Candid Conversations: Dan Sniffin


Dan Sniffin
Photo Hobbyist / Teacher
Fresno, California



They, whoever “they” are, say, “still waters run deep.” While I was talking with Dan Sniffin for this post there has never been a saying more true to a man than that. Dan is that guy who stands back and observes the comings and goings. Always with a sly smile and a glint in his eye as if he holds THE secret. I experienced this first hand standing on a sand dune in Death Valley when I heard this little whisper, “Jo. Jo! Over here.” And there was Dan tilting his head in the opposite direction of the rest of the group to share a little gem he had discovered. 

And then there is his comic side. While the tour group is on a roll, tossing zinger after zinger, Dan quietly waits for that right moment when the room is quiet for one second. He has waited what seems a lifetime for this one. He lobs it over and lands a perfect ten each and every time. It’s timing that would make Jack Benny applaud.

Dan and I have much in common. (I’m still working on the amazing photographer part . . . and the comic timing … thing). When it comes to photography he is not a gear-head, chooses to be behind the camera and not in front of the camera, and in most aspects of life is a true introvert. He prefers conversations that are one on one or at a round table rather than speaking to a group of people. Case in point. In 1995, at his wife’s urging, he entered images into a contest with National Geographic Traveler Magazine. Of the 23,500 images submitted worldwide one of Dan’s submissions won a top 5-merit award. (Let me repeat: 23,500 images submitted!) As it turns out 2 of the four images he submitted ended up in the 1997 calendar. (Bravo!!!) The photos were taken in County Kerry, Ireland. The town was so grateful for the publicity that the Killarney Urban District Council invited him to a reception. When asked to say a few words the only words that came out were to his wife, “Honey, why don’t you say a few words.” And his wife took it from there. (I think it’s safe to say that Dan also married well.)

When I asked Dan to talk to me I knew him as a generous teacher, a guy with a quick wit, and a wonderful photographer. I never expected to hear of the jam packed journey that he has been on for the past 73 years. From dog trainer, to saxophonist, clarinet player by the skin of his teeth (you’ll have to ask him), salesman, and finally an amazing photographer, mentor, and wonderful man. Sadly there is no room in this blog to fully recognize the highlights of the roads less traveled by most of us, but I urge you to visit his website to see where he has been and what he has done. You will not be disappointed.

Black Valley Ruin (Photo Credit: Dan Sniffin)

The Conversation

What is your first memory of photography? 
I’m 73, and I remember when my parents, like all the others from the WWII generation, had one of these old time cube-shaped box cameras – the ones that looked like it had a coke bottle lens. I remember that it had a shutter release button that took a picture either way you pushed it.  So if you pulled the shutter release button up it would take a picture. If you pushed it back down it would take another one. So there were a lot of double exposures created as a result. And then there were my mothers’ family photo albums. She was always taking pictures of the kids. A high percentage of these photos were black and white. Color was something people didn’t have the money to do. 

Was there any catalyst that started you on your way?
The catalyst was looking at the pictures.  When I figured out what the camera did and I saw the pictures in the album I think that piqued my curiosity. In high school I trained dogs for others. I was going to be a professional dog handler at one time. The owner of Henley’s Photo Shop in Bakersfield happened to be one of the biggest German Shepherd breeders in the state. Because I had a relationship with him he offered me a job. During that time I learned the basics of photography. There were so many experienced people there. I got a really good education. 

Ice Beach (Photo Credit: Dan Sniffin)

Photography is a means of communication. What do you feel you are trying
to communicate and to whom? 

I would go back to one of my mother’s quotes, “Throughout my lifetime I have prayed for peace in the world. One day I became aware that I have no control over world peace. But I can bring peace into me, and in turn a little more peace will be given to the world.” This applies to my visual communication, because I see photography as a means to present the positive aspects of life and the extraordinary beauty that nature lends us. So in my mind too much negative imagery is produced and sometimes, many times, for shock effect or “for art’s sake.” Personally I see enough of that on a daily basis and it doesn’t interest me what-so-ever. Art or not. 

Is it beauty in everything or just natural settings?
I don’t know. Maybe it was my parents taking me to Yosemite when I was a young boy that influenced me. I have a black and white photo that was taken of my older brother and I standing in a meadow in Yosemite. I remember camping. It was just fascinating to hear the sounds and the smells of nature.  That is probably why I love nature so much. I spend so much time indoors with my business that I use photography as a respite from the business world and stresses of life. 

