Brian D. Bumby, a modern-day flâneur
Seeing through photographer Brian D. Bumby’s eye
Brian D. Bumby is an American-born, New York-based, self-taught photographer. What first struck me about his work is its diversity of subject: weddings, architecture, cultural events, and locations. The latter have been published in National Geographic and Travel + Leisure. His photos have been so well received that private collectors hang them in their homes and offices.
Recently, Bumby’s talent was noticed by the American Scandinavian Society of New York, as one of its six Cultural Grant Winners for 2019. I was fortunate to have the opportunity to speak to Bumby and ask about his art and his life.
Victoria Hofmo: Tell us a little about your early years.
Brian D. Bumby: I grew up and lived until I was 13 years old in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. My mother’s side is all Norwegian and Danish, while my father’s side is Finnish and British. At 13, we moved to Westchester. I went to Boston for college and then came back to New York.
VH: How did you get interested in photography?
BDB: I always enjoyed taking pictures of things, especially when traveling. About 12 years ago, my sister gave me a digital camera for my birthday. I did not have the time or resources to have a dark room. It was a revolution for me, because I could do so much on my computer. I generally like to keep my photos untouched, but if I am shooting in foul weather, etc., it is helpful.
VH: How did you learn?
BDB: People were so admiring of my photos. I eventually upgraded to an SLR—a higher grade digital
camera. This was around my 40th birthday. I also went to Norway. Every view is a postcard. I love to travel and take photos. Those two things combined here. Luckily, my photos come out very well, and people started to like them and wanted to buy them. I tried to learn more and more, including [watching] YouTube lessons and by trial and error.
I think photographs are much more in your face than paintings. I have never had a gallery show. I have never been in any exhibitions, yet. I have not felt that I am ready in my artistic development to wade into those waters.
VH: I am impressed by the variety of your work. Can you speak about the wide range of subjects and types of photography?
BDB: I would really call myself a commercial-arts type of photographer. I am not a fine-arts photographer. But that’s an area I would like to learn about and expand on more. In the meantime, I love nature, architecture, street scenes, and weddings for friends.
VH: Do you have a favorite place that you like to photograph?
BDB: I have traveled a lot throughout Norway. Bergen is my top favorite city. I love the people, customs, and architecture, especially the fantastic new architecture in Oslo like the Opera House. Then of course you have the nature. I have always loved being outside—in the mountains and near the water. That is really my favorite work to do. You see something that is never going to happen again. That is what I take away from photography, a moment in time.
VH: How do you balance your passion for photography with commercial necessity?
BDB: I don’t have any preconceived notions, I know certain things sell better. For those, I will visit a new park or building. Most of the time, I like to go out and wander and take pictures. I place them in my Getty account. This is not how I pay the rent. Of course, I love when they sell, but I am not reliant on it. There is no master plan to what I do with my photography. It is mostly for my pleasure. I am happy to bring them to a wider audience so they can see what I see.
VH: How, then, do you make a living?
BDB: I have worked with not-for-profit arts organizations for a long time, mostly in the classical music industry. I also work assisting visiting performing and visual artists in getting their immigration papers in order. Art is such a wonderful thing for people to share: to look at, listen to, or watch. It gets you past your boundaries. When this is made more difficult by the powers that be, this is very sad. If I can’t be out there photographing, I am very glad that I can help people spread their art around.
VH: Can you talk about your pieces that hang in private collections?
BDB: I think of myself as a travel photographer. People who have bought my photos will visit my website. They may have an interest in a particular place or country, like the High Line in New York or Sweden.
My biggest sale is to a corporate collection in the United Kingdom, a hedge fund that bought 10 or 15 photos of mine. They are of the United Kingdom, Denmark, Sweden, and France. Their offices are extremely high end, a beautiful well-designed space, so people can appreciate what is on the walls. They have excellent taste, not only because they bought my work (laughs).
VH: You recently won a cultural award from the American Scandinavian Society. How does that feel?
BDB: Well, that was terrific. That is really the first award I ever won because of my photos. To apply, you have to have a connection to Scandinavia and live in the tri-state area. It was just fantastic that I was one of their six winners. They choose a winner from each of the Scandinavian countries, plus the United States. I felt like I won the Olympics; being awarded for my photos and my love of all things Scandinavian—art, food, Christmas, and traditions. I am pretty much “all Scando all the time.” I was thrilled.
VH: How will you use the funds?
BDB: The award was a very nice monetary grant and with that, I hope to fund another trip to Norway. The last time I was in Norway it was early in my photo career, so it is very exciting to go back now.
I would also like to take some classes. I hesitate to take classes in something that is a great passion of mine for fear that it will change into the day-to-day grind. I do photography mostly for myself because it makes me happy, and hopefully other people as well. I will take it day by day and see where it goes.
Bumby sounds like a modern day flâneur; a wanderer, who absorbs the sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and touch of where his feet lead him. Flâneurs were originally not tied to any art form, but as photography evolved it was a perfect fit for those who maintain a fly-on-the-wall philosophy and lifestyle. Victor Fournel, in What One Sees on the Streets of Paris, was the first to describe the photographer as flâneur in the 1850s.
More than a century later, Susan Sontag in her reflections On Photography, 1977, noted that this type of photographer and their place as an observer of society continues: “The photographer is an armed version of the solitary walker reconnoitering, stalking, cruising the urban inferno, the voyeuristic stroller who discovers the city as a landscape of voluptuous extremes. Adept of the joys of watching, connoisseur of empathy, the flâneur finds the world ‘picturesque.’”
By chance, I discovered the etymology of the word flâneur, further realizing how apropos it was for a story about Brian Bumby. Like Bumby, the word flâneur has a strong Norse connection. According to Wikipedia, it comes through French from the Old Norse verb flana, meaning “to wander with no purpose.” But Bumby’s purpose is found in the amazing results of his captured discoveries and moments: to amuse, to reveal, to astound and delight.
To learn more about Brian D. Bumby and his work, visit his website at www.bumbyfoto.com.
This article originally appeared in the July 26, 2019, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.