Dan Milner has been working as a photographer for longer than some of us have been adults. He’s a go to name for brands and editors – he’s got the skill to make the pros look great, plus the nose for adventure to make for a great story. You’ll have seen his images in Singletrack many times – not least on the cover of Issue 116. in Issue 87 with Tracy Moseley as she bid to win the Enduro World Championship, and our cover shot in Issue 107. It’s been a while since we caught up with the man himself though, so when he was in touch to promote his new video ‘P.S.I.’ I took the chance to fire a few questions his way.
Benji caught up with you way back in 1999, when you’d been working as a photographer for 12 years, in what you described as ‘eking out a living’. Since then you’ve done any number of trips and shoots with big names in mountain biking – has it reached a stage of a comfortable living, or is it always an ‘eking out’ type of existence?
Yes, there certainly was a fair bit of eking going on back then. I came to professional photography through the niche MTB and snowboard magazine world, rather than training as a commercial photographer. It was a lifestyle choice (read: lots of couch surfing) and while I wouldn’t say I eke out a living any more, half my work is still editorial and that means not earning the big bucks that I would if I dumped that and went 100% commercial. I think it comes down to the fact that I still need to go and shoot adventure trips —those are really what makes me tick— and they come through pitching editorial stories. Shooting cars and popstars and C&A Xmas jumper adverts doesn’t interest me.
Do you think it’s possible to be a great photographer if you’re too comfortable? Does too much commercial – work (like bike launches and pro rider shoots) take the art out of the equation?
So the question here is do you need to suffer for your art? I guess I just seem to like suffering! Putting yourself in challenging situations, like freezing your arse off in a tent 4000m up on a pass, makes photographing a story more demanding but it adds to the authenticity of the results. It’s hard to convey the real gritty side of say, riding through a remote corner of the planet if you’re not fully immersed in it. I have had plenty of bike companies asking for those archetypal portraits of riders looking all beaten and bonked and spent from commercial shoots when there’s no real riding involved and it looks false and staged. That said, I know big brand commercial photographers whose idea of discomfort is when their latte has gone cold that still produce enviably beautiful work (albeit in a different genre, like car adverts) so I’d say you don’t need to suffer for your art. But even my commercial bike shoots are rarely just plain sailing in comfort.
A lot of your photography seems to be much more culture focussed than bike focussed – as if the bike is the tool that puts you in the place, rather than the trails being the reason to be there. Is that an accurate assessment do you think? How would you describe what you’re trying to capture – is it art, reportage, or just a pretty picture that will please the viewer?
I wouldn’t say it is more culture than bike focused, but yes, the bike is an excuse to travel and get out there. Finding a remote trail to do a story gives me the chance to go see and photograph new places, but I also get to ride the trail and deal with all the surprises it throws at us. Hashtag: adventure. Certainly a lot of what I look for now in a story needs more of a social or geopolitical backstory than ‘just going riding in…’. Those humanized slants help sell the story (and so pay my bills) but also give me a more rewarding experience and a more interesting story to tell. It’s about getting a balance between arty, pretty pictures and pure reportage. That balance depends on where we’re riding, who I’m with (ie if it’s a pro rider with sponsors to please) and the story I want to tell. I’ve shot a lot of ‘adventure for adventure’s sake’ type of features over the years on the bike and on snow, and I guess I’m hankering after more meaning from them nowadays.
If we fired up the STW tardis, which big historical, cultural or sporting event would you choose to be at to photograph and why?
Hmm… I’m no track and field aficionado but maybe I’d go for photographing the moment when Jesse Owens stuck it to the Nazi leadership at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Just sayin’.
You get to some pretty wild and far-flung places. How do you decide where to go? Is a trip painstakingly researched, or a vague idea of a point on a map, a kit bag, and a plane ticket?
