Rediscovering My Passion for Photography
By Dan (Dano) Steinhardt
I was 13 and barricaded myself in a small bathroom. A towel was jammed under the door for complete privacy allowing a new and mysterious adult-like red glow to fill the room. The smells were intoxicating as I watched the 5 X 7 inch white sheet of paper slowly turn into an image. It was an amazing moment of alchemy meeting art, combined with something special I had never experienced before. I squinted in pain as the light went on like an electric shock in a Sci-Fi movie and there I saw my first print gently bobbing in the fixer. I was immediately hooked. Not only had I developed my first photograph, what I really began to develop was my passion for photography.
That passion was cultivated by my amazing high school photo instructor Warren King who exposed me to the works of Dorothea Lang, Arnold Newman and W. Eugene Smith who would come to have a profound influence on my style. Warren became my first mentor and an equally important critic. I traveled all around my native Los Angeles shooting everything and discovered photography could capture amazing moments on the streets of LA that most did not see. But whenever I talked about the great pictures I shot over the weekend Warren would point to the sign above his desk which 30 years later continues to resonate, "Don't Tell Me How Good You Are, Show Me".
After graduating from Brooks Institute I was running my own advertising photography business in Chicago. Everything was captured on 8 x 10 film and when it came time to Scheimpflug (for those who remember view cameras) I was world-class. But new opportunities presented themselves and I found myself working in the New York City Photo District for Kodak and soon moved into strategic marketing on a worldwide basis. It was during these years that my focus was business. To paraphrase a song, I was sent away and taught how to be sensible, logical, responsible, practical, intellectual and clinical. I was studying in Executive Programs at leading business schools and advancing in my career. I loved it and I still love business, but I didn't touch a camera from 1987-2000 and hadn't used a 35mm camera since High School. Then I got a call from a relatively new company in the photo world called Epson and was asked to develop and lead its marketing programs for professional photographers and advanced amateurs.
In 2001 digital printing was still relatively new and the market was reaching out for information and education. I developed the Epson Print Academy (shameless plug) as a way to meet this market need (link). We went on the road to videotape leading photographers and fine-art printmakers. My goal was to glean all the technical stuff there from the best of the best. The pre-production notes were a checklist of mission critical items from color spaces, to file formats to advanced color management. But when the video camera was on, these artists talked to how Epson printers reminded them of teenage years, watching their first print develop in a darkroom, fueling their passion for photography. I started to recall the glow of that red safelight, the smell of fixer and the joy I used to experience with the camera. I bought a Nikon D100 in 2002, tapped into my analog experiences from high school and via digital photography became a teenager all over again.
So What Have You Shot For Me Lately?
I travel a lot in my job. I also have the incredible honor to work with the some of the most well-known photographers on the planet. One of those legends is Jay Maisel who has become my new mentor. With all my business travel I took Jay's advice, "Carry the camera because without it, it's really tough to take pictures." In the process I essentially returned to my roots of street photography versus the comfort and control of the studio.
I'm in Las Vegas 3-4 times a year for different trade shows including Photoshop World. I love to shoot in Vegas because there is so much extraordinary to be found in the ordinary like the valet running to retrieve a rental car, the early morning joggers in front of a hotel and the pool chairs stacked in the beautiful light at the end of the day. When I have some free time (and the light is right) I head straight for the tourist traps looking for interesting images of people vs. the actual attraction like the silhouetted person in front of the fountains or the shadow of a person walking in front of a famous hotel.
I also remember Jay Maisel's advice to look 180 degrees in the opposite direction as it might be the better picture. The image of a foot juxtaposed near a man reading a newspaper was 180 degrees from a famous shrine in Tokyo, the two Indian women were 180 degrees behind me at the Taj Mahal, the taxi parked in front of a construction site was across from where the Toronto PhotoWalk group had gathered, the man in a red hat making his way out of a maze was 180 degrees opposite a famous castle in England, the American flag framed in a crisscross of windows was opposite the check-in at Dulles Airport in DC, the woman with yellow stockings was behind me waiting for a train in Tokyo that was going in the opposite direction I was traveling. While photographing the sunrise in Tucson I looked behind me and found a more interesting moon-set where the moon looked like a cue ball and the Saguaro cactus looked like a cue stick and thumb.
Sometimes the best shots are waiting to be discovered if one takes the time to see, instead of just looking. For example a colleague and I were going to an appointment early in the morning and I yelled at him to not touch the rental car because there was this beautiful light hitting the dew on the car's rear spoiler. It's well known within Epson that if there is a group dinner I arrive on time but often disappear because the light is usually the best around dinner. I'll get calls on my cell phone from understanding colleagues who read me the menu while I wait for the best shots. This was how I captured the three women running up a San Francisco hill to catch a bus, the two people on an escalator at a shopping plaza in Los Angeles, the nun looking out over the ocean, a hotel employee taking a break in New Orleans, the shadows created by a man and his bicycle in Hollywood, the little girl playing in a Manhattan water park or the sprinklers at sunset next to our office.
I like to explore what some might call, "tough neighborhoods." It's often here that I find the most interesting colors and graphic geometric elements that I discovered when in high school like the woman walking against a yellow wall in Miami, the boy in the bus stop surrounded by yellow, the man walking by the mannequins and the shoes in the air at Coney Island. It's also where I find the most interesting characters such as the man on the Boardwalk in Atlantic City and the smoker at a domino club in Little Havana. While at that domino club I came across a mop left by the bathroom on a wall that was probably used to test the colors of different paints.
And sometimes the best shots are in one's own backyard, or in my case, front lawn where my son left his basketball out on the grass and it snowed, or my retired CRT monitor left for the recycler that beautifully reflected early morning raindrops.
In the end it's really not about exotic travel but about seeing the exotic that is all around us. In the past few years virtually all of my images have been captured, literally, between meetings.
Many who read this blog have a strong interest and focus on technique and technology which are critical parts of a successful digital imaging workflow. We teach this at the Epson Print Academy because without it art cannot live. Over the years I have found the most successful photographers are those who continue to nurture their passion for photography and use digital technology as a tool and not as the end in itself. As Ansel Adams said, "There is nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept."
I am convinced that art, business and technology can not only coexist, but also enhance each other by working both sides of the brain. However if you find yourself, as I did, engulfed in technique and/or spreadsheets remember to find that balance in your creative life and what attracted you to photography in the first place. As Jay Maisel said, "I'm not interested in showing you how smart I am, but showing you the images that are out there, and they are always out there."
–Dan “Dano” Steinhardt