All images by Dan Sackheim. Used with permission. Please follow him on Instagram.
“The artists I have the greatest admiration for are those that never stop growing. Like the Beatles and Picasso,” says Dan Sackheim, whose name you may be familiar with if you liked True Detective, Game of Thrones, Band of Brothers, Ozark, and The Walking Dead. “They got restless doing the same thing and as a result their art was constantly evolving. I don’t want to stay static.” Dan’s fantastic story of how he got into image making is one many can relate to in regard to getting closer to people. From his earliest days, he’s evolved into an accomplished Director and is currently returning to the world of still photography, Dan’s cinematic vision translates well into his photography–and I guess we could say vice versa. We had a chance to talk to Dan about his recent work and about who his idols are.
Dan Sackheim’s Essential Gear
When it comes to technology, I’m a bit of a luddite. Simplicity is important to me because the fewer camera settings, menus, bells and whistles that I have to deal with the more time I have to focus on timing and composition. This is what initially attracted me to the Leica rangefinder system. With its artfully minimalistic design and simple set of analog controls, it’s a camera that most closely emulates the experience of shooting on film, but with the instant gratification we’ve come to expect from the digital experience.
My current kit includes a Leica M10 and M10 Monochrom. I also have a Q2, which I keep with me as a kind of all purpose walking around camera. Beyond an exceptional sensor, Leica has always been famous for their superior optics. Their lenses are not only smaller and lighter than what you’d find with most any other camera system, but they are faster as well. The compactness of the camera body itself is also a big plus when shooting on the street as it allows for me to be relatively inconspicuous. Last but not least, the low tech rangefinder system has a distinct advantage over most other cameras in that it gives you the ability to see just outside of the camera’s frame lines and gives me the ability to anticipate action that is about to enter the frame a split second before I need to press the shutter.
Phoblographer: Talk to us about how you got into photography.
Dan: I picked up my first real camera, a used Nikromat, when I was a teenager. I’ve always been a bit of an introvert and not much of an athlete, so the camera provided me both an outlet for artistic expression as well as a means of escape. While in college, as a engineering major, I had this huge crush on a girl who was a film major, and in order to improve my chances I decided to up my game by improving my film literacy, seeing a movie a night and reading up on famous film directors. Though I struck out with the girl, I fell in love with movies and filmic storytelling. Cut to a number of years later. I was working pretty steadily as a Director and Producer, when in 2007 the Writers Guild of America went on strike shutting down film production and forcing me to look for a creative outlet to help fill the time. I purchased a Nikon D100 and signed up for some photography classes at an art center and haven’t put the camera back down since then.
Phoblographer: Every photographer has a photographic identity. Your work is widespread and varied. So in your eyes, how do you define yourself? How do you pitch yourself?
Dan: Actually, I’ve never thought of my work as being all that widespread or varied. However, I would say that part of an artist’s growth involves the evolution of their own personal esthetic, and this should reflect their changing point of view as well as their perception of the world around them. The artists I have the greatest admiration for are those that never stop growing. Like the Beatles and Picasso. They got restless doing the same thing and as a result their art was constantly evolving. I don’t want to stay static. I don’t want to find myself doing the same thing in five years that I’m doing now.
If I had to pitch myself, I’d say that my work tends to be dominated by shadows, both literally and figuratively. This fascination with the dark and ambiguous stems from my love of Film Noir and the heightened reality this filmic language personifies. Like Noir, my photography aims to access the unconscious, exploring a world of omnipresent solitude and alienation.
“While in college, as a engineering major, I had this huge crush on a girl who was a film major, and in order to improve my chances I decided to up my game by improving my film literacy, seeing a movie a night and reading up on famous film directors. Though I struck out with the girl, I fell in love with movies and filmic storytelling.”
Phoblographer: Creatively speaking, how did you find the switch between being a Director and a photographer? I can totally see the similarities in the work.
Dan: There is without a doubt a number of skill sets that these two disciplines share. Having said that, I do feel like directing and photography exercise different parts of the brain. Directing is about knowing how to best exploit the various tools available to a filmmaker (dialogue, performance, staging, cinematography, sound design, music, etc.) to construct a cohesive and hopefully compelling narrative.
Still photography is not burdened by the weight of a detailed narrative, as its essence lies in the fixity of a singular moment’s observation. Photographs deal more in description and suggestion. Uncertainty, with some exceptions, is not generally the desired outcome in film. Whereas a viewer experiencing uncertainty about what they are seeing, or what is in the frame of a still image is often the very thing that motivates a viewer to stop and stare at a photograph. A still photograph can provoke a viewer’s speculation about what came before and what will come after.
Phoblographer: You have a series specifically dedicated to color and then a lot of black and white work. The unifying factor in them is a contrast between the light and dark. In terms of the mental process of creating, do you feel like you’ve got different sides of your mind that appeal more to monochrome than color?
