Rob: So when did you move to Austin?
Dan: We moved in 2000. I knew going into this that there’s no market in Austin. There are a lot of photographers here…
Rob: It’s amazing how many photographers there are in and around Austin.
Dan: Yeah, we have a pretty amazing photo community here. There are ties down here, but really there’s “Texas Monthly”, that’s about it.
Rob: What’s amazing, though is the Creative Directors that came out of Texas Monthly. Fred came from there and DJ and Scott Dadich.
Dan: I was always envious of the relationship Seliger and Fred had and I had it to an extent with DJ, and we did some really good stuff together, but I never thought it matured to where we both had hit our stride. Now I feel like I’m on my game and I feel like it’s a culmination of all the stuff that preceded this. That happened when Scott and I started working together. The funny thing about Scott is how much younger he is than I. I think the first time I met him he was 23 or something, but for some reason it just gelled, and I think it was partially due to his tenacity, because some of the stuff we shot I was questioning what it was going to be like. Like that barbecue thing, it looked like an insect collection and I’d studied entomology since I was nine, even went to California State Fair and won once in high school.
Rob: Wait, you studied entomology? Ok, your style is starting to make more sense to me.
Dan: From the time I was nine until I was 18, I studied entomology under George Merriken. I wanted to be an entomologist, but realized they don’t get paid anything. I could make more money as a photographer. When George died and his wife donated his entire collection to a couple universities I flew up to California, and set up a studio in her house and documented the entire collection on 8 x 10. I shot them all the same way using a little set I built.
When I showed Scott those he called me to say, “Why don’t we do barbecue and do it like those insect collection photos.” And right from that moment I felt like we were on the same page. I really feel like I will always work with him, he’s a very close friend, he designed my book.
Getting him to design the book was a project in and of itself. He and I had started two books already, and we had one of them almost done, a black and white street photography book. So I had always said, if I get a book deal, you’re designing the book. So, I got this phone call from Aperture, and they said, “We want a book with you and we want to send some people down to your studio in Austin, what’s your schedule like?”
They have a two-year, first look deal with me and I have several books that I’ve been working on including a bee book.
Rob: What’s the bee book?
Dan: I did these bee photographs with a scanning electron microscope, that are totally bad-assed. They’re the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I spent two and a half months on it last year.
Rob: You shoot with a scanning electron microscope? How is it that you have so much range?
Dan: Really just a wide-eyed genuine curiosity and also getting something in my head and wanting to make it happen, figuring out how to do it. I got an assignment from Amayah to do a story on medflies, for Discovery in the early ’90s. And I said, “Well, hell, med-flies are really small.” So I started researching it and I found out that UC Riverside has a microscopy department. I called them up, and I said, “Listen, this is my deal. I don’t know anything about it, but I want to learn it. Can I come down, and can you teach this to me?”
So, I went down several times, and they started to show me how the thing worked and how to prep the specimens. They were real cool. Then I just started to book time on it. I’d prep my specimens, and I’d book time on it and pay by the hour. I’d just sit there and work with it and shoot. It was awesome.
So, I did this whole med-fly thing on the SCM for “Discover.” Several times, things have come up like that since then, and I’ve done them on the SCM.
I wrote a story for “Texas Monthly” on bees because there’s this colony collapse disorder that’s happening now, where these huge apiaries are losing 75 percent of their bees, and they don’t know why. There’s a lot of mitigating factors that I think have been fleshed out, but really it’s been a mystery up until very recently. So, I thought, “Man, this is really important,” and I started researching it, and Texas has really been hit hard by it.
So, I called T. J. at the magazine because I have a very good relationship with him and I said, “Hey, I want to do this project on honeybees, and this is how I want to do it.” I showed him a couple of my med-fly photos, and he’s like, “Oh, that’s awesome. Do it.”
So, I spent three and a half months working on it when I could, at UT Austin, with the microscopy department there. And I got all these bees; I bought a bunch of queen bees from an apiary back in South Carolina. Unfortunately, I had to kill them all because the specimens all have to be dead and mounted and covered with iridium, and it’s a whole process. It’s a nightmare to do.
