Daniel Kramer has been documenting multiple aspects of the three-week, all-American spectacle known as RodeoHouston since 2007, particularly the characters and settings surrounding the world’s largest entertainment event.
“People have been photographing the rodeo since my grand-aunt, Bobby Brooks Kramer, was riding Broncos back in the ’30s,” Kramer notes. “My photographic access to the actual rodeo is so tightly controlled that I can’t bring anything new to the photos. But away from the rodeo, I’m in control. I can choose where to stand, what lens to use, when to push the button and so on. I don’t like being told where to stand.”
ASMP: How long have you been in business?
Daniel Kramer: I began freelancing in 1994. In 2003, I was hired as the staff photographer for the Houston Press. In 2009, I began round two of my freelance career.
ASMP: What initially prompted you to join ASMP?
DK: Initially, I joined to expand my client base though ASMP’s Find a Photographer database, but I soon realized that ASMP is an invaluable resource to help me learn and stay abreast of this rapidly changing industry. I must also say that some of the local Houston ASMP members have really been helpful to me in this transition.
ASMP: What has made you stay an ASMP member since 2009?
DK: The desire to be part of a group that is larger than myself. When I was pursuing my MFA in documentary photojournalism, one of the most important aspects of school was sharing with my fellow students. I’d spend hours and hours in the darkroom and I’d kind of lose perspective after making 200 proof prints. It was great to be able to show work to my fellow students and say, “What do you think of this?” I missed that a lot when I went out on my own. ASMP’s local Houston chapter works hard to consistently create opportunities for socializing, exhibiting and building relationships.
ASMP: What do you consider the most valuable aspect of your ASMP membership?
DK: I love the Find A Photographer portal, as well as the seminars, the Webinars and access to the Business Resources.
ASMP: Which ASMP education/advocacy tools do you find most helpful to your day-to-day business and why?
DK: There is so much information on ASMP’s Web site that it’s a little overwhelming. I dip into it occasionally. I enjoyed the Webinars, such as Deb Pang Davis’s “Leveraging Your Content,” Jason Gardner’s “Self-Publishing Your Photography Book,” Tom Kennedy’s “Your Cohesive Vision” and Mary Virginia Swanson’s “Identifying New Markets For Your Work.” I also like the business tutorials.
ASMP: What are your photographic specialties?
DK: I went to picture school to become a staff photojournalist at a major metro newspaper but, along the way, I ran into documentary photographer and teacher Ken Light, who showed me a different path. Ken picks his own projects, works on them at his own pace and finishes them when he’s ready. So I’ve kind of tried to follow that path. I really enjoy working on my own, long-term projects such as this Houston rodeo project. Besides that, I really love making environmental portraits and lifestyle images.
ASMP: What do you consider your most valuable tool or piece of equipment?
DK: I’ve been at this for 20 years, so I bring a boatload of experience, but my love and passion for photography has only deepened. Every assignment is a new challenge and sometimes I can’t sleep the night before a big gig, because I’m worried, stressed and a little geeked; so I feel my most valuable asset is my experience coupled with my passion for photography.
ASMP: You’ve been photographing the Houston rodeo carnival since 2007, focusing on the rodeo’s surroundings; people, events, entertainment. What draws you to that aspect of RodeoHouston as opposed to the rodeo itself?
DK: My photographic access to the actual rodeo has been so tightly controlled that I can’t bring anything new to the photos. People have been photographing rodeo since my grand-aunt Bobby Brooks Kramer was riding broncos back in the 1930s. But away from the rodeo, I’m in control. I can choose where to stand, what lens to use, when to push the button and so on. I don’t like being told where to stand.
ASMP: How many days does the rodeo last and how many of those days do you shoot? Is there a specific time of day (or night) you prefer for shooting or particular activities or venues that make for the best pictures?
DK: I think the rodeo lasts for about 21 days and the amount I shoot has varied from year to year. One year I might concentrate on the trail riders and the parade through downtown Houston; another year, I might concentrate on making on-location studio portraits of the cowboys just after they’ve gotten off their ride.
Diane Arbus said her favorite thing was to go where she had never gone before and I feel the same way, so if I’m tired of the carnival, I’ll lay off it for a year and focus on other aspects of RodeoHouston. It’s known as the world’s largest entertainment event, so there is a lot to shoot!