Usually I rummage in the internet to find a remote, long distance trail that will catch an editor’s attention and turn readers’ heads and I go there. My curiosity is often triggered by seeing a photo of somewhere wild; a mountain, a landscape, even a tree — somewhere aesthetic. Then I research the hell out of the place and see what story angle could play out, and if bikes are suitable — they aren’t always. Sometimes I’ll just look for something closer to home but with a new, fresh slant — like a 3-day ride in Italy based around a high mountaineering bivouac, or sea kayaking on Loch Morar in Scotland towing our bikes on inflatable dinghies behind. It doesn’t always have to be crazy and remote, okay then, not always remote anyway. I’m impatient though so when I have an idea I want to get on with it straight away — some of that is knowing if you leave it, often circumstances change, things move on and the trip never happens, or it’s from the anxiety of another photographer getting there first — that happened when Sterling [Lorence] shot the big Iceland story a few years back. I’d been planning something there for two years, had founds trails and was close to setting dates, and then bang, it had been shot. Done. So much of a story’s editorial success is about originality. Some trips do take a lot of time to come together mostly because if they are pioneering there isn’t any info on trails or riding to be found — my ‘16 trip to Lebanon took two years from initial idea to feeling like I’d researched it enough to go do the story— and others pull together in a few days. There’s usually a lot of poring over Google Earth and pawing through trekking guidebooks, but you never know exactly what you’re going to find on the ground.
Have you ever found yourself in any sticky situations as a result of being a photographer mistaken for a spy or suchlike?
I’ve had a fair few sticky situations — like finding myself at an impromptu machine gun toting Hezbollah militia checkpoint at 4 am in the dark in Beirut while trying to get to the airport — but most of those kind of interesting experiences have little to do with the actual photography, aside I guess from the fact that I’m less likely to be there if I wasn’t shooting a story. Hauling a camera bag does get you noticed though, especially at security checkpoints. Kashmir in 2003 was a palava. I often shoot with smaller rangefinder type cameras to avoid looking ‘pro’ and attracting attention.
Is there anywhere you’ve been that you wish you hadn’t? Or where it was very type two fun?
There’s nowhere I’ve been that I wish I hadn’t. Plenty of trips have been full of real ‘type two fun’ — moments when you feel you’d rather be anywhere else. But those moments are just one ingredient in the overall experience and they help shape it — like camping in the p*ssing rain on sea ice that was full-on polar bear feeding zone in Svalbard’s arctic, or being driven along a loose dirt road alongside a cliff above a raging class V river by a man who clearly had no driving license in an old pick up truck with four bald tyres in Afghanistan. Those moments shape the experience and I think help shape you as a person. Adventure is more about learning about yourself and others than completing an objective.
In my experience, getting great riding shots often practically guarantees that it won’t be a great ride. Flow is interrupted, sections ridden again (and again) elbows angled, mind on the pose rather than the trail. On a big trip or adventure, how do you go about getting the shots needed to meet bike media demands? Is there some deliberate posing, or are you just very good at being in the right place at the right time?
On big adventure trips we really have no idea what the day or the trail will bring for photo opportunities, unlike photo shoots when we have likely scouted the terrain. Inevitably that means stopping to shoot every twist and turn or big vista that looks aesthetic and can help build the feature, at least until I feel we’ve broken the back of photo-editors’ needs. That can take a day or two, then after that it’s shoot whatever presents itself, but with slightly less pressure. Combine that with the fact that much of the time I’m riding along scanning the trail and surroundings for possible photo op’s rather than letting rip, which means the quality of the ride often takes a back seat. That can be frustrating to all, but is made easier when working with pro riders who know it’s in their interest to get shots. That’s just the price you pay for making your passion your work, but it’s not like it’s unpleasant graft is it? On multi day trips there is still a hell of a lot of uninterrupted riding, especially the descents, but everyone comes back with a more holistic interpretation of the trip — with lots more emotional boxes ticked than just the endorphin rush of a ride. I’m just glad I shoot stills and not video. When I work with videographers I see how frustrated they get when the trails are junky and the riding doesn’t flow. At least we stills photographers can nail a winning shot that helps shape a story from just a few metre length of trail.
In an imaginary world where you could just get paid for whatever photographs you took, would you still take pictures of people riding bikes, or would you just go and ride your bike?
I think shooting bikes will always be part of what I do. I get a lot of rewards from the aesthetic of mountain biking and shooting something that I know and has been such an important part of my life for over three decades. Deep eh!
Do you have any interests or pet subjects that you photograph just out of personal interest rather than with an eye to publication?
