“I am finding it hard to return to the old normal. I feel change is inevitable,” says North Carolina native Brian Cummings about life during and after the Covid-19 pandemic. Something we were all unprepared for and what hit us far harder than we expected. But when life gave him lemons, Brian made a pink lemonade cocktail in the form of a visually larger-than-life photo project titled ‘I Know What You Didn’t Do Last Summer’.
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When the lockdowns began in 2020, photography kept me from going nuts. It’s not that I’m an outdoorsy person; give me a good list of movies and an endless supply of chai, and I can stay indoors for days. It’s just that the inability to step out at any desired time suddenly felt like life had become a lot more restrictive. Certainly, something I’d never experienced in my lifetime before. Where I live, we had to get permission from the local police, via an online system, even before stepping out for grocery shopping. I’d written up an extensive list of photo project ideas during this time.
Some of these got executed just after movement outdoors became a bit more lenient. Brian Cummings put together a fantastic team of creatives to implement his project and portrayed an over the top visualization of what he considers the new normal. It’s loud, screams of excesses, and in many ways might just be what your next neighbors would look like.
The Essential Photo Gear Used by Brian Cummings
Brian told us:
My primary camera gear is my Canon 1DXMii with Canon lenses (35mm, 50mm, 70-200mm). I also shoot with the Sony a series from time to time and use a Metabones Canon EF/EF-S Lens to Sony E Mount T CINE Smart Adapter.
The Phoblographer: Please tell us about yourself and how you got into photography.
Brian Cummings: I am a commercial director/photographer based in St. Louis, MO. A native of North Carolina and raised on a steady diet of pop culture, I found television and film as my escape. After receiving a BFA in graphic design, I spent the first half of my career in advertising as a creative director. My favorite part of my job was being on set, so in 2007, I picked up a camera and switched careers.
The Phoblographer: It was a cheesy slasher film, but is there any connection at all between the 1997 movie and your project?
Brian Cummings: I am a big fan of old-school horror schlock, but that’s the only comparison. Truth is, I can’t resist a good wordplay
The Phoblographer: “How we adapted to the isolation and the new normal”. Great idea for a project – how many people had to come together to make this one a success? And would you say we really adapted or merely dragged ourselves through it?
Brian Cummings: Counting myself, there were about 13 crew and talent, plus a bulldog named Jelly on set and then Sergio, our retoucher for post.
Regardless of how we try to resist, humans are extremely adaptable. There is a new norm that we all have developed, whether we agree to it or not. I am finding it hard to return to the old normal. I feel change is inevitable.
The Phoblographer: What were the ideas floating around when you were storyboarding this project? Was the plan to make it as funky and opulent as possible?
Brian Cummings: I am constantly pinning ideas that catch my eye, and during the pandemic, I found myself drawn to broader colors and pop stylings. I was heavily inspired by the fashion style of Moschino. Then my stylist posted a photo on Instagram of an above ground pool she made by converting a horse trough on her patio, and from there, the idea was born.
I definitely wanted to take the styling over the top. I like contrast, and with the normalcy of the stay-at-home world, the styling needed to be extra. If I could have secured an old school ice cream truck, it would have been epic.
The Phoblographer: The extravagance in these images is almost like a deliberate show off to the neighbors isn’t it? Do you think the pandemic and the lockdown really brought out the real persons from inside all of us?
Brian Cummings: Somewhat. I think we are always trying to show off to the neighbors. We are conditioned “to keep up with the Joneses”. And now, with social media, we live in the age of false image projection. Nothing you see is really as it seems. We project the world we want others to believe is real.
With the pandemic, each of us was experiencing an “all dressed up with nowhere to go” reality. What do you do when you don’t ever need to change out of your pajamas?
The Phoblographer: Take us through your favourite image of the series. Please breakdown the lighting for our readers
Brian Cummings: I guess my favorite would be the “Grill Master” scene. It was the first shot of the series. The entire series was shot in one day, late last September. The sun is a little lower in the sky then and provides a balance to the light throughout the day. The first shot was around 9 am, with the sun rising to the right of camera (the camera faced north). I needed to shoot quickly before the sun crept too far overhead and behind me, making the shadows too severe.
We hung a 12′ half-stop silk on c-arms and lit with a strobe and an open medium reflector aimed from a high angle to accent the natural edge light of the sun. Next to it, we used a 53″ Elinchrom octabank without diffusion. A ring light was employed as fill light, and a third open-head strobe was positioned off-camera left to give just a slight edge to the talent.
The Phoblographer: This would have been loads of fun to work on as a project. How’d you get that model to stand right next to that flaming BBQ without scorching himself?
Brian Cummings: Before each shoot, I remind everyone that I have never lost a model… yet. A good image should look daring, but there are no points for being reckless. We do plan our safety protocols in advance, and test run the stunt before bringing in talent.
Safety is always the focus. It’s all laughs until the medics are called. It’s always easier to shoot the flame separate and then add it in post, but my aim is to get everything in-camera as a single shot.
The Phoblographer: The props and costumes really make the images pop. What was the theme behind their selection? And what’s the significance of all those flamingoes?
Brian Cummings: The props were a mix of pop sensibilities and retro-cool. The theme of the propping was a Palm Springs garage sale circa 1987. The props needed to stand out but also color coordinate with the location and the wardrobe.
And the flamingos? one wasn’t enough, three seemed cheap, and a dozen… well, just seemed like Animal Planet to me.
The Phoblographer: Was it a deliberate plan to not include any indoor images in this series, or did those just not make the final cut?
Brian Cummings: There was one idea I had for a kitchen scene, but it became clear the magic belonged to the natural and strobe light look of the exteriors.
The Phoblographer: When you’re working on outdoor shoots like this, what are some tips you can offer our readers to balance ambient light with strobes?
Brian Cummings: When shooting outdoor or just with ambient lighting, plan your shots. I scout my locations in advance and plan each shot based on the time of day. There are always situations that you are stuck with the light you got. I prefer to work with the sun behind my subject and then use strobes to overpower the sun.
The Phoblographer: Now that the world is (hopefully) getting back to normal, is there a follow up series planned? If not, what is the next big idea you’re working on?
Brian Cummings: My ideas come to me when I am not looking. I am a brain fart artist, but I always have two or three ideas banked for future projects. I have a couple of short film projects in development. The next photo series that I would consider a sibling to “Last Summer” is based on the predictions we were told for the future and the reality of the present we experience. I’ll keep you posted.