Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Dan McCormack, Fine Art Photographer

Dan McCormack, Fine Art Photographer 

Not Just Another Pretty Picture 

Sometimes a wacky stunt will confirm the course of a lifetime.

In Chicago, in 1968, Dan McCormack was a recent college grad.  He had studied with Aaron Siskind, Joe Jachna and Wyn Bullock at the institute of Design and graduated in ‘67.  He had enrolled in the MFA program at the Art Institute where Barbara Crane was a big influence. So his interest in photography was serious and he was taking it seriously.  However, Dan McCormack did not want to take himself too seriously.

It was summer. He heard about a love-in: 50,000 hippies. He was a puppy photographer, heading for something.

Dan McCormack is telling me this story over the phone.  His voice, naturally rather high, gets thinner and higher.  It is almost as if he is a kid again, and he still cannot get over how it happened.

He decided to go, but not just go, but go and be noticed. So he went to a store that sold Styrofoam and bought a cylinder that was 8 inches around and 8 feet long.  When he got to the park where the love-in was happening, he sat down and put the 8-foot long Styrofoam cylinder between his legs.

Here Dan pauses in his tale, perhaps just to remember, or perhaps to make sure I get the image.

A young woman, Wendy, sees his “display” and comes over. She is an artist’s model. He tells her he is a photographer. She tells him she models in the nude. He tells her he has never photographed the nude. “I’ll teach you,” she says. As he writes in his internet bio:

At the Art Institute of Chicago around 1969, I began photographing the nude with Wendy, my wife, and I began making multiple image prints. Then for over thirty years, I explored various techniques and processes while photographing the nude as a central theme.[i]

Over the years, McCormack worked with all types of cameras and films. In 1998, he started shooting with the pinhole camera.  He develops black and white images. After he scans the results into Photoshop, he “pulls curves” to colorize the image.


At a day’s shoot, McCormack sets up 15 pinhole cameras and takes a two minute exposure with each one, one at a time.  So a photo session generally takes 2-3 hours. At the end of a shoot, he may have one or two usable images, but he does not find that out until he gets to the darkroom.  The extreme wide angle and distortion means that even the initial results are always a surprise.  “I love the surprises. I think I know the best shot,” he says, “but often the best shot is something else.”

We talked about Sara_C_8-19-05—6DG, a highly colorized print. McCormack was teaching a photography workshop at the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts in August 2005. He was staying at a bed and breakfast inn that had an intriguingly decorative marble sink with multiple mirrors.  He wanted to have fun with the marble and get Sara in the mirrors without having her in the picture.  This was very tricky and it took a half-hour to set up the shot. As it turned out, the best result was not quite what he had envisioned. He pointed out that in addition to Sara in the mirrors, this image includes a profile of her breast coming in on the lower right.

McCormack explained the reference system he uses to title his work: model’s name, Sara C.; date of shoot, 8-19-05; film negative number, 6 (of the 15 shots); and finally, pulling curves in Photoshop and saving them within two sequences of multiple steps, DG, meaning the 4th step in the first sequence and the 7th step in the second. Based on the reference title of the work, McCormack can always locate the exact version of an image stored on his computer.

I asked McCormack about Sarah_M_5-08-09—4BC which I found to be one of his most surreal images. He laughs:
That was in the Unison Sculpture Garden in New Paltz.  We had gone to McDonald’s and they were giving out happy smiles on sticks as a promotion. So I took the photo with the model standing next to the sculpture of an eye, and she bent over and held the smile up behind her butt.
Dan McCormack has another irreverent piece, very popular, which was selected by five curators (in the period before we changed the rules and began retiring artworks from competition after three selections).  He calls it Lupe_8-07-07—8CD. I would call it “Lupe Gives a Finger.” Lupe is not the model’s real name.  She was a student at Marist College, where Dan has taught for 24 years, and heads the Photography program. The shoot was on a friend’s property and she came with her boyfriend and a huge bottle of wine. It was a class demonstration shoot. She was very nervous. She got so drunk, she could not drive home.


In Helen_W_4-27-08—7BB, the image is less colorized. Here McCormack mentioned that he likes to center the model in the frame but in this case, the model is pushed to the side and her shadow has taken center stage.  This was taken on Worldwide Pinhole Photography Day at the Barrett Art Center workshop in Poughkeepsie, NY.

Lately, McCormack has been working with a much more subdued palette.  AllisonFay_C_3-18-13—11AD is part of his “Nude at Home” series. Here, he thought he would not get anything at all. After shooting Allison from below, he decided to try shooting from above her. As usual, the exposure was 2 minutes. At 1 minute 45 seconds, her cat came over and rubbed against the tripod, bumping it. Usually movement of any kind is a problem for the pinhole camera, but in this case, the bump made no apparent difference.

Another image in the “Nude at Home” series is Bridget_L_5-20-12—14AD.  In this shot, at her home in Rhinebeck, NY, he intended the duality of the image in the mirror and in front of the camera. McCormack knew Bridget as his student at SUNY, New Paltz, and later as a model and friend.

Bridget_L_5-20-12--14AD  Robbie_J_4-27-14---10AD
Robbie_J_4-27-14—10AD is another in the series of “Nudes at Home.” This time it is a mansion in Poughkeepsie, NY. He noted, “Often the model is a co-conspirator in these shoots.”

Robbie was holding what McCormack described as a contraption that “seemed magical.”  She stood in front of the open double door. He explained that the doorknobs were so high, that Robbie looked small.  “Like something out of Alice in Wonderland,” he added.

Holding the contraption motionless in one hand at arm’s length for a two-minute exposure, making 15 attempts to get a usable image without a blur, and succeeding --- well, maybe that is a bit of magic.

More About Dan McCormack

 [i] http://www.danmccormack.net/pin2dig.html
  ©All images copyright Dan McCormack