Dave Black - Photography Takes Us to Places that Other People Don't Go

I took a photography class in college to fulfill a graphic design major. That sort of sparked my interest in photography. I think the cameras that were issued to the class were Mamiya Secors, like a TL-500 or something. But for my entire career I’ve used Nikon cameras.

The instructor, who was also the department head, encouraged me to come in each week. He said, 'I’ll give you film and lab time. I just want you to stay interested, because I just think you have a lot of potential to be a really good photographer.' So the spark for me was probably the interest that a teacher showed to me. He extended himself on his own time. He was a great guy, and he kept my interest going.

In 1980 I took an offer to be the official photographer for the US Gymnastics teams. I decided to step away from coaching the sport and become a full-time photographer. There weren’t that many photographers who were making a living at it.

I started doing some things for Sports Illustrated, and Sports Illustrated was very big on lighting. The quality of film in the 1980’s was not that great. The highest ISO was 800 or maybe 1600 if we pushed it. It was awful, but that was the pinnacle of the industry. To raise the quality, I brought in lighting. It sort of raised the bar for a lot of other sports photographers. I raised the bar. They raised the bar. I raised the bar. They raised the bar. And I here I am today.

Affect on your life

My Olympic involvement took me overseas. That’s something that really helped develop my character, and personality in some ways. I would go away and do a world championships in track and field in preparation for the Olympic Games, and I’d be gone for two weeks. I’d come home for a week, and then I’d go to Melbourne, Australia for two weeks to cover the World Swimming Championships. I was constantly experiencing foreign cultures, different cities, different people.

I think going to Russia a couple times was really a giant eye-opener. I’m 61, so I grew up in the Cold War era. I would have never guessed I’d be in the basement of the Kremlin in a gift store buying my wife and my daughter a gift. Did it have something to do with photography? Yes, in the sense that it was the vehicle that got me places. That’s the cool thing about photography; it takes you and I to places that other people don’t go. And that, in and of itself, is such an extraordinary feeling that makes you feel alive.

On your family

My daughter is a photographer. Go figure. I actually always thought she would have ended up as a photo editor. She had this ability from a very young age—like 8 or 9 years old—where she would come in and survey all the slides out on the light table. I’d say, 'Well, Haley, why don’t you pick out the cover for me.’ She’d say, ‘I need the loop.’ Haha! She would bare down on the slide transparency. She’d say, ‘This one right here.’ She would pick the same one that I would pick—and very often—the same one the editors would pick.

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It became part of my daily thinking and business around 1998-99. Advertising photographers used it to do small things—wine glasses, bottles for a company. It was usually done with a fiber optic product called the Hosemaster. It had a dreadful color of light, so you had to filtrate the light. I owned one for a year, then I sold it. I wanted to be free and emancipated from plugging it into the wall.

I started searching for LED lights, and I began doing more portable light paintings. My graphics design—art—background lent itself well to combine with photography and light painting was the end result. It was this artistic expression of light far different than what strobes, speedlights, or arena lighting could produce.

I like creating things that others are not creating. That’s what lighting does for you; it sets you apart from the rest of the pack. 

Favorite image

The picture was centered around the US captain, a fellow named Kevin Barnett. It became the first digital 'leading off' for Sports Illustrated. It changed the minds of the photo editors at Sports Illustrated—Jimmy Colten and Steve Fine. It changed their thinking on what digital could do.

Early believer in digital

The screen on the back of the camera was a mere postage stamp size. And it was the marvel of the millennium.

At the 2000 Olympics I was just raked over the coals by all of my colleagues. Great names in the industry were openly criticizing me as a traitor. I walked into the women’s 100m finals, and there’s 300 photographers all ganged up for the finish line and I walked in to ‘Traitor!’ ‘Benedict Arnold!’

It was ruthless. I said, ‘I’m telling you guys, you’re all going to be singing from the same choir very very shortly here.’ Things were published, and I got some very nice apologies.

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Study the great ones. Study the young ones.

Somebody asked me the other day what the pros and cons are of digital. I said, ‘Well, I think sometimes digital makes us walk away satisfied too quickly.’ Don’t be that satisfied too quickly. Work the situation.  

The pro is that today, great minds can pick up a camera—great creative minds—who maybe wouldn’t have picked up a camera 20-30 years ago because of manual focus, manual ISO, manual exposure, and manual lighting. Thus, we as the public never got to see what maybe was going on inside their mind. Now, we get to see what they are thinking. There are a lot of photographers my age who say, ‘Ah, well, when I got into photography, I had to walk 6 miles to get a decent exposure.' Haha! I applaud the whole digital revolution.

Be sure to visit Dave’s wonderfully insightful Workshop at the Ranch articles on his website www.daveblackphotography.com.