Where Heaven and Earth Meet: Through the Lens of Photographer Jeffrey Bruno
The disposition of the photographer is simply one of ‘surrender to Christ…’
NEW YORK CITY — The camera came to life, and there he was.
On a computer screen Jeffrey Bruno was sitting framed by the very thing that had brought him to my attention in the first place, namely, a photographic image.
A few years ago on my internet feed, images started appearing. In an age saturated with images, these were different. They varied in terms of place and subject, emotion and possible meaning, but they all shared one characteristic. They had about them something “Catholic.”
At times, this aspect was obvious: pictures of nuns and monks, or of priests offering the Holy Sacrifice; others were less obviously Catholic but expressed a Catholic sensibility. Those detailing pro-life witness on the streets of American cities were the best I had seen.
The sheer volume of the images, combined with their obvious power, to say nothing of their skilful construction, made me curious as to their author. A name followed: Jeffrey Bruno. I checked out his website and, looking at yet more of his work, was even more impressed.
Now, he was sitting in front of me through the wonders of technology. Bruno had agreed to an interview. I was in London, and he was in New York City, but it was still an interview, and I had many questions.
His was an easy manner: He was as relaxed in speaking to me as if I was an old friend who had just dropped by for a mid-morning coffee. He was in no rush and seemingly prepared to discuss anything. And, of course, I could tape the conversation.
His website had already filled in some of the blanks.
“Jeffrey Bruno is an award-winning photographer, writer and creative director who focuses on issues and stories relating to the Catholic Church in the spirit of ‘Evangelization through Imagery.’”
Intriguing, but then it continues:
“His vocation is to present the beauty and mission of the Church to inspire, educate and inform.”
Bruno looked straight at me in response to my question arising from that statement about his vocation on the website: “This is a vocation! I don’t decide who looks at what I do. It is evangelization through imagery.” He speaks in a way I had heard before. It is the voice of a whole generation of Catholics who grew up in the confusion following the Second Vatican Council. This was the voice of someone who had drifted away and then come back on a wave of faith that crashed upon the hard rocks of secularity with a newfound certainty and evangelical fervour. I had heard that “voice” enough times now to recognize it in Bruno’s voice.
Bruno continued to speak, and I listened. His vocational sense, he told me, is expressed in and through his art and is reaffirmed each day.
“Discernment is a perpetual thing,” he continued, “Do his will! The goal is whatever you want, Lord.”
Listening to Bruno, it was clear this awareness of his singular calling was today a concrete component in his life. For him, the professional and the spiritual had long since blended into a sense of mission.
Born in 1966 in Nyack, New York, today Bruno lives in New York City with Alicia, his wife of 29 years. The website copy completes the picture of his domestic circumstance: “2 crazy kids, grandson, too many cats and a large dog in dilapidated Civil War house by the shore.” This is a man at home in more ways than one.
His days have found a rhythm, he explained. He wakes and prays, sometimes for 30 minutes, sometimes for longer. Then he runs. Like many creatives, he has found that creativity comes not through meetings around boardroom tables but in pounding the streets in his morning exercise. He attends Holy Mass daily; goes to confession regularly; prays the Rosary.
And then he does what God has called him to do, namely, photograph the world around him through a lens as creative as it is distinctively Catholic.
It was not always so with, however.
Asking a lot of questions, I felt I was prying; but he answered without any angst. It felt as if he was being led back to a time and place that is a different country in so many ways, with some things painful to recall.
His journey started in music. His childhood ambition was to be a classical musician. He studied the Baroque period; that was to be his specialism while at the conservatory he attended upon leaving school. The path seemed clear. But, then, he found he did not get along with his music director.
He left the world of Baroque; he also left the world he had thus far known and headed to another music scene then flourishing in New York City: the heavy-metal scene of the early 1980s. With his knowledge of music and computers, he soon found that his music-production skills were much in demand by artists. Soon, he was plunged headlong into the world of rock bands and their touring. When asked about some of the acts he worked with, he named them; but for the first time, there was a hint that we were talking of a time and place that is no longer relevant to him. However impressive these names once were, to Jeffrey Bruno today, they have long since lost their luster.
