“For me photography is the study of history and I am interested in historical events. For example, because of the Vietnam War, my family and I are now living in the USA. And there are pictures of the war from the 1960s that allow me to view this time period and make sense of this history in relationship to the present. This is what I try to transmit with my artwork, making sense out of chaos like a war.”
Binh Danh (born in 1977) currently lives and works in the USA.
He studied photography at San Jose State University (BFA, 2002), California (USA) and at Stanford University (MFA, 2004), California (USA). Binh Danh is represented by “Haines Galley” in San Francisco, CA (USA) and “Lisa Sette Gallery” in Scottsdale, AZ (USA).
“I was born in a fishing town in southern Vietnam two years after the end of the war. In 1979, my family and I escaped the country on a boat, and we were placed in a refugee camp in Malaysia. Eventually, we emigrated to the U.S. and settled in San Jose, California. I was raised in a traditional Vietnamese household, where many of the family’s Buddhist rituals were focused on the worship of ancestors, thus meditating on death and its influence on the living.
The themes of mortality, memory, and spirituality became a lifelong inspiration for me, and a primary influence on my artistic development. I am known for my innovative explorations of alternative photographic processes and recently I have been making daguerreotypes, the first commercially viable photographic process introduced to the world in 1839. Photography has allowed me to explore the world in terms of landscape, history, justice, evidence, and spirituality.”
Interview with Binh Danh
Binh, what was your most memorable moment shooting pictures?
This question is hard to pin down, but I still remember the first time I made a photograph. I was in the fifth grade during a class camping trip. My father bought me a camera for this very special occasion. When we arrived to the campground, the first thing I did, even before exiting the bus, was to pull out my camera and snap a photograph through the foggy bus window. I did not know that this was the start of my life as a photographer. I still have these pictures today and every time I look at them, I am transported back to my childhood, trying to make sense of my life through the lens of a camera.
Why did you become a photographer?
Making art through photography came natural for me. It started with taking science classes as kid. When I was in grade school, I was really involved with science. But it wasn’t till later that I realized it was the beauty of science that I was after, which led me into taking art classes. And naturally I pick up a camera again in high school. The camera has given me the desire to never stop learning. Photography is the tool in which I examine the world in all of its complexity.
What does photography mean to you and what do you want to transmit with your pictures?
For me photography is the study of history and I am interested in historical events. For example, because of the Vietnam War, my family and I are now living in the USA. And there are pictures of the war from the 1960s that allow me to view this time period and make sense of this history in relationship to the present. This is what I try to transmit with my artwork, making sense out of chaos like a war.
Which photographer has inspired you most?
It’s hard to narrow down to one photographer, but I am going with Carleton Watkins, the 19-century large format photographer (18 x 22 glass plate wet collodion negative) because of his drive to photograph Yosemite and take the darkroom on the road. Every time I look at a Watkin’s print in a museum, I am inspired to run home to work. I usually thinking, it wouldn’t be hard, someone in the 19 century was able to take the show on the road, why can’t we do it in the 21st century? Boy, I am wrong.
What’s your favorite photography quote?
Geoffrey Batchen wrote a book called, “Burning with Desire: The Conception of Photography”. In it he states:
In an 1828 letter to his partner, Nicéphore Niépce, Louis Daguerre wrote: ‘I am burning with desire to see your experiments from nature.’
This is my favorite quote. It gets to the feeling to make photography happen. This is what happens when I don’t make artwork.
How would you describe your photographic voice and creative process?
Since I am working with alterative photography, I often pray to the photo gods.
What’s important in order to develop an own photographic language?
Look at a lot of work and make a lot of work and keep making it and making it and making it.
What do you consider to be the axis of your work – technically and conceptually?
The photographic processes (daguerreotype, cyanotype, chlorophyll print), are very important to the concept of my work. Image and idea have to go together.
What qualities and characteristics does a good photographer need?
Here’s another quote:
Stare. It is the way to educate your eye, and more. Stare, pry, listen, eavesdrop. Die knowing something. You are not here long. Walker Evans
Evans was right on the ball. “Stare” and “life is short”. That’s why these answers are a little shorter now. I am itching to make some art today.
What does a photo need to be a great photo in your eyes? Especially keeping in mind the over abundance of photographic imagery in today’s society.
I don’t go by any fundamental rules in judging photos. Photos are great if the photographer has photographed the subject over and over. An example would be Nicholas Nixon’s “The Brown Sisters”. So commitment to the subject makes a great photo or a great series.
Where do you draw inspiration from for your photographic projects?
From historical sources: working on any projects requires me to research and during the research, which is on going, inspiration would come. The photo gods are speaking to me.
What kind of photography equipment and photographic supplies do you use?
Many, many, I use large format camera from 4×5 to full plate size to a 12 x 20 inch view camera from most of my work. I also make my own photographic plates (most of the time copper and silver for daguerreotypes) and work with a framer because each photograph is one-of-a-kind.
What’s your favorite website about photography?
It’s a site called “Contemporary Daguerreotypes”.
What photography book would you recommend?
“L. J. M. Daguerre: The History of the Diorama and the Daguerreotype” (1969) by Helmut and Alison Gernsheim.
Every photographer should read this book; we take making a photo for granted today, it’s too easy to click.
Which advice would you give someone who wants to become a (professional) photographer?
Work hard but also make it fun for yourself. Every time I have an art opening, I am nervous as hell, but I try to have a great time too. I get to share my hard work with a community.
More about Binh Danh