Since the start of his career, Dmitri Daniloff has proven his ability to get a reaction. But don’t think all he can do is shock. “One of the very first pictures I shot was a girl rolled up in barbed wire,” he says. “So I was already kind of weird.”
The surreal image he concocted for PlayStation began as an idea with no story. Because he had a long and productive relationship with the ad agency, he kneaded the raw concept into narrative shape. Daniloff’s final product stands as an homage to the crowded college apartment.
He worked with largely dancers in this image. Ironically, the photographer most interested in bodily distortion does his best work with not models but modern dancers, people incredibly comfortable in and expressive with their bodies. Even more unusual in an age of Photoshop and highly produced shoots, he uses a very minimalist approach based more on content then extravagant post-production techniques. “Some photographers base their style on a particular kind of light. For me it’s a little bit reversed,” he says. “In [the featured image] the idea was to have one side window and one lamp. So you have this kind of balance between the warm light from the inside of the room and then a cold light coming from the window. For every single picture the [lighting] depends on the mood that I want to create.” In this case Daniloff lit the set with four Profoto heads, each attached to 2400 w/s packs. There is one head with no reflector illuminating the background to the far back left of the camera position, one head with a standard reflector off to camera left, one head attached to a 3’ x 4’ soft box to camera right, and finally a ring flash attached to the camera itself. He created the final image using a composite of multiple exposures of the talent in various positions. Each exposure was captured on a Hasselblad 555ELD with a 40mm lens and a Phase One H25 digital back. The exposure was 1/250th of a second at F/16 on a setting of 50 ISO.
Even if the approach is unconventional, it has paid off; the featured image won the grand prize at Cannes in addition to a host of other awards. Success, though, has only made Daniloff more innovative. “I need to work a lot by myself to renew myself,” he says. “Clients were calling me expecting the same thing [I’d] been doing with Playstation. If I did that all the time, then people will be like ‘It’s boring. He’s always doing the same thing.’
Here, Daniloff bucks the conventional wisdom once more, innovating and evolving in an American market where photographers with an identifiable style are told to stick to their niche in order to maintain their brand. “If I don’t change in the next five years or ten years I won’t be able to be on the top,” he says. “To stay on top means to change and to renew your style.”
Even his personal work is inextricably linked with the notion of transformation. In the future he hopes to shoot plastic surgery to better understand what fundamental need drives people to change their appearance. “In my latest picture I had these porcelain dolls with broken faces. I’m very curious about fragility and the limits of the body. It’s easier to change your body than your soul,” he reflects. “It’s less painful.”
F STOP: Please walk me through the creation of our featured image.
Daniloff: Most of the time you work with an agency for advertising work and they come up with a concept. I’ve been working with this agency for four years and have done about fifteen shoots for them. It’s quite a strong relationship. They call me and send me concepts and then ask me which ones I like. They came up with the layout of mixed bodies, but there was no story. It was more about the idea itself than telling a story. Most of the time I try to bring a story to the concept because the special effects themselves are not that interesting. It’s more about where it takes place and the way you bring all these characters together. Why are they together? What kind of characters they are? In this photo I based the story in a one-bedroom student apartment, the kind of place where you would have a little party with all your friends and drink a beer. This is why the agency called me. They don’t only want special effects, but a little story around the concept. The fact that we are in a very realistic situation, with this very simple light, makes it even more real than if you have a perfect apartment with very clean walls. That would be too clinical and obviously not real.
F STOP: How much freedom did you have with this? Did they have every gesture and movement and position sketched out, or did they leave it up to you?
F STOP: That’s great. That is rare.
Daniloff: It doesn’t happen all the time. It is specific to this agency because we’ve been working together for four years in a row. There is trust between us. The guy on the bottom left with the mowhawk is my assistant. He has appeared in three or four Playstation campaigns because he’s my assistant on photo shoot, so most of the time I like to have him in the picture. In terms of casting, I asked to work with girls who were dancers. I wanted to work with people who had flexible bodies, so I could give them weird, extreme poses. The two girls were dancers, but not the guys.
F STOP: Were they photographed on location in this apartment, or separately in a studio?
Daniloff: No, it’s actually a real shot in a studio. I actually built the set higher than it should have been. The floor was three feet off the ground with a hole in the carpet. People were able to stand inside the hole. Part of the picture is real. The three people in the middle and the guy on the right were all in the same shot. You can’t tell about any kind of post-production between the three male models, because there is no post-production on that. They were really in the set and in the middle of the apartment, same for the guy on the right. One thing which makes the picture more realistic is that basically every single person was already in the spot when I shot them. For me it’s very important to visualize the picture in advance. The hand sticking out from his mouth or the hair and the little girl in front came later.
