Photographer/Filmmaker Brandon Wunder
by Jane Anderson Images Courtesey Brandon Wunder
His passion about photography and preserving old buildings in the Lehigh Valley (both on film and the actual structures) is obvious. Introducing Brandon Wunder.
I was an only child until I was 8, so I was forced inside my own imagination since the very beginning, which I feel has been pretty beneficial. I started out with the whole film making thing and went backwards, all the way to silent film. And then got into still photography. Taught myself everything. Yeah, I’m just very passionate about movies and everything that comes along with that. Very visual oriented. Love cameras. To me it’s a mechanical eye, and the eyes are the door to the soul. So, to be able to capture that is very cool.
So what’s your day job?
This is my day job. I was working professionally in the film industry in New York City, but I was working such long hours, 16 hours or more, sometimes over 24-hour shifts, and it was consuming all of my life. I had no time to work on any of my own projects. I want to spend my time on projects that I actually care about. So yeah, I left New York City, came back home to Pennsylvania to work on some projects here in the area. Focus on local industry.
Do you still [work in the television industry] to make money, then go back to what you really love?
Honestly, no I don’t. I have the potential to, but city life’s just kind of got on top of me. I mean, I like city life, I like the atmosphere. Especially a city like New York City, you just drive up on that city and just see nothing but potential.
But, I’m really a nature boy. I need my steady balance of nature. And I need more time to take everything and analyze it more than the average person, so I need to be secluded. In a city like New York, you’re just on top of everyone. You get no alone time, you get no nature time. I want to be able to go back into the woods and just get lost and not see a person for an hour or longer.
Do you find that nature really inspires your work?
More than anything.
What’s your favorite thing to photograph?
A lot of things catch my eye, but it generally tends to be old, abandoned buildings. I think a lot of that has to do with where I grew up. I grew up just down the street from the Thomas Iron Company, but as kids we always referred to it as “the ruins.” I would always walk there, with these abandoned buildings, in the woods, right next to the river. It was an escape away from the world. It was where you went to really discover everything about life. Smoked your first cigarette, drank your first beer. All that fun stuff you did as a kid. And, I guess, something just planted a seed in me that just grew, and I always had this fascination with old buildings. I’m actually working on two books right now, both focused on that subject.
They’re going to be photography/art books. The first is going to be on that place I just described. That place means everything to me. More than anything else, it’s responsible for who I am, what I’ve become. It’s in jeopardy right now of being torn down, and I’m working with some local historical groups and the community to get it designated as a historical site. I want this place to last longer than me. I want to die knowing this place is still standing. And that’s my goal, no matter what it takes. I want to save what I can while I can.
What’s your dream for that place to be?
I want it to be exactly what it is right now. I don’t want it to be developed into a tourist site. I don’t want it to be developed in any way. It’s been abandoned since 1927. You go back there, you see these monuments that once meant so much to this area. The entire area was literally built around this place. The stores, the houses all catered to the people that worked in this place. It wasn’t just a job—it was their lives. And you go back there, and it’s that whole idea where man meets nature. It’s like you’re in nature, and at the same time, you’re in this monument. When I look at a place like that, it’s no different than the ruins at Chichen Itza or Machu Picchu or anything the Egyptians did. It’s the exact same concept, it’s just built much later.
I want to shoot my first feature film down there, actually in the summer 2013. Just a coming-of-age film about a bunch of kids, hanging out over the course of a summer, just doing what kids do over summer break. Even if it’s the only movie I ever make, I’ll be satisfied. But those two projects, from what that place has given me, it’s the least I can do.
You’re doing these photography books, you want to make a film in 2013. Professionally, what’s your ultimate? What’s your goal?
I always want to do what I’m doing now. I’d like to have more funding in it. Dream job is working for National Geographic. Like I said, nature’s inside me so much, to go around and shoot rare species or animals. Or an archaeologist unearths a lost city that no one previously knew existed.
The thing about film making, or even photography, you get to wear so many different hats. And by that I mean, say you’re a marine biologist. You have to spend your entire life studying to be a marine biologist. But if you want to be a documentary filmmaker or photographer, you can be a marine biologist for a year. You can get to work with the most well-acclaimed people in that field. Because growing up you want to be an oceanographer, you want to be an archaeologist, you want to do this, you want to do that. And I always thought that at even a very young age you could do those things by being a filmmaker because it reaches so many people and it’s very well-respected, especially if you’re secure with what you want to do.
[Writer’s note: I wanted to be a paleontologist.]
Ghostbusters is what started everything. Every single thing. I was obsessed with Ghostbusters for the first maybe five or six years of my life. I saw the second Ghostbusters, I was like two or three years old when it came out; I still have my movie ticket. I’ve saved every movie ticket from every movie that I’ve ever been to in my entire life. And from there, it’s always been an obsession with movies. I remember just before the second Jurassic Park came out, I had all the action figures. I used to always stage scenarios and I wrote scripts for the movie. And I used to take pictures, and I made a movie out of it. I still have all this stuff. I mean I was always writing stories and making things up.
In high school I took studio communications, which was a course where you broadcast a ten-minute news program every morning. You learned every single position on a live broadcast. And I feel like all that was meant to be because it just gathered all my interests together, made it real to me. Before that I never though that I could make movies. Now there’s that whole idea that it’s only for certain people, only certain people could work in Hollywood. And that’s just simply not true—you can do anything you want.
I started shooting video when I was 15, and that’s really where I started video. And then I got to a point where I figured, you can’t really say you’re a master of the moving image if you haven’t mastered the still image. You know, still photography. You have to master the still frame and then move on. That may have helped me with everything, but especially film making.