Rob: I’m dumbfounded that you taught yourself how to shoot with an electron microscope.
Dan: I know, it’s pretty cool.
Rob: Are there any formats that you still want to learn how to shoot? Have you shot wet plate?
Dan: I’ve done some tintype stuff, but I’ve never gotten into it. Robert Maxwell has done some beautiful work in wet plate. He’s probably my favorite guy out there in terms of portraiture, I think he’s really good, He’s done some amazing wet plate nudes that are gorgeous. And he did this one portrait of Norah Jones that I still think is one of my favorite portraits I’ve ever seen. He shot that all 8 x 10 wet plate.
When I saw it I thought that would be really cool, but then I started to think, for me, there are so many processes, and I feel like sometimes the process… a lot of times, it augments the photographs really well, but sometimes it becomes the thing.
Rob: Right. So, the electron’s more of a… you’re an entomologist; you needed that technique to get at something.
Dan: Totally. It couldn’t have been done without it. The way I imagined it in my mind, it was obviously the only way to do it. The funny thing is you get to a certain point with optics where you can’t resolve like an electron microscope can resolve. I can’t use optics to do it. If I’d tried to use optics to photograph these bees, the product would be vastly different and not nearly as interesting.
I think my desert island camera, if I could only have one would be a Rolleiflex with TRI-X, I could shoot for the rest of my life with that.
Rob: I want to go back to one thing that we touched on, and that was your style. We talked about “The New York Times Magazine” commissioned you to do that portrait of Denzel, and it had all the elements that make up your very strong style. When you think about your style or some of the elements that you keep coming back to, is it just who you are as a person, or is it something that you arrived at over the years?
Dan: Well, we talked a little bit about color and about having to embrace color. It started when I was at the newspaper where we were a black and white paper, and we went to color suddenly. We went to daily color on the front page, and then on the weekends each section had a color front page. So all the photographers collectively had to start shooting it and we pretty much hated it, but you had to figure out how to make it work. I started to really get into color after I realized that I was going to have to deal with it. I started to make it a point to try to understand palettes, and the inter-relation of colors. My favorite color’s obviously been green. I love green, and I love the way green makes me feel. I know that historically, green is a very calming color. They painted sanitariums green.
When I did that Denzel picture, that was kind of the first. I’d seen the Birney Imes book “Juke Joints.” and I really loved those environments and the colors, they where wonderful. The idea of these rooms came from Irving Penn’s photographs that contained the subject within a certain space. So I kind of elaborated on that a little bit. His were like those little V’s and I built a bigger envelopment that I like.
For that Denzel picture I was thinking about creating a location that no one really knew where it was, and whether it was real or not. It was a really small set. I used a 90-millimeter lens with large format, so that it really increased the perception of the size of the set. It also really distorted Denzel. I’ve photographed him a couple of times since then, and he calls that the big foot photo, because his shoes looked huge in the picture.
I really liked the way that picture felt. During the Depression there where itinerant photographers that would have their whole rig in their car, and they would come into town get a hotel room, set up their darkroom in the bathroom. Then go around to all of the local businesses and photograph the business, and then go back and sell prints. The goal was to put as many people in the photo as you could, because then you’d get five print sales instead of one. I’ve always loved that genre. There’s a specific book called “Itinerant Photographer: Corpus Christi, Texas” that was a show actually, it was at Ranch Center here in Austin. They did of the book of the photographs. It’s an unknown photographer who had gone into Corpus Christi and set up shop, and pretty much documented every business in Corpus. And then he had left all the negatives with a local photographer called McGregor. I think he was thinking about trying to get to the next place so he could get a meal. So anyway. So I love that genre, and I have some of those prints. And whenever I see those vernacular images, a lot of time they are shot with flash powder, and a five by seven camera on glass plates.
