Today’s interview is with David duChemin!
Your passion for photography is evident in all that you do. Can you tell us a little about where/how this journey started for you, and what goals you might have for the future?
I picked up a 35mm camera for the first time when I was 14 years old. An old Voigtlander rangefinder with a fixed lens, that first camera just seemed to make sense to me, allowed me to see the world differently and to show others how I saw it. Then I started reading Freeman Patterson and getting exposed to the photographers who’ve gone before us and I was hooked. I like cameras and working with my hands, but I’m less in love with the means of telling the stories than I am with the stories themselves. Photographs move me. They make the world simpler, and beauty easier to see. My future, like any of ours, is blurry. I want to keep traveling, seeing this world and her people. I want to keep working with my hands and making something I think to be beautiful, if only for the joy of looking at it myself and thinking, “I can’t believe I made this.”
Your new book ‘seven’ is currently being released for pre-order (it looks fabulous)! It has been described as a ‘fine art book’ – and the preview of images are truly inspiring. Can you share with us a little about your thought process on what elevates an image to be considered ‘fine art’?
I’m laughing as I respond to this because I’ve asked myself the same question without yet finding a real answer. Personally I use the term because much of what I’ve created, at least in terms of books, has been specifically educational. SEVEN was created for other reasons, though I think looking at photographs critically is the best way to learn about photographs. I made this book specifically to show my work . Art for art’s sake. But to be honest, if I were pushed on it, I’d have to admit that calling it “fine art” could be taken as a little pretentious. Art is art, fine or otherwise.
You have a workshop coming up in Mexico later this year, can you tell us a little more about this and whether you have plans to run more in -person workshops in the future (specifically Australia!).
Workshops are tough for me because while I’ve lead them over the last few years, and to some amazing places, I still wonder if learning something so intrinsically personal can be done in a group setting. So the workshops I’ve done have been more specifically marketed as photographic adventures. A lot of learning goes on, to be sure, but it’s more organic, and informal. I think most of us learn best when we get out there and make a lot of photographs, and have the room to fail, and try again. In the next half-year I’ve got workshops with Jeffrey Chapman to Oaxaca (Oct/Nov), Burma (December) and Lalibela, Ethiopia (Jan. 2014). I’ve nothing planned in Australia, but lets talk!
Your website describes you as a ‘world & humanitarian assignment photographer, best-selling author, international workshop leader, and accidental founder of Craft & Vision’… Is there an area of your work that you have a particularly soft spot for, or do you enjoy them all to similar degrees?
I love them all and need them all in order to keep me interested. Some matter more to my heart than others, but if I did only one I’d feel imbalanced. If I had to pick it’d kill me to choose between my love for the humanitarian work, the love of nature, and the thrill of creating a business that allows me to fund my travels and make a difference in the other two areas – either with my photography, or with the financial support of my company. Giving to great people doing great work is one of the things that gets me out of bed in the morning.
Your recent ‘Hokkaido’ portfolio is so wonderfully atmospheric and diverse, yet as a set it still feels very cohesive. Can you share with us some tips on creating a set of images that all feel as though they ‘belong’?
Thank you. I worked really hard to create a body of work that had some kind of visual cohesion. Other artists work with themes or colour palettes, and I wanted to play with that. Hokkaido in winter has the good fortune to be covered in snow, so that cohesion wasn’t hard to find. The rest was a matter of knowing where to look. In this case it was compositions that worked within a particular aspect ratio. I chose 16:9 because I’ve never intentionally worked with that constraint and I like the strong horizontality of it. I also began to see in the first images, suggestions of what my colour palette would be. What you see in the final collection isn’t just dumb luck, though. It’s got as much to do with the edit, and choosing the images that work together, as it does with the images I shot, of which there were thousands. I think sometimes we’re not ruthless enough, or intentional enough, with our editing.
In addition to your craft and vision publications, you have also written a range of hugely successful print publications. Your passion for teaching is evident in each and every one of these, do you have a favourite to date?
I think the last two are closest to my heart because I’ve finally got some of the cobwebs out of my brain about what I want to say, and how I want to say it. Photographically Speaking, and The Print and the Process also have what I consider to be stronger work in them. But then maybe it’s just stronger because I’m tired, like we all become, of some of my older work. Within The Frame will always be my baby. Nothing compares to the joy – and the angst – of that first book.
