Friday, September 12, 2008

An Interview with Dan Price

Dan Price is the author of Moonlight Chronicles, a journal of his life which he has been hand drawing and distributing since the early 90s. Before that he worked as a photojournalist for numerous newspapers and was perhaps the only staff photographer in the country to regularly use Diana cameras on assignment. In 1986 he founded SHOTS magazine. More of his Diana work can be found here, and current pages from Moonlight Chronicles can be found here.

Blake Andrews: There is a passage in your book (The Photographs of D. Price) which says, "The intense grip that photography had on me retreated in 1990 and I sold most of my cameras. Finally my mind was free to wander in realms other than through a lens and inside a rectangle." You tie this moment to a photograph of a Kentucky farmer. I'm wondering if you could describe that retreat from photography in more detail. What was it that changed, that made you feel as if you'd finished photography? Were you involved in drawing at that point?

Dan Price: For me all artistic pursuits are done in an overly passionate way. Making photos was the way i dealt with all the moments coming at me. After ten years of new photography, which is very stressful, running a photo magazine, trying to become a Magnum photographer, organizing photo shows AND raising 2 new babies, AND having a difficult marriage, you might say i was a tad stressed. i had been drawing since high school but took it up in earnest in 1990, the year i left news work and moved back home to Oregon. i also hated all the chemicals that we had to use to develop and print with.

Most photographers steal images of such wagon riding people with long lenses! i chose to greet them and ask permission and spend months photographing their quiet ways. This was a lunch i got invited to. The Diana makes a loud click after each shot. They were cool with that!

BA: I love your description of your "search for the lazy off-beat moments of magic that seemed to show up on my film as mistakes or accidental shutter trips." Those tend to be the types of photos I enjoy as well, but they are hard to find. I think that the harder you look for them, the less they reveal themselves. I'm curious if there's an equivalent in drawing. Can you find accidental moments or is that something particular to photography?

DP: Because i had actual assignments to complete and needed to return with readable images for the paper, i had to just shoot from the hip without looking through the camera to get loosened up when doing more artistic work. Many times these ended up being the most interesting shots to me because my mind had not played a part in their making. Drawing only shares this same sensibility in the sense that i try to catch images on the fly to draw unexpected views or moments. That style is something that you will see emerging now with the on-line blog. After 18 years of creating the Moonlight Chronicles the true style which melds photo moments with drawing is coming out. Stay tuned!

i was hanging out with Sylvia Plachy, who's work i really liked and found this kid just spinning around and around behind this fence. NYC is an amazing place to do street photography. A BIG surprise on every corner!

BA: Shooting from the hip reminds me of the drawing exercise in which you draw without looking at your paper. In both cases you don't allow your brain the chance to "correct" the image. Do you integrate that technique into your drawing now?

DP: Yes i sometimes draw the entire outline without looking then go in and finish the sketch.

A very early shot. i used to find the damnedest places back in the Kentucky hollows. This pup was running up to me and i stuck the camera on the ground and shot. Instantly i knew it would be a great shot.

BA: Comparing your drawings with your Diana photographs, they seem to be more concerned with inanimate objects whereas the Diana work generally focused on people. Is this a reflection of a change in you, or is there something about drawing that lends itself more to still objects?

DP: i was very, very into photographing people, as it seems the most challenging. Try it some time. Go up to complete strangers and tell them you'd like to take pictures of what they are doing, and you will see, very difficult and challenging. Especially in situations like church or hidden communities like Mennonites. a very stress filled thing to accomplish. i had to learn how to talk with people, make them comfortable with my presence, and at the same time be thinking what a good picture would be. So now i like to draw quiet objects that don't talk back! however, i am just embarking on a trip to do some work at Simple Shoes in Santa Barbara and have decided to draw PEOPLE on the way down!

This is from my series Old Time Religion which i spent years shooting in tiny Kentucky churches, some in back rooms of people's country homes. Always an intense spiritual experience. This time it was hot, in a small house in the knoblands of Barren county. My wife and new baby were along and this preacher, a holy roller from West Virginia picked Shilo up and took her to the front of the room in all the commotion. i will never forget Shilo's expression. She thought it was cool as hell!!

BA: It seems that photography ultimately became a stress for you. Shooting people and venturing into strange situations under pressure to fulfill an assignment turned photography into a downer. So perhaps studying people in a different context, as low stress drawing on a looser assignment, will be more pleasant.