F STOP: Much of your work seems to be in the same vein as this image. Photographing people and body parts seems to be a large component of what you do. A lot of your ad campaigns and other work deal with people with missing body parts or extra body parts or some kind of amalgamation of that. How did you get involved in doing that type of work?
Daniloff: One of the very first pictures I shot was a girl rolled up in barbed wire, so I was already kind of weird. I’m very attracted by body transformation. Even plastic surgery. I want to film plastic surgery for personal work. Just to try to understand why people are doing that and why. I’m doing kind of plastic surgery in my work, but not in the regular way. In my latest picture I had these porcelain dolls with broken faces. I’m very curious about fragility and the limits of the body. I think you can do a lot of things to the body, but not to your mind. It’s easier to change your body than your soul or your mind. It’s less painful.
F STOP: Tell me more about working with dancers it seems like you really enjoy working with them.
Daniloff: Most of the dance that I like is more like Modern. When you’re working with modern dancers they have just a conscious understanding of how to move. I worked with dancers in the AIDS TV commercial, not because they were supposed to dance, but because they move very naturally. It doesn’t look like they are dancers. They are deeply conscious of their body and have a very natural way of moving. It’s not natural at all, it’s just that they’re so conscious about having the shoulder slightly higher up, or the way they stand. It gives a different feeling to the picture.
F STOP: If given the choice, would you prefer to work with a dancer instead of a model?
Daniloff: Yes. With a dancer you can ask them to do things that they are not used to and they will try it. When you work with your body everyday and someone asks you to do a split, it’s not a problem for a dancer. However, a model who is not trained for that sort of thing will have a problem.
F STOP: You might need to get extra insurance!
F STOP: Do you have a technique for shooting bodies or skin?
Daniloff: I’m not a fashion photographer, but I shoot like fashion. The way I treat skin on every single picture is very important to me. I always have a make up artist and hair stylist. Even if you are not shooting fashion, I think it is important for the skin to be glossy and shiny. In all my pictures you can almost touch the picture and feel the skin. It’s important to me to have this kind of appealing touch. When you are shooting something strange it’s important to have a balance between something weird, which is the idea, and something that people are used to seeing. When they see glamorous or shiny skin they think about fashion before special effects. It’s just a way to keep people away from special effects and give them a different approach to the picture.
F STOP: How do you achieve that in your lighting?
Daniloff: I don’t have a special light. For me the light depends on the mood. Some photographers base their style on a particular kind of light. For me it’s a little bit reversed. I light according to the mood I am working in. In this one, for example, the idea was to have one side window and one lamp. Basically, that’s the whole light. So you have this kind of balance between the warm light from the inside of the room and then a cold light coming from the window that could be just like on the right. And for every single picture that I have it depends on the mood that I want to create in the picture. Sometimes I only shoot with one flash. Like my Mr. Potato Head image, this one had only one light, one single flash, nothing around, no accessories–nothing. It did it because it’s part of the mood that I wanted to have–something quite cold and not very personal.
Daniloff: Obviously the light has a little bit of impact, but the make up itself already gives the smoothness of the skin. You can also clean up the skin in retouching afterwards.
F STOP: Do you ever have difficulty getting talent to open up for the camera when they are wearing something revealing or nothing at all? Do you have any techniques to get them to open up?
Daniloff: It happens. Most of the time people know what they are coming to shoot. It’s important for them to know. Mostly when you have this kind of picture they need to know what they are coming for. When I have a problem it is usually because someone is the wrong person.
F STOP: And what do you do in that case?
Daniloff: Try to find someone else on the set.
F STOP: Like your assistant.
Daniloff: Yes. On one shoot we spent the whole day working with someone that was approved by the agency and client, but at the end of the day I was not happy. I looked at the art director and said, “Look, do you mind if I shoot with my assistant because I think it would be great,” That ended up being the final shot because everybody realized that he was much better than the cast that we had.
F STOP: A lot of your work is obviously fantasy based. I mean, you don’t see people with detached or third legs walking around the street too often. How did you get involved with this kind of fantasy based photography?
Daniloff: I guess because of the first pictures that I had in my book. At the time I was not able to afford much post-production, so I was a little bit more simple. No special effects, but the mood would be weird. For this kind of post-production you need to have quite a strong team. I now work with model makers doing real special effects and heavy post-production. When you’re just starting out you can’t afford to have that. It’s way too expensive. One of my first stories was a very old woman, like eighty years old, with a very young guy and they were together. The picture was kind of moody and that’s why I think I went to this kind of heavy post-production.
F STOP: Do you see yourself continuing in this direction?
