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Dan Saelinger on the Importance and Rewards of Personal Projects

Dan Saelinger is a Portland, OR based conceptual photographer with a signature, meticulously clean and refined, style with a flare for simple, graphic-based images. Dan's work has appeared in Newsweek, IEEE, Popular Science, Field & Stream, and Reader's Digest, his advertising portfolio includes work for SKYY Vodka, Nike, and Google. In this interview Dan takes us back to his time as an undergrad photography student, his journey through his MFA, his career in high-end conceptual photography, and the role personal work has played through out it all. 

We began our conversation by addressing the elephant in the room: Dan's work, quite unlike most high-end product, advertising, and editorial professionals out there, tends to vary pretty greatly in terms of content. Frankly, I was at a bit of a loss as far as what type of photographer to call him.

Dan explains, "I'm conceptual photographer. Or, rather, a commercially focused conceptual photographer." He didn't always do conceptual work, in fact while a photography student at his undergraduate alma matter, Penn State, his work was more fashion oriented. "When I was in school [I started with] a focus of shooting fashion. I think a lot of people think they're going to pick up a camera and be a fashion photographer. When I was younger, a lot of my inspiration came from fashion work. It came from taking a person and putting them out in these unbelievable landscapes or sets or environments — I just like the surrealism of it all." Despite his love for the photographs of the greats of fashion photography Dan found that the genre wasn't quite for him. "So I shot fashion while in school then I went to New York and assisted people for a while only to find out that I didn't really like [the practice of] fashion photography."

While he'd been working as a student and assistant Dan had worked on some still-life projects. He continues, "Then I got into still life, then I started getting hired for these random conceptual jobs. That really started to build and snowball with my still life work, then I started adding people and lifestyle stuff but my focus is really conceptual. By that I mean all of my stuff is really idea-based. Whether it involves people or products or still life there's always going to be a conceptual ring to it."

After 9/11 Dan recalls the floor falling out on the photography industry. Unable to find work, he enrolled in an MFA program to continue his education and refine his craft. All the while Dan continued to practice his still-life and conceptual work both in and outside of the classroom. "So I went to grad school, got my MFA in photography. After that I went back to NY much more prepared, work as a photographer, did some work as a retoucher, got my book out there." Dan continued his work as a still-life and conceptual photographer, "I [liked] to shoot things straight-on and so still life really lent itself to that. I'm not a guy who's running around snap snap snap. When I work everything is on a tripod,  everything is carefully positioned to the camera. When I work everything is very still on set, I'm posing people's arms and everything. I tend to be very controlling in that way."

It was during that time that Dan really began to hone his style, "Even when I shot fashion I was always very big on things looking graphic. I was, am, very much an control freak. I enjoy the meticulousness of having something look really perfect." He continued, "I build things to my camera very purposefully. They're all decisions that are intentionally made."

Even now as a working professional, Dan emphasizes the role testing and personal shoots have in his process. " Personal work is really important to me, though I've perhaps been guilty of not shooting as much of it as I should after my kids showed up. I'm much more nine-to-five than I used to be." He credits a couple of his largest assignments to personal projects that he took on. "There have been a couple breaks I've had just randomly where  a personal project has lead to a job. I had a gig a couple years ago where I went to a country fair and we set up a little tabletop and shot food. That went on to get me a lot of attention from magazine clients and some ad stuff." One of the more exciting opportunities has come in the form of some work he's done for Nike. "When I came out to Portland I started shooting some [Nike] shoes purely because I wanted some of their product in my book to show them. They're one subject I keep coming back to, it's important for me to have something new and exciting to show them every time I give them my book. If I go and talk to a company I don't want to show them the same ten shots they've seen before."

We talked about what it is about personal work that makes it so appealing to clients. Dan laughs and says, "It allows me to experiment and get out of my comfort zone. Because when you're shooting for a client you have to deliver something, you have to be consistent. You don't really have the time or resources to take the big risks when you have a big job lined up. So testing really allows me to try new lighting techniques, new styles, new ideas. With commercial clients and even editorial clients you can be really constrained [in terms of] what you are and aren't able to try." Of course, not every project ends up being portfolio-worthy. "I've had a lot of failed tests; failed in terms of a lackluster end product. I have a lot of things that I'd never show anybody. They aren't failures though in terms of what I've taken away from them." Again, laughing, he explains, "I would say there's more failures than successes. I've done things where I loose the excitement really quickly or it doesn't really go anywhere and that's okay."

Dan actually has a couple personal projects in the works at the moment, some to add a bit of kick to his book, others to pursue new techniques and methods. "There's a couple images on my site, of shoes running through water or fire. Those were tests earlier this year. Those came as a result of me felling like my work was a little too static at times, like it could use a little more energy." He continues, "[This week] I'm shooting a video test, my taste has changed over the years and I want to update my book." Finally, he has been shooting a series he's calling Rock Collection, "I'm doing this study on color and shapes and the texture of plain rocks against plain paper. It's a little project where it is what it is. I've been putting an image or two out at a time on Instagram and it's been interesting to see the response."

When asked about the inspiration behind his personal work Dan replies, "My personal project tends to come from random inspiration, sometimes it’s a concept that didn't get approved by the client. It's always something that doesn't take itself too seriously since, typically, there's nothing hinging on it."

Dan summarizes the importance of testing and shooting for yourself eloquently:

The whole idea of testing and experimenting is good because it moves you forward. When you get a job it's mostly because of work you've already done, the chances you've taken outside of a job.

If you like Dan's work and want to learn more from him, he'll be speaking at the Stand Out! Photography Forum in San Francisco Saturday, October 18th.

I asked Dan to give us a sneak peek as to what he'll be discussing then.

"My goal is to kinda provide an introduction on how to work with clients on a concept. I know people can get stuck in a rut where you're stuck shooting exactly what you're given in a sort of cookie-cutter, unimaginative way. I've been there but I've had the good fortune to be able to move into more conceptual work. It's about getting to a point and knowing how to contribute to the planning process to take the project from something that's maybe a little mundane to something you can really be proud of."

To keep up with Dan Saelinger you can check him out on his site, Facebook page, Instagram, or through his agency, Apostrophe.

In Los Angeles or San Francisco? Make sure to join Dan Saelinger along with Emily Shur, Melissa Rodwell, Pratik Naik, John Schell, Eric Crosland, Michael Grecco and many others at Stand Out Photography Forums, October 15th in Los Angeles and October 18 in San Francisco. For more information, check out Stand Out here!

You can also attend the event for free by using the code FSTOPPERS in the EventBrite sign up!

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2 Comments

Bob Bell's picture

Awesome work!

Joel Knepper's picture

I did my undergrad at Penn State (also in Photography) about a year behind him. Always knew he would kill it, he was always miles ahead of everyone else conceptually.