DPP Home Profiles Dan Couto - Let's Party

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Dan Couto - Let's Party

This is what happens when you combine an eye for comic-book looks with boundless energy and intensity

“The best skill you can have as a photographer is people skills,” says Couto. “If you don't know how to do something, you hire a $1,500-a-day assistant who does. But you've got to be able to run an amazing lunch. And I mean that in all seriousness. That's how you get the massive jobs.”

The massive jobs not only provide Couto the ability to pay the rent, but they fund his personal projects as well. In turn, those personal “creatives” can help to bring about more paying clients. It's a perfect cycle, as evidenced by his self-funded Jane Bond experiment.

“Basically, I always had this idea in my head about using some iconographic figures from the movies,” explains Couto. “So why don't we take James and switch him over to Jane? We did this massive creative, rented two mansions. And we had this one girl—she's one of the most stunning girls I've ever seen. Shoulder-length red hair, white skin, freckles…So we put this head-to-toe tan body makeup on her, and this short, blond bob wig, and she transformed into this character that just blew everybody away! And she totally didn't get it. She was giving crap to the camera. And I almost said the words of death that a photographer can say to a model: ‘Hey, Frogface, give me some hope.' But I didn't. Instead, I parked her in front of a mirror and I said, ‘Look at yourself.' And then she got it, spun and looked at me, and I took this shot that was on my business card, my promos, everything. This signature shot came from that. This was at a really low point in my career, and I blew $10,000 I didn't have on this creative.

“Then several months down the road, I put this stuff in the Black Book. RadioShack in Texas phones me up, and they want me to replicate the entire campaign for this eight-million home-mailer and ads in USA Today and magazines—everything. A huge campaign that they paid me a quarter of a million bucks to do. So that was an amazing lesson. Just follow your muse, wherever she may lead you.”

On other occasions, Couto's personal passions not only don't bring in new jobs, they scare away clients because they're a little too dark, too edgy or just plain strange. Like when he created a series he calls Night of the Driven Dead.

“I got tired of shooting really beautiful people,” says Couto. “I thought, Let's do the white-trash zombie family at the automobile graveyard! We rented this automobile graveyard outside of Toronto. It's fun. It's weird. Just a lark. I can't show that ad to agencies. If you become really good friends with an art director, you can show them stuff like that, but if you show that to clients, that's the best way to lose a job. They just get freaked out. I've brought comic books into meetings and I've had the meetings fail miserably. You have to dial it down for Fred and Wilma.”

Couto understands that his client work depends on his creative side, and vice versa. He can't dedicate himself to personal projects—although he might like to—without that advertising income. But he doesn't subscribe to the idea that if he shoots what he loves, clients will hire him to deliver exactly the same kind of images.

“They'll hire you to always do a notch less,” he says. “Always. But if you're shooting for the rim, it's going to bounce off the bottom of the net. You've got to shoot for the stars. And then if you bounce off the upper ionosphere, at least you've got a Porsche in the garage or something to show for your troubles.

“There but for the grace of God you could be a barista at Starbucks,” he continues. “That's how I look at life all the time. For me, it's B.S. Mountain—you can climb that one or you can make your own. And photo comics are the one I decided to climb. There's no middle ground. You're either shooting the low-rent, mass-volume catalog stuff, or you're perpetuating a style that others can't duplicate easily and charging premium top dollar for it. You start to really get in touch with what's driving the whole propaganda advertising machine: It's your visual aesthetic.”

There's a pause and a chuckle before Couto sums up my thoughts exactly.

“And you thought this would be a dull interview.”

To see more of Dan Couto's photography, visit www.dancouto.com.



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