Dan Estabrook interview (2011)
From the Diffusion archive (volume III) -- my Q&A with Dan Estabrook about his artwork, teaching, and print processes.
Blue Mitchell: Where did you grow up and where do you currently reside?
Dan Estabrook: I was born and raised in Boston, MA, but have been in Brooklyn NY for 15 years now. It absolutely feels like home.
BM: Can you tell me a little about your background and what brought you to the arts?
DE: Well, I grew up drawing from about as far back as I can remember. I think I was always an arty kid, and even took after-school classes at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts through high school. I also had a skateboarding ‘zine and was really into my own homegrown design ideas. I even started doing a little photography then. When I went to college I took my artistic interests for granted and decided to study almost anything else—archaeology, classics, or something academic like that. That idea lasted about a week.
BM: Have there been any mentors that have played a significant part in your artist growth?
DE: I wouldn’t be the artist I am today if I hadn’t met Christopher James in my first week at Harvard. I stumbled into his Photography class and that was that... Even from the beginning, Christopher taught how to work and think like an artist, and his very expansive ideas about what Photography could be opened me up to the work I do still.
BM: Can you describe the process you use to arrive at your current body of work “At Sea”, both technically and philosophically?
DE: For some time I have been pursuing ways to combine my photographic interests with other things like sculpture, drawing, and painting. As I thought more about painting I knew I wanted to start adding watercolor to my salt prints, and something about that combination struck me—water + salt = the sea.... The few early images I had begun with fit nicely with this idea of being “At Sea.” It’s the beginning of an adventure, as well as a term for being lost. Ever since making that small group of “Nine Symptoms” I felt I was better able to work in a dreamier, or slightly more surreal mode, whereby images would come to me more in dreams, with less sense but more meaning perhaps. Having such a resonant theme as “At Sea”—a nice combination of concept and method—allowed those sorts of images to arise more fully on their own.
BM: When working on projects do you tend to focus on one series at a time or are your projects happening concurrently?
DE: There are always a few projects circling around each other at once, but generally, the ideas overlap as I work on them together. From time to time, there are also pieces that just belong somewhere else, either later pieces that are part of an earlier series or brand-new things that precede a body of work I haven’t even thought of yet. I try not to make series so complete that pieces from each cannot be shown with others. Since the contexts and ideas intertwine, new groupings make new stories.
BM: I’m quite fond of your image Five Fingers. Did this image come to you in a dream?
DE: Sort of... I had kept the candle stubs on my studio desk for years since they always looked like the tips of fingers to me, but I was never quite sure how to make a piece of them. As I was cramming to finish work for my At Sea show, I found myself exhausted, thinking about all the “sea” puns and metaphors as I fell asleep one night. I suddenly realized those five fingers were “waving” goodbye, and I just had to get up out of bed to finish the piece.
BM: You also teach photography at the Center for Alternative Photography and F295. What would one of your intensive workshops cover?
DE: Usually, I teach processes and techniques - the Salt Print, or Gum Bichromate, or a variety of others. However, I am getting more interested in having a discussion about the wherefores and not just the how-tos. I’ll be trying a version of this at the Center for Photography at Woodstock this Summer, in a class about Photography and Memory. Also, I’ve been lucky enough to teach a few 8-week concentrated courses at the Penland School of Crafts in North Carolina, where I get to help the students build a body of alternative-process work through intensive critiques, but there we have the rare luxury of time.
BM: Many of your images are framed uniquely with what looks like oval windows, is this a nod to historical photography?
DE: Absolutely. The oval mats and other shapes are a direct reference to book illustrations, like the photos in medical texts, and I almost always use an older style of frame for each piece. I want a viewer’s first reaction to be one of wonder—Is this a found photograph? An old thing, lost and rediscovered?
BM: I feel a sense of nostalgia and historic references when viewing your work, which to me makes them seem timeless. Is this the intent?
DE: I have this idea that one of the basic ideas of my work—the way we look back at history and mostly just see ourselves—is an idea that only strengthens with time. The more time passes, the more deeply felt that idea of loss and misdirected nostalgia. I suppose I’d rather not that my work seems timeless, but so stuck in the stream of time as to be just another part of the landscape.
Dan Estabrook was born and raised in Boston, where he studied art at city schools and the Museum of Fine Arts. He discovered photography in his teens through the underground magazines of the punk-rock and skateboarding cultures of the 1980′s. As an undergraduate at Harvard, he began studying alternative photographic processes with Christopher James. In 1993, after receiving an MFA from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, Dan continued working and teaching in Illinois, Boston, and Florida, eventually settling in Brooklyn, New York.
Dan has continued to make contemporary art using the photographic techniques and processes of the nineteenth century, with forays into sculpture, painting, drawing and other works on paper. He has exhibited widely and has received several awards, including an Artist’s Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1994. A documentary on Dan and his work were produced in 2009 for Anthropy Arts’ Photographers Series. He is represented by the Catherine Edelman Gallery in Chicago.
This interview originally published in Diffusion volume III. 2nd POD edition now available in the Marketplace.