Dennis McGrath: Timing is Everything

Los Angeles-based photographer Dennis McGrath was born in 1969. Classically trained in black-and-white photography, McGrath prints most of his work by hand in the darkroom. As a skateboarder in the mid 1980s, Dennis McGrath was drawn into photography and that eventually led to a decade-long career shooting for major skateboard publications worldwide. In 2004 he began shooting on the sets of adult films, documenting behind-the-scenes from his outsider’s perspective. A portion of this work was published in his limited edition book titled “Theatrical Properties” (Super Labo, Japan). His work has been exhibited in San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York and London. He recently spoke with us about his Virgin America commission and his preference for shooting with film.

Q: How would you describe your photography?

A: Real and pretty raw. I like real life! I also like things that aren’t so perfect, which is one reason I still like to shoot film.

Q: Can you further explain what you mean when you say you “also like things that aren’t so perfect”? What are some of the reasons you think film is more suitable for documenting an imperfect world?

A: When you shoot film, you kind of never know what might happen. For example my M6 can sometimes have a light leak from the base plate. It’s happened to me quite a few times and my base plate is not bent or anything. It’s kind of trippy. But it’s never ruined a photo. I tend to think it’s just what happens sometimes and that’s that. I like it on some of the images it’s happened to; it adds an element. It looks almost like a half circle halo kind of thing.

Q: Can you tell us a little about the story behind your Virgin America commission?

A: I went to art school with Jesse McMillin, Creative Director at Virgin America. When they were building the Virgin America Loft at LAX, they wanted some original artwork to decorate the space so he asked me if I would be interested in shooting something for it.

It took a few weeks for me to work out exactly what I was going to do so I started going out to the airport and watching the planes landing. LAX is on the coast but also in a pretty urban area so I approached it like street photography more or less. I wanted to incorporate the urban environment into the photographs. It was a lot of trial and error, a lot of driving. I wanted to incorporate the aspect of driving since that is a huge part of living in Los Angeles.

Q: You shot this series with the M6, correct? Can you provide some insights on using this particular camera for this project?

A: The funny thing is the M6 isn’t the kind of camera most people would shoot any kind of action with. I shot skateboarding for years so it’s something I am good at. I’m glad I shot it with the M6 because it made for more of a challenge since the fastest shutter is only 1/1000 of a second and no motor drive.

The fact that it’s slower made it so I had to be more precise in general. There are only a certain number of flights that come in daily so it was hit or miss. I took a week to shoot all of it. Every day I would go drive around the neighborhoods surrounding the airport and find spots to shoot and wait for Virgin planes to fly by. There’s a website with all the arrivals and approximate times so I would be on the iPhone waiting, watching and shooting. I also spent part of a day on the tarmac shooting which was exciting! That kind of access is pretty special these days with all the security at airports.

Q: Can you tell us something more about why you feel that timing is an essential element in your approach to photography?

A: Well, timing is everything in photography in general. It can be luck or intuition, but it’s always about a moment. Film or digital, it’s always about the moment you catch. Bottom line. Shooting action with the M6 is challenging due to the fact that you have to wind every frame so it comes down to being intuitive, but I think luck has a great deal to do with it as well. Mistakes can be interesting too. One of my favorite images in this series is out of my sunroof where part of the frame is blacked out; there are some telephone wires peaking out, a small airplane in the center and a palm tree on the right side of the frame. I was sitting in my car waiting for flights to fly over, camera in hand and these two hoods approached my car just as a Virgin plane was flying overhead. So I snapped a picture while starting my car and jetted out of there! I barely remember even looking through the rangefinder as all this was happening. Luck, mistake, call it what you will, I love that photo. Plus there’s a good story behind it!

Q: With the exception of the images of the installation of your prints in the Virgin America Loft at LAX, all the pictures in your portfolio were shot in black-and-white. What is it about the black-and-white medium that you find conducive to your creative expression? Do you ever shoot in color?

A: I was classically trained in B&W photography when I went to the San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI) in the 1990s and it has stuck with me. I do shoot color as well but there is just something timeless about the B&W medium that I love. When I worked in skateboarding, I mostly shot E6 film, which is color slide so I am very proficient with color also. But I prefer B&W.