Dan: Not so much two sides of my brain as much as what is the best medium for presenting an interpretive representation of the world versus a literal one. Black and white is simply more interpretive than color, owing in part to the fact that humans see in color. But speaking to the issue of how I use contrast between light and dark, black and white amplifies how you see negative space, which is easier to showcase and highlight in black and white. Black and white forces you to focus more intently on light and dark areas of the frame – and their interrelationship.
“Still photography is not burdened by the weight of a detailed narrative, as its essence lies in the fixity of a singular moment’s observation. Photographs deal more in description and suggestion.”
Phoblographer: A lot of folks talk about how to use color, but there’s not enough “why.” In your mind, why would you use a specific color over another? Have you ever debated back and forth in your head about this?
Dan: I never went to art school and have had no formal training in color theory, so I’m not sure I’m qualified to hold forth on this subject. Obviously, different colors, in varying intensities, tend to provoke different emotional responses from us. The color red, for example, is often described as threatening, arousing or exciting, whereas blue calls to mind feelings of calmness or serenity. I am in awe of photographers like Todd Hido, and before him the pioneers of color photography like William Eggleston, Arthur Meyerson and Jay Maisel, all of whom have mastered the use of color in their arresting work. I think the best I can say of my color work at the moment is that I’m still trying to find my voice in that medium.
Phoblographer: How do you think digital has changed our use of color in photography over the years?
Dan: Not really sure other than to speculate that the digital tools, which are now readily available to both amateur and professional photographers alike—such as Lightroom, Photoshop, and other tools for color grading—have prompted a kind of digital democracy and allowed for a wider range of artistic expression.
Phoblographer: Do you have a favorite time of day or night to photograph? It seems like you’re mostly drawn towards cities and they can be quite dynamic when it comes to color.
Dan: Like most photographers, I prefer the early morning or late afternoon when the light is softest and most directional, but I do feel like there is no such thing as bad light. It’s about being open to all opportunities and seeing what the universe presents you with.
“I am in awe of photographers like Todd Hido, and before him the pioneers of color photography like William Eggleston, Arthur Meyerson and Jay Maisel, all of whom have mastered the use of color in their arresting work.”
Phoblographer: Who are three photographers you idolize and always have? How have they affected you and how you work/create?
Dan: Sebastiao Salgado, Fan Ho, and Henri Cartier-Bresson.
Phoblographer: When you photograph scenes, do you sometimes feel like you’re photographing a character of some sort? Lots of people say that about NYC.
Dan: Do you have any favorite places in the world that you absolutely love to go to photograph? You know, the ones that never get old!
New York for me is probably one of the greatest cities in the world to shoot in because just about anywhere you turn the camera there is something or someone that is worth capturing photographically. Or cinematically for that matter.
Phoblographer: What do you think about the notion that social media breeds many a photographer to try to copy one another just to satiate an algorithm? Do you think that it’s stifling the art world?
Dan: I have a real love-hate relationship with Instagram. On one hand, it’s an extremely effective tool for getting your work exposed to the masses. It’s allowed many emerging artists to find an audience for their work, and we’ve seen many promising careers get kickstarted as a result. That said, someone once made the great observation that we are all carrying around these little dopamine generators in our pockets because there is always the promise of significant reward with minimal effort. I’m not so sure this is a good thing for art or the artist, or, to be honest, how it’s rewiring our brains. Also, I fear we all to easily fall victim to the urge to produce work that elicits the most favorable response from our followers, and that often inhibits our instincts as artists to take chances and grow because we don’t want to risk losing our audience.
Phoblographer: What do you think about cinemagraphs? Ever toyed with them? I can imagine many of the images in this series being cinemagraphs.
Dan: I haven’t really explored this art form. While I think they are clever and when artfully executed they are attention grabbing, I can’t help but feel they are kind of gimmicky. If the image isn’t compelling enough to grab you on its own merit, then the photograph isn’t successful.
Phoblographer: How often are you inspired by other mediums like paintings?
Dan: Definitely. Influence cannot be confined by one’s own medium. I find inspiration in great literature, films, and television, though I reserve a special place in my heart for the paintings of Edward Hopper, who I return to over and over again. Certainly his most famous painting is Nighthawks, which is famous for projecting this kind of noirish, cinematic style, and mind you this is decades before Film Noir was born. But so much of his work has a very distinct voyeuristic perspective. His dramatic interaction of light and shadow and the emotionally isolated figures that inhabit his anonymous urban spaces really capture the imagination. His paintings offer a visceral portrayal of solitude and the tension of human isolation. These are themes which I explore in my own work.
Phoblographer: Do you have any photo books on your coffee table that continue to inspire you?
Dan: Jason Langer’s Twenty Years, Sebastiao Salgado’s Kuwait, Fan Ho’s Hong Kong Yesterday, Jay Maisel’s Light, Gesture, and Color, and at the risk of sounding cliché, no photographer’s coffee table would be complete without a copy of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s The Decisive Moment.