Briefly describe the work you do.
As a photographer, I look for places and subjects that describe the relationship between the built environment and the human experience. The landscape that we construct has a strong influence on our lives. It is where we sleep, eat, work, purchase goods and services, travel and ultimately reflects what we value as a culture. Through the use of portrait and landscape photography, my work is an exploration of the different ways in which the reality of our cultural values becomes evident within the built environment. I have searched for these subjects in places such as residential neighborhoods, strip malls, bus stations and most recently the interstate highway system.
Tell us about your background and how that has had an influence on your work and on you as an artist.
When I was in college, I often traveled long distances by commercial bus lines. It was and continues to be the most affordable means of transportation. I learned that a trip by bus demands a greater level of endurance than any other form of travel. I remembered making many stops in every major city at all hours of the day and night. After 52 hours on a bus, myself and fellow passengers all started to physically show the effects of a long bus trip. Four years ago, inspired by these memories, I began a portrait series of bus passengers, titled In Transit.
The concept of the artist studio has a broad range of meanings in contemporary practice. Artists may spend much of their time in the actual studio, or they may spend very little time in it. Tell us about your individual studio practice and how it differs from or is the same as traditional notions of “being in the studio.”
My current projects are all made outside of a studio environment. I am interested in subjects and landscapes that exist unedited without preparation to be photographed. So, in order to create my work, I need to find people and places that exhibit the ideas I am trying to convey. That requires getting out into the places where public life is happening. In order to work on my portrait series, In Transit, I have traveled over 40,000 miles through 4 countries and I am currently in Australia to complete the project.
Most of my editing can be done on a laptop and while traveling. The only real studio time I need is when printing. A properly calibrated monitor and an inkjet printer are essential to the printing process.
What roles do you find yourself playing that you may not have envisioned yourself in when you first started making art?
While I was in graduate school, I began teaching. This was certainly something I never expected to do. After the completion of my MFA, I continued teaching both traditional film and digital photography. I also worked as a photo-journalist and shot video for a television news station. Although I had worked with filmmaking on a number of independent projects, I never thought of actually doing it for a media outlet. These were both excellent experiences and helped to broaden my understanding of the medium and made me a better photographer.
When do you find is the best time to make art? Do you set aside a specific time everyday or do you have to work whenever time allows?
I have found that I am most productive when I have established the conceptual framework for a project. Once I know what I am looking for and what my project is about, I can really create a lot of work and I go out as often as I can. Also, the idea for the project dictates the right time to make it. For my series Electronic Billboards, I had to shoot at night to get the proper exposure. Weather was a factor and I often had to travel over one hundred miles per shoot, but I wanted to make those pictures and that was the necessary time and process. In between projects, regardless of the medium, I think it is important to be active and try to begin a new series. Often, when I start a new body of work, a different and better idea comes along and I develop that instead.
How has your work changed in the past five years? How is it the same?
I was still in pursuit of my MFA five years ago. I went to school as a black and white photographer and I was used to working long hours in a darkroom and heavily manipulating the negatives I shot. At that time, I marveled at the possibilities of what an ordinary negative could become through post-production darkroom processes. However, while in school, I gained an interest in the documentary process. So, I now shoot subjects as they are and not how I later decide they should be. I still shoot film, although almost exclusively color film, but I print in a digital lab and rarely use the darkroom.
How have people such as family, friends, writers, philosophers, other artists or even pop icons had an impact on the work you do?
Learning about the work that was featured in the 1975 exhibition, New Topographics: Photographs of a Man Altered Landscape, really changed the way I thought about making a series of pictures. All ten of those photographers, particularly Robert Adams and Lewis Baltz, have impacted my work. Philip-Lorca diCorcia and Paul Graham have also been a big influence. I am also a Beatles fan and found inspiration in their prolific output that consistently redefined who they were as artists and challenged what music could be.
Have you ever been pulled in the direction of a pursuit other than being an artist? What are your other interests?
It was not until after I graduated from college that I got into art. I was not serious or passionate about my first college degree and it really had very little to do with the creative field. Shortly after I finished school, a friend handed me her 35mm Pentax SLR and suggested that I check it out for awhile. We were in a forest preserve and her camera had a telephoto lens that enabled me to zoom in on a fisherman far off in the landscape. I took the picture and as soon as the shutter clicked, I had one of those moments when I knew what I had to pursue for the rest of my life. I really have never felt inspired to do anything else. I am also very interested in music and astronomy, but photography is definitely my channel of communication.
Dan Gemkow is a photographer and Instructor of Fine Arts. He is originally from New Hampshire and grew up in the suburban Chicago area. He received a Master’s degree in Fine Arts in 2010 from the University of Missouri. Since completion of his MFA, Gemkow taught both traditional darkroom and digital photography for three years at Missouri Valley College. Currently, he is traveling across Australia to complete his project, In Transit.
Gemkow has participated in exhibitions at the Center for Fine Art Photography in Fort Collins, Colorado, the Kaunas Photo Festival in Kaunas, Lithuania, the PH21 Gallery in Budapest, Hungary, the Masur Museum of Art in Louisiana, the Foundry Art Center in St. Charles, Missouri, the Kevin Milligan Gallery in the Bay Area of California, the Rogue Space Chelsea in New York City, the Black Box Gallery in Oregon, the PhotoPlace Gallery in Vermont, the Midwest Center for Photography in Kansas, the Tubac Center for the Arts in Arizona, several galleries around the Midwest and Gallery MM in Yokohama, Japan.
All images copyright of the artist and used with their permission.