CD: When we first met, way back in the early nineties, you were in the middle of an incredible portrait series for Texas Monthly, titled “Big Hair”. I remember seeing the medium format transparencies in your studio and in particular, the image of the woman with her hair set as a ten-gallon hat. It is an iconic image for you and carries your trademark humor. Tell me about this adventure and what it was like to explore Texas for Texas Monthly.
Danny Turner: Well, I was pretty much living the dream during the “Hooray for Big Hair” photo shoot. Nothing I like better than being on assignment, roaming the country with a camera, and shooting people.
I was in Art Director D.J. Stout’s office at Texas Monthly and he showed me a story he was working on about then Texas Governor Ann Richards. The interview had a quote from her about big hair. I said to DJ, ” there’s a story right there, big hair”. Left his office and didn’t think much about it after that. A couple months later DJ called me and said that they were working on a portrait series on ladies with “Big Hair” and asked me to shoot it. I thought it would be fun and agreed to do it. DJ hired ace producer and stylist Christina Patoski to find the subjects, and Skip Hollandsworth to write the story. Most of the success of the photos goes to Christina’s great detective work in finding such a diverse group of ladies to shoot. She gave me the list to shoot and off I went. It took two or three weeks off and on to shoot the story. We wanted to get ladies from all across the state so a lot of traveling was involved, mostly driving.
Getting a cover out of the story was very unexpected bonus. Jenny, a pretty young woman from Childress, Texas, sent a snapshot of herself with her hair fixed up in the shape of a cowboy hat to the magazine. She said that she wore her hair like that at parties and thought the magazine would like to see it. The cool thing was that it looked so real, like a hat made of real hair. She had a girlfriend fix it up for her. Said it took 6 cans of hairspray to get it to hold its shape and 3 days to wash it all out. I was just good timing on her part as we were in the middle of shooting the project. We didn’t want to shoot any ‘fantasy hair’, but it looked so real that we felt like we had to shoot it, didn’t know if we would find a use for it in the story.
I met Jenny in Childress, she had on a great wardrobe and her hair was perfect, looking so real. We had the idea for her to be holding a real cowboy hat like she had just removed it, so it looked like the hat had molded her hair in the same shape of a cowboy hat. I didn’t have a location in mind for the shot, we were really just driving around late in the day with Jenny in the back of the car looking……..not much around Childress but prairie and farmland and it was getting dark. We drove past a recently plowed field and I just reacted to the barbed wire fence, brown dirt, and the setting sun. Quickly pulled the car over to the side of the road, set up a battery operated strobe with a Chimera light box. Jenny jumped over the fence, the sun at her back. Shot a polaroid, the dirt behind her was too dark to suit me so I added a second light to brighten it up. Shot another polaroid, looked good, quickly shot a couple rolls of film and then it was dark. Packed up and left. Got lucky with the sky……..
I didn’t know it had made the cover until it came out. It was a great way to illustrate the story.
CD: When did you first pick up a camera and when did you decide to pursue this crazy world?
Danny Turner: I tell people that I was ‘classically trained’. I picked up my first camera in high school. I was the photographer for the yearbook. I was walking by the art class one day after school. The art teacher was also the yearbook sponsor, a really cool guy. They were working on the yearbook and he let me hang around. They had a darkroom and one of the guys let me watch him developing a black and white print. I couldn’t believe it was so ‘easy’ to do. You just put the paper in that tray of water and a picture comes out, wow, like magic. Anybody could do it, even me. I was really drawn to it. So they let me join the yearbook staff. I didn’t even have a camera and didn’t know the first thing about photography, exposure or anything. We were just kids with cameras. We didn’t really get any training, the guys on the photo staff would just kind learn from each other, a lot of trial and error. We developed the film how it said on the instructions sheet in the film box, didn’t wash the prints or film properly, had lots of fixer burns on prints, scratches on negatives, all that stuff. The water out of the faucets in south Texas was so hot sometimes we developed film for 30 seconds instead of 4 minutes as recommended on the instructions.. My dad gave me his old 35mm rangefinder Konica, with a fixed 45mm f1.8 lens, my first camera. I carried it everywhere and took pictures of everything. It was one of the first cameras with an auto exposure function, aperture priority, so I didn’t worry so much about exposure in those days. We were just happy to have any kind of exposure, didn’t matter if it was under or over exposed to us.