And so these things were floating around in my head, and I’d certainly done version of that picture before that, not ever having constructed the entire environment. When I got that assignment for The Times, that was my first big A list actor, so I pulled out all the stops. The stuff that was floating around in my head, came together in that picture.
And with the Times, 30 million people see that picture and I got a really big response right off the bat. The picture ran Sunday and Greg called from Details on Monday morning.
The idea of building that space and shooting within that space is really interesting to me. I had a really small room when I was growing up, like really small. It was basically walk in and there was a bed and a dresser and a shelf.
Rob: Ok, here we go, lean back on my couch and let it all out [Laughs].
Dan: You could kind of turn around. I’ve thought about that a lot. Early on, the way I would work is I had this studio in The Village and it was really small. It was great studio. It had a great vibe and it had a great dark room, but it was really small. When I would go out and shoot on a rental stage, I felt like I was working over in a corner.
Rob: You’d make this tiny little box in the corner to shoot in on a huge stage…
Dan: Exactly. Then I started building boxes and kind of doing that stuff and I really gravitated to that green, gray green. It’s varied over time. I’ve gone into browns, but really kind of subtle. I do a lot of really gray greens right now. Not that kind of Denzel green. It’s a really bright minty green.
Rob: Do you have a paint guy at Home Depot?
Dan: No, I have a ‘Man Brothers’ chart, which is a really great, broken down chart and other books like the ‘Polidori’ book on Havana. And so I can call Eddy my set guy who has the same books and say, “OK, ‘Polidori, ‘ page 63, lower right corner…”
Rob: Oh, no way, that’s so cool!
Dan: Yeah, it works great. And then I can say, ” ‘Man Brothers, ‘ page 43, rough sage – that’s the color.” So, before I even get out there, the thing’s already totally roughed in, and the paint’s already on it.
Or, a few days earlier than that, we’ll do a big paint, and I’ll draw the sets, and send the stuff out there. So we’ve kind of got it down to a science, in terms of that.
Rob: Let’s talk about some of the constructs you’ve done for magazines. Those are fascinating.
Dan: One of the most complicated ones was for Korpics at Esquire on the male reproductive system. The way the writer had handled it, he treated it like plumbing. So, my friend Gary Tanhauser, who’s the illustrator and a profoundly talented guy. He did a lot of construction pieces and he and I are best friends since high school and I decided we’d collaborate on this thing. So I got the assignment, but I told Korpics, “Hey, I’m going to collaborate with Gary on this.” So, he and I spent like five days building four different illustrations for that piece, and then we shared credit.
That was kind of a hybrid of what he was doing and what I was doing, because I’d been building stuff as well, prior to that, but we thought that would be a good opportunity to work together on something. And then, from that point on, I’ve kind of taken the bull by the horns.
They’re all very complicated because they’re precisely done in such a way that it kind of makes sense that it could possibly work. It’s not where you buy a bunch of junk and kind of hook it together, and try to make it look like something. These are really, really precisely done, where one thing mates to the other thing, mates to the other thing, and it’s wired, and it’s plumbed, and we’re doing work bending tubing, and all kinds of stuff. I started working with Discover, and these kind of problem-solving stories are the ones that I tend to get, that can be interpreted a lot of different ways, and a lot of times people like the idea of building these things that kind of represent what the story’s about.
Rob: So was the Esquire piece the beginning of the constructions?
Dan: No, it wasn’t, it was just a really high-profile one. I was doing these images that were partially sculpture, partially portrait, where they were very constructed. The frame was very precise, and the person almost became like a compositional element.
Rob: So it evolved out of constructing pictures with people, and you got rid of people?
Dan: It evolved out of that, yeah. I got rid of the people, and then it started a little bit anthropomorphic stuff. It’s mutated into all different kinds of stuff now.