Dogwoods (Photo Credit: Dan Sniffin)

Why photography as a medium?
There aren’t many creative endeavors that can rival photography.  There is music, and dance, and throwing clay and all sorts of things, but I don’t think there are many things that compete with photography. My degree is in the creative arts.  My degree in music is in the performing arts.  I directed and sang in barbershop quartets for 12 years. And I used to judge competitions and I directed two barbershop choruses. But it’s not so much a creative thing as it is a part of something else. As a singer, you are depending on others. Photography you can do solo and learn at your own pace. 

Is there any one subject that you shoot that gets you into the zone more than others? 
I’m glad you asked! My love is abstracts. Mostly nature abstracts. A reflection in the water, ice abstracts – those kinds of things.  They really speak to me.  I’m not sure why, but I do know that if I am taking a picture of a reflection or an ice abstract, that image can never be duplicated. Water moves; ice melts.  And from that perspective, just knowing that I have created a one of a kind piece invigorates me. I can say that I have something here that no one else has. Even I am unable to recreate it. 

Fall Reflection (Photo Credit: Dan Sniffin)

How did you come upon abstracts?
In my early membership in PSA (Photographic Society of America) I found that rules had to be followed to be successful in salon judging. Rules like, “You can’t have the hand of man in it if you are shooting a nature subject. You can’t have a fence post or a garbage can or some kind of telephone pole in the picture because it wouldn’t be natural.” There are not many places you can go that there aren’t some evidence of the “hand of man.”  So I kept using telephoto lenses trying to isolate the subject to get rid of the things that judges didn’t want in the picture. Remember, these were the film days!  As a result my pictures became closer and closer and the field of view became narrower and narrower. When I saw subjects up close my vision changed dramatically. Visually speaking it made my heart race. So the process started with rules and ended up a revelation. 

How did you know it was a good photo if it didn’t follow the rules you were meant to follow?
I took a lot of different pictures of the same subject and I would compare them, knowing that there may be one that worked better than others. I learned to have a feel for what looked right for me – not what is right for everyone else. Interestingly, many of my most successful images were ones taken before I knew there were rules. So it was my own intuition of balance and rhythm that helped me. 

Tree in Morning Mist  (Photo Credit: Dan Sniffin)

Tree in Morning Mist (Photo Credit: Dan Sniffin)

How do you prepare yourself for an assignment? 
I don’t like assignments. I got a “C” in photography in Junior College.  My interest was in nature. But a typical assignment would go like this: “Ok, class, I want you to go out and take 36 exposures of fire hydrants.”  I just hated it.  I prefer not to give myself assignments. Instead, I shoot what pleases me. I don’t shoot people, weddings, still life, fashion, or sports. I follow what I love.

How do you keep it fresh? 
By not being a professional photographer! [Laughter] I’m not a professional photographer. I am an advanced amateur hobbyist. If I were a professional photographer it would become a job, which is precisely why I prefer not doing photography for a living. I’m very serious about my craft, but I want to keep my hobby in perspective. 

Palouse Hills (Photo Credit: Dan Sniffin)

What do you do when you just don’t have it as a photographer?
I put my camera down and relax. What’s the hurry? I also reduce my expectations and let the images come to me rather than forcing them. My tour partner, John Barclay, calls unrealistic expectations “FUDs.” You get fears, uncertainties, and doubts much like writers’ block is for a writer. When you push too hard the creativity disappears. In order to overcome that I just say, “What’s the hurry?” That has helped me consistently produce better images than at any time in the past.  Last year on two of our tours I said to John, “If I look like I’m not interested or not taking pictures don’t worry about me, I just want to relax and let the pictures come to me.” I came back with my best two shoots ever. 

And then there are times I don’t have it. I don’t have to get an “A” every time I go out. If I did, it wouldn’t be a challenge, would it?

Dune Abstract (Photo Credit: Dan Sniffin)

What about teaching?
In a teaching situation I do more observing and I try to find subjects that might help others. Not that it’s great, but a subject that may have potential.  Typically what I will do is look through their viewfinder and see what they are seeing, then ask them to take that picture, because I want them to compare it with another one. They may love the picture they took when they get home, or they may love something else. They need to take the picture they see, and then compare them. “How do you feel about the tree limb that’s sticking into the frame from the upper left?  Does your eye get stuck there?” And I go through a series of questions with them so they can get the idea that they need to move their eye visually through the frame. Sometimes they don’t see it, so I offer them another choice and let them decide by having both pictures to see what works best for them, and that way they can learn from it. 

