Talking to Dale Grant

Interview with photographer Dale Grant photographed by Heidi Rondak
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Interview:

Dale Grant

The first time I met Dale Grant it was summer and we were at a dinner party ’chez Norbert Cheminel’, a mutual friend of ours. It’s hard to describe what a lovely evening we had – with good wines, French homemade food, one loveable dog, and ten beautiful human souls sitting and eventually dancing together. While Dale was claiming that he and Hercules were just invited in order to bring ’Blitz’ (the dog) he revealed himself as a joyful and entertaining person who at the next moment conjured his new photo book ’Fading Beauty’ up as a present for the hosts. I could just catch a glimpse at it that evening but I was listening carefully when he mentioned that he switched genres from fashion to fine art flower photography with great success. Very interesting – by this, he made it on my ’photographers to interview’ list! A good while after that evening I reached out to talk to him a little more and we met at Café Berio in Berlin-Schöneberg. I realised we had much more in common than just our photography… And finally, I received my own signed copy of ’Fading Beauty’.

You started out as a fashion photographer but now you discovered a new passion: flowers. How did that happen? 

That happened because I was shooting flowers over the years and then all of a sudden I started to receive requests for prints. But how it actually started – I was living in New York and I remember a friend who had a magazine saying to me: ’you have to do something really different from everybody else to succeed in New York’ and that stuck with over the years and led to where I am today. After he said this to me I was thinking and thinking about what I could do.  I started shooting portraits and I would write texts on them to add another layer, I got published with that. But then I  said ’enough’ with this and I started just experimenting with flowers. So I would shoot flowers in black and white and I would paint on the photos. You know, just experimenting and trying anything to do something different. The painting didn’t stick but the flowers did. I did not shoot flowers all the time but over time I had been noticing that flowers appealed to me so I continued shooting them sporadically just for fun and experimentation. While I was still doing fashion photography one of the first photos that I sold at an exhibition in New York was a print of flowers that I had shot. Back then I still didn’t take it seriously but all of a sudden I began to shoot more and then people started to buy prints. I realised that this is working. So that is how it began.

And what was the first flower that you shot?

It was in New York and it was a tulip.

And are tulips your favourite sort of flowers?

I shoot a lot of tulips because I also live in Amsterdam, so you know the Dutch tulips are everywhere, I especially love the elegant way their stems arch towards the light. I also love peonies, they look like roses but big and very full, I hardly ever photograph roses, I do not find them very interesting photographically.

Tulips photographed by Dale Grant

 

Peonies are the ones that look like a ball, right? Oh, yeah, I love them too! These are my favourite flowers. And would you say there’s a certain message in your flower photography? 

Now, after shooting them, yes. As I have photographed flowers that were dying as well, or I found beauty in the petals that would fall onto the fabric on which I would photograph them, I realised how it reminded me of life and death with flowers but also in relation to us. And that’s why my photo book is called ’Fading Beauty’. It’s about beauty which fades slowly over time. And so, therefore, I shoot flowers in full bloom when they’re looking bright and full of life and then I shoot them when they’re withering and dying. And I love that. It shows transformation. Since I love shooting portraits of people so much, I approach photographing flowers in much the same way as I photograph faces. So I take it very personally. It’s photographing the life cycle that’s interesting for me – we’re bright and young at a certain point in our lives but then eventually this youthfulness would fade. For me aging is also a form of beauty – as a photographer, I find beauty in all faces, even the most wrinkled face, I think it’s so beautiful. Or a face covered with freckles – most people hate their freckles – but I love them because they give the skin so much texture and a unique character. 

FADING BEAUTY published by Kerber Verlag

 

The transition of a dahlia

 

You’re very right, it’s beautiful to look at things that way. And you also told me that you ’listen’ to your flowers and what they would tell you – is this your approach when shooting them or how would you always start?