What or who do you look to for inspiration?
To inspire means literally to breathe in, and I find my creative oxygen everywhere – painting, architecture, galleries and museums, and the people and world around me. The longer I do this the more my inspiration comes from possibilities and the freedom of asking, “What if…?” Some of those possibilities and questions from looking at the work of other photographers, and even though I adore colour, so much of that influence is from black and white photographers like Elliott Erwitt, Gianni Beregno Gardin, and most recently a guy named Hengki Koentjoro. For colour I look to painters like Van Gogh and Monet, and Canada’s Group of Seven.
What advice would you give to aspiring world/assignment photographers?
Fall in love with the world, with her people, and the joy of travel. Learn to tell amazing stories and learn the technology behind sharing those stories. At the beginning I spent so much time and money on gear, and I’m not remotely your typical gear freak. Just get out there and make photographs. Your gear is probably good enough, spend the money on travel, not more gear. Two bodies, a couple lenses, and a great tripod ought to be enough. It’s creating and sharing your work that will get you more work, not a new lens.
Your use of colour is something that stands out in all of your work. Is colour something you are particularly drawn to, and are there any other specific elements you try to incorporate into your imagery?
I reduce the elements in my photographs to Lines, Light, and Moments. Colour is a function of light and I adore it for its strong emotional pull. We respond to colour in a profound way. But I’ll take a great moment over everything. You can blow your focus, make an imperfect go of your composition, but if you have an amazing moment, you can still make an excellent photograph. Of course I’d rather have a well-composed, and focused, photograph of that moment, but I think it speaks powerfully of great moments when you can look at older, iconic photographs and fall in love with them despite the imperfections.
There is such natural, honest feel to all of your images, and especially in your recent portfolio from Kenya. Do you have any tips on how to approach people when you are wanting to photograph them?
It all boils down to relationships: who you are, who they are, and how well you can connect the two. Respect and kindness can be communicated without a single word in a common language, and those two things alone will make for better connections, and therefore better photographs. It has nothing whatsoever to do with how comfortable you are doing it. I’m an introvert, and pretty reserved around strangers, but I’m also curious and that curiosity drives me. I’m always afraid of asking strangers if I can photograph them, but I’m more afraid of going home without the photograph I see in my mind’s eye. So I smile. I show interest and respect. And I genuinely value the experience more than a potential photograph. People first, cameras second. Always. In the case of the Kenya images you mentioned, I also have a friend working with me, and I ask him to have them tell their story. This gives them something to do, makes them animated, and takes their mind off the camera and trying to pose for me. They just return to being themselves.
How much/little do you direct your subjects when taking their photograph?
Not much, and less as the years go on. But I’m not afraid to guide them a little. It helps that I usually don’t speak the language so it’s easier to roll with it and see what happens, than it is to try to make any agenda of my own happen. And really, they know themselves better than I do, so I’d rather let them show me who they are and put my effort into being ready to respond with the camera.
What are your ‘must have’ gear items?
Less and less. If I had to travel with one kit, right now it would be the Fuji XE-1 and a 14mm lens. If I were taking my DSLR, it’d be the Nikon D3s and a 16-35/4.0 lens that I’ve been bashing around for a few years and love. I like wide lenses, they allow me to create a much more inclusive, intimate image if I’m willing to get close. A couple years ago I broke both my feet and my pelvis in a fall while shooting in Italy, and it’s harder to carry all the gear I used to, so lighter gear and less of it, has really freed me – not just physically but creatively. Add to that one of my Gitzo tripods and a couple filters (polarizer, solid and graduated NDs) and I’ve got what I need. The real work in photography is done with creativity, curiosity, and a willingness to take risks. The rest is details.
You offer advice so openly on your blog, including free e-books, and editing tips. In your post on ‘editing hokkaido’ you mention coming back to images 6 months, and up to 1-2 years later. Can you tell us some more about your thought process on coming back to older work with fresh eyes?
Coming back to older work is the same as seeing new work for the first time. You look for the same things – great light, lines, moments. But you come at it later without the expectations you have when you first create the images. Those expectations and hopes have time to mature a little, and as they do you realize that some of the images you first loved are not as strong now, and others you skipped were in fact stronger. I think time gives us the freedom to re-imagine things because we’re not holding the work quite as tight, or demanding as much from it.
Thank you David for spending some time with us today and sharing your insights with us!