Bruce Dorn on saying yes and the joys of mentorship

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Bruce Dorn’s big break in photography came as a complete surprise. He had submitted some work to a college competition run by Conde Nast, won it, and before he knew it was working as a guest art director for the company.

“Before I won this competition, I worked at a gas station,” says Dorn, who is now a member of Canon’s Explorers of Light. “I was a tune-up guy and paid my way through art school.”

Since that unexpected big break in the early ’70’s, Dorn has worked in all facets of the commercial photography industry – fashion, automotive, aerial, underwater, cinematography and digital effects design. But these days, what he finds most exciting is mentoring the next generation of creatives. Here Dorn talks to us about his professional career and the joy of mentoring others.

© Bruce Dorn

You’ve seen a little of everything throughout your career – how did you avoid being pigeonholed?

I see myself as a GP or specialist in a number of things and it was figuring out how to become a specialist in a number of things that got me into a really long career. I’ve known a lot of people with five-year careers who came in, were really great at one thing, and then they were gone. I signed up for the reinvention process early on. Every time I got a good answer to something, I’d move on to something else. If possible, I would also do cross-training – between tabletop, automotive, food and drink, comedy, whatever. I have kept these skills separate in my client’s perception. Nobody wants to go to a family doctor for brain surgery — but you could be a brain surgeon and still be a family doctor. I’ve been trying to figure out how to get pretty good at a number of different types of work. I used to have several sales reps buying my reel and photography in very individual disciplines.

So the people you hired to do fashion work back then only saw your fashion work, not necessarily all the other things you were doing?

Yes, exactly. But then there was a way to cross it. If you were to choose a luxury car brand, you wouldn’t hide the fact that you have experience in fashion photography. I think it really came down to the fact that opportunities would come up and I tended to say yes to a lot of different things. I’ve followed a lot of different things, throwing spaghetti at the wall to see what sticks. This led to some pretty interesting work.

Green and blue toned fashion photo.
© Bruce Dorn

Related: Eadweard Muybridge’s documentary explores the birth of modern cinema

I never expected to be a fashion photographer and suddenly I was. And that was just the beginning. I think it was 1973 when I won a college competition organized by Conde Nast. I became guest art director at Conde Nast and worked with some really cool photographers. But before I won this competition, I worked at a gas station. I was a tune-up guy who paid my way through art school. I didn’t expect it. It was a truly unusual turn of events that brought me into the business.

At what point in your career did you start taking on video projects?

I think back to 1978 when I was teaching at the Herron School of Art in Indianapolis in the design department, working as a freelance stills photographer and working on all titles at Stringer time life. I started getting agency work there and quickly gained a reputation as someone who knew how to use light – how to design, shape and so on. Because of this, the creative director asked me to be the lighting director for a TV commercial they had given to a local production company. I was a good influence on the project. And then I was given some opportunities. It was just the tiniest bit there. Then in 1980 I was working in Scottsdale where I came into contact with a local advertising director and he needed a cameraman. One day he called my studio and asked if I was shooting on film. I said ‘sure’ and thought what else but film? The conversation continues and ends with him talking about hiring me for a campaign for Blue Cross Blue Shield, but not Movie it. Again, I often just say “yes”.

This is the Cliffs Notes version of it. I got a few breaks to learn the ins and outs of the machines, the cinema cameras and still cameras. And then maybe the very first or second project I’ve done as a production company came at the Clio Awards. And I got my butt from a big special effects house, the biggest special effects house. They won, but they offered me a job as creative director. I joined the company and was creative director and worked there [impressively] capable film cameramen over the years and have learned a lot in the process.

Antelope running through water
© Bruce Dorn

How do you think your experience as a stills photographer helped you when you made the switch to motion pictures?

Oh, it was everything but the movement – don’t let that detract from the movement component. The movement is where it is. With a still image, if it’s a crucial moment type situation, you need to compose a good image and capture the crucial moment. With films, moving pictures, the subject or the camera is moving. So there’s always something going on. Once you start moving the camera, we now separate the amateurs from the rockstars in terms of compositional skill, because you need to have a great composition at the beginning of a shot and at the end of a shot. It’s all about the frame. And it’s specifically about the horizontal frame to be able to show height. You must command a tight ship compositionally with a cine camera.

You’ve been very involved with mentoring lately, how was that for you?

That was [extremely] satisfying – to be able to take some tidbits of hard-won, I won’t call it wisdom, but pass on hard-won knowledge and see them put it into action.

Fashion photo of two women on a couch.
© Bruce Dorn

The industry has obviously changed a lot since your break. What kind of career advice do you give your mentees on how to survive in this industry now?

There are fewer big budgets and fewer destinations. So you don’t have to be in New York and you don’t have to be in LA. You really are an independent producer, but there’s nothing to say that just because you’re in a transitional market you can’t apply the same standards.

I explain to them that the key is not to get overzealous about getting equipment. It learns to use your tools well. It is understandable that the story drives everything. It’s all about finding out your voice and making yourself attractive to the potential buyer. Commercial photographers and filmmakers have to develop a style of their own so that it’s, I won’t say predictable, but recognizable and proves you haven’t just stumbled upon a few good looking samples.

It means being exceptionally professional, being accurate on promises and delivering on your promises, being a good businessman, but always remembering that the company is there to support the artist. Commercial work is a mechanical art form and a business art form. So you have to pay attention to all these things.

Cow person riding lasso at sunset.
© Bruce Dorn

To what extent does mentoring differ from offering workshops or seminars?

It’s a one on one situation, that’s the joy of mentoring. I’m so into mentoring these days.

The joy is in meeting that aspiring artist or business person—the mid-career version of it—and realizing who they are, and [then] just add PS. [You’re] not change their direction, but help them to achieve what they want to achieve. It’s never the same twice. And in that situation it even makes sense to be old and filled with hard-won experiences, because even though things have changed dramatically, I’m still playing at the high level I want to play at. I enjoy getting great projects and I know it [other] People can do that. It’s just about becoming the hyper-realized version of yourself and putting it out there.

The process of teaching helps crystallize the knowledge for yourself. So I really enjoy going back and doing things like subject blur versus freezing action, all the basics anew. If you think about them more consciously than just using them as tools, and try to use some of these techniques that less experienced people don’t know, this is an opportunity to rebrand, recreate and reinvent yourself. In the end, I get renewed energy when I see the world through someone else’s eyes, and when I present opportunities to them, opportunities are presented to me again.

Photo illustration of a woman shooting a bazooka.
© Bruce Dorn

How do you connect with the people you end up mentoring?

It often starts with workshops. If I respect their job and what they do and they’re talking about a good ball game, I’ll just ask them when they have something going on. This is how it starts. Then I will make them help me or I will help them. It’s just about building a community and treating it as a non-competitive thing – just trying to get the tide to raise all boats.

What advice would you give to someone looking for a mentor?

Never underestimate the value of camera clubbers – the people who just love taking photos but have no intention of doing it professionally. There are some incredible gems in this bunch, some of them extremely dedicated. I know some dedicated amateurs who have eclipsed many pros. Just hanging around and shooting the breeze with these folks can end up being really useful. If you have nowhere to go I would say try the local camera club. They’ll probably be the nerdiest bunch on the planet, but they’re also kind and most likely willing to share some information too.

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