A conversation with Dan Herrera

Photos by Dan Herrera

Dan Herrera is a fine art photographer studying for his MFA at San Francisco State University, and we began acquainted with his project “Estan de una Herencia Extrana” at Open Show Bay Area #16 last year. His work has been published in Juxtapoz and Fringe magazines, and you can catch one of his Pixel Paintings in the SUPER Iam8bit show in Los Angeles which will run through this Saturday, Sept. 10th.

When did you initially pick up a camera? What was your first memorable photographic experience?

I was 9 years old. It was one of those crappy plastic ones that took the 110-cartridge film. My first memorable experience would have to be around the same age, when I learned how to use forced perspective in an image. I took a bunch of pictures of my good friend Adam that looked like he was holding another kid in the palm of his hand. The whole idea of having my vantage point being able to control visually reality blew my prepubescent mind.

Have you been interested in alternative processes and dioramas with a tinge of sci-fi from the beginning? Is there something about the fantastical that appeals to you?

I’m drawn to the fantastical in my work because it’s a powerful way to tell stories, and say things without getting bogged-down with specifics of reality.

I’ve been into Sci-Fi and building dioramas since I was a kid, but I never photographed any of it. The closest I’d ever come to what I do now would be when I was in the 4th grade and made a video about the story of Perseus killing the Gorgon Medusa, and using Legos to build the sets. I thought it was awesome, but looking back my teacher may have thought it was terrible.

I first started darkroom printing in high school. At the time I was more interested in taking pictures my friends smoking and drinking – the stereotypical deviant teen behavior. Trying to look cool, but not doing a very good job of it. At some point after that, I got my hands on a copy of Photoshop and became consumed by it. I think I was drawn so strongly to digital imaging because it brought me back into that space when I was a kid, and could control my visual reality, but now I could do it after my photographs had been taken.

I wasn’t exposed to alternative processes until I was an undergraduate at San Jose State University. I took a class from Prof. Brian Taylor. He is an amazing artist, and probably one of the coolest dudes on the planet. Brian showed me how to gum print, and it changed my whole perspective on what a photograph could become. Alternative process printing also brought me back into the magic and alchemy of the darkroom, which is something I really missed while working digitally. There’s still not yet an iPhone app or Photoshop plug-in that can simulate the feeling of seeing your image supernaturally emerge from your own witches brew.

Photos by Dan Herrera

It’s funny that you mention the iPhone. We recently did an entire show of photos taken on the iPhone and many photographers sang its praises, mostly along the lines of how you can get close to unwitting subjects and sneak photos. Your process on the other hand seems very concept-driven. Do you ever shoot street or documentary styles?

Absolutely. I love people watching. What’s great about the iPhone camera is that it’s better than the first digital point-and-shoot camera that I bought in 1999. Once in a while I’ll use it to sneak a picture of someone, but I mostly use it to reference things for later use. If I was to do a body of work based on unwitting subjects I’d be more inclined to using surveillance equipment rather than my iPhone. I’m not that great at sneakery.

Tell us about your Estan de una Herencia Extraña project. How did you alter the camera and manipulate the film?

I’m not saying I photocopied my own butt, however I’m not-not saying it either. The project started when I realized how a scanner (or a photocopier) captures a moving image in a really bizarre way. It will bend, stretch, and twist a moving image rather than just making it blurry. I started with moving my “hand” around on the surface of the scanner. Then I started thinking if I could just hook a lens up to the scanner – I wouldn’t be confined to the spatial limitations of the scanning bed.

So I modified my old 500 c/m Hassleblad film camera and replaced the ground glass with a custom piece I had fabricated, and made a simple bellows to block any other light getting to the scanner bed other than what was being cast through the lens. The “film” is just the flatbed scanner. The whole device is totally impracticable. You can’t see what you are taking a picture of until you make an exposure, and each exposure takes a minute or more. So you have to make blind adjustments until you get the composition you want.

What inspires you at the moment?

Most of the imagery I make is inspired by my writing, or little sketches that I do. Also, last summer I landscaped my backyard with my girlfriend and we’ve been spending more time outside watering or just hanging out. It’s pretty amazing where your mind can go when you are watering a plant. I think I work out a lot of things for myself in that space.

Photos by Dan Herrera

What do you write and sketch? Are you interested in incorporating text or sketches into your work in the future? I ask because your work is so grounded in the act of imagination that I wonder if photography as a medium is important to it. For example, if you could paint like a photo-realistic genius, would you do that instead, or is there something about photography that cannot be cast off?

All of my images start out as a sketch or a couple of sentences just for the sake of not forgetting an idea. Then, I usually go back and do a more detailed sketch of how I want my shot to look. I’m doing a series of short stories for my Vaudeville series and plan on making a book (or blog) accompaniment to the large gum-prints.

I think knowing that the things depicted in my photographs really existed (as a sculpture or diorama) adds an emotional layer to my images. It’s interesting that you bring up painting, because gum bichromate prints are both a watercolor painting and photographic. I definitely think that there is a distinctly different psychological response when looking at a photograph in comparison to a painting. I’m striving to blur this response and add a sensation of mystery with the gum prints from the Vaudeville series.

What are you working on currently? Any future projects you’re looking forward to?

I’m working toward my MFA degree at San Francisco State University. I’m about to enter my 3rd (and final) year of the program, so most of my time and focus is on my thesis project. The imagery revolves around the idea of an intergalactic traveling Vaudeville variety show, both on-stage and the seamy underbelly surrounding it. I’m making these huge 40”x30” 5-color gum prints on watercolor paper. I have 4 images complete, and I’m in production on 4 more at the moment. My goal is to have at least 10 images for my thesis show in Spring 2012.

I also have an ongoing project where I paint sexualized scenes of vintage video game characters. It’s kind of childish, but it helps keep my mind limber. One of my pieces was asked to be included in the SUPER iam8bit Show in Los Angeles, August 2011.

Do you have any advice for young/emerging photographers?

Hustle ya li’l whippersnappers! I teach photography at American River College and The Art institute of California, Sacramento – neither institution offers a degree in hustling, but both are quality institutions.

I’d say keep making new work, and don’t be afraid to put it out there by applying for shows and publications. Be OK with rejection, and keep trying. If your work isn’t getting rejected, you aren’t trying hard enough to get your work seen.

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