“When negotiating the fantastic, there is often a pact of consent between a guide and a participant.” - Dan Herrera
fotosavant confesses that Photographer/Printer Dan Herrera makes us feel old. But usually that feeling is accompanied by something like despair over the dreck that is being drilled into the brains of many students and MFA candidates, resulting in a stultifying sameness that pervades much of so-called “contemporary” photography these days. With Herrera, however, the feeling stems from witnessing the seemingly boundless energy that flows from mind to the paper in his bold, innovative work.
fotosavant was first introduced to his work via the Hand+Eye Biennial 2011, where he took top honors. In the gallery (click on his name in the column to the right) we see more from the series Vaudeville a body of work which truly deserves the description of “staggering”. We also get an unusual degree of insight into the life-cycle of concept to finished print through the detail images provided in the gallery.
We spoke with Dan Herrera in the midst of completing his own MFA program this Spring.
fs: Most of the works in the Vaudeville series are very densely packed, is this an intent or a surprising result?
dh: I definitely leave room to add or omit things in the moment of shooting, but for
the most part everything is meticulously thought out before hand. The
compositing techniques I use demand a certain amount of precision, so it’s
easier to put an image together in post-production if I have all my duckies in a
row from the beginning. I take careful notes on camera angles and the lighting
that I use, so I can photograph additional things or re-photograph things later
if need be.
fs: With an overtly theatrical theme to the series, some viewers may take it for granted that a narrative is being shared. But is it? Or is it just enough of a
suggestion to set them off on a path of their own?
dh: It’s a non-linear narrative of a magical past. It surrounds the idea of a
pan-galactic traveling vaudeville variety show. I’ve developed each image as it’s own story,
and at the same time, I leave small clues for the observant viewer to find and
draw connections between the other images in the series.
However, I intentionally leave the narrative open-ended for the viewer to interpret the
details and add meaning to the story based on their own experiences. When negotiating the fantastic, there is often a pact of consent between a guide and a participant. My end of the bargain is to create fleeting glimpses into these worlds, and the viewers end is to let imagination and experiences fill it, to become part of the story. I think that is part of the fun. I like hearing from people and how they translate my images.
fs: Without knowing your financial situation, are you needing to balance income requirements with creative time as you move beyond academia?
dh: I think that’s a balance a lot of artists have to deal with… and I’m no exception.
However, my studio practice is pretty entrenched in my lifestyle and has been
for a long time. Before I started grad school I was working 40-50 hours a week
as a graphic artist and also teaching 20-30 hours a week as an Adjunct
Professor. Even with that intense schedule, I produced and exhibited one of my
favorite and well received series The Alchemists during that time. I’ve always been able to make time to produce art no matter what is going on in my life. If you are passionate about it, you will find the time. When I started the MFA program I quit my design job but
continued to teach.
Now that I’m done with school I plan to continue teaching, it’s challenging at times
but it’s also equally rewarding. I really like it. I teach graphic design &
photography courses. I can always take a freelance job here and there, or mow
some lawns if need be. I’m really looking for full-time teaching positions. So
if anyone out there knows of an opening and thinks I’d be a good fit for their
school, please get in touch with me.
fs: Most of our fotosavant readers will recall your work as the 1st Place winner in the Hand+Eye Biennial 2011. What prompts you to enter your work in competitions? What do you hope to get from the transaction?
dh: I have to like the juror or the venue to enter into a competition. I had been
following Christina Z. Anderson’s work for a few years, and her gum-printing
book has been a great resource. For the Hand + Eye Biennial, I just wanted to be
on her radar.
fs: Along those lines… How do you choose which competitions are worth your time (and Money) to enter?
dh: If the show/competition has an entry fee I look at what it’s offering. It need’s to
have some combination of the right kind of exposure and a juror with notoriety
or influence that will also jive with what I’m doing. If I don’t recognize the
name or if I research their work and I don’t connect with it – I probably won’t
apply, because chances are they won’t like what I’m doing either.
fs: In the photos in your gallery you show the steps in the life of a piece from
concept to completion. Is that typical for you? How did you develop it and how do you feel it benefits your work?
dh: Yes, it’s the standard I use now. Each piece sprouts from sketches and short stories that I create. These resources then help me navigate the composition and the atmosphere of each image. The written material is eventually distilled down into titles that act as
a window for the viewer to enter the work.
