Thursday, June 28, 2012

Dan Shepherd - Art, Science and Business

A few weeks ago I attended several openings at Bergamot Station in Santa Monica - one of which was Dan Shepherd's Blinded by Science exhibition at dnj Gallery. I'd met Dan at several previous events and was interested in his story of insight and change on this project. Dan's got a perfect background for this blog, starting from a small high school environment where students were encouraged to try everything, then moving on to multiple degrees in Japanese and Conservation. 

He discovered his love of art while living in Japan in the 80's. This was when he got to stand in front of big paintings (Rothko, Picasso), tuning everything else out, and just intensely experience them. I'd like to thank Dan for being my first interview - we had an enjoyable afternoon talking about everything from that moment of inspiration, to art and business. This post is a very condensed version of our conversation and I hope it will give some good insights into your own creative experience. 

AM: How did you get into photography? 

I'm relatively new to photography. I'd always done art on the side and, in 2006, I was living in New York and making very small drawings that I was interested in changing the scale of. I envisioned photographing these drawings and enlarging them through a microscope - I wanted them large in scale, with texture - not just a flat photograph - almost a "Franz Kline" feeling of the gestural stroke. 

I decided to get a "real" DSLR and then, because I'm always interested in learning everything I can about a new tool, I enrolled at the International Center for Photography and started taking classes. New York is such a photogenic city and now I was able to walk around and take the images I had always previously seen as paintings. Walking around with my camera, taking photographs, I really felt in control. I could take what I wanted and because it was digital, I could see it right away, much like the experience of drawing. I started to see the camera as a paint brush - I understood what was happening inside of it and wanted to turn those photons into something. I also wanted to leave room for something that couldn't be planned for, serendipity, if you will.

That tension between control and the unexpected is what I'm looking for. My initial work drew from my love of abstract art, that aesthetic I already had as an artist. As I learned more about the camera, I explored using movement and light to draw onto the sensor. That was the start of my Battle of Brooklyn project, drawing with a pinpoint of light at a very specific time of day. This series was where I really moved from "taking" to "making" images.

AM: Tell me about how you made this more recent artistic jump in your work. How did you go from thinking about gardens as your work (as a conservationist) to making them your artistic fodder? 

A big part of it is I wanted the tree to be fodder, but I just hadn't been able to do it. I had perhaps a subconscious intention. I liked plants, knew a lot about them, knew we needed I found them very important to me personally...but they hadn't been important to me artistically. They hadn't given me that feeling I got from standing in front of paintings, or the feeling I got from the process of drawing and painting. 

I had just come from an exhibition of Abstract Expressionist paintings and was walking through Central Park. I knew what kind of art inspired me, I knew that I liked being in the park and that I felt very grounded in how to use my camera. As I looked up, there was blue, green, yellow - my brain was on a million other things - but looking up, seeing how the sky looked - I took a shot. I still have that shot and within the first three attempts, I got an image that's up in the gallery now (see the image directly below this paragraph). It all came together by happenstance, that experience of being structured but still leaving space for something unplanned to happen. My next step was to see if it was repeatable (which it was), because if I can't repeat something, it doesn't mean anything. 

AM: One of the concepts you've discussed is the idea of "failing fast." What does this mean? 

I give the advice of "fail, and fail quickly" often. It's the only time you really learn something. When you're trying a new venture, in business or art, you want to start doing it as quick as you can. Just try it, it may not work (and that's totally cool), but hopefully, you're the type of person who will learn something from that experience and try again. If all else fails, "try, try again" is really true for someone like me. If I want success, then I have to fail quickly while I still have the resources to try again. Of course, failing sucks, because it sucks to lose, but I'd rather have failed than get to the end of my life without having really won anything - so it works both ways. Plus, there are lots of ways to define losing - it's not enought to be successful at something if you don't enjoy it - then that's losing too.

AM: For you, how does business and art mix? Can you use what you learned in business in your career as an artist? 

Much of what I learned in business actually works in art as well. Project management stuff, laying out goals, figuring out if they're achievable or definable. Of course you want to avoid defining them too much - to leave room for serendipity - but just enough to get you off the ground. When I meet successful artists, who are still working, they're very organized and it helps to be professional when working with galleries or clients - to deliver when you say you're going to. You've got to be organized if you want to make a living at anything. 

Another thing you learn in the business world, is that people don't fund projects - they fund people. It's not enough to have the coolest project in the world, you've got to be able to convey it to others - people are impressed by the person. I recently took a grant writing workshop with photo-journalist Donald Weber, who always has multiple projects going at the same time. When he comes up with a new idea, he sits down and writes 300 words about it, telling its story. He's got these all together so when he runs into someone who asks what he's doing, he's got ammo.

It's one thing to have ideas and quite another to have them written down on paper - because now you have at least four sentences in your head that you can say about your idea. If you can't articulate your ideas in a clear, concise way to make them understood by others, it becomes difficult to get the outside world (whether it's funding or a gallery) on board. This is part of why I do the Open Show, to give people a platform to talk about their work. If you don't practice taking about it, you'll never get good at it. 

If you're writing a proposal, tell a story, talk about a problem and tell people about your vision - talk critically about it. You're telling a story about why this is a problem or why it's important and (towards the end) what you're going to do about it. Even if you just want to make pretty pictures of blue swirls...okay...why? What's your vision? There's a certain amount of salesmanship to art and it helps to develop that ability to tell us why what you're doing is important and meaningful. 

Dan currently splits his time between the visual arts and working for conservation organizations. He has a Masters in Environmental Science from Columbia University and an International Diploma in Plant Conservation from the Royal Botanic Garden, Kew, England, as well as a BA in Japanese from the University of Oregon. To see more of his work online, please visit:  Blinded by Science is currently on view at dnj Gallery, Bergamot Station, Santa Monica, CA, June 9 - July 21st, 2012. For more information:  All images © Dan Shepherd. 

Once again, thank you Dan for participating in this process.


  1. Just "found" your blog from Lenswork (fellow alumns ;-) And what a delight! A must-stop every morning over coffee for me from now on. Wonderful start to a great blog!

  2. Dan's exposition on his own "artist's way" approach is very illuminating - thanks for including all of this. Also, that second image above reminds me of a painting I've seen somewhere...but can't quite place it...