Duston Todd: a photography interview

We are so very lucky to have an interview with Duston Todd today. Duston is a highly original and creative wedding, family, and commercial photographer based in Utah.  He is one of my personal favorites and I cannot tell you how inspiring his style of shooting is to me.

Q:  You are a very creative photographer.  Where does all this creativity come from?
Having an imagination. Everyone can be creative, but at some point too many of us became too afraid to continue to explore, to imagine, to create, and to work hard at it. At some point the school counselor at career day, or mom and dad at home, snuffed the dreamer out of the children that we were and said it is time to grow up and be practical. The secret is to be daring, daring to dream but also daring to do the lonely hard work and see the imagination brought to life. My creativity comes from this well of confidence and an undying spirit, a passion to always imagine and see with questioning eyes, to work hard in order to find my answers, and to share my journeys.

Q:   What are you inspirations?
I am a sponge. I soak up all I can. There are times when my sponge is dry and I force myself to a known inspirational source in order to move forward, and there are other times that without planning it the inspiration rolls in like a wave and I stand at the edge appreciating and soaking it in.
Specific known sources that I can continually feed on for inspiration: (the masters) Arnold Newman, Harry Callahan, Henry Cartier-Bresson, Elliot Erwitt, Bill Brandt, Philippe Halsman, Richard Avedon, Andre Kertez.
And the contemporaries: Anton Corbijn, Mark Seliger, Sally Mann, Keith Carter, William Wegman. There are incredible current publications that could be taken as a photographer’s visual bible such as; CA annuals, PDN annuals, and 200 Best Ad Photographers Worldwide to name a few.
In addition to other photographers, I find movies to be incredibly inspiring. Photography is about story telling, whether it is one image or a series we are telling stories in our images.
And fiction, I love me some fiction that I can chew on. If nothing else, it keeps the creative gears moving. I seem to always gravitate towards darker material.
And last, your subject matter is the key. The things that inspire you will continue to inspire you, the secret is to turn those inspirations into shape. Give notice to those things by using your camera, or better said, “notice the objects you notice” (art and fear by david bales and ted orland).

Q: After you started photography, how long did you take you to find your “voice”?
I feel I am still finding it. Just like Picasso went through incredible phases within his career I too want to continually evolve. I want to challenge myself to the very fullest and do all that I possibly can within that environment. When I feel I have hit a ceiling of limitations, then it is time to move on. This life is too short and I want to do all that I possibly can within the time I’ve got. To just regurgitate on the same material is a disservice to others and myself. I have seen this with my own wedding work. I feel I have a very firm grasp on my voice and style, so much so that nothing is forced or contrived. I think that’s when you know you have “found your voice”, when things come out of you that you have no command over, but rather they command you. You add these pieces to your bag here and there, and they only come at their own time…it is a process that truly takes years. It is this process of adding new ideas, techniques, and approaches, coupled with consistency of delivery that you are granted the gift of having and owning a developed and recognized identity, a style and voice.

Q: What sorts of things do you look at or read for inspiration for your photography? And what sorts of things do you avoid (if any)?
I haven’t read a whole lot of nonfiction. Once and awhile I’ll read an autobiography of an interesting personality, but I tend to like the idea of running to another land. However, as I have mentioned previously, I always want to grow and I feel I am entering a different phase. What this means is I feel I am setting down the fiction and replacing it with concrete education. Lately I am learning more about design and branding. Take this for example:
(in relation to branding) “Competition for recognition is as ancient as the heraldic banners on a medieval battlefield…the battle for physical territory has evolved into the competition for share of the mind.” (designing brand identity/ alina wheeler).

…tell me that is not fascinating! That branding war is ever-present. (take my Times Square image for an example.)
In addition to literature, I am really enjoying digital photography.  Until recently, 100% of all my work has been shot on film, it has just been since the beginning of this year that I have seriously started shooting with a DSLR. It is a completely different process, and one thing in particular that I am really enjoying is the speed of the medium. After nearly a decade of only shooting film it is fun to jump on the futuristic spaceship and poke at all the buttons, HA! (enter 20 minute psychedelic light shows and a floating black monolith.)

So what do I avoid looking at? Great question, and an important one. I found years ago that it was doing me no good to look at my competitions work. All it would do is upset me, and I found that my energies were being spent on feeding a negative source, that my head was looking to the sides of me and even behind me rather than focusing on what is ahead of me. I learned to unplug myself from looking at other’s work and it allowed me to push my time and energies into a positive source – my work and my future.

Q: I know you recently experienced this, but I have to ask, what do you think about photographer’s copying each other’s poses and styles?  It seems unavoidable and very common.   What is the line between being inspired by someone’s work and flat out copying?
Yes I did experience this, and have been experiencing it for about a year or so. I have to be honest and say it is incredibly difficult. To invest so much of your blood and sweat, to put your heart out there with your name on it, and to have it cheapened and devalued practically overnight, that is not something easily swallowed. The reason that this has gone on for so long is I have allowed it to, I felt powerless. To claim plagiarism of a 2D photograph is much harder than it would be to copy an essay from a magazine and republish it. When it comes to the visual legal world, what I have been told is, if the work looks 75% the same, or in other words if the audience can’t tell the difference between the two sources, then you have a case.  (I only share this for others should they find themselves in the same scenario). What have I learned through it? I have learned, by examples through others, that you, that we, need to stand up for what is right. It boils down to ethics, character, and integrity. What kind of a pool do we want to swim in? It really is up to all of us.
What do I think about copying poses and styles? I realize we all need to start somewhere. Especially in the impressionable beginning stages we may even copy verbatim a source we look up to. That is how we grow. We stand on the shoulders of the giants before us. We see how others have done something successfully and we want to do the same. It is as elementary as tracing dotted letters on lined paper in kindergarten. If we doubted ourselves and said, “it’s already been done, look at these letters, they are already written perfectly.” There would be no growth and no development. We would be a society of mumbling illiterate idiots. However, some people never break from this developmental stage and mentality and so they use it as crutch, they see it as an excuse, a justification, perhaps even a motivation to continue copying. And so they make claims such as “all we can do is copy. it’s all been done and it’s all been done better than we can do it.” If you are making claims such as this, then I say get out of the pool. Let those that can swim with confidence have their space and continue to push the limits.  Because NOT everything has been done. Why limit yourself to our earthly sky when we still have the stars and infinite space to reach? It could very possibly be YOU that pushes the next barrier, steps further outside the box, explores unclaimed lands, and whose name is written in the history books. Do not let your own fear and your own limitations pull you or others down from our yet to be discovered greatest achievements. NOT everything has been done, and YOU can do it better.

I was recently criticized and said that my “Sleep is the Cousin to Death” series was a complete knock off of Richard Avedon’s “In the American West”….and here is my thoughts and answer to your question….when a successful source serves for inspiration, credit the source, AND make it your own by putting your touch on it, do not call it your own if it is not. YES, Richard Avedon inspired me, how can you not be? I felt in a creative rut, late at night, I watched his DVD “Darkness and Light” and I went to bed itching and wanting to shoot something in the similar minimalistic approach (b&w portraits standing in front of a blown-out white background). The next morning I woke, I stumbled to the bathroom mirror, I saw the sleep marks all over my face, and the inspiration light bulb clicked. From that moment I turned the source of inspiration into my own. And what became of it was my “Sleep is the Cousin to Death” series. I am bold enough to say that nobody has shot that material before. Nobody has shot a series of women only, as soon as they arose from their bed of sleep, and immediately had their portrait taken in the Avedon fashion. My point to all this is, if you copy a style then give credit where and when it is due AND make it your own. I took Avedon’s style and made it my own. FURTHERMORE, I would highly suggest to not copy only one source. You can look at my work and see many of the influences I have listed above. It is not just one source that I have borrowed from. If you choose to copy only one source and claim it as yours then it becomes an insult to the source you got it from and casts a cheap light in your direction.

Q:  You have been successful shooting film for your weddings and families. Do you think you will be able to shoot film in the commercial world of photography?
Unless there is a particular look that a client wants, a very specified and needed film aesthetic or a specific camera format for that particular assignment, then I don’t see it happening.

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