I’m not sure exactly when I started doing it. I think I’ve always sketched stuff out, even if it’s just to remember an idea. I’ve been working with the theme of tableaux for
nearly a decade, and I think it just manifested as a way to streamline the production of each piece. I like to work this way because it gives me the physical means to invent images from my imagination. If the details of the image weren’t thought out on the front
end, I would tend to waste a lot of time later. My process of pre-visualization
started to get more refined after watching the appendices in the extended
edition of Peter Jackson’s The Lord of The Rings Trilogy. It gave me a different level of appreciation to the involvement that goes into creating content-rich fantastic
Documenting the whole process is useful for my own archive, as well as giving an interested viewer a deeper look into all the work that goes into producing each piece. I’m working on a video that chronicles the making of The Wax Tickler image including
the miniature set design, the photo shoot, and the gum printing. It should be
done and up on my website by the end of May, or early June 2012.
fs: The scenes from this series seem utterly fantastical. Do you see it as completely detached from the real world or do they intersect at some
dh: Since the beginning of time humans have used myths and magic realism for finding truth, and meaning for their lives. The fantasy part is just a vehicle in which to express
my concepts and stories without getting bogged down with the specifics of
day-to-day “reality”. The images are loaded with visual and conceptual metaphors
that genuinely intersect with the real world.
fs: By Gum Printing standards, the prints in the Vaudeville Series are monumental (30″x40″). Two questions; How? Why?
dh: I’ll address the “why” first. I had never printed that big before and I had never
seen gum prints that big before. I wanted to push my own skill level with the
process, as well as create something that in the end would command attention
when actually standing in front of it. Since the images are so densely packed I
though that the scale would help the viewer engage with the imagery for
Also, I definitely feel that there is a distinctly different psychological response when looking at a digital photograph in comparison to a painting. With the prints in the Vaudeville series, I’m striving to blur this response and add a sensation of mystery. The scale of the pieces helps lend itself to this.
The “how” took a lot of work and planning to get right, and It’s a little hard to explain without it reading like a manual. Even after I double shrunk and re-sized the paper before printing, trying to register a 30”x40” print on the 2nd and 3rd color run is a pain in
the ass. I ended up buying a used 36”x46” vacuum easel from a used silkscreen equipment depot. It was only a couple hundred bucks and was one of the best investments I’ve made. It keeps my negatives super tight against the paper and the prints are razor
Since I knew I’d be working on this series for over a year, I figured relying on the sun to print would add more work for myself. I couldn’t image getting the exposure right, and
then having to re-calibrate a few months later. So I built a lid with a bank of
UVB fluorescent tube lights to fit over the vacuum press. The lid is sitting on
gas piston hinges so opening and closing it is a breeze. I could get a sweet tan
if I crawled in there.
fs: Is Gum your chosen medium for photographic printing or only one of several you employ?
dh: The last series I worked on in 2009, were images that I created using a “home-made”
camera. The camera was constructed out of a modified Hassleblad body/lens, and
an ordinary flatbed scanner. It’s completely different than what I’m doing now
with gum. It was called Están de una Herencia Extraña, it’s on my website and worth taking a look. For that series, I experimented with Van Dyke printing, but ultimately just printed them on canvas from an inkjet printer.
But I like all kinds of processes. I feel like with my work it’s important that the
process somehow relate to the content. The Vaudeville series takes place at the
turn of the 19th century. If you look at the history of photography, Robert Demachy was making these super romantic pictorial images around the same timeframe that I am referencing using gum. So that’s why I chose to use gum for the series. It’s a crucial step
that viscerally transforms the photographic object to a specific time, and intuitively connects the photo process to the time period of the images narrative for the viewer.
Aside from that, gum printing is super seductive. In part, due to the serendipitous results, and no two prints are alike. A patient artist is rewarded with a truly unique
photographic object. The process is a rhythm of building up the emulsion and reducing it back down. Mistakes can turn precious and unrepeatable. The only limitation to the
final print is the artist’s investment.
fs: What is next for you professionally?
dh: I have about 8 more sketches from the Vaudeville series that I would like to
see materialize. I think once I have 15 images or so I’ll compile some of the
writing and make an artist book from the series. I have a few other ideas for
bodies of work that are completely different than what I’m doing now, and that
will begin once I’m finished with Vaudeville.
Other than that, I’m looking for more teaching gigs, exhibition opportunities, and
just hustling to get my work out there. I have my application in for a couple
different artist residencies so hopefully that will work out. I just got word
that a few of my Vaudeville images will be in the next issue of Diffusion
Magazine. I also recently started sharing a studio space in NYC, so I’ve been spending more time on the east coast networking and hoping to secure a couple shows there soon.
fs: Can readers look anywhere to see your work in person in the upcoming
dh: Absolutely! I have a two-person show coming up in Sacramento, CA. at The Viewpoint Gallery in August 2012. I also have a solo show on the horizon in Durham, NC. at the
Through This Lens Gallery, but the details haven’t been worked out yet, I will
be sure to let you and your readers know once I do.
Our thanks to Dan Herrera for taking the time to share his work and process with us. You may learn more about Dan and his work at;