If I am shooting street at the rodeo, I prefer to go late in the afternoon to try to take advantage of the shadows and I like to stay as long into the night as I can, because things get wild at the Barbecue Cook Off when the sun goes down.
ASMP: What equipment do you shoot with at the Rodeo and why?
DK: If I’m shooting street at the rodeo carnival, it’s a lot different than shooting street in downtown Houston. I explain to my students that the carnival is a camera-friendly zone where nobody looks twice at someone taking a photo.
Sometimes I carry one 35mm Canon 5dII and sometimes I’m outfitted like Pancho Villa with two bodies across my chest. I use a 16-35mm f 2.8 lens and a fanny pack with my 80-200 and a flash with an off-camera trigger. The words “street photography” bring out the worst in some people: “You can’t shoot street with a long zoom lens!!” they cry. Whatever. Look at Jay Maisel’s photos… Shoot with whatever you want. Make great pictures, period.
ASMP: Do you have special access to shoot at the Rodeo?
DK: I began shooting the rodeo for my photo column with the Houston Press. My press pass got me in the gate for free but did not allow me any special access such as into the cowboys’ locker room or backstage for a concert. This year, I shot portraits for Smithsonian Magazine’s Instagram and that enabled me to set up an on-location studio next to the entrance to the arena. But those images are not part of the street photography project that I submitted to ASMP. In fact, what I submitted was a very tight edit because I wanted the pictures to work together thematically. To make the images that I submitted here, one does not need special access. And thankfully, security really has not changed regarding taking photos in public at the rodeo carnival and BBQ cook off.
ASMP: In 1995 you embarked on a personal project to trace Mark Twain’s around-the-world journey on the 100th Anniversary of this event. Was this your first big personal documentary project?
DK: My first documentary was a three-year project focused on a young boy recovering from a horrendous Christmas Day car accident — caused by a drunk driver — in which four of his siblings were burned to death when their car erupted in flames. That was such a heavy project that I turned away from black-and-white social documentary work and embraced a color street photography project based on San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park for my master’s thesis.
The Mark Twain project came next. I shot 35,000 photos as I circumnavigated the globe over ten months, traveled through 11 countries and used nine credit cards to fund the project. I also received 2,000 rolls of Kodachrome as a grant from Kodak, as well as free processing from ShopKo, a national retail chain with headquarters in Green Bay.
I first prepared for the trip by reading Twain’s book Following the Equator and transcribing what I thought were visually translatable excerpts into my shooting script. Then I went on a PR binge and contacted every magazine I could think of to let them know I was doing this project.
My mom and stepdad owned a travel agency and we sat down together and mapped out the route.
When I returned, I read every letter written by every member of Twain’s party and added the best parts to a mock-up that I put together at Kinkos. Then one of my teachers, Kim Komenich, hand carried my mock-up to Chronicle books and National Geographic photographer Bruce Dale carried another mock-up to the book-publishing division of National Geographic — twice. And I traveled to the book publishing fair in Frankfurt, Germany in search of a publisher.
I was told that I had done a great job on the project but that my book design wasn’t great. I had thought designing the book was the publishers job, but was told that no, these days, photographers are hiring book designers and then submitting their projects. Well, I was tapped out. I was living in mom’s basement and there were no funds for a book designer, so I tabled the project until 2009, when I self-published the project with Blurb. It’s a tough book to design because it incorporates photos of Twain and his family, Twain’s words, my photos and maps.
One of the highlights of the project was photographing Mother Teresa in Calcutta. A tourist asked me if I wanted him to take my photo with Mother. For some unknown reason I declined. He persisted. I declined. Why did I do that, what was I thinking!?! The only thing I would have done differently is I would have definitely allowed that guy to take my picture with Mother Teresa. As it was, she blessed me and gave me her business card.
ASMP: In addition to your documentary projects, your work spans a wide array of subject matter, including architecture, portraits, food and motion. Do your assignments and client work gravitate to one particular subject area?
DK: Most of my assignments involve portraiture and honestly — don’t tell anyone — I love making portraits so much I’d do it for free if I didn’t have bills to pay. In fact my next personal project is a portrait project and I can’t wait to get started on it.
