Photographer Spotlight: Daniel Milnor

Daniel Milnor is a New Mexico based photographer who specializes in long-term, black and white documentary work relating to a variety of topics that he feels most likely to produce images that go beyond the temporary. Milnor is also a “Photographer at Large” for Blurb, a print-on-demand book publishing company. He has created over 120 unique titles using Blurb publishing system and above all else, he’s the author of this blog, Smogranch, which allows him to speak his mind and shares his work.

1. The Blurb Storytelling Series video of you in New Mexico was the preface to how I came across your work and in those 3 minutes, they did a stunning job in highlighting what you do out in the field. What’s it like being a documentary photographer, what about it attracted you to it and do you think there are certain characteristics one needs to have in order to pursue this field of photography?

I believe anyone can be a photographer, or documentary photographer for that matter. You simply need the desire. Being a documentary photographer is rewarding, frustrating, tiring(I’m sick and jet-lagged as I write this), challenging, humorous, at times dangerous but never, ever boring. Documentary photography is something I chose to pursue but it goes way beyond that. I’ve been recording things since I was very young.

I started with a small notebook, writing down overheard conversations, jokes, stories, and then graduated to a larger notebook and longer stories of my own creation. The camera was a natural extension of this. Using the camera is something I have to do. I don’t even feel like I really have a choice in the matter. The vast majority of images I make are never seen, probably never will be, but I really don’t care. I have to make pictures. Sometimes I think it’s a curse, the damn camera, and the level of compulsion that goes with it. I don’t take vacations I take pictures.

I do what I do because of the experience of doing it. Period, end of story. I don’t mean this in a curt or dramatic way, but I can’t stress enough that the experience is the most important thing to me. In some ways it’s more important than the actual photographs. I don’t make pictures to get published or to gain recognition(Nothing wrong with these goals). I do it because I love the experience of being in the field, engaging with the world and the people who are, like me, passing through this place at this moment in time.

I’ve been punched, kicked, gassed, clubbed, chased and threatened, but I’ve also been helped, educated, protected, thrilled and allowed into the lives of countless people who had every reason to say “NO,” but they never did. I’ve been given breaks, chances, privileges and access to things I had no right to see or witness, and by myself I’m next to nothing. Everything I do, everything I have is in the hands of those in front of me, and thus far they have looked at me, looked into me and said, “Okay.”

I think one thing I want to stress is that you don’t need to be a photographer to be a photographer. Other things that come in handy…..sense of humor, ability to sleep in strange places, curiosity, instinct, luck and the ever-important ability to rationalize and embrace back pain.

2. When you think about historic photographs, they’re generally comprised of single images but I happen to know you’re not the type to dedicate an entire day to finding that one powerful photograph. You’re drawn to shooting more in sequence. How did this approach towards photographing come about and are there times when you switch between the two approaches?

Heck, I love the sequence but I’m ALWAYS on the hunt for the single image. But, I know that these images, the truly great ones, are extremely rare. I think any photographer can boil their entire visual life down to a few images, so let’s call them “lifetime images.” Me, I have maybe eight or ten pictures over a 20-year obsession. It hurts to say that, but it’s true.

Today we have the ability to shoot endless imagery, tell everyone about it every step of the way and then tell everyone how great we are, and how great our work is, and how great they are for following us and our great work. But, it’s a smokescreen of enormous proportion. I cry “BS” on most of it, and I’m as guilty as the next person. So much hype these days, but when it all boils down, today is the same as yesterday, and yesterday is the same as forever.

Great photographs are rare. I work in sequence because it helps lead to me better things. Plus, the photographers that got me going when I first started, folks like Larry Burrows and Gene Smith, they were storytellers. Buried inside their essays were lifetime images. Stunners. Pictures that impacted and changed the world. I can’t say that about anything I’ve done, but that doesn’t stop me from continuing the hunt.

In some ways stand-alone images for me are a problem. I ask myself, “What is this?” “What do I do with this?” “Where does this fit in?” Stories, or sequences, are like puzzles with a “Choose your own ending.” There is no right and wrong, only what you desire. Single photographs are confrontational and they force you to reflect to deal with the content. Sequences are like a good novel or screenplay.

3. Nowadays we have sites like Kickstarter, and IndieGoGo which artist can rely on to have patrons fund their creative endeavors but you actually fund a lot of your photo projects on your own and subsequently put together these beautiful self-published books. From a logistic and financial standpoint, what does all this look like?

Yes, there are a multitude of funding options these days. I don’t know what it means or where it is going. By now you might be questioning your decision to ask me to do this interview…..ha…….so all I can do is tell you why I do, or don’t do, these things.

I don’t feel I have any right to ask anyone for money to do my work. If I had a very unique project, that no one else in the world had the ability to do, and that project could greatly impact someone, or some group of people, in a positive way, then perhaps I would look to outside funding. But, this has never happened to me. I’ve installed hot tubs, worked as a fragrance model, worked construction, worked for Kodak and worked for Blurb with the intention of using my paychecks to fund my own projects. I’m comfortable doing this.

I just returned from Uruguay where I was working with several other photographers on a rather obscure topic. I probably spent about $4000 US on the project. I save money, I put it aside and then I go. If I don’t have the money, I don’t do the project. These outside funding sources have given us some great work and projects and it feels like they have JUST begun.

Larry Towell, Gerd Ludwig, etc. Proven guys with proven track records, asking for specifics for well thought out projects. That is cool. You trust these people. You can see their desire spilled out on the printed page over a multi-decade timeframe and you know they are asking for something because they know they can deliver something that will live forever as a testament. This I totally dig and respect. Sure, you have a range of folks now who are asking because they can. Buyer beware. Hey, can I borrow ten bucks? Kidding.

The ability to make a book has been the single most important aspect of the digital revolution, at least for me. I had a romance with digital cameras, but it lasted three years and ended in a divorce. There were no worthwhile children that sprang from this relationship. Same with digital printing. Lusted for it, but didn’t love it. But the book….oh the book. Now we are talking. I work for Blurb, full disclosure, but I’d still love the book even if I didn’t work for Blurb.

The book, like the darkroom, makes you a better field photographer. The book makes you think. The book makes you edit. The book makes you sequence. The book is final, at least until you decide to change it! And people when I say “book” I mean anything remotely resembling a bound object. Handmade, traditionally published, print-on-demand, etc. Do it all and enjoy every second of it. Oh, and what’s coming from Blurb will surprise a lot of people. Like paddling upriver as we approach the shoreline of the New World….these are exciting times.

4. Gear-wise, what you would typically bring along with you and how does this setup help you do your best creative work?

 Gear of Daniel Milnor

I try to use the least amount of gear possible, but I’m also a part-time idiot, which really gets in the way of good decision-making. The best equipment is the equipment you never have to think about. If you are in the field and are thinking about your gear, your not thinking about what you should be thinking about.

Today with all things new and digital, it is VERY easy to get lost in a sea of new lenses, bodies, laptops, hard drives, software, firmware, DAM procedures and the never-ending saga of upgrades. NONE of it helps with what happens in the field. The best work I’ve ever done came from the simplest gear. Leica + Kodak.

But we are photographers and we think we know better, so then comes the Hasselblad. And then comes the Fuji. And then comes the Canon. And then comes the Voigtlander. And then comes the Lomo. And then comes the Holga. And then comes the second Hasselblad. And then I fell down. And then I cried. And then I told myself for the zillionth time what an idiot I was, and am.

 Gear photo of Daniel Milnor

Currently, my delusion has me working in two formats, 35mm and 6x6, and in both color and black and white. This is impossible. It really is, and yet I keep doing it. I can make work in this method, and I do, but it’s a certain TYPE of work that fits a certain TYPE of goal. It’s a crutch, a smokescreen (common) and it makes me feel like I’m actually doing something good, when in reality I might not be. I’m defenseless against modernity. I think I need a lot of great. Great what you ask? Great everything. I need great pictures in super short amounts of time. Color square is REALLY easy. It’s square for Christ’s sake. And it’s color. You can shoot a photo of your feet and it looks great.

The falloff is beautiful, etc. Black and white 35mm is damn hard. It’s really damn hard. So, you pepper your life with the candy of the square, people swoon and you feel like you are on to something, but deep down inside you wonder. Really? You know if you ONLY go with the 35mm, black and white, you might work for weeks and not get anything that really punches the mega-photo ticket. Who has weeks these days? Nobody. I need a spread and a show and a book! In the words of Homer Simpson when he got his first microwave…”What do you mean I have to wait thirty seconds….I want it NOW.” And to make things worse…there are pictures I’ve made with the 6x6 that I feel are really good. So, in summary, if in doubt, leave it at home. Or never buy it to begin with.

5. Is there a memorable photograph in your career that stands above the rest and can you share with us the story behind it?

 Proudest photo of Daniel Milnor

Damnit, I knew you were going to make me do something I didn’t want to do. ONE photo? Are you crazy? Where do I even begin? “Just choose one of your lifetime images,” you are probably saying. You think I’m that organized? Okay, I’m going to do something a bit different. I’m going to show you TWO images. One image is the type of thing you might think I would show here, and the second is an image that I FEEL should be here but might surprise you. You see I’m still learning.

This first image changed my life and my direction as a photographer. I made this while teaching a workshop at the Santa Fe Photographic Workshops in New Mexico. This is a guy named James, and his dog. James is a well driller who uses equipment from the 1950’s.

What he does is hard work and dangerous. I grew up, at least in part, in the West. It put the hooks in me and I’ve never been able to shake it. Before I made this image, even the days leading up to this image, my mind was traveling the world as to where I was going to go next to find my life’s work.

I made this image and I realized, like a lightning bolt, that my life’s work was here, at home, in the American West, specifically New Mexico. My wife and I moved to New Mexico part time after I made this image, and every spare moment I have I pack my bags, load the car and aim toward the high lonesome of the open spaces. This picture in some ways ruined me. I’ve never been a Southern California guy and now it pains me to be here because I know my heart and my body are supposed to be somewhere else. New Mexico.

This is a Leica + Kodak photograph and sums up my new project in one simple frame. I’ve worked on this project now for about two years and am nowhere near having anything. I’ve got maybe a half a dozen frames that are the blueprint for what is to come. Now, I need time.

Proudest photo of Daniel Milnor

The second image here, the portrait, taught me something else. This photo taught me responsibility. I’ve been photographing for many years now and I am the one person in my family who has the documentation gene. I’d been to the far reaches of the Earth and yet I’d somehow managed to neglect the most important subject matter I could ever find, my family.

This portrait is my nephew, a complex and emotional young dude. This is my real job in life, to document those I’m closest to. This isn’t going to get me anywhere career wise, but that means nothing really. These pictures are critical. This is our world and if I don’t make these pictures, nobody else will. A ten-year-old boy changes on a daily basis, mentally and physically. It’s my job and responsibility to be there and document. Plus, this is a lot of fun.

To read up more on other photographers in the Spotlight Series, check out the dedicated page.