An Interview with Photographer Dan Dion
Dan Dion is a San Francisco photographer known for his portraiture of the world's most famous comedians. He has also served as the house photographer at the Fillmore Auditorium for a number of years and his work has been featured in publications such as Newsweek, Rolling Stone, Playboy, Spin, Entertainment Weekly, and Esquire, as well as on a variety of album and DVD artwork.
In 2010 Dan published his first book, iSATIRISTAS!, featuring portraits and interviews, in collaboration with comic and filmmaker Paul Provenza, the director behind The Aristocrats. Learn more about Dan Dion and the art of photography in our interview below.
Where did you study the art of photography?
I began working in a portrait studio when I was 18. Our primary business was senior portraiture, and I did everything from edit, to sales, to prepping the kids for their shoot. Then the owner started to teach me about lighting, posing, working a medium-format camera, etc. I worked there every summer during college, and kept my part-time jobs during school in the industry- I worked at labs and studios. Many years later, after I'd been a professional photographer for many years, I went to the Academy of Art in San Francisco to get my MFA and truly learn the art.
How did you get started as a portrait photographer of comedians?
I was working on-staff at the Holy City Zoo in SF, and when the comics heard that I was a photographer, they started asking me to shoot their head-shots. Most comedian head-shots at the time were very generic, and my style was a rebellion against that.
Who did you most want to photograph and what was the experience like when you did photograph them?
I'd always wanted to shoot Steve Martin, and finally got the chance to a few years ago. I've shot hundreds of big-time comics and musicians, but I will cop to being just a bit starstruck. I think this was because I was such a fanboy as a kid. He had this palpable elegance to him that was just amazing.
Has anyone been a particular influence on your work?
The late, great Jim Marshall was a kind of mentor to me. He truly was the greatest photographer of musicians in the world, and just so happened to live in San Francisco. He got tons of young photographers coming to him asking for advice, but for some reason he liked me and my work. But we didn't talk technique. He taught me that in the world of celebrity photography, if you're lucky enough to have access to the most amazing talent in the arts, that the key is trust. If they trust you, you're given keys to the kingdom. Betray it and the drawbridge is raised and you will be fed to the alligators.
How did you become the house photographer at San Francisco’s Fillmore Auditorium?
When I heard that they were restoring it, I approached them about shooting the work going in to it. (But what I really wanted was to shoot shows there once it reopened.) That was my foot in the door and everything progressed from there.
Who are some of your favorite current artists?
Maria Bamford! She's doing some of the most unique comedy ever. Perpetual favorites include Dana Gould, Greg Proops, Doug Stanhope, Patton Oswalt, Jim Jefferies, Paul Mooney, and of course, Stephen Colbert.
What is the best way for an aspiring photographer to find success?
Find a niche and shoot like mad. If you love classic cars, shoot that. If you're into nature, shoot wildlife, etc. It's good to be able to shoot anything that someone wants to hire you for, but if you're just a generalist it's much harder to make a name for yourself.
What is your favorite genre of book to read?
I'm all over the place with books. I like humor, but not really the typical stuff that comedians put out. I'm reading a great collection of humor curated by Judd Apatow right now. I recently went on a tear reading everything by Steinbeck. And I'm a parent so I found Po Bronson's book Nurture Shock to be incredibly insightful.
What recent publication have you been most excited to read?
I read Steve Martin's Born Standing Up which was excellent and illuminating on his history, but I wish he'd dealt more with the reasons why he quit, or more to the point, explain why he's never really done stand-up again.
What do you think the role of public libraries is (or should be) in a community?
I'd like to see them taken more seriously as centers for thought and idea sharing. People think of them as these solitary citadels, but many of them have great classes and discussion groups as well. And of course, I firmly believe they should all have ten copies of my book ¡SATIRISTAS!
Photo credit: Dan Dion
Brighid Gonzales is a Brisbane Library intern and library student.