The Architecture portfolio on my Web site is very new and most of the images come from my documentary projects. For the past year, I’ve been digitizing my Kodachrome slides and repurposing the images. In doing this, I realized I had a large body of architectural photos. I love architecture. I actually went to the University of Minnesota to be an architect and I’m hoping this portfolio of images will start to bring in those clients.
Finally, you ask what are my favorite subjects to shoot and I’m reminded of this quote from William Eggleston: “It quickly came to be that I grew interested in photographing whatever was there, wherever I happened to be. For any reason.”
ASMP: Please talk about any collaborators you work with, both for personal projects and commercial assignments.
DK: My fine-art music photography prints are repped by Rock, Paper, Photo. I’ve just self-published my third book project. This one is called My View From the Pit and it is composed of 25 years of photographing live concerts. Julie Grahame helped me edit the photos.
I’ve also worked with Jasmine DeFoore, who helped me edit my portrait portfolio and helped clean up my Web site. Mike Davis is helping me edit my next book project, a street photography book, and Dave Einsel advises me on everything: my Web site, portraits, software, marketing and so on. And, of course, my mom has been my editor since we sat in her Wisconsin basement during the winter of ‘96 and projected my Mark Twain slides on the wall: “Alex Webb wouldn’t include that photo in his book,” I can hear her saying.
ASMP: Your career has been a mix of teaching, staff newspaper positions, freelance work for print and photo agencies and personal documentary projects. What percentage of your time do you dedicate to each component?
DK: I wish I could devote Mondays to Marketing, Tuesdays to Teaching, Wednesdays to Learning, Thursdays to Shooting and Fridays to Digitizing my archive, but it doesn’t work that way for me. Now, after about 14 months, I’m pretty much finished with the archive and am now focused on marketing. But what I really want to be doing is working on my portrait project.
ASMP: You received your first camera in 1983 and your early career was before the advent of digital. Please talk about the transitions from the black-and-white film to color film to digital in your newspaper work and any resulting changes on your picture taking.
DK: I learned to roll my own black-and-white film using a bulk film loader back in the 1980s. In the early ’90s, I learned how to print black-and-white from Frank Espada, may he rest in peace. But, honestly, it just wasn’t working for me. I wasn’t excited about what I was doing and I think it showed. I found standing at my print station for six hours to be an indescribable drag. Then Paul Kuroda introduced me to the work of Alex Webb and bang, zoom, I got it! I can do this! Walk around the park and look for shadow and light and color and moment and then just drop the film off and let someone else develop the slides. Oh joy! About that time, I began freelancing for the Contra Costa Times and the Associated Press in San Francisco and I learned how to scan a negative. No more darkroom. That was a big transition for me.
I began shooting digital in 2005 and chimping has made me a better photographer. I still have rolls of black-and-white and color film in my refrigerator and I still have my old film camera but I haven’t used it in almost ten years. As I look at and scan my old Kodachrome slides, I am wistful and sad that it’s gone. I actually had to throw away about 200 rolls.
ASMP: Prior to your current freelance career, you spent three years as a newspaper editor, reporter and photographer and you also worked on staff at the Houston Press from 2003 to 2009. In what ways did the changes that happening within the newspaper industry affect the work that you did?
DK: My first job out of school was in Sturgis, South Dakota. It was a twice-weekly newspaper and my title was sports editor. I rolled, shot and developed my own film, wrote my own stories and laid out the sports pages. In small town journalism, I don’t think much has changed. When I got to the Houston Press, my role was completely different. I was “just” the photographer, so I basically didn’t have any say about what stories were told.
ASMP: Please describe your most challenging photo shoot to date. How did you resolve the difficulties to come back with the shot?
DK: Recently, my most challenging photo shoot was covering the Stay family massacre here in Houston for Reuters. This was emotionally and technically difficult, as I photographed the medical examiner carrying the two parents and four children out of their home where they had been brutally murdered only hours earlier. Then, seeing the utter devastation on the face of the surviving daughter at the funeral is something that will always stay with me.
ASMP: You’ve received numerous awards and grants starting in 1995. Is there any one in particular that’s had the most impact on your career?
