Daniel Milnor: Photographing On His Own Terms

Daniel Milnor, based out of Southern California and New Mexico, is a former newspaper, magazine and commercial photographer. He now focuses on his own projects, authors a blog and works as a “Photographer at Large” for Blurb, a print-on-demand book publishing company. The interview was conducted by Leica Blog contributor Alex Coghe.

Q: Hi Daniel, can you explain your background?

A: I grew up in Indiana, Wyoming and Texas and lived mostly in rural or semi rural areas. My mother was the chronicler of our family, so the idea of a camera always being present was instilled in me from a very early age. Growing up in the country really allowed me to connect with the Earth, so my plan was to attend college in Texas and study geology. I’d been promised a scholarship for shooting, guns not cameras, but the school I was planning on attending lost my transcripts, which forced me to attend a local community college for one semester. I’d begun to carry a camera even though I really had little idea how to use it and surely had no master plan in terms of what it would eventually mean. San Antonio experienced a massive flood, and I found myself a low water crossing where a bus full of school kids was in danger of being swept away. A military helicopter came in low and loud and attempted to lift the bus out of danger. I was just standing there and the only thing I could think of doing was make pictures, so I did. I distinctly remember the feeling I had as I watched this event unfolding. The camera gave me purpose and heightened my sense of connection to every single aspect of what was happening. A few days later I had the work at school and a journalism professor saw the pictures and asked, “Who took these?” I thought I was in trouble but admitted I had made the aforementioned photos. He looked at me and asked, “How would you like a scholarship to be a photographer?” That was it. My life took a right turn and I never looked back. I ended up transferring to the University of Texas in Austin where I got my degree in photojournalism. I graduated in 1992.

Q: Can you tell me some about your Sicily work?

A: As a photographer you are always in the debt of the people who help you get what you are looking for. In the case of my Sicily work I have to thank two people: photographer Sara Terry who introduced me to the work and also introduced me to one of the coolest guys ever, Giovanni Matta, a Sicilian photographer and master of all things Sicilian. Without these two people I would have nothing.

Sicily is a place I love, which I think is really important for connecting with a place or people. I don’t think this story will ever be over for me because I plan on returning there anytime I get a chance. This project taught me many things including the reality that I was perfectly happy making pictures and then not showing them to anyone. I realized during this project that my days of working as a photographer were over. This might sound strange but it was actually a great realization. I made four trips to Sicily over a five-year period. This was also the project that eventually would lead me to self-publishing.

Q: How important is it for a photographer, in particular a documentary photographer, to communicate through the web?

A: The short answer is I’m not sure anymore how important this really is. It all depends on your goal. I think many of us have gone over the proverbial cliff when it comes to promoting ourselves on the web. There comes a point when we reach a level of saturation of information that is impossible to keep up with. I think the important thing is to speak when you actually have something important to say. When I look at the best documentary photographers in the world they are very selective about the information they put out. I don’t see Sebastiao Salgado on social media seven days a week. I don’t hear from Salgado every eight minutes. I know when I see something from him it has been well-planned, well thought out and is something I should pay attention to. We live in a world where people value photographers based on how many Twitter followers they have and that just isn’t smart. I love to blog. I’m not a proponent of the “you must post everyday” belief. I try to adhere to what I preach. Say something when I have something to say. I owe a lot to my blog followers. They are a dedicated bunch and continually amaze me with their responses and passion. Kudos to them.

Q: Who or what inspires your photography?

A: Wow that is a dangerous question. I’d start with these things. Music, literature, art, my family, silence, open spaces, smell, fearlessness, unbridled creativity, driving, emotions like anger and fear, my colleagues, my co-workers, being puzzled, jealousy, talented people, realizing how easy my life is and that I can’t waste one damn second, the fact that my dad didn’t like photography or photographers, knowing I haven’t even begun to make serious work yet, knowing there is more out there, the faint belief that things like inner peace might actually be real but I’m nowhere near finding it, and most importantly really, really simple things that work perfectly.

