Beauty in the City: An Interview with Brad Ogbonna
There is something so arresting about Brad Ogbonna’s photography that you may find yourself involuntarily swept away to another world; to whatever moment was lucky enough to be captured by his camera. In that sense, his lens is a vehicle, transporting you from one beautiful moment to the next. Often, these moments are overseas; a welcome consequence of his love for travel. But, most of the time, he just manages to make absolutely whatever he sees and documents someplace you want to be.
With that in mind, we asked Brad where—as a New Yorker—he most liked to be. That is when he’s not photographing Zendaya, Barack Obama or collaborating with Kehinde Wiley—just to name a handful of the many impressive credits he’s amassed over his career thus far.
How did you end up in NYC?
I grew up in the Twin Cities, Saint Paul and Minneapolis. During college, I did a year-long campus exchange at Queens College and interned at SPIN magazine. After that, I knew I had found my new home and officially moved to NYC immediately after.
Was photography what you wanted to do?
Photography had definitely been a hobby through middle school, high school and college but I only thought of it as something that I enjoyed doing on the side. I never approached it as a possible career path. I went to school for Political Science and International Studies and hoped to find a job at a non-governmental organization or working in policy or law. Something that felt a little more stable.
Do you think that your original interest in political science has informed your work in any way?
It has definitely shaped my worldview and perhaps my pragmatism. I knew early on in my photography career that even if I didn’t pursue a path in policy, I would try and find a way to apply some of that knowledge to wherever I found myself. I may not shape any policy but I’m definitely aware and cognizant of the role that art can play in the larger framework of politics. I collaborate regularly with the artist Kehinde Wiley whose own practice examines power and leadership and is a perfect example of how art can participate in that conversation.
However, I graduated at the tail end of the early 2010 recession and I wasn’t finding any jobs that made sense. At that same time, I was getting a little buzz via my photography blog which led to my first commissions shooting for clients like Diet Coke. Once I saw what was possible financially, I just told myself that I’d keep going with photography for a while until another opportunity came along. Along the way, I became jaded with the idea of working in policy or law and went all-in on being a photographer.
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How did your collaboration with Kehinde Wiley begin?
I was introduced to Kehinde and his studio almost a decade ago by a friend who also worked there. Luckily for me, I was able to join the team as a collaborator on photo and video projects and have been doing that with them since then.
What do you think makes a beautiful picture?
I’m drawn to warmth, colors, mood, and things that feel timeless. Sometimes it’s the story that can be found in the image or it piques my interest in other ways; like my love of adventure.
Almost every one of your photos feels like it’s a world away. I think there is something to the use of nature in your images that brings freedom to them and such a refreshing wash of color. Are these elements ones that you seek out or that just find you?
I guess it’s a little bit of both. Early on in my career, in part due to a lack of resources, but also because I genuinely like being outside, I photographed subjects mostly with natural light in outdoor settings.
Around the beginning of the pandemic, I was feeling a little stifled creatively. So, in lieu of being outside shooting, I started consuming so many films and books that were about travel and this idea of an endless holiday. By the time I finally did start venturing outside again that work had heavily influenced the type of work I was creating.
A lot of people say that “NYC isn’t the prettiest city”. Where do you go to find beauty here?
Upstate. Ha, but no, I think there’s a lot of beauty that can be found in the city if you know where to look. I’ve been here for almost 15 years and I’m still discovering new places.
My favorite places are The West Village, Brooklyn Heights, Prospect Park, the historic neighborhoods of Bed-Stuy, Clinton Hill and Fort Greene. I love going uptown in the fall through the holiday season when the seasons change and everything feels a bit more romantic. I love the energy of Rockaways and find Brighton Beach very charming and historic.
What are the prettiest restaurants and bars in the city?
I love the classics: Balthazar, Odeon, Grand Central Oyster Bar, some newcomers like Casino, Jeans, and Overstory. Around Brooklyn, I prefer really low-key neighborhood spots like Rucola, Prima, Tanoreen and Agi’s Counter. Also the BYOB Indian spots. Comfort is pretty to me.
What are your favorite parks and museums?
Fort Greene Park, Prospect Park. If I’m hitting the museum, it’s usually The Met, Guggenheim or Whitney. I really like the International Center of Photography and Fotografiska as well. Their programming is always pretty unique.
Is there a photo that you’ve taken that you feel really captures the city for you?
I really don’t take photos of the city the way I used to when I first moved here so some of these images remind me of a different time in my life when I first fell in love with the city.
Can you think of a photograph of someone else’s work that represents NYC the most to you?
The work of Andre Wagner is always a good pulse of the city to me. Same with Daniel Arnold.
Who are your favorite NYC photographers or artists?
There are too many photographers to name so I’ll skip that question but for music, specifically RAP, NYC is bar none. I love Jay-Z, Nas, Wu-Tang, Cam’Ron, Jadakiss, but also love alt-acts like Carole King, Yeah Yeah Yeahs or Blondie. I also love Sofia Coppola, Spike Lee, Noah Baumbach, old Woody Allen and Scorsese.
Do you have any showings coming up or what are you working on personally as an artist?
I’ve been traveling extensively for the last decade so I’m using this year to compile some of my favorite images from that time and turn them into a coffee table book with the goal of releasing it in 2024.
WORDS Hillary Sproul
PHOTOGRAPHY Brad Ogbonna