I tell you, the website has been one of those great tools to communicate with people. I can put a bunch of stuff up on there, and then I can have a conversation with an art director or photo editor. And they say, “We really like this. If you could do something like this for us, in this vain, that would be great.” So, I know right off the bat where they’re coming from, and since their language is all the same language that I’ve been working with and developing, it’s really easy for me to take it and run with it a little bit. So, it’s been great. The conception stuff has taken a life of its own, which I’m very grateful for because it allows me to stay home. I can work here at the studio, and I can be home every night.
Rob: Ok, then what about the illustrations did those come from your drawing sets and constructs?
Dan: I’d been doing these physical constructions for Maisie Todd at Discover, and she said, “We’re doing this piece on gravity.” She said, “I want you to build these things.” And I said, “Look, I’m going to my beach house. I’m going to be gone for two weeks. There’s no way I can make the deadline.” I do sketches for the constructs to try to get them as close to what I’m doing as possible. Sometimes they’re really loose especially with people I’ve worked with before. I can do something real loose and say, “This is what I’m thinking, ” and it’s like, “Go with it.” And it had gotten to the point with Maisie to where I could do pretty loose ones, but for some reason on the gravity thing, I did pretty tight illustrations to where they really depicted what the thing would look like in a detailed way, more so than I usually do. I don’t know, for whatever reason I got into drawing them.
I sent those to her, and she and Jack actually had a conversation and decided maybe I could just draw them instead of build them, and just do refined drawings based on the sketches. I think initially she was thinking they’d become more schematics, but I really got into them. Once again, I’d thought about this, and I’d done lesser versions of it, but this was an opportunity to really expand what I’d done before to do this really big cohesive piece. So, I did these illustrations for her.
And then it was the same thing. People were looking at “Discover.” At that time, it was looking really good. They had hit their stride and a lot of people saw those. Right off the bat, I think two days after it came off the stands, I got another drawing assignment from NYU School of Medicine.
Being diverse really affords you the luxury of staying busy because people know you can do a lot of different things. Partially, I think people come to me as a problem solver, and partially people come to me because they feel like one of those aspects of the work that I do would fit for a certain project. So, I tend to get a lot of different kinds of work, but lately I’ve been doing a lot of drawing and collage stuff which is really interesting, because I never kind of imagined going into drawing. I studied drawing but I don’t think by any means I’m a great drawer I’ve just developed this language that I’ve been doing these illustrations with, that fit for me.
Really like lighting there’s a whole style to them that I’ve developed. I was like amazed last year at the SPD’s, I got a silver for a series of illustrations that I’d done and I’d never even think of myself as an illustrator.
Rob: I think a lot of people call you because they want something original. They want something they’ve not seen before. They want an interpretation of their subject. They want Dan to interpret it.
Rob: Whether it’s constructing, or shooting a subject, or illustrating, we need something in our magazine that people are going to be stopped by, and something they’ve never seen before, right.
Dan: Absolutely. I definitely agree with that. In fact, I’ve had people ask me specifically that: “Do you have anything in mind? Do you have anything you’ve been wanting to do, that we can use?” Because I keep sketch books and notebooks and stuff.
When I did that Helen Mirren photograph for the New York Times for the cover for the Oscar portfolio, Kira called and said, “You know, we want you to shoot Helen Mirren for the cover. Is there anything that you’ve been thinking about, that you want to do for that?” And I said, “Yeah I have this set in my mind that I drew a long time ago.
It’s based on this Daguerreotype studio.” I said, “It’s going to be a really expensive set, let me get some bids on it.” And then I said, “it looks like a $22,000 set.”
I did a really, really tight sketch of it. I actually drew a full set of plans for the builders.
Rob: You drew a full set of plans?
Dan: Yeah, I have to. I always draw the plans for this stuff. I have to, because a lot of times the build starts before I get out to L.A.
So, she saw it and she showed it to Kathy, and they said, “OK, let’s do it.” So you know, it was an incredible set. I don’t get the luxury of spending that much money on a set very often. Never really. Typically, they’re $6,000- $10, 000 sets. She said, “We really want something spectacular for the cover, so why don’t you just do it?”
