Today, I’ll be talking to Damian Drohan, a fascinating portrait photographer based in Cork, Ireland. We’ll find out about his background, walk through one of his recent photo shoots, investigate a photographic workflow, and share several awesome pieces of advice for beginners to photography.
Damian has some really valuable insight to share, and I hope you enjoy the interview!
Q 1. Please tell us a little about your background. Do you have a traditional education in photography, or have you moved into the field from another profession?
Originally I worked as a Food Scientist in research centres in Ireland and in Scotland. I had briefly picked up a camera as a child, an old Paxina (East German) model that took 120 film. It had no light meter and I couldn’t afford to buy one. My dad had bought the camera for a week’s wages whilst serving in the RAF and he gave me a run through on the basic settings.
… As you progress in photography, you realize that you can’t be a master of everything …
It just had a little window for composing images and no rangefinder, so I guess it was a good baptism in photography. Out of a roll of 12 exposures I’d maybe get back 7 usable images. It was while I was working in Scotland that I really became interested in photography. I was doing my weekly grocery shop and picked up a camera magazine and that was it.
I spent the next 3 years of my science career trying to figure out how to abandon science and make a living from photography. I spent a number of years working part time, doing some teaching, picking up a few commissions for weddings, portraits and commercial jobs. I spent a while filling in for another photographer in a press agency and when that work finished and there was nothing else on the horizon, I took up a place on a two year photography course at St. John’s Central College in Cork. It really opened my eyes.
On our first day we saw work from Robert Mapplethorpe and Imogen Cunningham and it blew me away. After the course finished it was a little anticlimactic and my appetite for learning had been whetted, so I moved to London for three years and took a BA in Photography at the London College of Communication (formerly London College of Printing).
Since 2004 I’ve been teaching part-time, photoshop, darkroom, studio techniques and shooting personal projects which I am lucky enough to have published occasionally. At the beginning of 2009 I signed up for the online version of the MA Photojournalism and Documentary Photography at LCC, which has been fantastic. The lecturers are or have been working in the industry for years, and it’s been great.
Q 2. The majority of seasoned photographers find and specialize in a particular niche. Which area of photography interests you the most, and why?
I guess, like many photographers, I spent my first few years with a camera photographing everything; landscapes, friends, places I visited etc. The first course I completed was heavily documentary-biased with a fair element of studio and portraiture, so I guess now I would describe myself as a portrait and documentary photographer.
As you progress in photography, you realize that you can’t be a master of everything. The photographer Chuck Close, in the BBC series Genius of Photography said “Photography is the easiest art form to become competent in, but the hardest in which to establish a personal vision”, I may be misquoting slightly, but I think the sentiment is clear.
I want to follow in the footsteps of the photographers I most admire: Alastair Thain and Steve Pyke , who have carved out a personal vision which in both instances has been widely influential and much imitated. I guess what I’m trying to say is that I want to be an excellent portraitist and documentarian rather than being competent in many areas of photography. If I had to pick only one subject for the remainder of my career, it would be portraiture.
Q 3. Could you walk us through one of your recent reportage works – Paddy – and explain how you came to capture such a thought provoking and insightful series of images?
I met Paddy about 3-4 years ago after he was introduced to me by my father-in-law. I’ve probably photographed him 8 or 9 times by now. Initially I didn’t have a clear idea what I wanted from the images. Partly I was a little overwhelmed by the amount and range of subject matter. He’s got a fantastic face, speaks well and has interesting things to say, not to mention having a fascinating collection of military memorabilia and general oddments.
The first few times I photographed him, were very much ‘fly on the wall’ sessions. He’d talk me through some of his collection, I’d take a few photographs, and in general the results were disappointing. He’s a shy person and tended not to engage much with the camera, and he’s also hard of hearing which makes social interactions more difficult for him. Moreover, I wasn’t clear about what I wanted from the sessions, and I think it’s really important to know that.
Around about a year ago I bought myself a little digital recorder (Zoom H2) and I started interviewing Paddy as well as imposing a more formal structure on our portrait sessions. We’d meet about once a fortnight, I’d bring some coffee and cakes with me and only begin photographing after maybe an hour of chatting. I found the dual process very helpful. Talking relaxed us both, and often yielded great visual material as well.