As I mentioned earlier, the idea for the Virgin commission came from my old friend Jesse McMillin who is the Creative Director at Virgin America. We had talked about getting me involved with them on some level for years and this was the perfect opportunity to make something happen. The bold red they use works so well in contrast with the B&W images.

Q: Which lenses do you favor when shooting with your M6, and what is your film of choice? Do you do your own processing and printing, and if so how are your images printed?

A: I have a 50 mm and a 28 mm. I like them both equally. A 35 would be nice. I borrowed a 35 mm lens from a friend when I was shooting this work and a few of the pictures are with that. I usually shoot Tri-X or T-Max 400. I do my own processing and printing. Developing my own film is something I really prefer as compared to going to a lab. Not only is it insanely expensive but I like to overdevelop just a little so I have all the information on the film I am looking for.

“When in doubt always overexpose,” are words of wisdom from my former teacher Hank Wessel at SFAI. Shooting 400 speed film at 200 is the best trick I ever learned from Hank. All the older guys will tell you this. Overexpose in the camera then under develop in processing and you will get more shadow detail. It’s a miracle of chemistry really. Can’t explain it; you just have to try it and see what the results are. When I shoot at 400 or if I push a stop or two then I always overdevelop just a little for similar results. I also do all of my own B&W printing. It’s one of the ways I get by these days. I do most of Ed Templeton’s B&W printing and have done jobs for various other photographers as well. I really enjoy working in the darkroom. There is no comparison to a B&W fiber-based print from wet chemicals. The digital ones are getting better, but they always look flatter and not as rich in tones as I’d like. I did get some 40-by-60 inch murals made at The Icon in Los Angeles for the Virgin America Loft and they came out beautiful! Thanks to Bonny and everyone at Icon you guys rule!

Q: There is a random quality to many of the airport images you shot for the Virgin America project, and yet, with a few exceptions, most of them are meticulously composed and characterized by precise timing, like this image above with the plane perfectly in the center of the donut hole. How do you think the interplay of precision and randomness influences your creative style, and how do you determine when you’ve succeeded in creating an image that satisfies you personally?

A: I tried to approach this project like it was street photography in a way, which is pretty random in general. Since LAX is set in an urban neighborhood I was inspired by the airplanes’ relationship to the urban environment. Other than a few images I shot on the tarmac, the others were all shot in the neighborhoods surrounding the airport. There’s a website that lists all the incoming and outgoing flights with estimated arrival times so I was on the iPhone driving all around looking for interesting points of view while trying not to miss the Virgin flights coming in.

Timing is pretty key when shooting with the M6 since there is no motor drive so I would only get a few shots per flight arrival. Fortunately I did skateboard photography for years so I am pretty good at catching precise moments. Luck always helps too! As far as being satisfied with certain images, I shot a lot of stuff that just didn’t really translate the way I thought it might then others worked out just perfectly.

Q: This image showing a father with his kid perched on his shoulders looking up at a very low-flying airplane is kind of a classic, and the juxtaposition of real palm trees and the palm tree design on the overhanging awning is simply amazing. Where and how did you take this shot and was it planned, just plain luck, or both?

A: I’d like to say it was luck but I actually set this up. There is an In-N-Out Burger (a famous California fast food establishment) located right by the north runway at LAX which is a hangout for airplane enthusiasts and/or photographers who watch the planes coming in really close. I was searching for just the right picture to shoot at this location since it’s been so over shot. If you search “In-N-Out Burger LAX” online you will most likely find a ton of images shot from around there. One day I was sitting in this window eating lunch and there it was! So I had my friend Blue and his daughter Nova meet me later that day and sit outside at a table while I sat inside waiting for Virgin flights to come in. Needless to say it was a painstaking hour or so of anticipating when a Virgin plane would fly over. I missed two just when we arrived then a Virgin Atlantic 747 came through and bam! It did have a little to do with luck as well. To me luck has a lot to do with photography, just as being very intuitive does as well. It was also better that it was a bigger plane, as Virgin America only flies small Airbuses since they do not fly overseas just yet. Virgin Atlantic is their partner obviously so we slipped it in since it’s such a great shot. This is my favorite picture from the series since there was so much involved and everything had to be just right (no cars blocking my view in the drive-thru line was key!) and my timing had to be perfect! I nailed it!

Thank you for your time, Dennis!

- Leica Internet Team

Connect with Dennis via his blog or Instagram.