When did photography become just a job?

Have you ever asked yourself this question during the dark hours of morning when you’re lingering in a drowsy dream state? You’re not alone. Many creative people who turn their passion into a profession have asked themselves this same soul-searching question. 

Ji Lee, former creative director at Google Creative Lab, summed up this frustration: “I really wanted to not only think about ideas but also make something happen!”

Instead of staying stuck in the politics of commissioned work, Ji Lee harnessed the power of personal projects to fuel his professional development. He quickly changed his career trajectory with 30,000 stickers and a guerrilla art approach.

To explore the power of personal projects, The Photo Life is publishing a series of posts from photographers who have embraced risk and pursued long-term personal projects. The first post is by Dan Milnor, a roving documentary photographer and Blurb’s “Photographer at Large,” who splits his time between the chaos of Southern California and the spiritual landscape of New Mexico. 

CLICK BELOW TO SEE A SLIDESHOW of Dan’s series “The Wildness Project,” Una Pura Verdad (A Simple Truth)

I can’t work as a photographer and be a photographer.

This sentence first came out of my mouth in late 1997 after I looked at a broken, shallow portfolio that I vaguely recognized as being my own. Pain, sadness and a feeling of failure – how had something I loved so much become something I couldn’t recognize or feel? I had no answers, but I knew I had to get away. So I quit. I took a corporate job and sold every single piece of equipment I had minus a Canon 70-200mm lens that I somehow managed to trade for a Leica M6 and 35mm.

For the next four and half years I floated through the dream world of corporate America while exploring my own photographic ideas on the side. I poured myself into projects I found interesting, compiling folder after folder of T-max negatives, never showing anyone my work. Ideas and desire came flowing out of me like blood from an open, self-inflicted wound. At the end of my corporate years I came up for air and took stock of what I created. After years in photography school, years in the field, years of working for other people and subsequent years working on my own projects, I finally realized who I was with a camera in my hand. I realized personal work was the key to my creativity and the key to how I saw the world.

And then I promptly forgot ALL of this and went right back to being a photographer.

For the following ten years I traversed the professional photography field, doing weddings, portraits, a little editorial, a little commercial work and negotiating but losing several advertising jobs (I didn’t really want them.) Once again I found myself growing distant from not only my own work but from the idea of being a photographer. I realized that the gap between my ideals, and those of my clients, were growing farther apart. So, I did what I had learned to do so well, I quit…again.

My goal was to move to New Mexico, build a darkroom and forget about everyone and everything. I had a specific story idea, a story planted in me in 1975 when my father moved our family to rural Wyoming and embarked on a ranching career that spanned decades. I bought an oversized art book and began compiling ideas, storylines, contact information, maps and other material I thought critical, and then turned my car toward the dusty stretches of nothing and one mile at a time drove myself into my new life.

As the landscape flicked by, the silence and solitude of being alone allowed me to reflect on what I was doing and why. Why was I doing this? Why was I out here? I felt an enormous weight being lifted, not just physically but mentally. I realized that working as a photographer had forced me to see the world, and photography, in a certain way that didn’t actually fit my vision of the world. I didn’t have to work that way ever again. Like my foot lifting off the gas pedal, I suddenly began to see all those things I was driving by to get to my hyper-specific, photographic destination. I felt like I’d walked into a surprise party and the rest of the world yelled at me, “SURPRISE!” as if I’d missed most of the last 43 years.

This damn photography thing is in my DNA, like a virus I can’t get rid of but one I am entirely in love with. But for me, the entire business revolves around personal work. I can’t work as a photographer again. As you can see, it took me twenty years to figure this out, but now I know it with one hundred percent certainty. For others it works, and I salute them and wish them well. Perhaps I have a fragile mind that requires time to sort through things that others solve in an instant? I’m not entirely sure.

This work featured here is not about me; it is about the people in the images. My goal with this work is not to get published or exhibited. My goal is to get the people in the photographs engaged in the project. Ultimately, I would like this work to be archived by the state of New Mexico.

About Dan Milnor

Daniel Milnor is happiest with his notebook, Leica and trusty leather boots, sizing up whatever situation is happening in front of him. A former newspaper, magazine and commercial photographer, Milnor now tries to work solely on his own projects. He’s also “Photographer at Large” for Blurb and has taught at Art Center College of Design, The Santa Fe Photographic Workshops, The Julia Dean Workshops, The Academy of Art University and is scheduled to teach in Peru, Argentina and Uruguay. He is the author of the blog Smogranch, which allows him to speak his mind, post his mother’s poetry and bring like-minded people together. Recently he created this blog to bring his New Mexico project to life via real-time viewing. His goal is to get those in the photographs involved in discussion.

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