First I would go to my favourite florist and choose the flowers. Sometimes the florist would smile and say that I look as if I am casting flowers. I just choose five or fewer flowers but I really look at them to see which one speaks to me in terms of how it’s opening or the colour or when they have certain imperfections; and then I would take the flowers home and let it stand in a vase on a table watching it each day to see how it opens, etc.  I would say that 90% of the flowers that I buy are not photographed. I don’t photograph every flower that I buy, it’s really personal for me, I really need to be inspired by them in order to photograph them. So I’m looking at them on the table every day asking ’How are you looking today?’ (laughs)

Wow! I think that’s a much more artistic way of shooting! When you shoot fashion you just cast a model and when she’s there and you don’t feel it you can’t say ’No, I won’t take photos of you’. 

Exactly! Whereas, with flowers, I have a choice. That is what I like about doing this now as opposed to fashion: I don’t have to deal with the hair, the make-up, all the styling, the agencies, and all that. I just have my flower! 

Yeah, I totally understand that and I guess it’s a meditative way of working. 

Yes, and it is also very spontaneous. I just let the flowers guide me, flowers are my muse now. Some of them I would shoot from the front, the profile and the back like you would shoot a face from different sides. A lot of photos in the book resulted from what I did not think of before shooting them; the petals would just fall in a certain way or I would arrange different parts of a flower to make a deconstructed image. Instead of planning my shoots, I let the flowers inspire and guide me. I can photograph flowers for hours playing with their shapes and forms and being inspired. For example one of my favourite photos in the book is of a red gerbera flower. While photographing it I found the flower not very interesting to photograph but I had the idea to place a sheet of non-reflective glass over it and squash the flower down very hard under the glass and the result is a very powerful image.

“I approach photographing flowers in much the same way as I photograph faces. So I take it very personally. It’s photographing the life cycle that’s interesting for me”

And does your new muse make you more money than fashion did before?

Well, thankfully it is not only a financial thing for me but yes, I am having great success with my fine art photography. 

Dale Grant photographed by Heidi Rondak

 

So will you ever shoot fashion again or do you exclude it from your work completely? 

No, no, I still shoot fashion when I’m requested by clients. I must say that when I’m in-studio or on-location I love being there and I do miss the energy of a shoot. It’s the fashion scene that I fell out of love with. I enjoy being alone so shooting flowers works perfectly for me.

I guess it’s a good thing to do it rarely when you actually say you love it but doing it too much would just tire you. So you have something else which fulfills you most of the time and then once in a while you get to actually enjoy photographing fashion. 

Exactly.

You mentioned that you’re based in Amsterdam and Berlin. So you live in both cities, but which one is your home?

That’s difficult to say. I love Amsterdam and I love Berlin. I spend more time in Berlin these days than I did before; therefore, I’m feeling it better. I would say it’s more Berlin at the moment but it changes. To be honest I still feel more at home in Paris than in Berlin or Amsterdam. I lived in Paris for eleven years but I had not gone back in eight years. Recently, I returned for Paris Photo and I asked myself ’why did I stay away for so long?’ It’s such a beautiful city and the energy is there. I still have friends in Paris from the time when I studied there. You know, the places where you study can be very nostalgic because of the carefree years spent there and I have that with Paris. When I go there I think ’this is home’ and I would not mind living there again. I also miss the style that Paris has.

Wow, I didn’t know that! So you’ll have to give me some recommendations for when I’m moving to Paris. I plan to do that in about two years! But as you loved it so much, why did you leave eventually?

I moved at a time when a lot of people in the fashion industry relocated to New York from Paris in order to find better work; I call it the mass exodus of creatives from Paris to New York and I ended up living in the city for seven years. 

But after that, you came to Berlin and Amsterdam instead of returning to Paris! Which differences do you notice between the two cities work-wise and personally?

Creativity-wise I think in Amsterdam they are always on the edge, especially in fashion photography. They really do interesting and experimental things regarding the hair, the make-up, the styling, and even the lighting. The Dutch have a certain style that is more refined than here. It’s a style that appeals to me and it’s more in-line with my creativity. As for the cities, I prefer Berlin because it doesn’t feel so crowded as Amsterdam feels. Amsterdam has one small centre where everybody congregates: you have the tourists, you have the people working there and the people living there. So it can be crazy busy. What I like about Berlin is that you have many different centres so it never seems over-crowded. I never really see crowds here. Maybe at Alexanderplatz, but I’m never there.