I know that was a stretch for them, but in the end, that issue won the Gold at SPD.
Rob: So how do you keep coming up with fresh ideas? How do you exercise your brain?
Dan: The trick is, to know your visual language. And it’s the visual dialogue that I have with myself, that I’m constantly aware of. I consciously notate in my mind, what I’m seeing, and how I’m reacting to it, and where I am able to fold it into my work. Whether it’s an architectural thing, or an object or clothing, or whatever it is.
When speaking to students, I often say, “The greatest gift you can give yourself is to be aware of what you’re aware of.”
Like, what you’re looking at, and what you’re responding to on an emotional level or on an aesthetic level, acknowledge that you’re responding to that, because what that does is allows you to understand how you’re seeing, and what you’re looking at, and how you’re being affected by what you’re looking at, and all of that is going to manifest in the photograph.
Rob: So, that’s you. That’s how you inform your photography, you’re hyper-aware of everything that influences you?
Dan: Totally. And, you know, and then it becomes really subtle, because once you have a language then little things periodically will really kind of get you going.
Rob: You keep journals of ideas.
Dan: Well, yes. That “Helen Mirren” sketch, I probably did that several years before we built that set. I’d wanted to build that set, but it’s an expensive set. I mean, the most expensive part of that set was the camera left wall is all a window, the whole thing’s a window. But, I drew that set a long time ago, and I saw that set in one of the books I have was a Daguerreotype that a photographer took in the 1860s of his studio. They used the giant north light for lighting. The entire wall was a big glass wall, and it was at an angle. I was like, “God that’s the most beautiful… where does that exist? It definitely doesn’t exist in L.A.
Rob: Right, so you made it.
Dan: I wanted it to be there. If I knew where that was, and I could take Helen Mirren there, it would be great to shoot in that environment, but it doesn’t, and timing and all that stuff.
Rob: So, yeah, you want to take them some place, but you can’t so you just build it.
Dan: Yeah, exactly. When Helen saw that set, she said, “Thank you so much.” She really gave me a lot to work with because I think she knew, “My god, this guy’s really made an effort to make something special for me, and I’m not going to disappoint.” And she’s a pro. You don’t always get someone like her, but she’s a total pro. My direction to her, if you look at that picture now that I’ve told you about the making of it was to imagine herself floating in the set. And she did that whole thing that she did. I mean, I shot that picture in 10 minutes.
Rob: All that time, two and a half years waiting, plus construction, and then you shot it in 10 minutes? Are you serious?
Dan: Exactly. It was quick. In that particular shot, I mean it happened in maybe 10 minutes of shooting, really quickly. It’s one of those things, too, where I really pride myself on knowing when I have what I want and knowing when I have something special. It takes longer sometimes, for sure, but I tend to be pretty fast, especially when I know. Like for that, I needed two pictures, so the shoot was probably 45 minutes total because I did a tighter portrait of her, as well.
Rob: That leads me to my next question, the now legendary fact that you deliver final prints, and that’s it.
Dan: Yeah usually, and it’s one of those things, too, where when I started out in New York, I really stuck my neck out a little bit, but I say I know the kind of picture I want to make, and I know the aesthetic that I want to apply to the picture. And I knew back then, at that time, the kind of pictures I was making. They’re different now, but when you look at them, you see they’re very similar, really. They really are. They’re square, little square black and white pictures, but they’re very similar to the ones that I do now and have done for many years. I felt like a part of my job was to see the thing through all the way, and I knew exactly what I wanted, so I didn’t want someone editing what my version of the picture was.
So, I thought, “Well, this is what I’ll do. I’ll shoot it, and I’ll process it, and I’ll print it, and I’ll make a beautiful final print. Then I’ll give this object to the person.”
And I remember the first time I did it. The first time I did it was with Jeff at Metropolis, and the feature that he had given me, he needed several pictures for. It was a big feature. So, I gave him four or five pictures, and he used them all. It made sense.
