Daniel Milnor is a man of many interests. I talked to him about photography, but as you can see in the interview, he does much more. A believer in failing often, he offers advice to new and old practitioners, and lets us know more about him and his journey. This interview is a must read for all creatives.
How did you get started in photography?
Well, the idea of photography was planted in me as a child because my mother was an amateur photographer and the person in charge of documenting the family. She had a Pentax K1000, which we still have, and a Haliburton case that went with us everywhere. She made the camera seem natural and part of the experience of life. Then, sometime during middle school, I first glimpsed the images of an English photographer named Larry Burrows who was a highly respected war photographer who became famous for his work in Vietnam. His work made me feel something I’d never felt before. Compassion, rage, confusion. I knew I wanted to make other people experience these same feelings, hence the idea of making pictures began to creep into my mind. I was an incessant recorder of meaningless information, which I still am, so I began writing in journals then eventually graduated to the camera and haven’t looked back.
Does one need formal training to succeed?
No. Not really. But it can sure help, and it can also do things like provide context which is sorely lacking in a world where the primary goal of many photographers is to be online famous. I have a formal photography education, and one of the things that people don’t seem to understand is that a formal photography education has almost nothing to do with the technical aspects of photography. I think we spent a grand total of about two weeks, out of a four-year program, studying anything technical. And remember, in two weeks we covered not only the camera but we also covered the entire darkroom process from start to finish. That’s it. The rest of the four years were spent shooting, editing, sequencing, designing, studying the history of the industry and also learning how to talk about our work. In addition, perhaps one of the most important aspects of this time was learning to handle other people talking about our work. It wasn’t often kind. Each week you had to photograph something new, edit the work, print the work in a traditional darkroom, mount each print then stand in front of the entire class and “deliver” you project. People would sometimes destroy what you did, so you had to learn to take criticism, both positive and negative. These experiences shaped my entire adult life. Today you have people who talk down about traditional education, regardless of field, but what I’ve found with photography is that those who study online or via YouTube tend to only learn how to make work they have already seen, and often times never find out who they really are. I think this is a great way to have a hot year or two and a horrible way to attempt to craft a multi-decade career. The world is fickle. When all is said and done the only you will have left is your work.
What are the main ingredients to succeed as a photographer?
Persistence, work ethic, ethical stance, fortitude to fight for what you know is right, the ability to politely say “No,” and the ability to celebrate failure and move on. Among other things. If you want to make it as a photographer today, at least in some ways, you have to be incredibly self-centered. There is SO much focus on promotion because there are simply too many people attempting to be professional photographers. So, the key is to focus on what makes you you but never lose track of the fact the majority of people in the world, the vast majority, don’t care about your photography. They don’t and they never will. Today you must be more than someone who presses the button. You have to be well rounded and you have to be human first and online celebrity second.
What have your travels taught you?
There is no place like home and I don’t need to travel to make work. In fact, the more I think about this the more I realize photographers spend too much time traveling abroad and not enough time making work in their own region, state, city or street. I totally understand the lure of the exotic, the lure of travel and the lure of the unknown, but I think we have a responsibility to work in our own neighborhoods because it sure seems like we could use the help and understanding. Now, having said this, I’ve lived places I’ve related to and I’ve lived in places I didn’t relate to at all. It’s not always easy or exotic to work where you live but it’s required reading in my book.
How does inspiration come about?
I’m fortunate. My life is varied, as are my interests, so I find inspiration all around me. I read, hike, cycle, climb, fish, paddle and explore my state, and I try to surround myself with people who are more intelligent, more talented and more interesting than I am. They do all the work! All of these other endeavors are why I come up with so many different project ideas. Photography itself simply isn’t enough for me any longer. Photography was everything to me for twenty-five years, but I finally figured out to be happy I needed to be more than a photographer. So, I began to revisit many of my past adventures and it has allowed me to see the world in a new way. From this new vision comes inspiration from all directions. I need very little human interaction to be content, so watching the light change over the high desert is enough to keep me buzzing and keep me inspired to see and to think.
Tell us about your podcast
How did you know I have a podcast? I have no idea what my readership/listenership is but I’m guessing it’s fairly small, so anytime someone mentions my podcast I am a bit shocked, in a good way. I love audio. That’s why I have a podcast. Audio forces me to concentrate in a way that motion does not. Also, audio is easy. I can record an interview and have it online ten minutes after I completed the interview. Audio fits my lifestyle. And finally, I like that fact that people are honest with audio, more than video where they often are concerned about how they look. The idea is to simply interview people who live creative lives. I’ve focused on photographers mostly but I am planning to branch far and wide. And just interested in people, their lives, their concerns, successes, failures, etc. We seem to be more divided than ever and my goal is to just talk to people.
What advice do you have for someone making a start in photography?
You don’t have to be a photographer to be a photographer. Working as a pro too soon can leave you in a very compromised situation. Many of the professional photographers I know aren’t happy people. They feel dejected because the industry is failing. The key is to practice long enough to understand who you are as a photographer than make YOUR work. Often times this is impossible while working full time with your camera. You end up spending year after year making other people’s pictures. Most people end up burning out or getting financially compromised to the point they bail out. So, working a job doing something unrelated shouldn’t be viewed as a failure. Just the opposite. Personally, I can’t imagine doing assignments for anyone. I have far too much fun, and I make far better work on my own. Finally, you should be failing on a regular basis. If you aren’t then you aren’t trying hard enough or taking enough chances.
Describe a good Dan Milnor day.
Up at 5 AM, read for at least an hour while I have my bulletproof coffee. Get on bike as sun begins to rise over the Sangres. Ride between 25-60 miles thinking the entire time. Breakfast, email then begin creating. Motion, stills, audio or publication. Most of this is Blurb related, helping customers understand the platform, how it works and how best to utilize Blurb in their career. Then, my 81-year-old mother who just got her first iPhone will send me three blank text messages. Then she will try to Facetime me at least six times, each time hanging up on me before we finally connect. (This is pure entertainment.) I’m a morning person so the bulk of my creative process happens before 3PM. After that it’s maintenance, blog, editing or spending hours on the phone with creatives talking projects, problems, successes, ideas, partnerships or collaborations. At night, I prefer to read. Most importantly, I try not to spend ONE SECOND on social media and I try to limit my overall Internet exposure as much as possible. (Don’t surf unless there is an ocean involved.) A good day is plenty of alone time, plenty of reading, plenty of exercise mixed with limited but inspiring human interaction. And if I have a bad day I just remember that tomorrow will be better.
You can find out more about Daniel Milnor at http://shifter.media/