And at the main station!

Exactly.

Okay, that’s good to know for the next time traveling there! But nevertheless, you’re becoming a Dutch citizen now. 

I already am for 3 years. I’m officially a Dutchie now. (laughs)

Congrats! And was it hard to get the citizenship? 

No, because I had lived in the Netherlands for a long time already, I only had to apply for it. I didn’t want to post-pone it to any later because you never know if things would become more complicated in the future regarding immigration. Unfortunately, I had to give up my Bahamian citizenship but I will always be Bahamian in my heart and soul.

Dale Grant photographed by Heidi Rondak

 

And does that mean you’re going to stay in Amsterdam (and Berlin) forever or do you have other plans for the future? 

Hm, I moved around so much already but if I were to move again it would be to a place like the French Polynesian Islands. But that’s far in the future. I’m by nature a very optimistic person but with everything that’s happening in the world today – especially politically and socially – the future of life in a major city doesn’t look very pretty to me so I just want to be on an island somewhere I think. 

Yeah, I understand that thought. I was thinking about Iceland myself.

I have never been there but it’s a beautiful place I imagine.

And my plan D or E or whatever would be growing and selling flowers on Iceland. (laughs)

Oh, yeah! Sounds like a great idea to me.

I would love to work with flowers. And sometimes when I go to the flower shop I wonder why people there aren’t so happy. Because I can’t imagine being sad when I’m surrounded by plants and flowers! I think this would be my job in another life. Flowers just make me happy (:

I agree! When I go flower shopping especially in the Netherlands, I also love being surrounded by the different varieties of flowers and seeing them change season to season. My biggest joy is when I experience a new variety, colour, or shape for the first time and could hardly wait to photograph it.

 

Varieties of flowers in FADING BEAUTY

 

So about The Bahamas where you are from: is there a market for photography and did you start your career there? 

No, I left The Bahamas early to attend college abroad. There’re some talented young photographers there now and I follow a few of them on Instagram. I’m really impressed with what they’re doing – it’s more fine art photography. But I do not think that there is a big market for fashion or fine art photography in The Bahamas and if the young photographers want to pursue photography in one of these fields they will most likely have to leave the country in order to have a certain level of international success if that’s their goal. I did not start out to become a photographer you know. I got my bachelor’s degree in International Business and my master’s degree in Political Science in Paris. But before going to Paris I went from The Bahamas to Kenosha, a small town in Wisconsin in the United States where my brother went to school. The first year was great but the second year I felt that I needed a change from the small town mentality. As it so happens one day I was walking around on the campus and I saw a poster for the American College in Paris’s year abroad program. I wish I had taken it off the wall because that poster really changed my life and put it on a very unexpected path. At that time I had no interest in learning French or the French culture but somehow that poster just jumped out at me; it’s difficult to explain the effect it had on me thinking back now. I ended up going to the American College in Paris and it was expected that I would return to Kenosha to do my senior year and graduate but what was to be one year abroad in Paris turned out to be eleven years. In Paris, I was surrounded by friends who were students of fashion and I began playing around with fashion photography and testing for model agencies alongside my academic studies. When I was finishing up my studies for my master’s degree, a good friend introduced me to a fashion photographer and we just started hanging out and I eventually became his assistant. Working with him was amazing and  I thought ’wow, I like this’ – This is how my photography career began. My life is filled with unplanned occurrences like this that placed me on a new path.

Paris sounds like a perfect place to start, I guess. And it’s always how it happens – many people start with something else and then they eventually become photographers.

Yes, and I have no regrets, I love it and the unexpected events that happen in one’s life, both the ups and the downs, have been good to me. 

So you never worked in any political field?

No. But I still use some of the skills when navigating the world both socially and professionally, so my studies were not in vain.

And does your family still live in The Bahamas?

Yes, they do. 

But what do they say about you living abroad for such a long time already?