DP: Mostly i wanted to get away from the everyday deadline and having to rush around gathering images. With drawing you can take your time. Sit anywhere and make a sketch. There really are no rules. Even though we stretched the photojournalistic rules greatly, i still felt hemmed in by newspaper work. Art photography was freeing but not nearly as much as drawing. Anything is game in a sketch. And it only takes a pen and paper. Definitely my life these days is way less stressful. It's hard to confront people with a camera in your hand day after day.

Part of that same series, at the Sunday service they said they were going to the river so along i went. Shortly after this shot was made the preacher got a secret message from one of his people and he gathered everyone together on the shore to inform one of the ladies there that her husband had just been found drowned on their farm. It was probably the most intense set of moments i have ever witnessed and i was unable in all the surrounding grief to raise my camera for a shot. So goes the experiences of a news photographer.

BA: You talk about the feel of an old Leica, and from your drawings of them it's clear you've studied these cameras closely. The Diana also has its own feel. I think this is something very important in photography that isn't often noted. Each camera has a certain wavelength to it which you need to tune in closely to get good photos. Personally I cannot connect in that way with any of the newer digital cameras, which is partly why I still shoot film. Do you feel that way too? I notice you shoot digitally now, but the look and feel of your photos is much different than your early work. Is some of this due to the camera, do you think, or is it mostly you who've changed? Do you have a hard time connecting to digital tools, or is it totally irrelevant?

DP: Seeing H.C. Bresson with that little camera really made the hair go up on my back in the early days. i studied the brand and coveted one for years. Then i went through a period where i was buying the expensive buggers so much we hardly had money for food. Like Danny Lyon once said, a Leica feels like a pistol in your pocket, always ready to go, to capture those moments no one else seems to be noticing. The Diana was always too light for my taste but i loved the pictures it made. T new digital cameras are a dream come true. Are you kidding?! The entire darkroom lies in a memory card and a simple program on my computer. Totally amazing. i dreamed for years about finding the perfect tiny camera. Now it is a reality. About the images they make....the whole idea is to learn the tool so well that it becomes a part of your body. You never think about it. You just raise it and pop!, get those moments inside the box. The Leica was lusted after for many years when i was still in the grips of the mistress. Nowadays life is very different. i feel pulls to art and creating, but not nearly as strong as the beginning times.

BA: Related to this is the feeling of drawings and photographs themselves. To me, seeing them in person, or even as a reproduction in a book, is a different experience than on a computer screen. I'm wondering if you have any feelings on this considering Moonlight-Chronicles recent shift to being an online entity. I know some things are gained with this shift (wider audience) but is something lost as well? Do you ever exhibit your original notebooks?

DP: Having the Moonlight Chronicles go online is good for me in that i can color the work. And it comes up most days so many more people will be able to enjoy it. i still offer the old hard copies for people who like that. Personally i am enjoying the instantaneousness of the pages going up so fast after having done them.

This is a great example of how close i had to get to create the kind of pictures i was looking for. After shooting so many pictures i sort of knew where to position the camera so that all the elements would fit the composition well. A note to young shooters: i never was just wandering around clicking away. Rather i would be in conversation with these people, intuit an upcoming shot, get it, then continue on in conversation with them. i think this is how i was able to get these shots and not make them feel put upon or taken advantage of. i liked them. They like me and once in awhile i would raise the camera up and snap a shot!

BA: You played a role in a few of photography's institutions, first with Archive Pictures, Inc., and later as the founder of SHOTS Magazine. Can you describe those experiences in a little more detail? What was your motivation? What did you learn? Did you imagine a future for yourself fitting into the canon of established art photographers, alongside Frank, Cartier-Bresson, etc?

DP: It is very fulfilling to see shots magazine still up and running and i am proud to have gotten that off the ground way back in 1986. My main utmost goal all along was to become a Magnum photographer. i worked really hard to make that happen, but in the end SHOTS kind of took over my life and led me back home and into the Moonlight Chronicles. i have always said that the photography and shots were simply vehicles i rode to my destiny as the creator of the m.c. By the time i was done with SHOTS in about 1994, i was really burnt out on photography, something that does not seem to be happening with drawing.

BA: You mentioned hanging out with Sylvia Plachy, one of my favorite photographers. How did you meet her? Did she influence your images? What did you learn from her?

DP: Sylvia has been a friend since the early 80's when i first saw her work in the Village Voice. I used to send her a photo postcard a week! So she pretty much had to respond to that crazy nut in Kentucky! That's how i met Eugene Richards and Robert Frank as well. Just kill 'em with kindness was my motto. Frank became a subscriber to SHOTS and Eugene my friend at Magnum Photos after he came for a visit and i put a series of his pix in SHOTS.

1 comment:

franvisions said...

Thank you for sharing this interview, I love Dan Price's work and attitude, and your blog is great.