“Hey man, this is your studio?” questions Jay Levinthal as he surveys the area he has just walked into. Jay is the founder of Line Skis, an East Coast original in the world of free-style ski production. It’s 8 p.m. on a Sunday night when he strolls in, t-shirt and jeans, boxes teetering beneath his chin. He sets the boxes down and throws open the covers to reveal one boot from each set of the six for the 08/09 line of Full Tilt Technology ski boots. He shoves some bags into the corner which later are produced to be shot, as are next year’s boot bag and backpack from Line.
It might seem that a guy who is recognized for starting an internationally known ski company would be the one in control, but all of the responsibility here is with the man with the camera, Mr. Dan Brown. He begins thinking as to how he can achieve Jay’s request to shoot photos that can be scrolled through to create a 360 degree effect, which means the product has to shift without moving the background in any way that would cause a shadow of difference. At the same time, he has to figure out how to shoot the product in his small space, and use his equipment. His photos will be used in publications, owner’s manuals, as well as on-line, therefore making it essential that the product is displayed to its best advantage.
Dan Brown is a 24-year-old photographer. He seems to be your everyday guy when he answers the door, hat backwards as he cruises around his house in the North End of Burlington. He lives there with three other roommates, one of which is Joe Gaetani of Rightside Productions, a local filming company. The space is neat for the friendly twenty-somethings, pretty much as clean as it possibly could be, but once you enter the kitchen, things look drastically different.
A high roll of white cardstock, the blank backdrop, looms over the table, blocking the cupboard as it cascades down and rolls over the table like white foam from a waterfall. It hits the floor and rests up against a tri-pod outstretched and mounted high with a white umbrella-- a light diffuser attached to a flash to soften the light. A reflecting panel is pushed up against the windows as Dan maneuvers between his camera and the fridge.
“You’re the person in charge-- you’re responsible for the image,” says Dan when asked about the opportunity to shoot someone famous. Although the subjects that Dan’s photographing today aren’t living and breathing, it is still important that they are showcased perfectly. Watching Dan work, you’d think that he had known that this would be his profession since he was six, but that was the furthest from the truth.
The first time Dan took a photography class was during his senior year of college. While working on an English degree, he said, “I wanna do something for me.” It turned out that that whim of a class is working itself into a side career for the current editorial assistant in Waterbury. It’s apparent through watching Dan work behind the lens, that the job of editing doesn’t suit the personality of the guy bouncing around his house. The restraint of a desk job just doesn’t seem to be for him. Without much education in photography, Dan credits “learn[ing] a lot just by being exposed.” Whether it is his past experience of working as a staff photographer at his home newspaper, The Enterprise, in Massachusetts, or swinging by the skate park to see what’s going on, he learns something every day. “I guess I just like experiencing things,” he says. With photography, “I have fun capturing that moment.”
Being able to have an eye for that moment, Dan started Kapitol Photography. “I can’t tell you why it’s called that,” he says with a laugh, “but there’s a story behind it.” For a self-motivated business man, a goofy personality pokes in and out during conversation with Dan. He seems unstoppable, but admits that he does face some pretty scary stuff in his line of work. “I hate heights,” he admits. “I have a stepladder-- I don’t go to the top.” You’d think that this would inhibit his ability to get the shot, but Dan literally rose to the challenge when it came to photographing a brand-new bridge in Massachusetts. Scoping the premise, Dan found a man working a cherry-picker. He figured maybe he could get him ten or twenty feet up, to create a better angle. With some nerves running through him, he entered the lift, camera in hand. “He brings the thing to a hundred and twenty feet!” Dan shakes his head and mutters to himself, “Wind!” He pauses as if he’s reliving the moment and continues, “I didn’t take my eyes out of my camera.” Glancing off as if to picture the final product in his head, he remembers his task that day consisted of two things, “Me wanting to get the shot, and kinda had to get over my fear.”
