Watch Out For San Francisco Photographer, Douglas Despres
Have you always been into photography? Have you had professional training, or has it just always been a passion?
I haven’t always been interested in photography, but I did seem to have a visual interest in the world. I dipped in and out of photography through the years and then, when I took a photo class as a second year student in university, I was hooked. I instantly changed my major and got my degree in photography from there. The talent wasn’t amazing, but the fun was, and that’s where the decision to be a photographer came from. I was also a staff photographer at a daily paper called The Oracle, and interned at what was then the Maine Photographic Workshops in Rockport, Maine.
When did you pick up your first camera and what was it? What models do you like to use now?
The first camera I picked up was a little blue and yellow Fisher Price camera when I was maybe five or six. It was a toy that took no actual photos, but it did have a viewfinder and shutter button, so you could practice framing and timing. Other beginners cameras all shot film and involved old school methods with oddly shaped cassettes. I also had a Polaroid camera that I trained on a woolly mammoth illustration from National Geographic. The first camera that I could control was a slick Canon Rebel 2000. After that, I spent 12 years photographing with manual Nikon FM2 cameras, one with a nostalgic broken light meter. Nowadays, I enjoy using a Contax 645, Mamiya C330, and I’m saving for a fully mechanical film Leica for my documentary projects.
How would you describe your photographic style? Has it changed over the years?
The photographic style that I most identify with is documentary. Being able to create images for my own projects or a commission, where I can float and capture the story or the natural state of things, is how I love to work. It’s so challenging because most of the elements are out of your control, so using all of your experience and effort is the only way to make consistently successful images. When I started, I was growing up in a small town in Southern New Hampshire and loved the woods, mountains and nature, so that was my first subject. As time went on, anything to do with people became much more interesting and challenging to me, so that’s where most of my focus shifted.
Which photographers, or indeed artists, have inspired you?
I’ve been inspired by so many talented people out there. For photography, Sebastiao Salgado reigns supreme for me. What he achieves in both content and image design is near mythological. I also love the work of many of the great golden age American and European masters such as Sergio Larrain, Andre Kertesz, Irving Penn, Josef Koudelka, Walker Evans, Paul Strand, Diane Arbus, and Robert Frank.
Do you have a favourite photograph from your oeuvre? If so, why?
I have a few that come to mind, but the current image that I enjoy the most is one that I took while on a trip with Katherine and her family to Popham Beach in Maine. The tide was in and there was this really long underwater sandbar that stretched out towards the depths of the Atlantic. I figured out what it was after looking in disbelief for a moment, because it appeared as if people were either walking on the water, or very near to it. There is this surreal energy to it, and most of all, it keeps me in perpetual interest. That’s the biggest thing for me – which is an echo from many other photographers – that if a photo can keep its interest through the years, if you can live with it for a long time, then it’s a strong photograph.
Is there an emerging American photographer we should be following?
Hmm, lowering my own hand [laughs]. I think you would all know more of the emerging talents than me. Maybe an Instagram star or someone highlighted on the NY Times Lens Blog? Also, photographers associated with the VII Photo Agency or Magnum are always amazing talents. Verve Photo and Burn are great talent resources as well.
How has living in the San Francisco Bay area affected your photographic philosophy?
I think it’s great to be in the San Francisco area for photography. There are so many talented image-makers and artists here, that it really pushes you to do great work. If you travel or move to a smaller town after making it in San Francisco, I think you’d find the game much easier. For philosophy, it hasn’t changed me much. I still like to photograph the same types of things, maybe with a few more drops of interest in travel and lifestyle. One thing about the city that is so great is how many incredible happenings occur there every year. Everyday you could find something amazing to photograph, especially when the festivals and eclectic celebrations, which the city is known for, are on.
You enjoy volunteering and working with NGOs in your spare time. Tell us a bit more about these?
Yes, I love working for causes that are near and dear to both other people and myself. It is all so real and, most of all, it is valued and important for the people involved. You don’t always get that with commissions for other genres, so it’s really fantastic with these ones. I can totally be myself and interact on an human level.
What’s the best kept secret of San Francisco?
Hmm, that’s a hard question. My first instinct is to say nothing, to ensure it is kept as a secret, but if I’d like to help a person or business, then I’d have to say the heavenly Princess Cake made by Miette in the San Francisco Ferry building. It’s green and crafted by magic elves. I believe they advise a short life span of a few days, but believe me, you can let it dance on your taste buds for about two weeks with refrigeration.
The best restaurant in the San Francisco Bay area?
So far, La Ciccia in North Beach is the favorite. Crazy good Sardinian wonders.
The best art gallery in the San Francisco Bay area?
I happened to walk into the San Francisco Art Exchange at 458 Geary St. one day after photographing the dear Arias family near downtown. Many wonderful film images were there by the music photography icon, Jim Marshall. Another gallery that I’ve read great press about is the Fraenkel Gallery, but I’ve yet to visit it. My favorite in the Bay area so far though, is the Weston Gallery in downtown Carmel. If I’m headed to a photoshoot in Big Sur and have extra time, I try to stop in there often. Looking at original prints from the Weston family, Imogen Cunningham, Ansel Adams, Ruth Bernard, and Michael Kenna, among others, overwhelms my photo senses. To see that a framed print of Edward Weston is chipped and imperfect, gives a nice feeling about my own frames [laughs]. Finally, I am starting up my own gallery here at 1242 Park Street Suite B in Alameda, which will promote the fine art documentary tradition with personal and collective artist shows and gatherings. Exciting things are coming for that one!
Have you had any artistic disappointments in your career? If so, how did you fight them?
[Laughs] I love this question. Every week I have disappointments, but everyday I have achievements. I fight with harder work, hope and optimism. The single hardest moment though, was when I was having a tough time surviving as a photographer in Boston. I decided to sell all of my cameras and photography books and forget the photographic life, which felt like losing the world to me. Luckily, my long-time love Katherine wouldn’t let me do it. She continues to be my most steadfast ally in my creative adventures today.
What is the best piece of creative advice you have ever received? Who was it from?
‘Do or do not, there is no try’: Yoda from Steven Spielberg’s Star Wars, from my childhood television.
Henry Miller wrote 11 work schedule commandments in his book, Henry Miller on Writing. Number 7 is ‘Keep human! See people, go places, drink if you feel like it’. Do you have a particular morning routine or way of working which helps you to create?
The only way to create good work that will stand the test of time is to have either a peace in my pace – letting my mind see and turn things around towards art in the viewfinder of the camera – or a flurry of movement and high octane, where I’m racing along in the thick of the event. Contrasts suit me. Also, I’ve found over and over that if you are invited to stay later, or to another gathering with your subjects, go. Magic will happen. Trust is huge within my work. Caffeine and loud music seem to help while editing and brainstorming. Oh, and I always try to leave one or two shots on the roll while walking back after a shoot – so many times there is a random amazing scene that you wouldn’t have been able to dream of, and with that extra frame, you can feather it into your camera.
Douglas is one of the winners of The Culture Trip’s California Local Favorite 2015 Award. The Local Favorite badge is awarded to our favorite local towns, restaurants, artists, galleries, and everything in between. We are passionate about showcasing popular local talents on a global scale, so we have cultivated a carefully selected, but growing community.
Interview by Isabelle Pitman