INTERVIEW WITH PROFESSIONAL PHOTOGRAPHER DAVID WAGNER
“If you do what you love, you’ll never work another day in your life.”
David Wagner is a professional photographer that is well known for capturing beautiful images. Despite photography clearly being his true calling, it took a crisis for David to heed and answer. After more than two decades as an art director in advertising, David’s life was turned upside down. Amidst calamity, such turmoil, David made a heart-felt work and lifestlye commitment to follow his dream. From that decision moment, David would put every fiber of his being into truely living each day – every day.
I grew up in a very small town in Missouri and most jobs there had to do with building fences or some type of farm work. So, during the summers, I was outside hauling hay and building fences. But during my junior year in high school, I got a job at a small print shop. That’s where I really began to learn about design and advertising. That job gave me the experience to work at the printing department in my college which was very large and I was able to design brochures, logos and all types of printed material. It was there that I started building a design portfolio which helped me get that first job in advertising. It was very much a domino effect.
I went to college in Springfield Missouri and that’s where I took a beginning photography class where we shot only black and white on film, this was before digital photography. I knew then that I loved photography, it was one of the only things that I did for me. Unlike my designer work, I didn’t care what anyone else thought of my work. It was pure self-indulgent creative work. But I also knew that it was very unlikely that I would find a job as a photographer right out of college. So I followed the advertising path.
My college degree was in Fine Art and I knew I wanted to be an art director at an advertising agency. After college I got a job as an art director at a very small ad agency in Houston TX. Advertising was very different back then, this was before computers were really being used for anything other than word processing. There were no design programs at that time so, as an art director, most work was done on drawing tables with T-squares and magic markers. There was no social media so the main media for advertising back then was newspaper, magazine, billboard, radio and television. I enjoyed the work. It was challenging and rewarding, very fast-paced. Back then, there was a little bit of glamor to the industry. And it was a very good career choice because it gave me a great foundation for working as a photographer later.
It wasn’t until after the life-changing experience of discovering that I had cancer that I decided to change careers. I was diagnosed with a rare cancer in early 2004. And it was a very rough ride. More than once I was told that I had only a very slim chance of survival. After 6 months of chemo and surgery, I went into remission in late 2004. But it didn’t last long. By January of 2005, the cancer was back and yet again, I was told that my chances of going into remission were low. And my only option was a stem cell transplant. So it was another 6 months of chemo, high-dose chemo and a stem cell transplant. At the end I was actually misdiagnosed and told that I had less than a year to live as there was no further treatment that would help. That obviously was a life changing experience. I went to my office and told them that I wouldn’t be coming back. I had to tell my parents and family. It was crushing. About two weeks later, I started having vision problems and was admitted to the hospital again. During that time, when they started more tests, there was a discrepancy between my previous CT scans and the new ones that I was having done. Finally a week after being in the hospital, I got the news that the cancer was in remission and a previous CT scan had been read wrong. So life was different after that. I began doing more things that were for me. I worried less about the “grind” and more about being happy in the moment. Not long after that, the company I worked for sort of collapsed during the recession in 2008. I continued doing freelance art direction but I wasn’t really happy. One day I decided that I should pick up photography again and start shooting, since it made me so happy when I was younger. Before I even began shooting, I always enjoyed the work of Anne Leibovitz. Other’s who have inspired me are probably not surprising…Herb Ritts, Bruce Weber and Mario Testino. And pretty much anyone who was shooting for Rolling Stone, or Interview magazine, back in the ’80’s and ’90’s. I bought a cheap Canon DSLR and I began taking photos of architecture and urban environments in downtown LA. Then I asked a friend if I could take some photos of him just for fun. I was pleasantly surprised with the results. I began asking other friends and some strangers if they would pose for me. From there I was hooked and I became a full-time photographer in 2011.”
With any professional photograph there is much more than snapping the shutter. David knows this so well, having photographed fashion, fitness, fiction book covers, portrait and commissions.
“I had a friend from my advertising days who gave me my first paying job. It was for a company that made iPod accessories…earbuds, mini-speakers and cases. It was a fun shoot but I was extremely nervous… and very relieved when the client said that he loved the images.
LA is a great place to be a photographer. Some of the best models and model agencies are located here. I don’t shoot outside the studio often but when I do the weather is usually great and there are a great variety of locations from beach, desert, mountains, to urban.
My most recent shoot was a test shoot for Wilhelmina LA. When I first started shooting, my only real concern I think was to get good light. Now my goal is to work with the models to bring out something. To see if I can get them to show some emotion, some passion. I want the viewer to be pulled-in and intrigued. I want the viewer to feel that there is something going on in the photograph… that they are seeing more to the model than just their face or body. I want them to feel like they see something more, that the model is sharing something more.