They’re used to it now and they’re all happy and proud of the work that I’m doing, especially my book. My father passed three years ago and my mother four years ago. She was a photographer and at the beginning of my book, there are three photographs that my mother shot in 1969.

Ah! And also flowers?

Yeah, flowers! It’s a bit strange because growing up I always saw these photos that were stored in a box and I would just think ’wow, Mommy shot photos of flowers’ but it did not click at first. After she passed and I was going through the box again I said to my siblings that I would like to take these photos with me back to Amsterdam to put them up on the wall in my apartment. Then the book came along and I said ’I have to put these in my book’ because they are really a part of the story. I’m sure it was all there subconsciously: the connection between her photographing flowers and me eventually photographing flowers. It is interesting that the flowers shot by my mother were dahlias that she grew in her garden, a flower not typical at all in The Bahamas, and I also photograph dahlias.

First pages of FADING BEAUTY with flowers photographed by Doritt Grant and inscription by Dale

 

Very beautiful and a good idea to put her photos in the book too! I guess it’s also part of the transition that you mentioned.

Exactly! The fading, yes. 

And what kind of photographer was your mom?

She had a small photo studio where people would come in to get their family photos taken. I have early memories of being with her in the studio photographing people and every time I smell black and white photo printing chemicals I think of the times when I would watch her process and print film in her darkroom. For me as a little boy looking into the developer and watching the image emerge was a very magical experience. 

Yeah, I love the developing process too. And my father was a photographer in his young years as well! He did some portrait jobs and weddings and things like that. He never mainly worked as a photographer but he always brought his camera everywhere and took a lot of family photos. Now I have his camera and I used it a lot throughout my studies. And I never thought about becoming a photographer myself but I guess somehow it was always there in the back of my head. 

Yes, something sticks in your mind. And now I’m going to take out her old 6×6 Mamiya camera, you know, the ones that you look down into, and I’m going to start taking photos with it. I want to begin shooting analogue again with my mom’s camera and see where I’m led. 

Very nice! So your current flower photos are taken digitally?

Yes. They’re all shot digitally.

It’s going to be a game-changer! I can imagine (:

Yes hopefully, it’s going to be different but I must do it and see what comes about.

“For me as a little boy looking into the developer and watching the image emerge was a very magical experience.”

I have one more question about The Bahamas because I’ve googled them and I must say the beaches look like a dream! When you grow up in such a beautiful place, how’s your view of other nice places or beaches around the globe? Do they ever impress you? 

It’s difficult! I go to beaches and people would say ’oh, look at the water! I have to go and swim’ – and I am thinking ’I’m not going in there.’ (laughs) I guess that I’m spoilt being brought up around crystal blue waters. 

Haha, yes, it looked so pure and cyan blue in the pictures, just amazing!

The astronauts say that when they look down from outer space the waters surrounding the islands are the most beautiful. The ocean has different levels of depths that change constantly therefore you have the ever-changing colours from the lightest to the darkest blues.

Okay, now I want to go there too. 

Haha, so when you go, you must go to Harbour Island! It’s my favourite. That is where all the magazines go to shoot. You will love it and you won’t want to come back. (laughs)

I’ll keep that in mind definitely! I hope a magazine will send me (: 

There’s one more topic that I wanted to talk to you about: your teaching. Tell me a bit about where you teach photography.

I teach at the Miami Ad School where the students study to become either art directors and copywriters. It’s a very reputable advertising school that began in Miami and has lots of campuses all over the world – one in Berlin and one in New York for example. Once a week I teach two classes in Berlin. In one class the basics of photography and for the second class I teach studio photography. I take them to a level where they shoot campaigns for products such as perfumes, watches, and fashion. We do role reversal where I’m the art director and they’re the photographer. I really enjoy teaching because I have students who come in and they don’t even know how to put a battery in a camera but by the end of the second class, that’s after 16 sessions, some are doing really award-winning photography. I love to see the progress of the students. Also, the feedback is always great to hear, they tell me how much they have learnt and the best thing is when they say that they want to continue with photography. I enjoy giving back and sharing the skills that I have learnt over the years.

