Danelle Manthey is a fine art photographer based at New York City. She attended Chicago’s acclaimed school for photography, Columbia College and worked as a color printer, studio manager and photographer. ‘Absence of Sound’ is her personal project where she explored the lives of people she came across at many locations in South Dakota, where she grew up, and at various places in the US. She states in the project statement that her “goal is to show something that otherwise might not been seen or said, to unfold a little bit of the mystery of life.”
‘Christmas USA’ is another of her large-scale projects, with photos of people in her hometown with their Christmas Lights. She has been working on the project every year since in a new location around the country and is looking to turn both the photographs and the stories of these people into a book. I’ll feature some of those images on Christmas, just two days ahead.
Please tell us about yourself and your relationship with photography:
I started taking pictures in High School as the newspaper and yearbook photographer. I then moved to Chicago for college and attended Columbia College. After college I moved to San Francisco and worked as a photo studio manager, assistant and production assistant. It wasn’t until after I moved to New York that I started working on more large, long term projects. The first of which, was Christmas USA.
As for my relationship with photography, I feel like it’s always been a bit of a struggle for me. I see people that are so naturally creative and I’m just not sure if I’m one of those people. I really take a long time to think about a project before I actually start it and then I go through many stages of doubt before I think anything that I’ve shot is good.
There’s a very diverse body of work available on your website. What kind of images do you like shooting most?
I like to work on two different kinds of images. First, I really enjoy shooting portraits. I like to meet new people, let them take me into their world and make images from that meeting. It’s an interesting thing to think about – going into a strangers’ space and them letting you take their picture. It’s such an intimate exchange – then showing you around, looking at their clothing, posing them. It’s something you don’t really think of doing with someone you’ve never met before.
The other aspect of my photography is imagery based on memories. This is what most of my recent work is. I recall a memory and really think and feel that memory and then I think of places that are in my everyday life now that represent that feeling. It’s almost kind of a therapy or exorcism of that time.
How do you view your evolution as a photographer? How much does the monetization of your work matter to you?
I don’t think about the monetization of my work as a motivator at all. I make the images I want to make more because I have to. It’s like I have these images in my head and I need to get them out of there and into something solid that you can see and touch. I’m constantly looking around and seeing pictures – whether I take them or not – and I can store them in my head for later if I have an idea that goes with them.
As for my evolution, I started off young wanting to be a war journalist – I wanted to take pictures that really mattered to people. Then I got sidetracked and wanted to be a commercial photographer, I don’t know if it was because I was so attracted to shooting ads but more that I didn’t know what else I was supposed to do and it seemed like the next step. Now that I’m not pursing that anymore, I feel free just to take pictures that I want to take, without any pressure that they have to be for something, or that I have to make money from them. I can shoot whatever I want and that’s quite freeing.
Well, as I said before, it’s a long slow process for me. I might think about something for years before taking a photo. I might shoot a lot of film – at one point I had at least 50 rolls of film lying around – and not get it developed. I think I have this block of just going out there and shooting. I’m slightly envious of people that can do that, that shoot every day or every month and make all of these images. I just plan everything out in my head and – especially if I’m shooting 4×5 – go out in a day or two and just shoot what I’ve been thinking. Sometimes only a frame or two. It’s probably not the best way to go about it.
I really only shoot about one project a year. I just spent a couple of nights photographing Autumn trees at night with a battery powered strobe and my Canon 5D Mark II. I’ve looked at the photos a couple of times but I still haven’t edited them or anything – maybe in the new year.
I would like to publish Christmas USA – I sent it to a handful of publishers this year and was turned down by all of them. The project is complete so I am going to work with a designer friend and self-publish we’ll probably start the process at the beginning of 2016. When I started getting serious about this project, I always saw it as a book, I have stories that go with each person’s images and I think it will be not only visually interesting – but also their stories are fun and compelling. That is the only series I see as a book at this time. The rest of my work, I am just trying to get into more gallery shows.
I only have 2 cameras now – my Canon 5D Mark II, it has a 50mm 1.2 lens and my Sinar 4×5 with a 110mm lens. A lot of what I’ve shot was on my Mamiya RZ but I sold that for the 4×5. I love the 4×5, it totally suits my slow method of shooting and because it takes so long to take a photo and is expensive – you really have to think about what you’re doing when you’re taking a picture. I try and use the same though process when shooting with the Canon, I think a lot of people, when working with digital, just shoot like crazy. I would rather have less images that are more thought out – but again, that’s probably not the smartest way to shoot!
Do you have a favorite photo or a project having a great story behind?
I guess if I had to pick a project, I would pick Christmas USA. It was my first major project and I spent almost 10 years traveling around the Country taking people’s photographs. It was such an interesting process of either knocking on stranger’s doors and asking them if I could photograph them, or doing online research into people who have displays and reaching out to them via phone or email to see if I could take their photo. The amount of time and space that people gave me to take their picture was truly outstanding. People would stand around outside even if it was raining, freezing, my camera stopped working etc… Sometimes I would be invited inside afterwards and we could chat and get to know each other a little better. It was an amazing experience.
If I were to pick a favorite photo that is not a Christmas photo, I would pick the portrait (see above) I took of Zach Condon of the band Beirut. It’s a black and white picture that I shot with my Hasselblad and a 80mm lens. It was for a promo shoot that I did with them and I don’t think they ever used the shot but it totally exemplifies the kind of portrait I am drawn to. Simple and straightforward.
What do you think about contemporary photography (current trends, social media, photography as a career, etc.)?
Haha – I’ve been working in commercial photography for a long time, no comment.
I have had a couple of shows at Susan Eley Fine Art on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. She included me in the PULSENY art fair in 2013. I showed a couple of times at Jenkins Johnson Gallery in Chelsea NYC. I’ve had 2 artist residencies with chashama in Manhattan. I was in the Pool Art Fair and the Govenor’s Island Art Fair both in NYC and I’ve been in a bunch of juried shows. I have been written up on Feature Shoot, Photogrist, PDN, This is the What and the New York Optimist.
What are your future plans/projects, ambitions, inspirations etc.?
I would love to be in a Museum like the MoMa or the Whitney, I think that’s the biggest dream I have.
This is my favorite photography quote from Diane Arbus:
If I were just curious, it would be very hard to say to someone, “I want to come to your house and have you talk to me and tell me the story of your life.” I mean people are going to say, “You’re crazy.” Plus they’re going to keep mighty guarded. But the camera is a kind of license. A lot of people, they want to be paid that much attention and that’s a reasonable kind of attention to be paid.
Something to say to our readers or aspiring photographers:
Follow your gut and do what you want, don’t listen to too many other people. When you start to do that, your work starts to get deluded.
All photos © Danelle manthey : Website