Constant Observer: an interview with photographer Manuel Dominguez, Jr.

Inspiration Jr. Manuel Dominguez photography

This entry has been a long time in the making, but I am happy to finally post this interview with photographer (and my dear friend) Manny Dominguez, Jr. Check out Manny's photography and read on to see what he has to say about his craft.

What sparked your interest in photography initially? When did you decide to pursue photography professionally?

I think I got my interest of photography from my parents. Growing up they always had a camera around, my dad and my mom both always took pictures of birthdays and trips, any kind of family get together. My mom would put together albums and I remember always sneaking away to look through them. There was always an interest in those photographs and the moments they captured. People frozen in time. Relatives that were either in Spain or long dead, came to life, and I think all those photographs and albums really sparked my interest in photography. And to this day I still look at those albums and they are a way of connecting to my family and the past and they still inspire my work today.

In high school I really got into movies and making videos, skate videos, taping hardcore shows, etc., It was really the only thing that could keep my attention at the time, so I decided I should just go to college for filmmaking. My first attempt at college didn't go so well. I didn't like my school or any of the classes really, but I did end up taking a black and white photography class, which was a prerequisite for the film program. The first time I saw a print develop in a tray, I was hooked. I ended up preferring the solitary quality of making photographs, over the group effort needed in making a movie. I could photograph what I wanted, and how I wanted. I didn't have to rely on anyone else but myself. I took the photo, developed the negatives, and printed them all how I wanted. I quit school though and decided to travel a bit and just take photographs on my own. This didn't last very long though.... my parents really urged me to get a degree so after about 2 years of floating around I decided to try to go to school for photography, and ended up going to the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. UArts really changed my perspective on photography and taught me so much about craft and the history of photography and about really thinking about the photographs I was taking. The teachers there were all amazing and inspirational and besides teaching me a lot about photography, they showed me that it was possible to  pursue it professionally. 

Once I graduated from UArts, I started assisting commercial photographers in Philadelphia and New York and met a lot of really amazing people, and through those connections, I was able to support myself as a freelance photographer. All these connections started at UArts, and without them, I would definitely not be in the situation I am in today. 

Also I was lucky to have pursued an internship with a local photographer named Zoe Strauss. I saw some of her work hanging at a coffee shop on South Street and decided to contact her in hopes that she might need an intern. She was super into it. And I have been her "intern" ever since! She's taught me so much over the years, and has been a true inspiration. I feel as though if I had never met and worked with Zoe, I would have left Philadelphia soon after graduation. She really helped me to see Philadelphia in a new way, and a helped make this city my 2nd home.

You've worked as a professional photographer both assisting other well established photographers and shooting products for web-based catalogs AND you have a thriving personal photography practice. Do you feel like there are two different modes of working that you adopt in order to fulfill both your commercial and personal work or does each way of working inform or influence the other?

It is very much two different modes of working. Shooting product is a grind, it is a 9-5 corporate job. It is shooting hundreds of products a week, in a very structured and pre-determined way. There are a lot of challenges though which keeps things interesting and enjoyable but really, I do one in order to be able to do the other. My personal work doesn't pay, so my full time job helps to "fund", if you will, my personal projects. It allows me to take time to travel, to buy film and equipment, which can be very expensive. I don't think one necessarily influences or informs the other. I try to keep them as separate as possible. I don't have the personality to be some big time commercial photographer, so I enjoy having this low key kind of job that lets me be able to create whatever I want to create on my personal time. Being a successful commercial photographer usually entails having a pretty big ego, and having the ability to sell yourself and your craft to others. (I guess the art world can be similar. Haha!) But for me, I'm perfectly fine living under the radar and just making art for myself and for people I am close to. It is great to get noticed and for people to see my work, but promoting myself full time is something I just can't see myself doing. 

The two series available for viewing on your website (OLVIDADO and GONE, WEST) both seem deeply personal and to tell stories, but without the presence of many people. More often we see landscapes and objects, or perhaps animals, in the place of people. Was this a conscious choice? And why?  

There isn't much available on my site currently to look at. I have those 2 projects, and am slowly putting together another more current project. Olvidado was done in 2008 on a trip I took to see my family in Spain and Gone, West was done in 2009 on a trip to see some close friends that had recently moved to California.