It’s great when you see that you could put your knowledge in someone else’s head and eventually even create a spark! But did your change of genre influence how you teach? 

No, I don’t think it changed the way I teach.

Okay! Let’s talk about the future: what are the next steps for you? 

Now that I published my book which came out in July, people are asking me already when I’m going to publish a new one. So now there’s new pressure. It’s strange because I didn’t go after the book in the first place. A very good friend went to my publisher (Kerber Verlag) with another photographer’s work but they weren’t interested in his work so I thank my friend eternally for suggesting my work instead and after they saw my website they asked for a meeting and then came the book. That’s how the book came about although it wasn’t on my mind to publish a book when I was shooting flowers. Now I’m in a totally reversed situation and I have to find a subject for my next book. It’s interesting how I have to approach things differently this time around. 

Dale Grant by Heidi Rondak

 

And the first time we met you mentioned that you have an agent for your flower photography now?

Well, yes, I am now represented by a fine art agency – Prime Cut Contemporary Culture – and they help me on this new journey by finding collectors for my prints and organising exhibitions. 

Cool, are there many exhibitions currently?

I have an exhibition currently running at Sofitel Opera in Frankfurt that is up until March 2020.

All that sounds great – like a whole new world you’re living in now. I think there’s a lot happening with the mind when you change your perspective and you build up a new career. You start to have new strategies and so on. 

Yes, things are happening now that I’ve never dreamt of. It was great to be at Paris Photo in the Grand Palais which is one of the biggest fine art photography fairs in the world. I had a book signing there because my publisher, Kerber Verlag, had some of their recently published artists present their books. I was very happy to learn that my book was a best seller at both the London and Frankfurt book fairs. In addition to that my book was recently given a bronze award by the German Photo Book Prize for best coffee table book of 2019. That was a great surprise and honour. It was a good feeling to have my book recognised by the industry.

Wow, congrats!

Thank you! There are a lot of positive things happening and for this, I’m very grateful and thankful.

Petals photographed by Dale Grant

 

Are you already working on something new right now?

Not yet. I still have to come up with a concept but I don’t know yet in which direction I will go. I don’t want to rush things as I always prefer that things happen spontaneously and organically. I’ve learnt through living that this is the best process for me personally, we all have our way of getting things done and I know what mine is. So no pressure. (laughs)

I’m sure you’re going to come up with something really cool in time. And I’m very curious to see it!

Me too! (laughs)

Thank you, Dale! I think this was very inspiring because what I learn from what you say is that it’s never too late to change your mind about what you’re doing. If you just feel that something’s helping you more to express you shouldn’t stop yourself just because you used to do something else for a few years.

Exactly. It can be scary because first and foremost I am a photographer – I just got tired of the politics of the fashion industry, and I know that there are a lot of other photographers in this situation who eventually just give up. I feel really blessed because I was able to transition to fine art photography organically and it’s working for me. My saving grace was that I had been photographing flowers parallel to my fashion photography so I had another genre to switch to. It was once I made a conscious decision to put less effort into the fashion photography, that doors began to open up to me with my fine art photography without much effort thankfully and that singled to me that this is the path that I should be on at this time in my life. I see it as an example of preparing oneself and opportunity presenting itself.

Yeah, when you have a good mindset you’re able to see when there’s a good chance and grab it. So again thank you very much for your inspiring story, Dale!

You are welcome, Heidi! And thank you for having me.

“It can be scary because first and foremost I am a photographer – I just got tired of the politics of the fashion industry, and I know that there are a lot of other photographers in this situation who eventually just give up. I feel really blessed because I was able to transition to fine art photography organically (…).”

Visit Dale Grant’s website and Instagram (@dale.grant)

Epilogue

Don’t forget to visit Dale Grant’s Instagram. If you enjoyed reading this interview, or you found it helpful in one way or the other, I would love to know (reach out)! You are also welcome to support my work and writing by donating whichever amount this is worth to you. I will thank you with lots of telepathic love and more interesting journal entries. Cheers!

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