Most ofmy shoots last 2 to 3 hours. It definitely depends on what type of shoot I’m doing. If it’s a book cover, I have very specific direction given to me so it’s all about capturing the feel of the book as described by the client. I love doing book cover shoots. As much as I enjoy having free rein on a shoot, it’s also nice to have clear direction and make it happen. I’m very lucky to work with one of the best book cover illustrators in the country, my longtime friend, Craig White. He has been a highly successful book cover illustrator for over 20 years. And pretty much everything I’ve learned, about the business, is from him. We get general direction from the publisher and then Craig puts his expert eye on the project and helps me bring it to life. For fashions/sportswear “catalog” type shoots it’s all about the product and making sure that the product looks perfect on the model. The image overall has to look great, but in particular it’s capture the product and what makes it unique. For fashion, editorial and fine art it’s about working with the model to bring out some of the personality of the model. Every model is unique and the more they are willing to open up – the more their uniqueness will show. The first thing I do with the model is discuss the wardrobe and what will work, what won’t and how we can put things together. The I usually sit with the model and discuss in person the direction of the shoot and make sure that we are on the same page. Then I start fine-tuning the lighting and we start shooting. My main goal during the shoot is to connect with the model and help them open up, share a bit of their personality with the viewer and to make sure we are fulfilling the goal and direction of the shoot. I do stop a lot during shoots to discuss what is and what isn’t working with the model. I do a fair amount of commissioned fine art shoots and I have clients who want to buy existing work. I love doing commissioned work, it’s a wonderful feeling to discuss what a client wants and then make it happen. If anyone wants to commission a shoot they can email me and we can discuss what they want then I’ll find a way to make it happen.”
A great photograph needs a great photographer, it’s not just about equipment. A great photographer courts success, delivering on his vision.
“I have only one camera. It’s a Canon 5D Mark II. My parents bought me my first camera when I took my first photography class in college. I still have it, it’s a Canon AE-1. I loved it and and so when it was time to buy a DSLR, I chose to stick with Canon. My equipment is simple and limited. I have 3 Alien Bees lights and about 5 or 6 different light modifiers that work with those lights. Most of the time I’m working with one light. That will change though as I grow.”
What I enjoyed most about photography, when I took my first beginners class in college, was that I did it for me and not for anyone else. So I didn’t really care about what others thought about my work. Whether they love it or hated it, was irrelevant. It was mine. Of course now I have clients so I have to be concerned about their feelings and thoughts. But I go into a project feeling that the client has hired me because they like my work. If for some reason they are not happy with what they see, I simply try to better understand what they are looking for. It’s imperative that the client is satisfied. If there is a problem, I’ll fix it and I don’t take it personally.
I don’t want to be discouraging but I think it is difficult to be a professional full-time photographer. I eased into it a bit – continuing to do freelance design while learning about photography. As with most creative fields, there are far more photographers than there is demand. So many people are willing to work for free or far less than they are worth. And it’s difficult to get clients to understand why they should pay a fair rate when they can find someone, with less experience, to shoot it just for the exposure. I went from a very well paid position, a 22 year career in advertising, to starting with nothing but my ideas and my passion. I had very little technical experience, no portfolio and no connections or clients. I really had to change my lifestyle to be able to take that financial cut. But it was worth it. I do finally understand that phrase, “If you do what you love, you’ll never work another day in your life.”
If someone asked me to give them advice about achieving success as a photographer I would say follow your heart and then find the people or clients who appreciate your ideas – rather than trying to modify your work to please people.”
What’s ahead for David?
“I am a freelance photographer and I have no representations right now. I enjoy the way things are working now but I do think that in the near future, to grow, I do need representations. I like the simplicity that this independent working style provides but, to grow, I need to expand this working style. I do not have a team that I work with. It’s usually just the model, myself and a client. I have to admit, I’m a bit of a hermit and feel more comfortable one on one. My goal is to begin reaching out more and working with stylists and makeup artists.
I keep inspired by looking at the infinite amounts of images that are in magazines, books and online. I feel that I’m still new enough at this that there is more flow than ebb at this point… I’ve only been shooting for 4 or 5 years but behind that is over 20 years of dreaming about being a photographer. I’m sure at some point I’ll have some creative block but for now, there is still so much I have not done. One of the beautiful aspects of photography is that there is no end to improvement. Because it’s a creative field there is nothing finite about it.You can always do better. There is always more to learn. Success for me is to be able to create the images that I envision and fulfill my creative passion, then to be able to make money with those images. I like the idea of starting out simply by doing what I want, then finding the market that sees it as worth paying for.
A person can always be more successful than they are and that is very true for me. But for now, I do feel successful because I am fulfilling my dream to be a photographer. This is how I make my living and there is nothing else I would rather do. For me that is achieving success.”