We had the good fortune of connecting with Douglas Hill and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Douglas, we’d love to hear about how you approach risk and risk-taking
I fully admit to generally speaking being risk averse, extremely so at times. I’ve operated on the erroneous assumption that the objective of life is to get through it experiencing as little pain and disappointment as possible. This is of course not only futile but completely counter-productive, because in order to avoid pain and disappointment it’s necessary to limit one’s experiences to those where all outcomes are foreseeable and desirable. Obeying fear keeps me safe, or so it seems. The thing is, so far as work is concerned at least, I’m my most productive, my most creative, when I don’t know what’s coming next. Fortunately, the fear that comes up is in anticipation of what may happen in any given day, and I’ve now had enough experience on the street with a camera in my hand to know that the most interesting and exciting things the world has to offer are around the next metaphorical corner. At that point the only real fear I feel is that I may not rise to the occasion presented to me and make the best photograph of which I’m capable. The risk of failure is acute, but that risk is absolute if I don’t raise the camera and make an exposure. My mantra since 1995 has been: If it occurs to you, shoot! An artist friend of mine refers to the best of his pieces as heroic failures. At first I thought that was an incredibly defeatist, Sisyphean attitude. Why would you deliberately embark on a task you knew was doomed to fail? But then I began looking at my own work in relation to that concept, realized that none of it was perfect, and began letting go of perfection as an achievable goal. The most accomplished work by anyone, ever, has missed the mark of perfection. Leonardo carried the Mona Lisa around with him wherever he went for decades, periodically improving it. Why would I think my experience could be any different… ever! Those who risk profound disappointment in the pursuit of perfection have gained the greatest rewards. I’ve been thinking about risk in relation to my personal fine art projects, however, I also apply the same way of thinking to the commercial work I do. Whether my clients know it or not, the best of what I do for them is often on the edge of falling apart, even when they’re looking over my shoulder at my laptop. My goal with every shot is to make it better than I think I can by pushing the process further than I have before. The risk is that they won’t like the results, however, the greater risk, as far as I’m concerned, is that I won’t like the results. When that happens, sometimes it means tearing down everything we’ve done to build a shot and starting over again with a different approach. That can seem completely counterintuitive, even frustrating to the client, but at times it’s quite necessary. Years ago, I had an opportunity to work on a series of TV commercial with a legendary, Oscar winning cinematographer. I watched his crew set up one shot that was proving particularly difficult to light. After two hours, it was decided the shot wasn’t working, and the cinematographer ordered his crew to completely break down everything they had set up and had them start all over again with a different approach. It occurred to me later that making that decision was in fact what the client was paying for, whether they knew it or not. The risk of not looking like he knew what he was doing was worth it to avoid the risk of a mediocre outcome. I don’t want to look back on my career wishing I had taken more risks.
Can you open up a bit about your work and career? We’re big fans and we’d love for our community to learn more about your work.
I see myself as something of an alchemist who translates ideas and places into a visual sense of desire or interest to the viewer. Wherever I am, whatever project I may be working on, whether it’s on behalf of a client or one of my own, my paramount goal is to find a way to convey a unique sense of place. A photographer’s point of view is what makes the work different from that of others. My personal photographs may appear to be quite different from my commercial ones, but whatever I do in one realm always has an impact on the other. I decided a long time ago to remain open to learning from any circumstance I find myself in. I don’t want to fall into the trap of needing to appear to be an expert who’s seen everything and done everything. I haven’t. Can I bring a level of expertise to what I do? Certainly. But is it a good idea to keep challenging myself? Absolutely. Having said all that, what I think has made me successful has been my willingness to do assignments with a sense of cooperation and collaboration with everyone I work with, from clients, editors, gallerists, assistants and business owners and homeowners. Life is too short to behave any other way. Might there have been an easier, faster path to success? I’m sure. But this is the one I chose and would likely choose again if given the chance.
If you had a friend visiting you, what are some of the local spots you’d want to take them around to?
Well, these days hanging out in the traditional sense isn’t really in the cards. If I were to answer the question a year ago, though, I’d anchor an outing with a friend at a restaurant. Los Angeles is filled with an incredible array of fantastic places to eat dishes you’re not likely to find anywhere else. We have a number of creative chefs who are willing to bring the creative spirit to everything they do, mixing cuisines of one culture and another, making something entirely new in the process. For instance, Minh Phan’s Porridge and Puffs is unlike any other restaurant I’ve been to, and over the many times I’ve been, consistently inventive and a delight to the palate. From there we could wander around historic Filipinotown, which is at once like a lot of Los Angeles neighborhoods and utterly unique in its cultural layering. Virtually all of the older communities in LA have gone through a number of identities over the years, retaining vestiges of the old while the latest occupants place their own stamp on things. If you’re open to what’s going on around you, that’s where you’ll find the most interesting people. Walking is the key.
Who else deserves some credit and recognition?
Pasadena Photography Arts: www.pasadenaphotographyarts.org Martin Cox, Photographer: www.martincox.com Ellen M Friedlander, Photographer: www.ellenfriedlanderphotography.com Bill Wishner, Photographer: billwishner.com Elayne Sawaya, the Catering Concierge: cateringconcierge.net Beate Chelette: beatechelette.com
Website: https://www.douglashillphotography.com, https://www.doughill.com
© Douglas Hill