Daniloff: Without being pretentious, I think I’ve been around quite a lot of special effects, to me it’s important to move forward and try to do something different because I think you’ve seen that all around. I think people will get bored with it. It was great in the last five years, but I think in the future the idea will be to use special effects seamlessly, putting two worlds side by side so that nobody would notice.
F STOP: So tell me about what you’re working on now.
Daniloff: I’m trying new things and trying to move away from the heavy post-production. I’m trying to work with post production differently. Something not so freaky, something a bit more fun and approachable, not so weird.
F STOP: Is there anything specifically you can talk about that you’re working on?
Daniloff: I’m working on TV commercials. It’s quite fun. It’s a different approach because it’s something that I’ve never learned. So I’m exploring what I can do with it.
F STOP: How are you learning?
Daniloff: Basically on the shoot itself. And having the right team to work with. It can be difficult, but you have so many people involved like the Director of Photography and special effects. You have many more people working on it, so it’s quite helpful when the team is very professional and each guy knows what he has to do.
F STOP: Going back to still photography, you were mentioning moving away from the special effects oriented print work. Do you think that’s going to be a trend in the industry?
Daniloff: We’ve been through quite a lot of campaigns with these kind of special effects. We had Levi’s and Coca Cola, things like that. So all the biggest clients did things with this kind of work. It’s like a trend. There will be a new trend for the next ten years.
F STOP: Would you say that this Playstation work that you did is your most recognizable campaign?
Daniloff: Yes. All the Playstation work that I’ve been doing won awards. It won Clios, the Grand Prix at Cannes, etc.
F STOP: What kind of impact did that have on your career?
Daniloff: It was helpful, but put me in the situation where I need to work a lot by myself to renew myself. Clients were calling me expecting the same thing as been doing with Playstation. If I did that all the time, then people will be like ‘it’s boring. He’s always doing the same thing.’
F STOP: It’s interesting that you mention that because, and I always find this difference when I talk with European photographers versus photographers in the states, in the states they put photographers into certain categories, just like you were saying. A lot of people actually recommend staying within that vein because it’s branding yourself and it’s easier to succeed in a market that’s highly competitive. So do you thing that’s nonsense?
Daniloff: No, I don’t think it’s nonsense. It’s just that fashion–I mean, when I say fashion, it’s not the fashion itself but the fashion of the Playstation work now goes very fast, and it’s like a new season in advertising. So even if I’ve been doing that for four or five years, like I was saying, I think if I don’t change in the next five years or ten years I won’t be able to be on the top. And I think to stay on top means to change and to renew your style.
F STOP: Let’s talk a little bit about your personal work. You have a lot of work that you do for yourself that’s more beauty related and then you pitch it to magazines afterwards. Tell me a little bit about that process. Where do you get the initial ideas from?
Daniloff: From anything. I must say that recently I haven’t had so much time to work on that. I would love to have more time for my personal work. I’m trying to stay away from photography just to make sure that I ‘m not doing something someone has been doing before, because sometimes this can happen. I think a lot about dance and I have many friends involved in conceptual dancing. Conceptual things are quite important to me. I’m working on a project that is not just photography or dance, but is more like an event. I don’t want to only stick to photography.
F STOP: When did you start off as a professional photographer?
Daniloff: In ’99. It’s going to be ten years, next year I think.
F STOP: What kind of work were you doing?
Daniloff: My two first campaign were for a jeans brand and a shoemaker. One was actually with 3D and with people with kind of technical wings. Even then, there was a link between fashion and heavy post-production because the wings, in ’99 ,were made in 3D, which was very, very new at the time.
F STOP: How did you become interested in photography?
Daniloff: It was quite late. I was studying mathematics and science at the university. One day my mom gave me a camera and the next day I went to take pictures. When I came back that night, I told my mom I want to stop university and I want to be photographer. She was like, ‘ok, if that’s what you want to do. Just do it.’ So that’s the way I started.
F STOP: How old were you then?
Daniloff: I was twenty-six. At the time I was thinking of doing photojournalism. Then I did some tests with models and still-life. I tried everything out to see what I liked.
F STOP: You’re represented by a couple of reps, but you don’t have a personal website. I’m curious because it seems like today everybody and their mother has a personal website for showing their photography. Has it been a purposeful decision not to have one thus far?
Daniloff: No, it’s just a question of time and what I want to have. Basically, for the commercial parts, my agents are doing the work very well. Every single agent has the work, I think, that is good to show in each country. And if I don’t have my personal website it’s just because I’ve been quite busy in the last three or four years,. I would like to do a website which is not only for selling my pictures. Because if you want to see my professional and commercial pictures, you can see my agents’ website.