Who do you really look up to in the industry, either film or photography?
There’s a lot of people that I like. I’ve gone through my phases. Quentin Tarantino was the really, really big one when I was in my teens. Like now, I don’t really look up to anyone in the industry, not that I don’t think that there’s anything good. I just get my inspiration from other places.
Honestly, the thing that’s inspired my work the most has been music. Most notably Pink Floyd and Neurosis. Neurosis are the Pink Floyd of our generation. They have this sound about them that when I hear this music, I just know that it was meant to exist. And I just see these mini-movies in my head, I see these entire lifetimes of variations of myself, of different people completely. And I think that’s what so powerful about it, because it’s not visual. Now I get all these visuals in my mind, instead of having something on a piece of paper that’s already spelled out and it’s all done for you. Here you get to craft a world, an entire universe, every single thing that could possible exist, and I just get so many insane scenarios and it’s just changed everything.
It sounds like you started off pretty young and had a pretty wide range of influences, from film to music to nature. Did you have any people in your life that really motivated you and sparked your creativity and your artistic eye?
A lot of people have been very supportive and inspirational to me. There’s been a couple of friends that I have in my life right now, one of which is actually a part of OneFive4 Gallery. His name is Bobby Z. His work is amazing. I know a few local artists who are really good, but like I said, I get a lot of my inspiration from just nature and music, especially those two bands that I named before. Definitely music is a huge one for me.
Any music that you just abhor? That you hate with a burning passion?
I can’t stand modern-day country music. I don’t mean real country music. I mean the real poppy, radio, Garth Brooks country music. I can’t stand that stuff. I really can’t stand pop music. I understand that pop music always has to exist, but it is just kind of offensive to me how blatant they are to just keep making the same stuff over and over again. It’s like oh, these kids weren’t around when this existed, so they have no idea that it’s the same. Take Lady Gaga, she’s just Madonna, just a modern-day version.
I just wish that the people doing it weren’t just doing it for the fortune and fame. I just can’t appreciate when people do something that’s considered an art for money. If you’re not in it for the pure heart, then you’re doing it for the wrong reason. Even if you have to be completely poor. I just can’t see myself ever selling out. That’s my biggest fear—having money change me. No matter what happens, I always want to have this mentality that I’m doing it because my heart is there, and I’m not doing it for a job or a dollar. So, even now I have to make great sacrifices to do what I want to do. I’ve gone to shows where I’ve made so little money I’ve had to sleep in the car for the whole weekend without being able to shower. It’s really what it comes down to, it comes down to how dedicated are you. How badly you want it.
If it’s not something I want to do, I’m not going to do it. I turn down projects, not all the time, because I’m not that known where people are just lining up to get me to do their work. I have to connect with it in some way to want to do it. Even wedding videos. The thought of me shooting a wedding video is the most horrific thing. Having to deal with the bride, or all that stuff…just ugh. I mean if it’s a friend it’s one thing, and I’ll do it for free as a wedding gift.
I’m just interested in doing my own stuff at this point. I’ve spent so much time working on other people’s projects that now I just want to do things that I’m really in to. And I think I’ve earned it at this point, after everything I’ve been through.
You opened that door. So what’s this “everything you’ve been through”?
Everybody has their hardships in life, their ups and their downs. I’d say more than anything the thing that’s really kept me going is failure. I almost have to thank the people who have been horrible to me over the years, because every single time someone’s told me I couldn’t do something, or every time I’ve tried my hardest to attain something, accomplish something, and it didn’t happen, it may have deterred me for a moment, but in the end it just made me want it so much more. I’ve probably failed more than anyone else but that’s because I take so many chances. And at least I’m capable and smart enough to learn from what I go through and not just be what I call a “repeat offender” and doing the same things over and over again and taking nothing from it.
If you don’t mind, how old are you?
Oh, you’re just a baby. But it sounds like you’ve got a pretty deep body of work. You’ve had a camera in-hand for the last nine years. Some people can’t say that regardless of their age. What’s the most memorable response that you’ve had to any of your work, either film or photography?
I’ve had a lot of praise for my photography for the past couple of years. And it’s been great. I never really knew how to take it because I’ve never really been good with compliments. I mean I appreciate them, but I’m just weird with that stuff.
The best response I’ve ever gotten has been very recently to this series I have right now that’s called “Blood & Steel.” And it’s on this now-defunct steel plant here in this area. The plant wasn’t just important or vital to this area, but it was important to this entire country. It closed in the mid-nineties, and everything in the area has kind of gone out with it. And since I’ve been doing a lot of local shows since I’ve come back from New York, so many of these former employees of Bethlehem Steel have seen my work. And they’ve been so, so deeply touched by it. They recount these stories, and you should see this look in their eyes. For a moment they’re not just thinking about it, but they are back there. To see how, for them, life was so good back then. The economy in the area was amazing, and now how bad it is for these people. It’s an amazing contrast to see.
The fact that I’ve been able to touch these people in such a good way, I don’t even know how to react to it. I’m so thankful that I even decided to pursue that. It all goes back to the abandoned buildings and old industry that I’m really in to, and these people think I’m doing a great thing because it’s preserving this heritage. Even though this place is now protected, maybe these images will outlast the place. These are the people that made me realize what I was doing, and I’m very thankful that I’m a part of it.
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Jane Anderson is a marketing consultant and art enthusiast, currently residing in the ‘burbs of North Texas. A wannabe writer, you can check out her blog o’ randomness at NotPlainJane.Tumblr.com.