More than a hundred bottles and vials line the shelves of Isa Brito’s sun-drenched Brooklyn home, which serves double duty as the base for her apothecary, Isa’s Restoratives. For the latest edition of Creative Spaces, I sat down with Brito to discuss the influences on her herbalism and its relationship to her photography. Brito’s photos of New York City during the ’80s and ’90s will be presented in the exhibit PASSENGERS at Milk Gallery from June 22 through July 1.
Milk Made: How do you approach herbalism?
Isa Brito: Herbalism is something I don’t even think about, I just basically do. I am always going to be studying because I need seven lifetimes to finish or even get close to knowing something so vast. And every time somebody calls me, it’s a gift. Oh, I am going to learn this. A friend called me with tonsillitis. It is not a chore. For me, it is something I really want to do, I go for it. You know people go home and read a novel at night? I read about tonsillitis at night in bed.
MM: How did your interest in herbalism start?
IB: Well, when Julia, my daughter, was born we lived in a big open loft in Williamsburg and I didn’t have TV. It was not like I could put her to sleep and I could turn on the radio and have my friends over. So I was always alone and quiet and broke. So I always read about how to treat a baby naturally so I could afford to have her healthy and be more independent in taking care of her.
So it started with little homeopathic books, and the more I read I realized that I already knew a lot of this stuff because I grew up on a farm in Brazil and never saw anything – I never saw an aspirin until I was eleven years old. I remember I would get sick but instead of taking medicine I would have some bone marrow in a spoon. That’s how I was treated most of my childhood. I started reading this text, especially the older texts with, for example, chicken feet soup for arthritis – and I would remember that! So I started reconnecting.
MM: So it was very natural for you growing up? And then it was reawakened when your daughter was born?
IB: Yeah, you could say that. When my daughter was born I also became friends with an older Japanese couple. They were the coolest people. They were very broke and they asked me if I would allow them to come to my house and cook food Japanese style and [in return they would] show me how to cook Japanese style and treat a child Japanese style. So for about a year these people came to my house about five nights a week. And they would cook, then they would give shiatsu to the baby. Then she would talk to me about philosophy and how to clean the house Japanese style and talk herbs. And then they would give me shiatsu, and then they would leave. Then it would start all over the next day.
They got me really into Japanese herbs. Then I started walking around New York and I was like, “Wow they grow here too.” And I was photographing at the time. And they were telling me, “It’s fine and dandy – you’re great at this, we love that you do this, but you are also a healer so don’t forget that.” And I would be like, “What, what are they talking about?” Then years later I got more into it and started taking some classes and reading more. And I was like, “Wow, I can do this.” I feel like I have – I trust my intuition.
MM: I saw an interview where you said something about how you actually prefer weeds to grow in your garden.
IB: Yeah. I’ve been very criticized once someone made a tiny little five-minute film about my garden in Williamsburg. My garden was just gorgeous with poke and weeds. And I remember this little piece ran in the internet for a while. And people were like: “Are you an idiot? Get rid of your dandelions. You’re a horrible gardener.” I’m like, they don’t understand. To me, the herbs that grow naturally near us are probably our best friends. Wild Lettuce. You can’t take a step walking down the block anywhere in Brooklyn without finding it. And everyone’s filled with anxiety, and it is totally an anxiety tamer.
MM: When I hear you say that it seems like maybe an acceptance of spontaneity – of allowing things to happen. Is that part of your philosophy in your photography as well?
IB: Very much. It’s all there is. I think 99.9 percent. I ask people to take a picture here and there, but most of the time it’s just one frame or two frames of one situation; it’s what is happening in that one moment. There’s not a lot of shooting very many to get the right thing. The right thing is already there. I just try to capture that, it’s very spontaneous, absolutely.
MM: Is there anything that in particular inspires you that you want to record and capture?
IB: There’s never an anticipation of “I want to capture that.” But in the moment, I am very attracted to the absurd, poetry, bittersweet, connection between people, and funny. I would say humor.
MM: What would be an example?
IB: There’s a photo in the show that I think is very sweet, a little bit funny and a little bit absurd. It’s a picture in Tompkins Square Park of the Wigstock that was still happening over there. There is a bench where there’s a beautiful tranny sitting in all her glory, totally from head to toe just perfect. It’s a wide-angle picture. And next to her there’s all these really straight dudes just sitting around there. It’s sweet. It’s beautiful. It’s a little bit funny. It’s a little bit absurd too that this big old tranny and these guys just hanging out with their dude hair and outfits. It’s like, “What? What’s going on here?”
MM: Why do you always shoot with film, black and white?
IB: It was the film that I could purchase bulk, and Tri-X is such a forgiving film, and I got so intimate with that formula that I didn’t even need a thermometer anymore [to develop]. I would put my finger and I would know it’s 67 degrees, it’s not yet 68 degrees. I think for 15 to 20 years I developed with that formula. And I like black and white. There is something very about me, in general – even my herbs, and the way I dress and my house. Everything. I am not so tech. I’m kind of old fashioned in general.
[Interview edited for content, length and clarity]
Photos by: Jessie Adler
- Photo Storytelling: TRUE LOVE
- Photo Storytelling: HAZE
- Isa Brito's Beginning
- "Mom Dad" by Terry Richardson
- Opening Night: Passengers