I’ve since bought myself a better quality recorder and separate mono mic, and audio is now an inherent part of my photographic process. The later images with Paddy were a world apart from the initial images, mostly I think because it was more about an interaction and a ‘conversation’ rather than just being about me pointing a camera at him.
Q 4. What do you do with a portraiture/reportage project when completed?
Generally speaking, I photograph with the intention of seeing the work published. If I’m using audio I put snippets up on my website, and two of my current projects are intended for book publication, although that depends to a large extent on the benevolence of publishers.
Ninety nine percent of my work is self-funded. It’s not a great way to achieve financial stability, but publications offset some of the cost. I shoot commissioned work as well, but very little of my commissioned work makes it into my portfolio. In the medium term I’d like to see my work on sites such as Media Storm reaching a larger audience.
5. Could you outline your photography workflow? What photography equipment and software do you use on a daily basis, and why have you chosen this particular setup?
How I work depends very much on the subject matter. I photographed a documentary piece last Summer on a local theatre group. I started out shooting on film, I like the discipline of having only x number of frames and I like the feel of working with contact sheets. However, as the deadline approached, I simply ran out of time and my developing and scanning couldn’t keep up with the work.
I started shooting on my digital SLR, which saved me a lot of processing time but probably doubled the editing time. With that project I ended up with 1900 images over three months, narrowed down to 125 in Adobe Lightroom, I then printed low res copies of the 125 and laid them out individually and in sequence on the floor of my studio and cut it down to 48. So I guess it’s partly screen editing followed by some printing.
…Except for commercial work, I’m a strong believer in limiting the range of lenses…
With the “Paddy” project I always recorded audio separately to the photographs. Apart from camera noise, it benefits the work to devote as much energy to the audio as to the images. I used a studio light with softbox for the formal portraits and shot on either a Hasselblad or Mamiya RZ. The incidental images were primarily shot on 35mm film.
The still life images were shot on a Hasselblad using a 10mm extension tube which is great for close-up work. At the risk of sounding like a luddite, I can see the benefits of digital and shoot my commissioned work 99% digitally, but the slower more concentrated approach of medium format really suits my ‘slow burner’ projects. Everything is scanned, I process the film at home.
My gear consists of a Nikon D200 (can’t afford an upgrade) an assortment of lenses, Hasselblad with standard and telephoto lenses and a variety of extension tubes, a Mamiya RZ and standard lens, and a Sinar P 5×4 camera with standard lens.
Except for commercial work, I ‘m a strong believer in limiting the range of lenses. I also have a veriety of Bowens studio lights with softboxes, umbrellas and grids. I bought Adobe’s Master Collection last year, and it’s been great, I love Lightroom also for day to day editing and keeping track of work.
Q 6. Where would you like to see yourself in another 10 years?
That’s a tough question. Ultimately, shooting portraits of known or unknown people, with a strong personal vision. I believe in the long term that my commercial work and personal work will merge and people will commission my work commercially because they like how I shoot for myself.
I guess that’s every photographer’s dream. I enjoy my teaching work also, in ten years I still see myself teaching part-time, and in one place (I currently teach in three different locations), working with students who feel as passionate about photography as I do. I’d like to have at least one and maybe more books of published work, and for my work still to be relevant.
Q 7. If you could give one piece of advice to aspiring photographers, what would it be?
Check your stamina levels. Keep photographing, keep learning, always look at the best photographers work. Marry an accountant, or someone in marketing, because with few exceptions most photographers are terrible businessmen/women.
Strive towards your personal vision. There are many, many talented photographers out there. You have to stand out by showing how you see the world. People will hire you because they like what you do, not because you can do everything. Learn how to operate your equipment like it’s second nature, learn the technical stuff, and then stop thinking about it. Find personal projects which inspire you as these will often generate the best work.
Never undersell yourself. Internships with great photographers are a brilliant way to learn, but you need to start charging for your work at some point. Try to get an assisting job. College is great for ideas and experimenting, but assisting is where you learn the real nitty gritty of lighting, etc.
Become an expert in Photoshop, take nightclasses, read books, learn how to print digitally. Martin Evening’s “Photoshop CS4 for Photographers” is a great starting point. Persevere, believe in yourself, take risks (not with someone’s wedding photography however). Read Bill Jay and David Hurn’s “On Being a Photographer” it’s great.
Enjoy it, if you no longer enjoy photographing what you photograph then you might as well get a day job!!!