Light And Color: In Conversation With Daniel Dorsa

The work of Brooklyn-based photographer Daniel Dorsa refuses definition, toying with light and color as it intimately portraits people, and the world around them.

Alongside his commercial work for clients like Artsy, Wallpaper*, Vice, and The New York Times, Dorsa works as the visual director of Portals Music, a website that gives online space to creatives in the music industry. His private work focuses more on environmental portraiture, capturing his subjects in their own spaces instead of studios. It is this work that feels most captivating; light and unforced, the subjects of his portraits are evidently at home in their surroundings and in Dorsa’s company. This sense of calm and intimacy pervades much of his oeuvre: the bustle the city in which he lives somehow never present, and his subjects always at ease. We spoke to Dorsa about this intimacy, the influence of NYC and the necessity of the ‘human element’ to all of his work.

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How did you come to photography?

I discovered photography during high school when I decided to take a darkroom class junior year. I grew up skateboarding and wanted to document my friends skating. I always loved looking at all the photos in different skate magazines, but it wasn’t until that point that it was something I ever considered trying to do myself. After my first time printing, I was hooked. My interest in what I wanted to photograph expanded and evolved as I got older and took photography more seriously.

What would you define your work — or areas of photographic interest — as?

I wouldn’t necessarily define my work by putting it into a simple category because I photograph a lot of different things. However, I am always attracted to having the presence of humans in my work. Whether it be landscapes, still life, or portraits, I’m always interested in incorporating some kind of human element into my work, regardless of whether it is overt or subtle.

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You’re based in Brooklyn, but I don’t feel the intensity of the city in your images. Why is this?

I keep my focus on my subjects and try to use the environment to create a narrative. Placing too much emphasis on the surroundings can heavily dictate how an image comes across and the subject’s voice can get lost. With this in mind, I tend to shoot in simple spaces even if it’s in the middle of a big city.

How has living in NYC changed or shaped your work?

New York is a wonderful and intense place to live as a photographer. Moving from Florida to NYC was a big shift for me. Back home, my view on photography and my own work was very narrow-minded. After moving up here, I worked at a fancy photo studio where big fashion and commercial campaigns were shot constantly. Being exposed to all different kinds of work pushed my interests. I was never into fashion photography prior to moving, but now, I use fashion photography as forms of inspiration.

"Placing too much emphasis on the surroundings can heavily dictate how an image comes across and the subject's voice can get lost."
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There is a sense of intimacy in all of your portrait work: is this a result of you being familiar with those you photograph, or something else entirely?

I rarely know my portrait subjects prior to working with them. Portraiture is all about trust and building a relationship with your subject. Being able to take someone’s portrait is a privilege that I don’t take for granted. Your subjects let their guard down and tend to feel very vulnerable. I try to earn the trust of my subjects from the moment we meet. I don’t think it’s enough to have them do a pose and put them in a pretty setting. I want to feel like I know that person even if only get to spend five minutes with them.

You work across photography and music: could you tell us a bit about how these two areas meet in your work?

I’ve always been into music. When I was in college, a few friends and I ran a small blog where we covered art, photo, and music. We would also cover a lot of local music in Florida and I’d shoot a lot of the musicians within the DIY community there. Now, it’s become a pretty regular thing to shoot musicians.  

Musicians express parts of themselves through their music, do you do something similar through your photographic work?

I think all artists that care about their work do. I find it difficult to detach myself from creative endeavors that I feel passionately about. I express my feelings through my photographs. My hope is that the viewer can feel what I felt in that moment, even if it’s in subtle ways.

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All images © Daniel Dorsa

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