I shot ‘high speed’ film during the night football games, Tri-X 400 pushed to ISO 1600 using a hydrogen peroxide process I read about somewhere, I was like a mad scientist, trying different formulas. I rode to the games in the back of the equipment van that carried all the musical instruments for the band, it was fantastic, and seemed so natural for me to being doing, like I had been doing it forever. President Nixon came to town to meet with the President of Mexico for an economic summit and there was a parade through downtown Laredo, Texas. Our drill team girls were in the parade and they wound up on the cover of Life magazine. And I got some nice shots of Nixon.
After graduating high school, I went to work making pizzas. Didn’t know you could have a career as a photographer. Finally went to a little college called East Texas State University where they had a great photo program, probably top 5 in the nation, graduated with a (appropriately enough) BS degree in photography. They had an intern program at the university where you would get class credit for working with photographers in Dallas, and thats where the real education began. Assisted for a while and gradually started shooting for myself.
CD: For years you were a medium format 6×6 shooter. Then the 1Ds changed your life. What was it like to go from a classic, film based format to the then brave new world of digital? Would you consider returning to medium format or even shoot film again?
Danny Turner: The 1Ds did change my life, but I didn’t choose to shoot digital, it was forced upon me. I would still be shooting film and polaroid, of course. There is no ‘art’ in shooting digital, its all to easy. I would shoot medium format digital if the prices came down, its the way I prefer to work, more deliberately. Hard to justify the expense for medium format in todays market when 35mm DSLR’s are so good. The realities of the business today prevent me from shooting film. Clients won’t wait for film, they want everything yesterday. And with more cameras having built in wireless capability I think clients will want us to beam the photos to their iPads/computers for immediate distribution, straight out of the camera.
Making the transition from Film to Digital wasn’t hard. We spent a lot of years waiting for the cameras and sensors to mature. Then we waited for the software and work flow to mature. It wasn’t any fun shooting digital until the original 5D came out, in my opinion. The price was right and it had a large LCD preview screen so you could actually see your images. I think we are in for another big shift towards mirrorless cameras. So there will be a few more years of manufacturers trying develop that technology and we will all have to switch, the new bodies and lenses will be quieter, smaller and lighter.
My favorite film camera was the Rollei 6006, a fantastic camera, it was unbelievably cool, and very innovative and exotic. All the medium format cameras were like mechanical works of art, Hassleblad, Fuji, Rollei, Mamiya, Pentax. So cool. I haven’t shot film for a few years since selling my twin lens Rolliewide 4.0 FW, a beautiful camera that I will own again one day I hope. Just a gorgeous machine. A medium format mirrorless is going to be an awesome camera, if they do it right.
CD: The roadside series of images on your website are a very different look for you. Tell me about how these series of images came to be and what they mean to you? Any new personal projects on the horizon?
Danny Turner: The Roadside series is just personal photos, shots from moving motorcycles, traveling around, camping, wandering…….I enjoy shooting personal projects, but am more assignment oriented.
CD: You have created a sub-specialty of photographing architects and designers in addition to shooting architecture on a new website. What led you in this new direction and how does it feel to be shooting in this new arena?
Danny Turner: Shooting Architecture is an ‘accidental’ direction for me. I have always loved architecture, especially contemporary and mid-century. It appeals to my eye for space, light and line. I have been shooting for an architectural magazine for a few years, shooting portraits of architects. Love meeting architects, interesting personalities with great work. Some of the architects I shot would ask me to photograph their projects. I gradually built up a body of work of architecture and interior design. One day I realized that I had enough shots to put together a simple web site, and then a promo piece. Its great fun to explore a building or house and figure out how to shoot a ‘portrait’ of the building, to revel its personality. I just shoot what I think looks cool. Not many architecture photographers can also do portraits, so I think that sets me apart.
CD: You have had an incredible career shooting for some of the best magazines in the world. What advice do you have for young photographers who want to pursue editorial portraiture?
Danny Turner: Man, its a tough question, not trying to be negative, but I don’t think there is a real market for editorial portraiture anymore. Most of the magazines and newspapers are going, or gone, so the market is also gone. It will take years for the market to stabilize and for the work force to match the size of the market. Too many photographers for too little work right now. There still is photo business, just less of it, and it pays less right now, so that is the challenge for young photographers today.
Success in any field is the same as its always been, learn all you can, assist, work hard, shoot hard, edit hard, promote hard, don’t be shy, don’t be a bastard, treat people well, learn to see light, have fun.
Learn and use social media.
And get the shot ‘in camera’, if you have to fix it later in photoshop, you are not a photographer. Your mom can do photoshop now…….
Video is a good skill to have, but If you are going to shoot video, go to film school. Its easier to shoot video on a video camera. Don’t try to edit video yourself. Get a sound guy to record sound.