so much fun to be with. It’s fabulous to watch them experience a Hasselblad or Mamiya or 4x5 for the first time. For the most part, they catch on to this software and digital stuff really quickly, so who knows where they will take us in the future. It’s so exciting to watch. I can’t wait until one of my students makes a huge splash in the industry. It’s coming. I know it.

© B. Proud
© B. Proud