Bruno married in 1992. Although by then no longer practicing his childhood faith, both he and his bride wanted to have a large family. However, life on the road with rock stars was becoming increasingly incompatible with this hope. And yet the rewards on offer continued to grow ever larger. Things came to a head when, in 1995, he was asked by Tony Bongiovi (the cousin of Jon Bon Jovi) to work at Power Station, which was the third-largest studio in the world at the time. “I accepted,” Bruno said, “but once I was there I understood that I had to leave it, or lose everything that mattered to me.”
As Bruno recounted what was being proposed back then, it brought to mind that scene in the Gospel when the blandishments of the world are offered upon a mountaintop: “All of these can be yours.”
Bruno had to make a decision between life on the road or family life at home. He quit the rock world and retired to suburbia close by the New York shoreline.
It was there that Bruno bought a tugboat, Harbor Star, and decided to renovate it. The changes in his life — for a family and now an alternate lifestyle — appeared to have a rationale. They were choices made counter to his former rock-star lifestyle. But, soon, and perhaps surprisingly, his newfound life proved just as empty.
Now, he sees the “tugboat adventure” as masking a deeper search that was an inner questing propelled by a nagging and pervasive sense of dissatisfaction. At its heart was the question: When the world offers you everything and you still feel unsatisfied, then what?
Bruno had been raised a Catholic. But early on he had drifted away from the faith. Near where the tugboat was moored, however, there was a Catholic church, St. Mary’s. Occasionally, he found himself wandering into that church. The elderly parishioners were welcoming. He began to feel a sense of belonging, as yet ill-defined. That said, he still had no sense of his childhood Catholic faith.
Then, one day, he knelt down in the church. He prayed that if God was there, then — please — make his presence felt.
“I felt his attention” was how Bruno casually summed up his on-the-spot — and life-changing — conversion.
Again, it felt as if I was intruding as I probed further.
“It changed me,” he said. “I was stunned.” That day, he went home and informed his wife of what had happened. From that day, things were never the same again.
This all happened in 2004. Bruno struggled to make sense of the mystical experience he had undergone. He tried to learn about his Catholic faith via the internet, yet many of the sites were, he says, “unhelpful.” He also noticed how poorly presented much of the artwork was on such websites. Still, he had found his path, even if it was, as yet, ill-defined.
In due course, he found himself being asked by his local diocese if he could take some pictures for its website. Thinking little of it, he picked up a camera and headed out to do as requested. That day, in as unexpected a way as when he knelt in church and asked to know God, he found to his amazement that when he took some random photographs, something much more profound was being revealed to him.
At that moment, he realized he held in his hands not so much a camera as a calling. “Something happened,” he added. Knowing what happened next and how his career has progressed, this needs, it seems, little further commentary from the recipient of that gift.
Bruno is, as his website says, award-winning. His photography — featured regularly at the Register — is as good as any on display anywhere today. Yet he wears his accolades lightly. But he enjoys talking of the craft of photography.
What does he look for when taking a photograph? “Never preconceive an image,” he replied. “Instead, notice things as they happen; be spontaneous; then something occurs: Yes!”
He was animated as he talked.
“Look for soul,” he added. “Try to see heaven and earth collide in one thing.” While doing so, the disposition of the photographer is, he said, simply one of “surrender to Christ.”
The camera is now blank. The interview concluded. Jeffrey Bruno has returned to his life in New York City. He answered all my questions; we spoke for well over our allotted time. He was as generous in his responses as I could have hoped. Yet I felt a sense of intangible dissatisfaction with the interview. He still felt out of reach.
In the days that followed, I started to look back at his photographs.
I found myself once more touched by their beauty and insight. As I continued to look at them, however, it was then it slowly began to dawn on me: It was in these images, the place where he had said that heaven and earth met, and perhaps only in these images, that Jeffrey Bruno reveals his true self.
This story was updated after posting.