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Interview with photographer Dan Milnor

Interview with photographer Dan Milnor - Dan Milnor is joining Blurb for their Book Workshop series and ePHOTOzine got the chance to chat with him.

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Dan MilnorWhy did you choose photography as your career?
"I chose photography because I had, and still have, an extremely powerful need to record things. I've written in a journal my entire life, continuing with my blog today, and also with the camera. I was on another career path, but photography kept coming up, making itself known, and I finally realised it was not only what I wanted to do, it was what I needed to do."
How do you decide what to photograph? Do you have an idea in your head before you leave for a shoot or do you photograph whatever catches your eye?
"With my commercial, or portrait work, the work typically comes to me. People commission me to photograph their kids, but there are also times when I find kids I really like working with that I will call the parents and ask if I can do a shoot just for me, or for stock.

With documentary work, about 99% of that is self-assigned, self-produced. I would love to have more of this work come to me, but the market is not great, especially for a guy who likes to shoot grainy, black and white pictures. I LOVE wandering and making photographs, with no particular theme in mind. I'm trying to do this more and more, and in fact, this is what I'm doing on this trip to London. People are asking me what I'm going to do on my 1.5 days of open time, and my response is "walk and shoot." However, most of my work is story based, meaning I have a theme in mind and I shoot, over and over, on that one theme until I've made a body of work. Most of what I do is people based, as opposed to abstract or landscape.
A lot of your images make the viewer think and ponder what's happening. Was this intentional?
"I'm glad you said that. I think the best photography reflects reality and is made by anticipating and reacting. I typically have an idea of what I'm looking for, but in essence, I'm just reacting to my environment. I believe in happy accidents, but most of the time I put myself in situations where I can feel something happening. This might sound odd, but I truly think you can feel when something is happening, when that peak moment will arrive, and you have to be ready to pounce. If you see the great moment, you missed it. You have to be slightly ahead of time."
Many of your images are black and white why do you choose to work in this format?
"I started in colour, which wasn't common at the time I was going through school. Most students were shooting and learning black and white, but I knew I wanted to be a magazine photographer, and I knew the editors were looking for colour, so from day one I was shooting colour transparency. It wasn't until many years later I began to shoot black and white. I find it more difficult than colour. I think sometimes colour carries an image, and I guess you could say light and shadow can carry a black and white image, but for me, black and white strips certain elements away. It forces you to look at subject matter, not just colour. I'm also most influenced by the great black and white documentary photographers, Smith, Salgado, etc, I shoot colour for some of my portrait work, and most of my stock work is colour."
Do you work on one series at a time or dip in and out of a few of them? How long do you work on them for?
"I typically have multiple stories going at the same time. This is out of necessity. A story like Sicily, I can only work once a year. I get one shot at it. While a story like "On Approach," which is a look at commercial planes coming back to Earth, can be done by walking from my house. I think the critical thing for any photographer is to produce work. Period. It sounds easy, it isn't. The business aspects of photography can take up 90% of my time, so having stories going that are easy to access is critical for me."
Tell us a little bit about the work you're doing with Blurb.
"I landed on Blurb about a year and a half ago, and have now made roughly 80 books. Having the ability to make a book, for me, has been the most interesting development of the entire digital revolution. Blurb contacted me after I made my first few books. I was surprised, as most of the other companies I had been working with were not interested in what I wanted, or where I thought these books could go. Blurb asked, "What do you want?" I told them what I wanted, expecting them to say, "Okay," and then never hear from them again, but the response was, "Great, let's figure this out." I've been on their advisory board ever since. I can throw anything at them and they are always interested in what is possible. They have a love of imagery and of image makers. The CEO is a photographer as well, as are many of the people behind the scenes."
What's the most challenging or interesting image you've taken and why?
"Well, I think there are different kinds of challenging pictures. I've shot pictures at funerals of police officers killed in action. I've shot pictures of riot scenes during political conventions. I've been maced, clubbed, robbed at gunpoint, but frankly I don't think any of these were really that difficult. They are intense for a brief moment and then disappear. I think when you are put in a situation where you love the client, or the person you’re working for, but you are put in a position where you just can't make good photographs is as hard as anything. I also think that photographing my father was very difficult. He wasn't easy, but I liked working with him. I photographed him the day before he died, luckily. He didn't really like photography or photographers, so it was a real challenge. My mum is easy to work with!  She'll pose all day! And I have two nephews who are some of my favourite people in the world."
Do you have a piece of kit you couldn't be without?
"A Leica M6. The only camera I have on this trip. For portraits, Hasselblad 501. For commercial work, Canon EOS 5D Mark II."
Who, what and how did you create your style?
"I'm think I'm most influenced by photographers like Salgado, Gene Smith, but I am also amazed by people like Sally Mann. My work looks nothing like hers, but I admire photographers who are more than just photographers, and those who aren't caught up in the technical aspects. These people are, and were, a force in the world, more than just someone who makes pictures. Peter Beard is another guy I've always liked. Beard makes pictures but never got lost in the sideshow of gear or technology. His photography was a means to an end. He was an environmentalist, hunter, explorer, journal maker, celebrity, artist, etc, someone you wanted to hang out with, someone who could probably challenge you, scare you or motivate you all at the same time. 

My style came from trial and error and listening to the voices in my head. It is extremely difficult not to conform to what is modern photography. I think we all have photo voices in our heads, letting us know what we should really be doing, but it is easy to tune them out, at least for a while. Then, suddenly, you realise you to follow these words. I experiment a lot. On my desk at home I have developing chemicals I have never used, and a 4x5 pinhole camera I have never used, ready to be experimented with when I return."
Do you do any post-production work on your images?
"Well, there is a lot of post production, but it revolves around numbering, labelling, archiving more than manipulation. I even stopped doing basic things like sharpening my digitised files. Most of my work is resized, dodged, burned and saved. I've even pulled back on the amount of dodging and burning I do. I'm really bad at Photoshop. Really, it's somewhat ridiculous. Much of this technology is incredible, but I just don't have that much interest in it. I feel like I haven't come close to fully understanding something as simple as a frame of Tri-x, so much of what is bombarding us today, for me, is just a distraction."
What's the most interesting or best thing you've hear someone say about your work?
"Well, I was at a party, in the countryside, hosted by a National Geographic photographer. They were doing projections in the middle of the night, outside. It was a fantastic scene. All around me were photographers, including a lot of the NG staffers. My work went up and it was silent. The pictures played, the stars shined from above, and I was really nervous. The final slide played, there was a moment of silence followed by everyone suddenly cheering, yelling, whistling, etc. It was fantastic. Next to me in the dark was a NG photographer I knew from Los Angeles who saw me standing there in the dark. "Nice work," he said looking at me. Others in the crowd turned to look at me, including a photographer named William Albert Allard, a guy that had influenced me plenty, a legend. "Were those your pictures?" he asked. "Yes," I replied. "Man, you can sure put space together," he said. I'll never forget it."

Dan Milnor Blurb book

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