DK: The first grant I received was a film and processing grant. I received 2,000 rolls of Kodachrome from Kodak and free processing from ShopKo, a national retail chain with headquarters in Green Bay, to retrace Mark Twain’s journey around the world. I could not have done the project without that grant and in fact, I used the leftover film for my Cuba project.
ASMP: Approximately how many grants and award competitions do you enter annually?
DK: In addition to my editorial and commercial work, I am an actively exhibiting fine-art photographer and I enter about 15 competitions and calls for exhibition a year. The goal at the top of my list is to work with magazines like Smithsonian, Mother Jones, Texas Monthly and TIME. I’d also like to get my books published and continue to exhibit my work.
ASMP: What criteria do you use in identifying and deciding which grants, competitions or calls to submit your projects to?
DK: I have a wide, eclectic body of work and I’m always looking for opportunities to share my work with a larger audience, so if I see a contest or call for which I have work that is relevant, I’ll take a look at it. For me the judges and the venue are important.
ASMP: To date, you’ve published three books with Blurb. What has your experience with self-publishing been like?
DK: I really love Blurb. I love the ease, simplicity, quality and design options they offer. But you can’t have quality AND low price unless you order in quantity, and I don’t want to do that because I don’t want to warehouse the books. So while I do make my books available for purchase, I see them more as maquettes to show to traditional publishers. They’re also pretty cool marketing tools although they are expensive. I sent a maquette of my Mark Twain project to Molly Roberts at Smithsonian magazine and I think that was directly responsible for her offering to let me run their Instagram for a week. But also, I make the books to kind of put a bow and ribbon on a project. That allows me to mentally move on to the next project. I can’t wait to get to my street photography book! In this regard, I really look at someone like Lee Friedlander as a role model. He is so incredibly prolific.
ASMP: Your work has been collected by several museums, banks and corporations. What’s your process for getting on the radar of these types of institutions?
DK: Every acquisition happens in a unique way. This year, I’ve been fortunate to have one image from my rodeo project acquired by the Fort Wayne Museum of Art, and that occurred because I submitted work to their call for exhibition. Another image from the rodeo project has been acquired by the Wells Fargo Collection, and that happened through a local art consultant agency. Finally, the Phoenix Art Museum has acquired my Blurb book Cuban Fire, and this came about when I submitted the book for the InFocus juried exhibition of self-published Photobooks.
ASMP: Is your work represented by any commercial galleries?
DK: My music photography is represented by Rock, Paper, Photo.
ASMP: Your work has been featured in a number of exhibitions. Do you have any exhibitions scheduled for the near future?
DK: My second Blurb book Cuban Fire has been accepted for the InFocus Juried Exhibition of Self-Published Photobooks at the Phoenix Art Museum. The exhibit opens on August 23 and runs until September 28, 2014.
ASMP: Which photographers, filmmakers, or artists inspire and influence your work and style?
DK: My biggest influence has been Alex Webb. Like a mega dose of espresso, his influence was enough for about 15 years. Then, when I left my newspaper job and started teaching, I fell in love with photography again and discovered Eggleston, Ernst Haas and Helen Levitt. I don’t know that they influence my style — more like they validate it. I just love color. But for me, it has to be done within the confines of what has traditionally been considered “straight” photography. #nofilters please!
ASMP: What’s been your most valuable business decision to date?
DK: I started my website in 1996 and continued to just add on to it until 2012, when I finally had to ditch it. It was like moving out of a childhood home. Where should I go? I ended up with aPhotoFolio and am so happy. But I also needed Jasmine DeFoore and Dave Einsel to help me determine what to leave off the portfolio site and what to add to the archive site.
ASMP: What is the most important advice that you’d give a young photographer starting out now?
DK: I come from a documentary background so, for me, integrity is paramount. After that, look at tons of work and figure out what appeals to you. When I saw Alex Webb’s work, the light bulb went off and I knew where I was going. And remember to prepare for mix-ups. Every assignment will have a mix-up. Get there early! And be nice to everyone!
ASMP: Have you set any major personal or professional goals for yourself in the years ahead? Where do you see yourself in five years time?
DK: Books, museums and magazines. Less marketing. More shooting.