With nervous shoots like that, Dan talks about the great opportunities that came with working at The Enterprise. “The best thing to photograph is kids,” he says upon thinking about his favorite subjects. He describes how kids aren’t afraid of a camera, always showing their true emotions in a shot. The real task in photography, he says, is trying to capture the feelings, emotions, sights and sounds, all in the click of a moment. It seems like the ability to go through so many things with so many different types of subjects would be such an intriguing lifestyle to lead, but Dan admits that he learned through working at the paper, that there are less favorable things to document. Acts of crime or fire stand at the top of Dan’s list of things he doesn’t enjoy shooting. “You kinda feel like a vulture,” Dan says, alluding to moments of feeling out of place and intrusive. “You’re capturing this person’s pain.” But it’s pretty apparent how challenging subjects have only made him better at what he does, leading him to greater opportunities.
Recently, Dan contacted the Louisiana rock-band, Meriwether. Upon hearing that they would be playing at the Burlington concert hall, Higher Ground, he dropped them a line saying how he was a local photographer and would like to shoot the show. It seems like all you have to do is stick your neck out a little sometimes. “I’m doing a lot of favors for people,” Dan says. That is the way it works though. This happens with the Line shoot. Jay reminds Dan that these are only product shots, meaning Dan’s name will not be on any of the photos. Dan will have time to get his name out there when he’s famous and shooting his ideal subject, the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition. Perhaps there’s a few perks to the job.
Conversation with Jay becomes blunt when it turns to the topic of ski photography. It’s apparent that skiing has played a big role in Dan’s life since age three. Using skiing as leisure, he feels like sometimes the photographers are the lucky ones. You get to hit, “untouched pow[der] before athletes even come down,” he remarks. Jay, being a man in the business himself, knows the passion that seeps from ski-folk, but also notes the struggle in ski photography. “You don’t make any money in photography until New York City…especially not in the ski industry. [It’s] good just for getting your foot in the door…it’s not about making money right now, it’s about getting work under your belt.” With each truthful word said by Jay, another spark seems to catch in Dan’s eye. The more challenging Jay makes the job sound, the more you can see Dan’s wheels churning, grinding and processing ways to get it done.
Friendly bickering between the boys seems to occur all night. “I can’t believe this is as big as they built the studio!” Jay sneers before squinting his eyes and laughing at his own joke. Dan laughs along with him and even plays into Jay’s booming calls to hair and make-up assistants who don’t exist. This isn’t your average product shot, as it is apparent that the two are tight. “I used to be info@lineskis,” claims Dan, reminiscing about his past experience of being the ‘information guy’ as a Line intern. It goes to show how Dan was right. Doing favors and getting to know a lot of people can seriously help you out as time goes on.
Inspiration still comes on a daily basis, although Dan has thousands of shots behind his back. “I like going out with my friends,” Dan says about shooting on a regular basis. Sure he’ll be the guy buying a round with you, but he’ll also be the guy who captures the moments you don’t remember the next day. People might not think that friends count as subjects, but there’s an image worth snapping in everything. Every flower has the opportunity to look perfect, as does every person. Everyone knows the reaction that comes out upon the sight of a camera. People perk up a bit. Truth be told, “There’s a little bit of vanity in everyone,” says Dan, whispering as if it’s an unknown secret.
Constant clicking repeats itself through the quiet house, rattling as sharp fast tones like acrylic nails on a teacher’s desk. Ch-ka, ch-ka. It feels like enough shots have been done to empty out an auxiliary, but the ski boots are just barely wrapped up. Both Dan and Jay rub their eyes, pause to breathe, and then realize the two backpacks that still need to be shot. Less laughter occurs as the night drones on, clock glowing at 10:42, flashing like a distant buoy in a sea with no shore in sight. They seem to wonder when things will wrap up, but both eye the backpacks, knowing that the perfect shot takes time and patience.
Nylon gets brushed and tilted, zippers pushed to the right-- no left, all in hopes of creating an image that makes you want to buy this bag. As bags line the shelves in the fall, Jay wants to get a shot that will make you remember the Line bag. “Pick me! Choose me!” it should scream, as it convinces you to take it home and make it yours. Jay hollowly says, “Done!” with excitement that is soon shattered as Dan questions the positioning of the boot bag.
