This body

Fragile Mind
Stillness of Mind

This land




Dan Estabrook – Insight

Dan's work is based around techniques that are the foundation of what we know as photography today. Evidently someone who is connected to the process in a real way, his images are personal creations that are as much a discovery to him, as creator, as they are to the viewer.

Your work has a varied subject matter, often surrounding the human form or emotional based content, what is it about these subjects you find so interesting?

Well I do believe all the best work is personal, at least in its inception. I have made a choice to play a sort of game with that, in a way - to be honest enough to risk seeming overly sentimental at times, while still concealing personal details so that there may be just a trace left.

Of course, I am also playing with history, too, or at least our imagination of it. The best picture I could make would look like a found genre study that "accidentally" reveals the true thoughts and emotions of its long-lost and anonymous maker. Of course that maker doesn't exist - it's just me, trying to evoke the same sense of wonder as if I'd just stumbled on the thing. (I'm fully aware that this is a ridiculous and solipsistic thing to do...)

Your work celebrates the old and slow processes on the past, where images are made rather than taken, what drives you to work in this manner?

I think it began with my own need to get my hands on things, after growing up constantly drawing and painting and just wanting to make things. Making photography in this way keeps me more physically involved with the object. There's a certain Alchemy I like, too, and it helps me pretend there's something mystical in what I do, though it can also just frustrate the hell out of me when things go wrong (and they always do.) But the slower I work, the more time I have to think.

Your work is often presented as either the negative as the finished piece, or the negative and its print as a pair, why do you present your work in this manner?

It has to do with the things that inspire me, particularly the early history of the medium. I was just amazed the first time I saw an actual Talbot Photogenic Drawing, for instance. The idea that some scrap of stained paper hidden under a velvet cloth represented the very beginning of everything I was doing now was an incredible revelation. It was just a breath and a shadow that changed the world... It took me a while to figure out the process, but I eventually started working with the Calotype paper negatives, not only for their history but for their visual relationship to drawing - they could almost be pencil sketches! The goal was always to look back at that original moment, where a drawing became a photograph (as I like to think about it), all the better to tell my re-imagined version of history. Obviously, those negatives were the objects I should show.

Working with contact printing processes as you do, do you ever wish you could work at different and perhaps larger scale, or do you find the smaller size more visually intimate?

I am perhaps unfortunately drawn to the intimacy of small work, despite what people who are better at business tell me. Contrary to what you might think, big work is apparently easier to sell. I do have an 18" x 22" copy camera, and every eight months or so I decide I need to shoot something with it, but it's never very good. Not yet, anyway, but I am easily prone to getting sick of things, even small work, even myself. However, for now, I still love the way I feel when a small piece I see in a show draws me from across the room, and I'd like to get the same reaction to my work, like telling a secret.

Do you keep a journal or sketchbook?

I have about five or six going at all times, and I'm hopeless at keeping them organized. Some are small things that I can carry around for to-do lists and all those Brilliant Ideas I have when I'm on the subway. Some are meant to be just dream journals, but end up with more to-do lists in them. One is large and was meant to be all drawings of people sleeping, but I tore out the first one and now it's empty. All the others have sketches and ideas for pieces, often repeated and altered over time, no matter what they were supposed to be for originally.

When shooting how much do you previsualize images?

I previsualize quite a bit. Once the initial idea for an image comes to me (wherever that comes from...) I tend to stew and ruminate and sketch and dream about it for a while, waiting for some other small idea to collide with it and make what I think would be a good piece. Some of these sketches sit around for ages, even years, until the image makes sense to my life. It's a bit like dream interpretation, and once I begin to understand what the image is about, personally, that is, then I'm ready to shoot.

What does quality in a print mean to you? 

Print quality means quite a bit to me, but it may not be the same thing that other people mean when they say it. There are some pieces that I want just the right kind of age or fading, and others that seem to really need shadows and glows, but each image demands its own syntax no matter what. I used to go for things that really looked old, but revealed themselves as contemporary pieces - like a classical still life of plastic flowers, done as a fake tintype. However the subtleties are often lost, and it's been amazing to see how little it takes to make a piece seem like a found photograph. Even really fake stains are enough to get the point across.

Where do you feel you fit into contemporary photography in terms of working with older processes but with contemporary influences and experiences?

I don't think I have the perspective to say where I fit in. My ideas and influences are absolutely contemporary, though, and I always maintain that my work is not about recreating the past in any way. It's about how we look at the past from a distance of 160 years or so - how we get it wrong, and project onto it our own fears and fantasies and obsessions. It's a present-day obsession with what came before, and what little we actually know. That sense of loss and nostalgia doesn't exist without the distance of time.

Do you feel there is an underlying theme or connection that strings through your work.

If it's anything, it's Loss, but that seems unavoidable with most of Photography. Because I do try to make work that comes from my life, that loss is related to language and people and events I've experienced. But I try not to work in a confessional mode - I'd rather evoke it metaphorically. From there it only makes sense to attach it to the strangeness and beauty of Early Photography.

Could you talk us through how a typical image is created from the visualisation, through research if any to the taking of the negative.

It begins with some small spark, always - a poem, a word, anything that finds a connection with some small image and starts to form a new association. There have been many pieces that I dreamed almost whole, and others that seemed stillborn for years until the connection is finally made.

For instance, I had the candle stubs I used in a piece called "Five Fingers" sitting on my desk for nine months; they just seemed the right proportion for each to be a finger, but I had no idea what to do with them. I was finishing up a body of work I called "At Sea" and had in one of my notebooks a free-associated list of sea-words like "salt" and "drown" and "wave" and things like that. One day while working, I looked at those candles and imagined the fingers "waving" at me, and laughed at how obvious and absurd the association was. Still, it wasn't until after dinner one evening, as I watched candle smoke waft through the air like script, that I realized the candles could "wave" to me another way. In fact, I had almost given up on the piece and only put the whole thing together as I fell asleep one late night. I needed to be that open-minded to finish it.

From that point the work is more craft than anything else. It's just work and play, setting up the simplest of still-lifes, then shooting a few 8x10 paper negatives while I slowly decided exactly how I would write the image. In the final piece, the word "Goodbye" is drawn in negative on a separate piece of paper and layered on top during the printing.

That's one of the simplest ones, I think, but it's sort of the way they all go.

What do you feel using the technology of the era your processes were created in adds to your images, for example why not use contemporary large format cameras.

Certainly some processes just have a look that can't be duplicated any other way, but I'm anything but a purist when it comes to the equipment. I do indeed use contemporary stuff. My 4x5 is a cheap Calumet I bought off my old boss at the print shop I worked at in Grad School, and my 18x22 still has a crappy foam-core lensboard. I don't have a lot of money, nor do I fetishize the equipment, and sometimes I enjoy the game of making things feel truly old while using the simplest of modern materials.

You increasingly seem to be adding to your images with other media, what is your interest in this process?

I think it goes back to the way I fell in love with these processes to begin with - the pure joy of the handmade work, with all the magic of the machine. Photography is still the best medium to use if you want to talk about love and loss and the bizarre and irrational relationship we have to the passage of time... But I need to get my hands in it somehow, the more the better. If I could make paintings or sculptures about Photography, I probably would. Maybe someday I'll figure out how.