Rob: He wasn’t surprised? He wasn’t like, “Well, most photographers give me forty pictures”?
Dan: He was actually thrilled. But, I remember turning in that picture to Jodi at “Rolling Stone,” that I did of John Singleton, and …
Rob: You were like, “Here you go.”
Dan: Just remember being really afraid of that phone call because I didn’t know what her reaction would be to that, and I never discussed it with her when she gave me the assignment. I wanted to deliver something that was my version of the picture and hoped that people agreed.
Rob: So, you gave her one picture?
Dan: Yeah, I gave her one print. Yeah. She called me and she said, “It’s beautiful. Thank you.” And that was one of those things where I exhaled and I said, “If I try my hardest to make something really special, people are going to really respond to that image.”
So, I just started doing that. I feel like when you give them these beautiful finished prints in this package with a note with a CD, there’s a sense that there’s closure, like this is great, this is what we need, this is beautiful.
When I work with “The Times,” no one ever even asks me anymore. I just send final prints.
Rob: Well, now, yeah. Everybody’s like, “Yeah, Dan, he only gives you the final print.”
Dan: I will say there have been a couple times that people will say, “Do you have anything that is more pulled back?” Or “Do you have anything that’s this or that?” and I’ll say, “Let me make another pass. I’ll go through the film and look.” I try to definitely collaborate, and I’ve always tried to collaborate, but I’ve always really tried to edit without showing the take. I never wanted to be in that situation like, “Wow, you should have seen the take. I wish they would have run this one.” I felt like the one I wish they would run, that’s the one I want to turn in because that’s the one that’s mine.
And I remember John saying one time that he felt like you could give 100 tourists cameras and let them go around and shoot, and if they gave him all the film, he could edit it and it would be his voice. And the truth is I think actually that may be a really interesting exercise. It’s what you include, not what you exclude, because what you exclude no one has any idea exists.
So, that’s the whole delivering one print thing.
Rob: That’s amazing. I mean, it’s served you well, obviously. But, you’re one of the few that does that, and I think that’s pretty sweet that you were able to establish that in the beginning. You’ve got a lot of balls for just coming straight out like that.
Dan: Yeah. I’m sure at the time it was probably bullheadedness and naivety. But, when I worked at the paper, I have to say, our Photo Editor was a pretty amazing guy, Scott Harrison. He actually still shoots for “The L. A. Times.” He really always wanted our voice, and so we would mark up our contacts.
So, what it became for us was a real point of pride to really dissect our shoot, and really dissect our take, and really focus on what our image was because Scott really gave us the power to do that. I think when you have that opportunity to have someone who is willing to do that, you step up.
Rob: Right. That’s amazing. A lot of photographers don’t know how to edit their film.
Dan: Yeah. I really think that – I don’t mean to be cocky – but I think I’m a really good editor. I really like to edit, and I like editing other people’s film. But, the thing is, I feel like my sensibility comes through in my edit of someone else’s film. So, I tell people, maybe point things out and say, “I feel like you’re really getting it right here. I don’t feel like you’re getting it here. I don’t think the shoot’s happening at this point, but it looks like this is where it happened. I think these are the pictures.”
Rob: When you do those classes and you do lectures and stuff, how do you teach these kids to edit their film? Give me some of the advice that you give to young photographers.
Dan: I think really having a dialogue, “What are you trying to achieve here?” I think even putting that out there helps someone to really focus on what their take is and what their edit is. But, then there’s a lot of nuance, and a lot of people don’t look at the relationship between the foreground and the background, which is something I really pride myself on. I really, really take great care when I’m shooting to pay as much attention to the background as I do the foreground. Obviously, if you’re shooting against seamless or something like that it doesn’t really come up.
I just point those things out. “Look this door jamb is running right through the guy’s head, ” or “This table in the background is coming out of the guy’s neck or shoulder. If you would have moved the guy over a foot, or if you would have moved over six or eight inches or a foot, these would be two compositional elements. They would be geometrical elements rather than that competing with him. Now, see, you’ve broken the tangent, and see, you’ve alleviated his role as the principal element because now you’ve tied him into the background,” and all those things.
