Dean Brown

The short career and tragic death of Dean Brown (1936-1973) mean that his numerous, varied and thoughtfully-composed photographs represent the important legacy of one of America’s earliest color wilderness photographers. A six-year commercial career that began with black-and-white portraiture and New York City documentary projects expanded to include pictures of opera houses and color wilderness views of the American Southwest and Alaska. A master of the dye transfer process, Brown’s aesthetic favored a crisp and detailed image, and he almost exclusively used a 35mm tripod-mounted camera, with small aperture and wide-angle lens. He made small gelatin silver and color prints to retain the purity of the image captured on film.

Brown was born in Newport News, Virginia, the fifth of six boys, and exhibited a broad range of talents early on, which included long-distance running, building ham radios, excelling in math and science, sailing, playing piano and banjo, exercising a whimsical sense of humor, and making and developing photographs, which he began doing at the age of ten. Beginning in 1954, he studied linguistics at Cornell University, and learned German and Chinese, and mastered techniques that allowed him to learn languages easily, including Japanese, Dutch, Italian, Navajo, and Eskimo. Though he left the university before completing the program, it was there that he met his future wife Carol Anderson, a painter, with whom he was incredibly close. They were married in 1960, and Brown credited Carol as one of the major influences on his artistic vision, along with the photography of Edward Weston, Henri Cartier-Bresson, and Duane Michals, and Ansel Adams’s technical manuals. Throughout his career, Dean and Carol Brown often traveled together when he was on assignment.

Brown earned a BA from Brooklyn College in 1961 and graduated with a master’s degree in musicology from New York University in 1965. Over the next two years he played the viola de gamba professionally with the Waverly Consort, completed his doctorate coursework at New York University and taught musicology at Brooklyn College. Deciding, however, that the politics and infighting of academia were not for him, he gave up teaching in 1967 and fully dedicated himself to his engrossing hobby: photography. Initially he focused on portraiture, making professional portraits of fellow musicians absorbed in the process of playing music. By 1969, his work appeared in a broad range of magazines including Opera News, New York, Fortune, Redbook, Mademoiselle, and Seventeen. 1969 was a pivotal year for Brown as he traveled to the American Southwest with his wife, and was transfixed by the brilliance of the light and the consequent clarity of forms in the natural world. This experience so transformed him that from then on almost all of his work consisted of color landscape views. He expanded his home darkroom to allow for color printing, and taught himself the complicated dye transfer process as he prepared for a 1970 exhibition of his photographs and Carol’s watercolors at the Witkin Gallery in New York.

Brown’s major projects included an early conceptual series of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy funerals photographed from a television set; an extended portrait of a couple making love; a portfolio of desolated structures being demolished on the Lower West Side of Manhattan; a series of United States opera houses; a survey of Berlin centered around its opera houses (East and West); and a series of publications commissioned by Time-Life Books, primarily focused on the wilderness, but which also included a study of American gardens.

It was on assignment with Time-Life Books that Brown was in the Kancamangus Highway section of the White Mountains of New Hampshire in the summer of 1973, working on a book to be called New England Wilds. Torrential, freezing rains plagued him as he and his wife backpacked and camped in the rain soaked wilderness. After days of heavy precipitation, flooding began and a state of emergency was declared. Brown continued to work, pursuing a photograph of a newly formed waterfall on Table Mountain. At the end of a long day, the incessant clouds cleared, the rain subsided and, in an attempt to get the best view of the falls, Brown scaled a slick rock face. He fell seventy five feet into a frigid, cresting stream. He salvaged his exposed film, was gracious and apologetic to his rescuers, and asked his wife to notify employers that his work would be delayed. Ultimately, however, he was unable to survive his injuries, dying a few days later, three days short of his thirty-seventh birthday.

The Center for Creative Photography is the main repository of Dean Brown’s work. The Dean Brown archive consists mainly of photographic materials including contact sheets, negatives, transparencies, dye transfer materials, and work prints. Papers related to his photographic career include business correspondence, date books, resumes, invoices and project notes. In particular, there is much information regarding his mastery of the dye transfer process including lab notes, separation negatives, matrices, and proof prints. There is a virtually complete collection of periodicals and tear sheets in which Brown’s photographs were published. In addition, there is correspondence regarding these professional assignments, shooting scripts, assignment notes, film records, expense accounts, and diaries. There is little of a personal nature, but correspondence between Dean Brown and his wife Carol are represented in photocopies. More than 50,000 35mm transparencies, 150 color prints, and nearly 3000 black-and-white prints represent his photographic career.

Online Gallery

Finding aid: