Interview with Daniel Gregory
It is time to bring on my guest, Daniel Gregory. Come on Daniel. Glad to have you here.
Thanks, I was looking forward to it.
Grab a chair and let's pull up and have a chat. So Daniel you are a fine art photographer and an educator. And every once in a while I'm sure you meet somebody who doesn't know photography and when you tell them I'm a fine art photographer and they go: "What?" how do you explain what you do?
So it's essentially, because even in the industry I bump into people who are like oh, a fine art photographer. And then they ask me so what's your real day job? So the, it's not, I don't do weddings, I don't do a lot of commercial work, and so my work is really honed in on a lot of kind of personal projects that then manifest themselves. And ultimately the goal for me is gallery work, corporate collection museum, and photobook, because that's kind of my world I kind of look for in that regard.
Yeah, I know when i went to school, because I knew I liked photography and ...
I had two options, I had photojournalism, and fine art photography. Those are like the two official education paths and the fine art was just like, I don't think I'm ready for that one yet. And so I guess the two parts I'm interested in is how do you market and sell your work and let's go with that one first.
So in that world of the fine art I then have a sub niche and so my kind of love and passion is in historical processes, so platinum printing, siena type, wet plate, Vandyke, so the things are basically the earliest days of photography. Is my interest. And so my niche is to merge basically digital technology into that space. And that kind of gives me some of my marketing because there's not a lot of people doing platinum printing, there's not a lot of people doing siena types at that scale, and so that little niche helps me in the marketing piece. But a lot of my marketing is photo reviews, so going and having my work looked at, PhotoFest, Photo Plus Expo New York, galleries, show up and submit work there. And then you can submit work to galleries, so a lot of it's research. I've got to find the right audience for my work so I have to go research galleries and museums and curators and collectors and what do they collect, what are their interests, and then try to match my work to them, so it's a lot of just boots on the ground work like every other photographer does for their niche, yup, making my connections.
So I guess the other half of it is, and it seems to me that fine art can be almost any subject that you can come up with. What do you like to do your fine art photography of?
So my earliest work was landscape. So out of the Ansel, Edward, f/64 kind of genre. And then over the years I've kind of always bled into that natural world element as a strong dominant theme in my work. And then I am enamored with street photography. From a study of street photography, and I love the notion of one of I think the greatest power of photography is its understanding of time and the manipulation of time. And street work to me really is the essence of that because it's a fleeting moment of something where line, form, and elements have to come together and then an action has to unfold. You know whether we look at Maisel talking about the importance of gesture or Cartier-Bresson's The Decisive Moment, in street work there's just a rawness to it and so I am inching my way into street photography. Because it's one of those things that on the surface seems very easy and it is one of the, probably hardest things I've ever photographed.
Well as you mention all these different types and styles of photography, okay the little gear brain in my head, you know, the little section of my head that's dedicated to gear, starts going okay well you need this for that, and this for that. So it sounds like you work with a large range of gear.
I am actually not, I was interesting enough before I started photography full time as a career I was a gear junkie. And I am no longer a gear junkie.
And so I'm actually like, I have, like I have a medium format camera, film camera. I have two large format cameras but they're not the same. One's four by five, one's eight by 10. I have a digital camera, and then I have a backup body for that, because I do some commercial editorial work at times and I need a backup body. And then that's it, I don't have, I don't collect gear. So when I shoot the street, I shoot the same DSLR on the street as I do if I was gonna do an editorial piece or if I was gonna do a naturescape and if I'm out with film I'm shooting the exact same camera. So I don't collect a lot of gear. I found that it was easy for me to blame the gear for my inability to create the work when the reality was--
Yeah that makes me, saw a question like that. You know how much does the gear weigh?
And the gear is weighted not, in my world the gear is pretty minimal in that regard. It really is about vision. And I was fortunate I got to work with, a number of years ago with William Albert Allard, who's one of National Geographic's top photographers. And I was out and we were sitting in a bar actually. And I was asking Bill, like, when you go out like, because Bill carries two cameras, 35 millimeter lens and a 75 millimeter lens. And I'm like well what if you want to get that shot over there and it's. He's like, why are you even looking at that? He's like, I have 35 millimeters, the world is 35 millimeters, why are you even looking at anything other than that? And it dawned on me like, oh if I train myself to see through my camera what the world is, and that was just a groundbreaking shift for me. Like I actually don't need a thousand lenses and all that gear, I need to train myself to see a 35 millimeter world, or an 85 millimeter world. That was a huge shift for me.
That's a good lesson for everybody I think. Because the bag, you know, I was told by one of my mentors is I was like, I need a new camera bag. And he goes, like what's the good one to get? And I go, that one's nice, but they make this other model that's a little bigger. And he goes, however big it is, you'll fill it. So like there's another room for another lens, I can stick one in there. So thinking back over kind of the arc of your career, where is it, where was it when it kind of started to get to where we're now. So kind of just walk us through your photographic progression.
So I've loved photography from the time I was a kid, so I had the Kodak 110, I had the Disc Camera, and then I mowed lawns for a summer and got to buy my first 35 millimeter camera. And so I, and I shot all the way through high school and into college and then, probably if I had the only, and I will say it's very grip, the only wish I'd kind of had done differently is I had stuck with photography at that time. But I bowed to the pressure of get a real job, get a real degree, and then spent 20 years in the high tech industry and I worked for a number of companies and start-ups. Cool work, amazing work, but I had this constant nagging that something was missing in my life.
So were you kind of photographing on the side?
No I had actually put the cameras away. And then I decided oh, I'm gonna go back to photography. At that point I'm in the high tech industry, I'm making a lot of money, things are great. So I just went out and bought a bunch of camera gear and I'm like great, I'm back to photography. I was like, I don't know what to do, and this is kind of the transition of digital. And I was like oh I'm gonna do film, because I sit all day in front of a computer. But I had been a Photoshop technician for Adobe and so I knew Photoshop, so I was kind of in this weird little space and I decided well I'm going all in on film. So I was shooting 35 millimeter and then I went and bought an eight by 10 view camera.
And then a four by five view camera, worked my way back down.
Worked your way back down because you went to like the furthest extreme.
Like what's the heaviest thing I could carry and the most expensive thing I could shoot?
And for people who don't know what an eight by 10 camera even looks like, I mean you can of course google it, but how big is it?
it's about that big.
When you carry it around how big is the case, the package?
So when I carry everything it's about, somewhere between 45 and 65 pounds of backpack weight by the time I do the lenses, the film holders, water, all the normal things you would carry, yes.
And how many images can you shoot at a time when you do that?
I carry six plates, so a plate is a frame. So I carry six frames with me out from the car and I wander out, and then I come back. And then I have to change the film so I have 20 film holders but I have to, I can only carry about three to four at a time. And Everett Weston has a great quote, nothing in the world is worth photographing that's more than 500 yards from the car. (laughing) so yeah, when you're--
Hadn't heard that one before, that was pretty good. Okay so you got into the large format.
So I got a large format and then, and at that time I was still working and still had a day job. I teach at the Photographic Center Northwest here in Seattle, I was taking classes there. I just kind of got more and more interested in photography and then made the decision that oh I want to do photography full time. And then that took me another probably seven years before I could make that industry.
Wow, because that, that moment right there is a lot of moment, that a lot of people can I think relate to where they may have a full-time job and they're thinking alright, I think I want to do this and then how long between there and then actually, okay I'm doing okay, I'm not just struggling basically meeting ends.
And the piece that I recognized that I have, my partner in life Laurie is a writer and an author and she went through a similar transition and she told me you're gonna recognize the point. And she's like, I'm not gonna tell you what it is but you're gonna recognize the point. And it's funny because I give people the same coaching now which is, when you think you're giving things up, you're not ready to make the transition. Because I was always like well if I quit my job how am I gonna pay for my camera gear or how am I gonna pay the mortgage, and I'm gonna have to give up travel, and I'm gonna have to give up going out to eat all the time and I'm thinking of all this stuff. And then all of a sudden one day it was like wait a minute, I'm getting to do all of this. And then that transition from give up to what was there, and then, and it's not been easy. I mean running a business is not easy, and the things that came up, and I was fortunate that I paid attention in all my jobs so I knew a little accounting, I knew enough to find an accountant and find a lawyer and outsource that, but it was running a business was not small and not easy. And there's days where it's not easy and it's not what I thought it was. Oh I'll just go take photographs everyday and it'll be great, and it's like no, actually. The photography in some ways is the least part of the work. Because I've got to put boots on the ground, I've got to go spend time, I've got to find clients, I got to do all of that work that every other business does. And so for me, because my love is in photography, that was the other thing I realized. Was that everything that was in service of my visual creative act was in service of my photography. So when I talked to a gallery, that was photography. If I went and met with a book publisher, that's, it was all in service of the visual creative act. That was a big shift for me as well was I didn't have to always be shooting to in fact be a photographer.
Right. One of the questions I've asked a number of other guests on the show is what percent of your time is spent photographing?
Over the course of a year it's probably--
You know, work-related hours.
Probably, the actually shooting itself is probably 20%.
20%? That's actually pretty high, that's pretty good.
And the only reason it's that high is the things I do require, like if I'm doing wet plate work I might have to shoot multiple times like, to get what I want.
Well it sounds like it's a slower process.
It is slow.
And so you know, rather than going out to some corporate business meeting, banging off the shots in 10 minutes.