I feel like giving them that information helps. I’ve seen that firsthand. I’ve seen that change the way people are perceiving what they’re doing. You’ve got to look at the whole thing, and once you get the whole thing established, then you can work with the model. You can really try to get what you need to get out of the person. You can focus on where you need to be focused. You can’t be tweaking while you’re worrying about light and all those things. That’s got to be done and dialed in, and then you shoot.
I think editing is learned for sure, and, once again, editing has to do with that sensibility that we were talking about. What are you reacting to? What is your picture? Having an idea of the picture you’re trying to make rather than the whole notion of saturation bombing and hoping you get something.
Rob: Trying to find the shot within all the other stuff.
Dan: You hope you know when you’re shooting when it’s working. I view photo shoots oftentimes like they have an arc. You start the shoot, and sometimes everything you need happens within the first few minutes, and it wanes from there. I think the skill that you acquire from doing it repeatedly over time is that you start to realize when it’s happening while you’re doing it. And so, when you start a shoot, you can be mindful of where it’s going. Now, that’s not to say that you don’t shoot until it happens. You have to initiate the thing; you have to initiate the process.
You have to initiate the dialog with the subject, if you’re shooting portraits, and you have to watch it. And as it ramps up and that starts to evolve, you’ve got to watch it. And you’ve got to know when it’s happening and when it’s not. And you really don’t know where it’s going to go. And so, just watching where it’s going and where it’s been, can give you a real good indication as to what’s happening with the shoot.
Sometimes, you know, an article starts and it will take a little while then it ramps up and then it gets to a point where it’s really going well. Now, you could stop there, or you could keep going. And the thing might start to just not work. Clearly it happened. It’s already happened kind of thing, And so you say, “OK, now these things happen, so I’m good. That’s the spot right there.” So, then when I would go to edit, I would look at the entire take obviously.
But, I know, even just the thing I shot last week for example, I’ll tell my assistant Jeff that I think about 20 frames before the end is where the picture worked. And we look right there and that’s where it worked.
Rob: Tell me, are you shooting any video?
Dan: Now that we have the iPad version of magazines we have the ability to deliver different types of content. It kind of a grey area for the magazine industry. They don’t understand costs involved and to a certain degree they don’t understand artistic integrity. I’ve been asked to shoot video and send the video to their in house editor.
I shot commercials and music videos for a long time and shot a couple films. So the idea of not being paid extra and no being in control of the thing. I find it really frustrating. I don’t think it’s ever been a deal breaker but I did a job recently where they wanted me to shoot video and Kath said it would be double the day rate and that I would be doing the editing and they said “nevermind.” It’s the bastard stepchild of the shoot and for the most part I’m not seeing anything good coming out of stills shoots with video. Magazine budgets have been cut and cut and cut, so it’s an odd time for them to want to delve into video which is exponentially more expensive to produce.
I shot a couple projects for Wired one was a series on cockpits. we did a full 360 that was stitched together. We built a radio controlled that we sat in the seat of each cockpit. It had the lights mounted on it so we could close the cockpit and then remotely operate it. So, when you go on the iPad you can navigate with your fingers like you’re inside.
Then one or two issues later we did a shoot with Will Ferrell that turned into a film project. I may have shot myself in the foot with that one. Wired does a once-a-year shoot with an “A” list celebrity and I had shot Brad Pitt previously, which they loved, so Scott Dadich contacted me for a shoot with Will to go along with a story on technology that was promised to us but never delivered. The original proposal from the magazine included “we’d love it if you shot some B-roll so we have some stuff to put on the iPad” but I kind of went rogue on it.
Rob: When they say “B-roll” of course they want you to just shoot video as you’re making pictures, but that’s not how you work.
