DPP Home Profiles Jeff Dunas: A Man On A Mission

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Jeff Dunas: A Man On A Mission

With a multifaceted career as a photographer, magazine publisher and creator of the Palm Springs Photo Festival, Jeff Dunas constantly strives to advance the art of photography

This Article Features Photo Zoom

Studio ­­­­Landscape, Los Angeles, 1998
DPP: Who are some of the photographers that you interfaced with at the beginning of your career?

Dunas: I was living in L.A. in the ’70s, and at that time there weren’t that many out here who were serious about photography. L.A. was considered a backwater. There were stringers for New York-based magazines in L.A., but this wasn’t a place where guys who were in the mainstream of photography could get a lot of work. In my early 20s, I worked for Playboy so I knew some of the Playboy guys and we would share ideas. Tony Friedkin and Philip Dixon have been lifelong friends. Dixon and I would talk about ideas and techniques. I also spent a lot of time looking at books. For me, taking pictures has always been about the idea of making books. I did editorial work because that’s how I made my living, but I thought and still think that the ultimate place for photographs is a book.

Alcazar Palace, Spain, 2006
DPP: You’ve amassed a huge book collection. What are some of the early books and photographers that inspired you?

Dunas: One of the earliest books I bought was Lartigue’s Diary of a Century. It’s an amazing book. Then there was Wingate Paine’s Mirror of Venus. I was really interested in photographing women. He did that right around the same time that Sam Haskins did Five Girls. Then I would look at the obvious stuff in bookstores—Ansel Adams’ books, Robert Frank’s The Americans, One Decisive Moment by Cartier-Bresson—just to get a range of what was out there. I was inspired by all of them in one way or another.

Dunas practices what he preaches at workshops and lectures—the importance of creating your own opportunities and developing your own ideas, not just dropping off a portfolio or sending a website link and waiting for the phone to ring.

Ira Makeshimfist, Sioux, 1989
DPP: In recent years, your photography book collection led to a rare opportunity—sitting down to discuss life and photography with the very private and legendary Irving Penn, who we lost in 2009.

Dunas: I had bought a copy of his book Moments Preserved, which was way over the top price-wise, but was the most pristine copy I had ever seen. I thought it would be fantastic if Penn would sign the book. When I was in New York, I appeared at his studio one day with the book and a copy of my book, American Pictures, which included a heartfelt dedication to him since I’d always admired his work. His assistant answered the door. “Oh, no. Mr. Penn doesn’t sign books anymore.” I said, “Okay, but I would like to leave both these books, and if he doesn’t want to sign Moments Preserved, it’s no big deal. I’ll come back and pick it up, but this one is for him anyway.” The guy said fine, took my number and closed the door. The next morning around 7 a.m., the assistant called me rather sheepishly and said, “Mr. Penn would like you to be at the studio at 8 a.m.” I was up on West 86th Street and got to his studio right on the money and rang the bell. Mr. Penn opened the door himself and said, “You must be Jeff. Come in.” He made me coffee, and for the next hour we sat at this little round table in the kitchen area of his studio. He blew my mind by saying he had taken my book home the night before and read it cover to cover. He wrote a beautiful dedication in his book to my wife Laura and myself. Penn was a master of multiple disciplines. Years ago, when I realized that I didn’t want to do just one type of photography, it was an epiphany. I wanted to see if I could express myself on a very high level in more than one photographic discipline. Not many go down that road—that’s why I started doing documentary photography, as well as nudes, street pictures and portraits. Penn inspired me not to care if people had problems typecasting me.


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