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International experience 

Brake's biography     | 1 | 2 | 34 |


Joining Magnum

Brake had hoped to find film work in the United Kingdom. Discovering that union rules prevented this, he fell back on still photography. His attempts to sell his landscape photographs of New Zealand and Europe to magazines were generally unsuccessful, but he managed to make a small living from portraiture.

Then, through visiting the Leica camera factory in Germany to buy the newly released Leica M3 in early 1955, he met members of the Paris-based photo agency Magnum. He was accepted as a nominee member that year. Suddenly, backed by the name of the prestigious agency, the doors of photo editors that were previously closed to Brake now opened. 

Brake’s first big assignments were to Moscow in winter, and then to Nigeria to follow the 1956 royal tour of Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh. By the middle of 1956 he was obviously regarded as good enough to be granted associate membership of Magnum. In 1957, he gained full membership.

The roving photojournalist

For the remainder of the 1950s and the first half of the 1960s, Brake criss-crossed the world on numerous shoots. Much of his work was in black and white, as that was the staple of the international picture magazines of the time. But he also photographed in colour, his specialty.

The first phase of this work was mostly speculative. He and his then-partner, writer Nigel Cameron, embarked on a world trip in mid-1956. Their aim was to generate articles together, Cameron writing the text and Brake taking the photographs.

Brake and Cameron began in Egypt, and moved on to the Aden Protectorate, Sri Lanka, and Southeast Asia. Brake continued to Melbourne to cover the Olympic Games, and then to New Zealand at the end of 1956 to follow the Duke of Edinburgh’s tour. They returned to Asia, spending three months in China where Brake took his most significant photographs to date.

Entry to China at that time was barred to United States citizens, and American magazines were keen to show the photographs Brake took of May Day parades in 1957. He obviously made a good impression on the Chinese too, for he was invited back in 1959 to cover the tenth anniversary celebrations of the People’s Republic of China in Beijing – the only independent Western photographer to do so.

By the end of 1957, most of Brake’s work consisted of specific assignments. These included covering the 1957 North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) summit meeting in Paris, Princess Margaret’s tour of the West Indies, the arrival of Vice-President Nixon in Washington after his South American tour, and the Dalai Lama’s flight from Tibet into India – amongst many others.

New Zealand, gift of the sea

In 1960 Brian Brake visited New Zealand to photograph for an article in National Geographic. The story was titled ‘New Zealand: Gift of the sea’ and the text was by New Zealand writer Maurice Shadbolt.

However, Brake was disappointed with the published result. He was especially frustrated that National Geographic had brought in another photographer to fill what they saw as gaps in Brake’s coverage. He had been thinking about producing a photographic book on New Zealand since the mid-1950s; now, this experience spurred him to action.

The result was a book of the same name as the National Geographic article, published by Whitcombe and Tombs in 1963 and with text again by Shadbolt. It was an instant best-seller, partly because it was far more sophisticated than any scenic picture books then on the New Zealand market.  Brake brought to the project his photojournalist’s skill of storytelling through images, as well as overseas contacts that resulted in the book being both designed and printed in Japan. He probably never again had such total control over a major project to make it exactly the way he wanted.


Brake’s two greatest achievements were both shot in the same year, 1960. Not long after taking the photographs for what became New Zealand, gift of the sea, he spent three months in India photographing the monsoon weather cycle. This idea had been discussed years earlier at Magnum, but considered too difficult to do.

Life magazine, which was also sceptical, paid Brake an advance for just one page in return for first option on any larger story. Brake’s first attempts were unsuccessful, until he realised that the story was about the effects of the monsoon on the Indian people, not the weather itself.

When Brake first showed a selection of about 110 colour slides to magazines, there was huge interest. But they had to wait until Life ran its version of 18 photographs over 10 double page spreads in the 8 September 1961 issue. Other magazines, such as Paris Match, Epoca and The Queen, then quickly followed suit, each publishing a differing number and selection of images.

In all its variants, ‘Monsoon’ was a true photo essay; a group of photographs whose sequence, rather than accompanying text, created a narrative. And unlike most photo essays to date, it was entirely in colour. It was also notable as a poetic story that presented the seasonal cycle of India’s monsoon rains as one of eternal renewal – rather than using it as a photojournalistic opportunity to record disaster and hardship.

Extended colour essays for Life

‘Monsoon’ was a landmark event in Brake’s career, fully establishing his reputation as a photographer. It also cemented his relationship with Life magazine and led to further large-scale stories in colour. For the magazine, this was an era of grand themes, told in colour. By delivering these goods, Brake made a niche for himself at Life.

First came a story on the film industry in Asia for an issue on movies worldwide. This was followed by a story on Japan for a special issue preceding the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.

After Japan, Brake’s next big Life assignment was to photograph for one issue in a multi-issue series on the Roman Empire. This took him much of 1965, and he travelled all over the ancient world photographing its ruins. In 1966 and 1967, he spent 18 months on what is possibly the largest commission ever granted by Life – photographing ancient Egypt for a six-part story. For this he photographed ruins, the interior of tombs, and museum collections. To produce the highest quality results, Brake switched to using a large-format studio camera.

Continue reading – New directions

Continue reading - New directions

Brian Brake, London, England
Brian Brake, London, England, circa 1954, Maker unknown, London. Gift of Mr Raymond Wai-Man Lau, 2001. Te Papa
Brian Brake photographing at the Bolshoi Theatre, Moscow
Brian Brake photographing at the Bolshoi Theatre, Moscow, 1955, Maker unknown, Moscow. Te Papa
Brian Brake in Singapore
Brian Brake in Singapore, circa 1956-1957, Maker unknown. Te Papa
Brian Brake photographing an Indian dancer, South India
Brian Brake photographing an Indian dancer, South India, 1958-1963, Maker unknown, India. Gift of Mr Raymond Wai-Man Lau, 2001. Te Papa
Brian Brake
Brian Brake, circa 1960, Maker unknown. Gift of Mr Raymond Wai-Man Lau, 2001. Te Papa

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