Dan: They wanted me to shoot some video of him screwing around with the sets. So I thought, I’ve got Will Ferrell, many thousands of dollars in set and props, I have two huge studios, full wardrobe and makeup so I’m not going to shoot B-roll. I’m going to try and do something that’s not been made for a magazine yet.
So, I started building props down in Texas but nobody really knew what I was doing. The materials were covered, but I spent a lot of my own time building stuff I wanted for the shots.
Rob: Did you make that jetpack and ray gun?
Dan: Yeah, I built all the stuff. So, when we were shooting we would take the strobe shot then swap out for hot lights and bring Will back in and I would direct him for the video shot. No one from the magazine had any idea I was doing this stuff. The problem with doing all that is that doing the details and insert shots take forever and we already had an 8 hour shoot which is a long ass shoot.
Rob: So, then you had to shoot all the insert shots next?
Dan: No, I wasn’t able to do any of the insert shots at all. I had to shoot them all back in Austin. I had enough time to shoot all the masters, all the stuff with Will and nothing else. I had to recreate the sets down in Austin with body and hand doubles. So I worked 2 more weeks in Austin. Still rogue, the magazine had no idea. I built all these miniatures for it as well. I decided if I was going to do this I was going to do it the way I wanted. I was going to do it right. So, I spent all this time, I built all the props, I shot all the miniatures and then I started working on getting money to try and edit it. The couldn’t commit much for editing and I had an A list editor out of LA plus the tele cine and the color correction we’re talking about a lot of money for 4 spots. So I flew out to LA and called in a favor to get it cut for the amount of money the magazine had. So, when we started to try and bill for it the magazine went to war with us over the materials and my assistants time.
It taught me that the idea of producing this kind of content is not really within their means. I was trying to give the appropriate response to what the shoot was. The shoot was a highly polished conceptual shoot and I wanted the film to reflect that. Clearly it’s way out of the means for magazines. And I understand, they don’t really get it. They want me to send the footage to their editor and this is a totally different thing.
Rob: Ok, but now you have this award winning piece. Aren’t you getting lots of calls to shoot video commercially?
Dan: Not one.
Dan: Not one single call. The commercial market has dropped out as well, I remember in the 90’s I was shooting huge Nike Campaigns but it’s so competitive now. The lengths that the production companies have to go to get work for their guys it’s different now and there are a lot of guys who’ve been doing it for a long time. I was up for an ad that I actually passed on that they offered to David Fincher. Guys like that are getting offered stuff. There are a lot of guys and not a lot of work.
But within our industry there was not another Art Director who mentioned it. It didn’t open any doors. The magazines have no idea what it takes.
Rob: Isn’t it just that your standards are higher than the industry right now. Especially with the magazines. People are throwing B-Roll up. Magazines with a reputation for great writing, photography and design are happy to throw some shitty video in the middle of the magazine. It doesn’t make any sense. They have such high standards but they’re willing to publish crap.
Dan:I think they have this idea that they’re adding content when the truth is we have such a savvy viewership I feel the opposite is happening. So it doesn’t look like it’s being produced on the same level as the stills. It’s the bastard stepchild.
Rob: So tell me about the arc of your career? Where are you now? Are you at the top of the arc?
Dan: You know, I never feel like there was any meteoric ascent. I felt like I started shooting, and I started shooting really small things, and I kept going, and I kept shooting, and I just tried as hard as I could every single time, which I still do. And I never thought it would end.
The arc of a career is like climbing a tree. You could climb straight up and get to the top, but you would have missed the potential exploration of each of the branches. And I think that’s when the magic is revealed. That’s when you really start to look and you start to take it past where you’ve been.
I will always make pictures my whole life. If I stopped shooting and tried to print everything that I’ve already shot, like all my personal work and stuff, I would not finish before I died. I mean my collection of negatives that I want to work with, just those archival negatives and stuff from other people. That on top of all the work I’ve made, there’s no way in Hell I could finish in my lifetime. No way.
Rob: I guess you’ll keep going until they take you out of your studio in a pine box.
Dan: That sounds about right.