While Dan calls the shots, Jay still is the paying customer. Exchanging of suggestions occurs quickly, both rushing like kids stuck on the last problem of a test, just wanting to go home. “[It’s] as good as it’s gonna get,” Jay says, looking at the bag propped up with a gallon of Olive Oil, bringing back Jay’s laughs and jokes over the private studio he’s rented for the night. Dan clicks and adjusts, tweaking panels and playing with lights, all in hopes of making the bag pop. No matter how long the two fiddle with the issue of an unwanted shine, the problem ironically, doesn’t seem to fade.
From cranky babies to fast-paced riders, high bridges to shiny fabric, there’s no telling what kind of struggle Dan will be up against. Better versions of Photoshop, a computer program used to digitally readjust pictures in hopes of achieving perfection, allow Dan to upload his images onto his computer, but not everything can be saved. No matter how difficult the subject, Dan knows he’s got to get the shot. If people could take glamour shots with their Polaroids, then why pay Dan good money to do what he’s doing?
Before either can realize, it’s half-past-eleven. The final shots are clicking, while both shake their heads thinking they could’ve saved so much time if they had just shifted this buckle one way, or pushed that strap another way. The men quickly look as though they’ve lost twenty years, stumbling around rubbing their eyes and tousling their hair in obvious signs of exhaustion. As Dan stretches, Jay says, “I gotta get these out tomorrow.” The long session continues. With over 500 shots, Dan rubs his jaw as he nods to Jay and agrees to get the files color-corrected, compacted, and formatted to a CD by tomorrow.
With a shaking of hands and exchange of words, Jay shimmies past the fridge, out of the door, and into the unseasonably warm air of Burlington, nice enough for a clear night in July. Dan leans up against the counter, takes a breather, and rustles around the kitchen. He piles his roommate’s leftovers onto a new plate, shuffling food into his mouth like he wants to beat the world record in speed eating. “I think that was good,” he says aloud, holding food in his cheek in hopes of clarity. The statement hits the air with some questioning, and probably some anticipation of getting everything written to disk. He chatters some more, chewing and meandering around the room between words. Pausing at the stove, he sets down his dish to pick up his camera, softly cradling it like it had been whimpering at him since putting it down. His hand clicks through the images as his face illuminates not only from the screen, but from his own satisfaction. Joe walks in, ready to rip on Dan for not holding up his end of the Joe-cooks-Dan-cleans deal. “Dude, c’mon, I can do it tomorrow... seriously, first thing tomorrow, I’ll do it.” Dan stammers at Joe as if he’ll take something away for not doing his chores. Joe laughs and shakes it off, knowing that the shoot was long and tiresome.
The guy who had been chomping at the bit earlier was now sipping a Sam Adams, showing his New England roots and physical exhaustion. The room fell silent for a moment, only being interrupted by heavy breaths and infrequent yawns. “I really thought that was only going to take an hour…” Dan admits, surprising even himself with the four-and-a-half hour shoot. The silence and lingering words floated in the air in a similar manner to a comment made earlier in the night in the midst of work. “You really like shooting, huh?” Jay had noted, as he had looked over Dan’s shoulder while the two grown men tried to observe the shot as they squatted against the fridge. Dan had stayed quiet and kept his eye in the viewfinder. His silence had confirmed Jay’s suspicion. It was apparent now more than ever that this is what Dan was meant to do.
“It’s becoming more and more of a priority,” Dan had mentioned. His young age and raw talent are obviously leading Dan on a path that will take him to bigger things. After the hard work with the Line shoot, Dan is surely going to be walking down a road to successfully running Kapitol full-time. Moving dishes and tri-pods, the studio slowly begins to resemble a kitchen again. Hitting 12:30 a.m. on Monday morning, Dan begins to retreat upstairs to work on the final disk of shots. Tired eyes or not, he still can scope out the perfect image. He shuffles around the room and pauses. “To see that…shot…is what I’m always trying to do.”
Dan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
His images can be viewed at: