Photographer Spotlight: Duncan Davidson

If you were to ask him what he does for a living, he’d probably find it difficult to answer the question concisely because he doesn’t believe in doing just one thing. But if you had to narrow down his list of professions, Duncan Davidson is a professional photographer, accomplished software developer, published author, and co-owner of Luma Labs.

1. As a photographer, you do an increasing amount of work with portrait, product and environmental photography which we see samples of published on your weblog. These are all areas that we hear and see a lot of photographers specializing in but I can’t say the same about conference photography. How did your involvement with this genre begin and was it an area that you always considered pursuing?

Conference photography, which was how I went pro as a photographer, was quite the accident for me. It started as the result of a long relationship with O’Reilly Media that stretches back to the late 90’s. I wrote several books for O’Reilly, both on my own and with co-authors and spoke at various O’Reilly events. One day, the head of O’Reilly conferences called me up and said, “Hey, I know you like taking photographs, would you mind shooting one of our conferences for us?”

I did those first few conferences as a lark in addition to the other work I was doing at the time. One thing led to another, however, and my momentum built which lead me to adding various clients. Eventually, through a chance meeting, I started working with TED. I couldn’t have planned it better, but I can’t stress that it wasn’t something I planned, it’s been the result of taking advantage of a few really fortunate moments in time.

Now, of course, the connections I’ve made by shooting conferences are creating other opportunities, some of which may lead me into very different and seemingly unrelated areas. Ones that I wouldn’t have been able to consider five years ago. It’s all rather organic, but I’m pretty sure that my best photographic work still lays in front of me.

2. Time and again one reads that in order to distinguish oneself as a photographer, we have to develop a unique style in our photographs. Do you think this is the case and is it really always about the style or is subject matter more important? Since we’re on the topic, how would you describe your style as far as personal work since I assume with your commercial stuff, style is mostly established by the client?

I’m not sure style is something that you can consciously set out to develop. For me, style, technique, and vision are all closely intertwined in ways that are hard to complete puzzle out. Sure, you can talk about any one aspect in solitary and it’s useful to do so, but it’s the fusion of all of that which defines how your images come to be perceived by others… well, that’s something more complicated. Style by itself is just as compelling as perfect technique. It might get you accolades from other photographers that are pursuing the same immediate goal of trying to consciously develop their own style, but I don’t think it gets you any further than that. No, for me, what distinguishes a photographer is how well their photos evoke a reaction, thought, or emotion in the viewer. To do that takes a combination of skills—not just the application of style or technique or anything else.

From my perspective, I slip into different styles depending on what I’m trying to do with any particular photograph. Sometimes I want to go for punch and saturation and tell a story through color. Other times, it’s about line and openness. If there’s any on constant, it’s that I’m always striving for clarity. Factoring out what doesn’t matter and just leaving what matters to each photograph in the frame. Above all, any style I consciously use is there to help drive the visual story of what is in the frame.

Now, is there an underlying style that unifies everything I do? That’s a good question. I’m not conscious of one, but an outside observer might be able to tell me something that I’m missing. That’s part of the madness and beauty of being an artist, you can’t help but look at your work differently than anybody else can or will. Every time I look at a photograph I’ve taken, I know what I was trying to accomplish, the events leading up to and as a result of the moment I captured, and what was happening outside the frame. An outside observer has none of that context. They can only judge the work by what they see in the image and, as a result, will see it differently than I ever could. All I really know is that there are always a dozen things about my photography that I’m trying to work on at any given time and that those are what I see when I look at my work.

As to my commercial work, it’s true that sometimes the style is defined by the client but quite often it’s something that we work on together. For example, before every TED event, I sit down with Mike Femia—TED’s photo editor—and we work through what we want to see and accomplish from a variety of perspectives, including style. But then I build on that direction with my own instinct during the hectic rush of each event. As things flow quickly, I can’t help but to lean unconsciously on a lot of idioms I’ve built up over the years. The result is something that is a unique blend of what the client wants and what I produce. Together, Mike and I have left a significant and unique mark on the visual style of TED’s stage photography. Other people who photograph the TED stage create images with a different look and feel.

3. Last year you gave some invaluable tips on conference photography where you mentioned that this specific line of work demands that you have the best equipment. What does your camera gear currently look like and don’t be afraid to mentioned that Fuijifilm X100 that everyone’s rightfully drooling over even though you may not use it for your commercial work.

Photographic gear of Duncan Davidson

I’m fond of saying that gear doesn’t matter right up until the point it does. My current cameras of choice are my X100 for day to day use and my Nikon D3S cameras for when I need to work quickly, in more challenging conditions, or when I want flexibility in lens selection. My GF1 still sees a bit of use here and there. And last, of course, is my iPhone. I create a stupid number of images on my iPhone. I’m pretty happy with my current set of cameras. They cover almost all of my needs. Obviously, as my work evolves, I may need to add a different kind of camera to better address it, but that’s still an open question.

Speaking of gear, I’ve been amused of late to notice that—except for very challenging and specific needs, such as shooting conferences—my perceived need for one kind of camera or another has gone down as my skills have gone up. Most of the time in situations where a decade ago I might have thought I needed one bit of gear or another to make a better image, I’m now quite content and aware that while I might not be able to make one kind of image with the gear I have with me, there are four or five *other* images I can make and I go and try those instead of bitching about what I can’t do.

4. I’m surprised you don’t have a sort of map on your website that highlights all the countries you’ve had the pleasure of visiting. You did such a fantastic job composing the Tribute in Light time-lapse in various areas of New York that I can’t help wonder whether there’s a list of personal photographic projects that you hope to accomplish either abroad or in the states?

I should put up a map of the countries I’ve been to, as well as the various states. Travel is something that I’m very fond of and I’m so very lucky to be able to do as much of it as I do. If I stay in one place for more than about two weeks, I get itchy. I almost have to force myself to stay home for longer than that at times so that I can fully recoup and recover.

Decades ago, when I was pursuing photography as a hobby, I’d travel somewhere and put myself into a situation and see what happened. I’ve continued to do that as my skills and vision have developed, and I’ve produced a lot of single photographs from doing so. But, somewhere along the line, I’ve started thinking in terms of collections of images and even moving images. More complex stories, if you will. Ones that need a lot of time to develop and plan how to execute. The Tribute in Light short film is a very clear example of that—probably the clearest I’ve executed and made public so far.

I do have quite a few other projects I have in mind that are in various phases of clarity. The American road is something I continue to be fascinated with. I’m inspired by the work of several folks that are involved in ocean conservation. There are many other areas, but as far as more specific examples, I’m going to keep those close to my chest as they develop and I hopefully get a chance to execute them.

5. I always feel put on the spot when people ask if I have a favorite photograph even though I can easily recall which one and why. Out of the countless amount of frames you’ve shot, is there one photograph that peaks above the rest and why?

Proudest photograph of Duncan Davidson

I’m starting to have a hard time with that. Most of the photographs I’m thinking of are more important to me as turning points in my understanding of my career, myself, or my photographic vision than as images in their own right. Some of them are because they just happen to be in my head currently. Right now, for example, my thoughts are all about the iPhone image I made in 2007 because I’m in the process printing an edition of prints for them.

The image that continues to haunt me, however, is one that I made in Louisiana last year when I was photographing the oil spill. We were in Barataria Bay and everything in the frame told the story of that day. Oiled booms in the water. Oil stained grass. The birds that live in those wetlands. This is part of the story of our world right now. Nature and our impact all woven together. If there’s way to dig deeper into this story, you can bet I’m going to try to find it.

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