Q: In your website there’s a video where we we can see you using a Leica M6. Which Leica products have you used apart the M6, and why did you choose the Leica brand?

A: I think initially I chose Leica because many of the Vietnam era photographers used this camera. Dickey Chapelle, Catherine Leroy, Larry Burroughs, Tim Page, Nick Ut, Horst Faas, David Kennerly, etc. It goes on and on. When I first saw the work of these photographers I wasn’t really sure what to do. I’d never seen nor experienced anything like this work and it literally sent me over the edge. My father, attempting to get me OUT of photography, had developed a master plan of creating a bank account containing a small amount of money, which he planned to use to train me in the world of all things financial. He said, “Okay, this money is yours, so you can begin to manage it.” I promptly withdrew it all, drove to The Camera Exchange and bought a beat up M4-P and 28mm. My dad was disgusted but he also knew the photography “thing” wasn’t going away. Luckily it wasn’t much money, so he got over it. Over the years I’ve used M4-P, M6, M4 and lenses from 24mm, 28mm, 35mm, 50mm and 90mm. Today I only use 35mm and 50mm and the vast majority of what I shoot is done with the 50mm f/2.

Q: Interesting the video section of your website where you talk about the secrets of the images taken with Leica…

A: Yes, I started “The Leica File” a while back. The Leica is a strange little beast. I don’t think I’ve ever been around a camera that is more controversial. The Leica M camera isn’t great for all things, but for what it’s designed for it’s the best camera in the world. I think history proves this. The M camera allows you to make a certain type of image, so I like to tell the stories behind those images.

Q: Can you explain your process and approach to photographing? What are the fundamental characteristics of your visual research?

A: I just wrote a blog post about this that will probably tick some people off, but I think it’s a good question. Research is key, but I’ll get to that in a moment.

My process is very relaxed. I no longer work as a photographer, so I no longer have any restrictions on me. I work on only the projects I want to work on, and I have to say, I should have done this from the beginning. I’m not sure the industry of photography is really interested in great photography anymore. Yes, there are still plenty of people who appreciate good photography, but many industry types are now limited by time and budget; two wildly important things. So, I find life “on the outside” to be more fruitful so to speak.

My photographic life is very simple. Find story, get to story, do story. I no longer have any commercial goals, so in terms of getting my work published, getting shows, etc, these things aren’t important to me any longer. The main goal I have with certain projects is to get them archived by museums located within the geography of where the pictures were made. I’m working on a long-term project in New Mexico now and would love to find a home for it in one of the state institutions. The other goal I have is more important, which is to get the people IN the photographs involved in the project. This is something else I’m embarrassed to say I never really thought about until I “quit” being a photographer. It’s easier said than done but I’m working on it.

As for research all I can say is you better know your history and you better do your research or you are not only holding yourself back you are also holding photography back. There are too many half-assed projects being done where the photographer doesn’t understand their place in history or how their work fits in. Photographers spend two weeks shooting a project and two years trying to sell it. If you don’t know what’s been done before the work won’t have the impact or longevity you are looking for. Modern photographers want to be instantly relevant, so studying history isn’t high on their priority list. There are plenty of photographer who are doing things right, but I think we could all improve in this area. Slow down, take our time, think and then act.

Q: Light, timing and composition. Do we need more in photography?

A: A recording device, TRI-X and luck. A fast car and walking shoes don’t hurt either.

Q: Why still film? And what about the future of “slow photography”? There is a keen interested also from new generations, but the manufacturers seems absolutely not interested in film.