I guess the best way of describing my photography is observant. I am constantly looking at things and places and how people interact and live with-in those spaces. So landscapes and objects are a big part of that, pets too. Everything that makes up the world in which my family or friend's live is really exciting to me. Maybe it is just a way of recording things, like my mom's photo albums, taking a small history of the lives of those around me, or the places around me. And of course within all that is just the constant beauty of every day life that really inspires my work. I am always looking, looking at light hitting something, or someone, making photographs in my mind, recording the world around me... it's almost obsessive... I don't think there is a second in a day that I am not visualizing a photograph in my mind. While I can't photograph everything around me, I can, in a sense, photograph a sort of narrative of those worlds with my camera. (Jeez, I hope I don't sound like a maniac!) 

I wish I had the eloquence to write more about how and why I photograph, what I photograph. As you can see by the lack of words and photographs on my website, that I really struggle, not only with describing my work, but also placing my work in a digital world. 

I feel like the internet is such a poor place to put and showcase art. There is no dialogue there. If I could talk with people face to face, it might be easier to talk about my work, but putting it someplace where all anyone can really do is look at it, seems unfair to me. Maybe the culture now is more about looking and "liking" and just tumbling or tweeting something you think is awesome, but why is that awesome? Why does that picture or design, or work of art, why is it awesome to you? I don't think any one cares about that. Most tumblrs or blogs are just images with no meaning, no explanation, and that irks me a little. I am interested in both the surface of something, but also the story behind it. Right?

I know you have a penchant for older, analog technologies as opposed to newer digital methods as evidenced by both your photography and record collecting. What are your "go to" cameras? Do you feel very political about shooting film over digital? 

I don't feel very political about shooting film over digital. Shooting film is just a personal choice for me. I was lucky enough to get into photography when film was still the industry standard. So I am just more comfortable shooting film. 

Digital photography makes everything instant, it sort of diminishes that craft of photography, which is something I am still very interested in. Keeping that craft alive. I mix my own chemicals, develop my film by hand, print my own prints, and matte and frame my prints. Just like how I was taught in school. My website is pretty bare because I still struggle with presenting my work in a digital world.

RIght now I am shooting with an old 8x10 view camera. (Her name is Mildred.)  It is a camera that really makes you slow down, she is heavy, takes time to set up, and each sheet of film costs about $5 (plus the cost of processing and printing those negatives), so you really have to think about what you are shooting and how you are shooting. It is quite different than digital or smaller format cameras that have instantaneous results, with those cameras you are able to shoot a lot and edit on the spot....delete what you don't like, adjust if the exposure is wrong, etc., but with large format, you need to think before you shoot. You slow yourself down and really look at the world differently. You have to really see light and take time to compose the photograph before you make the exposure. Which is really perfect for me. I think my pace in this world is much slower than everyone else's, where I'm not in a rush to shoot and get things seen on the internet. I'm not trying to make a living from my art work so that intense drive to be seen or get noticed doesn't really matter to me. Right now I have the ability to shoot when I want, and how I want, and work on things in my own time. 

A few years ago the big question that seemed to divide the photography community was film or digital, but now the hot topic seems to be how technologies like the iPhone has made the possibility of taking a "cool" photograph so much easier and faster than analog photography and film. As an iPhone user, where does your opinion fall on this matter? Do you think iPhone photography will have serious ramifications on the photography industry as a whole?

I do have an iPhone, and am really amazed with the quality of the camera and the ease with which you can take a photograph in any situation. And with Instagram now, it even puts photography in the realm of social networking, so people are communicating and connecting with photographs which I think is awesome. It emphasizes, for the most part, all  the important aspects of photography. People now take time to compose photographs and look at light and how it effects what they are photographing, instead of just pointing at something and taking its picture without much thought. I think in the long run it will really help elevate photography even further because it brings more people into photography, and the language of photography. 

Changes in technology in photography, whether it was the Kodak Brownie camera, or Polaroid, or the simplicity of digital cameras and iPhones, and photo apps, really democratizes photography. These advances take what was really an expensive and time consuming hobby for the well off, and makes it so that anybody can take a picture and make something really beautiful. 

Who or what inspires your photography? If you could travel to your dream destination or photograph your dream subject tomorrow, where/who/what would that be?

I think if I could be any where in the world photographing anything I wanted to, I would be in Spain.... specifically Galicia, where my family is from. There is something so magical about that place and the people that [it] constantly inspires me. 

(All photographs here within are copyright of Manuel Dominguez, Jr.- all images copyright ©2012 M. Dominguez Jr. / All Rights Reserved)

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