Yeah no there's nothing like a, just the development of a platinum print, for example is 20 minutes of time in wash baths. So to get to the point of one print being done is an hour, hour and a half, of exposure, development, washing. That doesn't include the time of actually taking the photographs, just to get the prints done is a slow process.
Yeah it's a lot of work on that. So when you were, you quit your job and you're trying to make this photography thing work out what was kind of a key thing that, I don't know, happened, or you realized, or changed your direction or something that finally got you to where you are now? Is there anything in particular?
Yeah no, I, I was a senior level manager at a company and I, we eventually got to where we were like this with some management, and they let me know one day that I don't work there anymore. So I got laid off, and it was in the decision, I came home and my partner Laurie's like oh, this is great, you finally get to do what you wanted to do. And you know, and I had mentioned it on social media and some of my mentors called up and they're like oh so it sounds like that step, you don't really have that excuses anymore. And so that, that piece was kind of the push I needed. And so people were like, oh were you bitter you got laid off? And I'm like no, because I'm not sure--
It probably hurt at the time.
Oh it stung really stung at the time.
I mean, because I mean it sounds like we've walked in some of the same shoes because I got laid off from a job as well and I'm like oh no, this is terrible. And then it kind of forced me out, and struggle around, and if you, I take it if you get lucky or you follow the right places you'll end up in the right direction.
So yeah just listening to that voice that's like, don't go get the other job. And so I told myself I'll give myself a couple years for this. So then I called every photo mentor I have and I'm like okay I'm in. What do I do? And every one of them down the line was like put multiple irons in the fire, put multiple irons in the fire, because you'll make money on a little bit of this, you're gonna make a little money off that, and you're gonna make a little of that and you're just trying to figure out what you actually want to be and how your business is going to evolve. And so don't turn down work, and I'm like, well I'm not doing a wedding. And they're like fine, that's your bucket. And so, yeah, so I've done, you know where I was a fine art photographer, you know I do headshots now, I've done corporate stuff, I do some architectural work for a firm, so I've done different things. And what's cool is one of the things one of my clients has said is they like my approach because I don't approach things as a commercial photographer would. I come in with a fine art eye. Which I didn't really ever think about. So I come in and I'm like, well this is kind of a weird funky angle and I can do this to kind of, and they're like oh that's kind of cool for their brand. And so I don't work for everybody but for certain clients I work pretty well as a partnership because I just come from a different approach. If I'm not interested in the room shot, I'm like oh that's a cool little detail over here and I can get the room but I also want to get that plug is interesting and the color on that wall as a streak is interesting and it just gives them a different look so, I've found it starts to blend together. But yeah but I've got about eight little irons and I just poke them all up as I walk around the circle.
Well that's kind of nice. I know there's probably a lot of people who dream, I consider photography as the second most popular desired career, first would be rockstar. I think pretty much every, it's you know, you want to be the next Mick Jagger, I'll do that, I'll do that, but I don't know, usually, sometimes younger but usually by the time somebody turns 40 or 50 it's like, I just want to be a photographer. Because you get to pursue your own interests. But beyond just having an interest in photography, beyond being talented in photography, you need to find what aspect of photography you're talented at. Because are you good at running a business, are you good at talking to people?
I think that for me was probably one of the other lessons is I could not, I would look at people's images and I'm like I don't understand how that person makes a living as a photographer. Because their photography is not that good. But then I realized, what actually matters more, if you're gonna make a living as a photographer, is you're good at business. You're good at making contacts, you stay up with your contacts, you stay on top of your accounting, you go back to your contacts. Like they don't come and get you, you go and remind them that you're still there. And they'll, that relationship building was huge and I have an associate who runs a PR firm and he told me, he's like, every day you have lunch with somebody different. Every day you call them, every email you send, he's like that's your business. You're in the business of serving people and helping them meet their need and so as long as you remember that you're in the service of others, he goes, it doesn't matter if it's photography, it doesn't matter if it's PR or accounting, legal, as long as you remember that, you'll be fine. And that has really stuck with me. So yeah, my business, if people ask me how I make a living as a photographer but I'm in the relationship business. That's ultimately what I'm in, is trying to--
That's a good way to think of it. Now are you a one man band or do you have employees or assistants?
No I'm a one man band. My wife Laurie and I have a company called Silly Dog Studios. And so she's a writer so she's under that, we're under that creative umbrella and we do workshops and creativity workshops and things like that. And then I have, about three different assistants I work with so when I do need an assistant I call them up and they show up and are happy to carry heavy things for me. And they're all incredibly gifted photographers and so it's great to have them around because they're collaborative and so for me it's always I want to be in a collaborative creative environment so the more people in a room who collaborate the more they share, the more it is they have the better. Because I don't really care about the credit for anything I just want something really cool to come out for the client or for myself.