A: This is another sensitive topic for a lot of people, but the short answer is I’m a better photographer with a film camera in my hand. I’ve shot digital for years but I don’t love it. All the things that are supposed to be the negatives of shooting film; not being able to see your images, being limited by 36-exposures, having to pay for processing and contact sheets(or taking the time to do them yourself) are all thing things I LOVE about film. I don’t want to see my images as I make them. I don’t want the ability to overshoot, and I certainly do not want to be tied to the computer afterwards. I also love the darkroom, so negatives are good for me. It’s also nice to get asked for an image from 1990 and have it in my hand in 15 seconds. I’ve shot digital for 15 years and have yet to find anyone with a real archive. This is something that is, at some point, really going to have to be addressed. As one archivist said to me, “We are at the beginning of a 30-year timeframe where we will have nothing left.” I really hope that isn’t true, but it’s something to think about. A lot of people have tried to draw lines in the sand between analog and digital, but I think that is a waste of time. Shoot what you want, just make sure you shoot. I have three or four new projects in the works. One is digital the rest are film. The technology companies have been trying to kill analog for 15 years. The moment the American and Japanese markets proved a willingness to buy more than one new camera per year the genie was out of the bottle. Companies began mass-producing, marketing, selling and then discontinuing model after model after model, each with little more than simple improvements. It wasn’t evil as some described it. It was simply business. Film cameras last forever, so the days of the 4-5 year timeframe between new models went away very early on. I think this is reflective of our global culture far more than just the photography world. What film diehards need to understand is digital really provided a second photographic life to consumers. For the first time since the Brownie the masses were, and still are, jazzed about making pictures. Sure, we’ve taken it WAY to far but that’s what we always do.

Q: On to the making of your reportages. What are the technical times for implementation? Do you come to the set a few days before? Do you need a phase of study of the entire process?

A: My philosophy about documentary work is very simple. There is no substitute for time and access. The more of these things you have the better your work will be. I’m not talking about spot news where the blimp in front of you blows up and you make pictures. I’m talking about long-term work. Go early, stay late and then go back again. The harder you work in the field the more respect you will get from the people in your photos. You prove that your work is not just a hobby.

Q: Is there a favourite image in your production? Do you want to describe the story behind the most memorable images you have shot?

Man that is a tough one. I can’t name my best image, or the most important. When I worked for newspapers and made pictures of civilians who ended up in the paper, those pictures meant something to them so they meant something to me. Same for magazine work. I’ve shot wedding images that I KNOW were critical to certain families, and my portraits of kids allowed me to become almost surrogate members of families I have no blood relation to. The pictures of my own family are my responsibility. Nobody else in my family shoots, so that job is mine and it is a real responsibility I don’t take lightly. The other side of this coin is all the horrible pictures I’ve made over the years. I’ve made some truly awful images I thought were going to be great. I think these are as important as anything else.

I’ll give you an example. I’m not a good sports photographer, at all. I got assigned to shoot spring training baseball in Arizona, which is an event that attracts many good sports photographers. I was at a game with half dozen or so good shooters and there was a play at home plate. Nobody was paying attention except me and I motored the entire sequence. The other photographers, the good ones, heard my motor drive and all jumped up but it was too late. Only problem was I blew the focus, by a mile. It wasn’t even close. Like the cars in the parking lot were in focus in the back of my frame. I don’t think I ever shot sports again, not to mention I never heard the end of it from the other photographers. Live and learn.

Q: What does the future hold for you? What plans do you have?

A: The future looks really good. I’m a very lucky guy. I work full time for Blurb, which has been one of the most interesting jobs I’ve ever had. I’ve been making my own books since the mid 1990’s, so it was a natural progression, and the job allows me to see the creative world from a much wider perspective. I’ll continue to teach one workshop per year, in Peru, and will continue to work on my own long-term projects. I am also working on several art projects with a variety of other artists. These projects will result in small-run art books incorporating photography, painting, illustration and general mixed media. My only issue is time. I’m always limited and pressed for time, which doesn’t typically lead to great work, so my pace isn’t great. But, I’ve got no choice so I deal with it.

I’m 43 and I feel like I haven’t even started yet. I think that’s a good thing.

Thank you for your time, Daniel!

-Leica Internet Team

See Daniel’s full range of work on his website.

Alex Coghe is an Italian photojournalist currently based in Mexico City whose professional activity ranges from editorial photography to events.