Mag Issue No. 12
I am grateful to Y35 for the opportunity to delve deeper into why I am so passionate about photography and share my journey with you. Photography has been bigger than a creative outlet for me; it was a saving grace especially in my teenage years.
The following is a snipet of the interview that appeared in the December 2021 release. To read the full article, visit: https://y35mag.com/y35magazine/p/y35-mag-issue-no-12
Interviewer: Dante Ruscitti
Dante Ruscitti: Douglas has said that you are a “great talent— fearless and full of enthusiasm.” This endorsement came about in his story on your shared trip, along with Douglas’ wife, Françoise, to Colorado to photograph Don Isidro Garcia in 2020. Where does this fearlessness and enthusiasm come from? Were you born with these traits, or have you had to work on them at both a professional and spiritual level?
When I was about three years old, my father would take me to the beach and, to be safe, he would tie a string around his arm and my body because I would always wander away to the edge of the shore. Once, my mom called out to me as I was standing at the shoreline and asked, “Where are you going?” I yelled back, “To the other side of the ocean!” So, yes, I guess at three years old I was already known to be fear-less.
And related, how would you say these characteristics play into your success? Or more generally, how do they serve creatives to reach that next level?
I never give up.
My first big job for Sygma was for the London Sunday Times Magazine during the 1984 Olympics. My assignment was to photograph Rupert Murdock at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. I was so excited. I arrived at the shoot two hours before Mr. Murdoch. I shot Polaroids and tested the lights. I even hired an assistant to help with my gear, which was a first for me as well. Mr. Murdock arrived, and after ten snaps, he said that was it. I started to rewind my camera and realized the assistant had not loaded the film into my camera. I ran up to Mr. Murdock and told him what had happened, and he said, “That’s Tough.” And then he walked away. I thought my career had ended before it even really started. All the famous photojournalists who were my heroes were in town to cover the Olympics.
Everyone heard about my disaster: Eddie Adams, David Burnett, David Hume Kennerly, Neil Leifer, J.P. Laffont, and, of course, Douglas Kirkland. The list goes on and on. They came up to me to comfort me and share their horror stories of unloaded cameras. A few years later, Karen Mullarkey, the Director of Photography at Newsweek, called me to photograph Mr. Murdock. I asked if this was a joke since she called me on April Fools’ Day. She assured me it wasn’t a joke. This time, I went alone to his NYC office – just me, my cameras, and my lights. I never mentioned the mishap from a few years earlier to him. This time not only was my assignment a success for Newsweek, but it was so well received that the photograph was used on a book cover about him as well.
You have worked for several renowned publications throughout your career and have traveled across the globe, documenting your encounters and surroundings. Are there any assignments that really stand out in particular? Is there one shoot or series that really resonates with you on a deeper level? What made that moment, or series of experiences, so special?
I loved being a part of the A Day in the Life series. I was always so impressed by how all the photojournalists were so excited to share stories about their adventures and assignments. Photography is sometimes a very lonely existence. It does sound glamorous and amazing, but a lot of the travel time is lonely. During these book projects, top photojournalists around the world were invited to participate. So just imagine how mind-blowing it was for me to hang out with all my heroes and have them interested in my work.
For each of these book projects, photographers were given 30 rolls of film and had 24 hours to shoot their assignment and drop off the film. We would leave without ever seeing our take. The editing was done by the top photography directors of magazines from around the world.
Thank God Douglas taught me to get it right in the camera!!
OMG. I still can’t believe that one of my images made it on the cover of the A Day in the Life of Hollywood book and numerous spreads in many of the other books.
One day, I was going up in the Time/Life building, and I stood next to Eisie (Alfred Eisenstaedt). I stood next to him in the elevator and made sure our arms touched, thinking, “I hope his magic will rub off on me.”
I was in my early twenties when that happened, and I still believe in magic.
Your portfolio of celebrity-based photography is comprised of a very diverse, eccentric makeup of personalities. How does your approach to each shoot differ based upon each individual’s identity? In general, what has your exposure to such a varied range of personalities taught you about people and self-expression?
I approach every session as an adventure to learn about someone. My images are not about the clothes or the hair and makeup. I believe they are about the heart and soul of the person I am working with. Somehow, all these celebrities tend to look pretty comfortable and as if they could be a friend of yours and not the “superstars” they are to the rest of the world.
People trusted me, especially after they looked at the first Polaroid. That was always the icebreaker.
A few times, my unfiltered mouth got me in a bit of trouble, like the time I went to the White House to photograph President George Bush and the First Lady Laura Bush. I was trying to get both of them as close to each other as possible for a cover. I told President Bush to move his “tush.” The First Lady looked up at me and said, “It’s not a tush. We call it a seat.” There was a hush over the crowd behind me, but the writer, Peggy Noonan, loved it and used it in her piece in the magazine. Ari Fleisher, the press secretary, on the other hand, was not so amused. Still, I was invited six months later to photograph at the Western White House in Texas and a few more times to the White House after that.
When I photographed Willem Dafoe, I had just seen the movie To Live and Die in L.A., where Willem played the bad guy. I told him I was pretty scared of him, but we first went up to his loft with his son Jack and watched Pee-wee Herman together before we started the shoot.
How have you managed to keep this type of work fresh and original?
I come in fresh. I can’t help but be myself. I don’t previsualize what I would want to do. I just allow myself to discover what awaits me. I always feel the situation. It’s interesting how when I get to a huge, beautiful location, I often find the smallest corner because it has the best light.
Now, I feel I can be more free than ever in my career. When I was working with certain magazines, often they expected a certain look and a certain light, and there was not much time for me to be too creative – especially with all the restrictions from the powers that be.
Your black-and-white series on children is breathtaking. When looking at the images, I see a synthesis of innocence, sincerity, and non-manufactured elegance. Why did you choose black-and-white film for this series? What expression, or narrative, did you feel would be emphasized by this choice, rather than by using color film or a digital camera?
I have continued this series with a digital camera, but black-and-white seemed more appropriate and conveyed a certain drama and depth to those beautiful young people when I first started. In the 70s, I assisted Douglas Kirkland with a story he was working on for GEO magazine about Bag Ladies shot on medium and large format with film. I drew inspiration from that assignment. The super-shallow depth of field reminded me of another time.
"Going through my work now, these are some of the images I am most proud of and the path I continue to follow."
In sharing one of the images from this series on Instagram (@danafinemanphotography), you said that “It’s so true when it is said (that) the eyes are the windows to the soul.” Can you elaborate on this sentiment?
But who are “THEY” anyway? Kids don’t lie.
As an artist, what did you personally gain from this project? And what was your main goal behind sharing these images with the world—what did you aim to convey?
No goal, really, just a visceral need to share my vision and keep working. I am instinctive, and when I was raising my kids in Malibu in the early 2000s, I would see all these perfectly wonderful children, and I knew that someday, these parents would be so happy to have images like the ones I was creating. I guess that is why I did it. Most of the locations are around the small homes or trailer parks in Malibu. No big deal. The big deal was the children looking so strongly and honestly into my camera.