I started my photography shooting street and travel scenes in a politically tumultuous latin America in the late 1980’s and I feel it’s heading back that way, at least in realizing that my camera is a good tool to tell stories. I shot a photo essay on Nepal’s elephant tourism recently. I shot it mostly for my own interest, but also with an eye to landing a bigger assignment on the subject (see the essay here). I’ve recently started a personal project that documents how we have colonised higher and higher mountain environments to now live ‘normal’ city lifestyles in and with dumbed down attitudes to, what were once unthinkably hostile surroundings. It’s a work in progress and I have no idea if it will be commercial. It’s often hard to separate your passion from the need to make a living though, and inevitably I don’t put nearly enough time into going and shooting pictures for myself.
You’ve said before that you still go riding without a camera sometimes. What happens if there’s that perfect shot and you can’t capture the moment – can you just enjoy being there to see it? Or is the thought that it could have covered your next month’s Council Tax always there?
Oh yeah thanks for bringing that one up! Actually I think it’s really important to still ride a lot without the camera — dealing with missing a shot is just the price you pay for the reward of escaping from work and losing yourself in the here and now… after all that’s what mountain biking really is isn’t it? But now I’m on Instagram (@danmilnerphoto) that pressure seeps into every ride, even without the proper camera along. We’re getting wrapped up in some crazy narcissism bent on recording every experience when we should be just living those moments instead. That stuff winds me up stupidly. We’re drowning under a sea of iPhone waving hands. Now where’s that Council Tax bill…?
Your videos hint that perhaps you’d be happy to dispense with any false portrayal of ‘high stoke’ and just get on with riding your bike. Are you just having fun with your videos, or is it a way of venting a frustration with the commercial side of the mountain bike industry?
Do they? Maybe you’re reading a little too much into them, or maybe its a subconscious side of me being played out? I don’t have any beef with the industry, or videographers that want to make serious films, but it’s fun to throw some humour about in an world that at times does take itself too seriously. I love the Ricky Gervais/People Like Us/Twenty-Twelve kind of British awkward humour, and I like to see the humour in everyday life and the all-too-earnest side of action sports is an easy target. I was the photographer for years shooting some pretty ‘out there’ snowboard trips that produced some very, very earnest films, so I feel I have the right to have a dig at the earnest nature of our action sports, whcih after all are just a luxury in this world.
Not everyone seems to get your videos. You rarely see anyone saying ‘that’s a shit photo’, but people are quick to dismiss videos as being boring, stupid, unfunny, too long, too silly – whatever. Does it bother you when people are critical, or do you just see at as a matter of different tastes?
Do they say that? Yes it’s funny isn’t it. I get a little offended, but then I remember I don’t sell myself as a film maker and am only doing the films as bit of fun. Some people get them, many don’t, just like my Trail Ninja series that were funny to me as most were filmed during really stupidly hard expeditions. But I feel sorry for the video guys out there that are trying to launch themselves or make a living from it when people troll the heck out of them. I guess the rise of video has gone hand in hand with the empowerment of the people via comment sections, whereas photography has this established resonance that is beyond criticism. Everyone’s entitled to their views and as I say my sense of humour isn’t shared by everyone, but WTF, how can someone expend the energy to post a comment slagging off an aspiring film maker’s film rather than keeping their comments to themselves. It achieves nothing other than some daft, perverted, blinkered view that the commentator has some kind of importance. But I have to say the best comment I ever received under one of my videos was “Milner, you prick”.
Photography – the technology and the distribution of it – has changed massively in your time as a photographer. Is it all progress, or do you think any of the developments have been detrimental to photography or photographers?
Yes it’s progress. I love digital – it makes my life so much easier. Those that lament the death of film are the youngsters who never had to pass bags of sensitive 3200 film through airport X-ray machines, or try to ride a week through Morocco’s Atlast mountains with 25 rolls films filling up the space in their backpack where their clean undies would otherwise go. Digital is empowering photography – it allows people to experiment cheaply and discover their talents, allowing everyone to become ‘a photographer’. The downside is that everyone is now a photographer, and is obsessed with documenting every mundane everyday act in order to score ‘likes’ instead of living the moment, though I think that’s to do with the nature of society rather than advancements in technology and/or photography. For us pro-photographers it has become a challenging environment to make a living, with a constantly changing media world, and industry cash spread more thinly.
Thanks for talking with us Dan!
Dan Milner is an ambassador for Yeti cycles, Shimano components and F-Stop packs. His adventurous photographic bike endeavors are supported by Mavic, Crank Brothers, Giro and Fox.