What do you find is your biggest challenge as a photographer? 
Finding the time to do photography in between the complexities of life.  

What do you find is the biggest challenge facing professional photographers today?
I couldn’t say, because I don’t consider myself a professional photographer. That’s the honest answer.  I don’t think like a professional photographer in that I don’t feel I have to have a web presence.  I don’t have to have a marketing plan.  I don’t have to be sure I get the “Likes” on my Facebook page. I don’t think that way.  There is a lot of competition out there, and the competition is really intense at the higher level. There are hundreds of photographers who do phenomenal  work.  I’m just trying to sit up tall and take nourishment.  

Moeraki Boulder (Photo Credit: Dan Sniffin)

Who inspires you? Who or what is your muse? 
I think that I am inspired by many professional photographers and some talented advanced amateurs. If I were to give credit to one person it would be Freeman Patterson. He’s lives in New Brunswick, and has received the Order of Canada.  He’s authored little flip books called, Photography for the Joy of It and Photography and the Art of Seeing.  I consider him an intellectual who is a great communicator about how to see things. He got me away from thinking “Look, there’s a pine tree out there. Oh, that’s pretty. Oh, right next to it is a cabin.” He teaches how to see all things as shapes.  So, a pine tree becomes a triangle.   A house is now a square or a rectangle.   That’s the premise. You look at things as shapes rather than what they are in reality. From that perspective the subject doesn’t matter. He became the catalyst to bring me from the “guidelines/rules” of composition to being able to see, and how to create a pleasing balance within the frame using shapes, line, textures, and color.   He is a true craftsman; and he teaches in such a way that even I can understand, which is giving him a lot of credit.  It was an “Ah Ha” moment for me.  What I have learned from Freeman has changed my old habits and helped me create a more defined personal Vision.  That’s what I learned from him, and that’s what I try to teach when we are on location.
I’ve taken about 35 workshops and tours from professional photographers throughout the country. And of course I’ve done my own tours for the past 9 years with my friend, John Barclay. Folks in our photo tours dubbed us, "The BS Brothers!"

My wife is my muse. She sees things that I don’t see. She doesn’t do photography, but she sees things that I don’t. She is someone that really pushes me to see things differently. 

If you could give the young you some advice what would it be? 
Be patient and authentic in your work. To be honest and thoughtful of others. And most of all, follow your own vision. That is so important. Personal vision is the big buzz word now. Of course you’ll find people like Cole Thompson and Chuck Kimmerle, who are masters of our craft.  They have a personal vision that is unique. I don’t think I have found mine.  [Editors note: I completely disagree with this statement. That is all.] I have some good images, and have had some success in doing certain things, but having a vision that people can identify as mine is something I don’t have.

Any parting wisdom to share? 
Photography is a passion that provided me a respite from the business world and the difficulties that life brings. It gives me an opportunity to commune with nature and share ideas with like-minded people. Travel to destinations I had never dreamed of growing up. It’s also furthered my education in the creative arts. 

Illumination - Antelope Canyon (Photo Credit: Dan Sniffin)

The Questionnaire

10. Color or Black and White?  – Color
9. Film or Digital? – Digital
8. Traditional Darkroom or Digital Darkroom? – Digital darkroom
7. Objects or People? – Objects
6. Urban Jungle or Pretty Landscapes? – Pretty Landscapes
5. Weddings or Root Canal? – Root Canal
4. Kitted out with Heavy Long Lens or point or shoot? – Long Lens
3. Commercial or Fine Art? – Neither. [Editor’s note: See “the parting shot.”] 
2. Tell me about the one that got away. – You have to have it before it can get away.
1. Tell me about the one you are still chasing. – My best picture will be my next picture. [Editors note: you may have read this answer on another candid conversation post. Please know that that person, who shall not be named, actually stole this quote from Dan. It was Dans’ quote first. Scouts honor.]

The Parting Shot

"I have sold my work to corporate entities and private collector’s worldwide. I still prefer to call myself a photographer and leave the “A” word out. It is for others to decide if my photography is worthy of being called art. If you have to tell somebody it’s art it probably isn’t."

Alpenglow Reflection and Ice (Photo Credit: Dan Sniffin)