The Psychodynamics of Dan Fenstermacher's Portrait Photography

Dan Fenstermacher,  Auditory Aversions , Chromogenic print

Dan Fenstermacher, Auditory Aversions, Chromogenic print

By Scott Gleeson

Imaging difference has been a minor yet essential project of western visual tradition at least since the creation in the Hellenistic period of statuary depicting dramatic types, the aged, or physically deformed. A key characteristic of Hellenistic art was the portrayal of figures in heightened emotional states, such as fear, pain, resignation, and anxiety - the marble statue of Laocoön and His Sons in the Vatican Museum being a prime example. Artists in the Romantic period were similarly concerned with depicting the full range of human experience in their art, placing emphasis on inner experience and psychology, as seen in Gustave Courbet's self portrait, The Desperate Man (1844-45). In both the Laocoön and Desperate Man the creators establish a link between the act of creation (the arts) and the intensity of inner passions: Laocoön was a priest of Apollo, god of the arts, whereas Courbet depicts himself in the throes of anxiety. Another French Romanticist, artist Théodore Géricault, combined an interest in the dramatic with a profoundly humanist concern for the mentally ill, producing a small series of portraits of the patients at the Paris asylum of La Salpêtrière. 

Photographer Dan Fenstermacher continues in this tradition, turning his lens to some of the most marginalized and at-risk members of our society, those living with and triumphing over diagnosed mental illness. Departing from Gericault's interest in the physiognomy of madness in a clinical setting, Fenstermacher builds personal connections with his sitters through social networks and interviews before photographing them in their homes or familiar surroundings. The narrative photography of artists like Gregory Crewdson and Nic Nicosia provide a basis for Fenstermacher's efforts to convey the personal story of each sitter's life as they wish to tell it. By listening to and empathizing with his subjects, the artist builds his compositions in the sitters' private spaces, a technique which insures the collaborative, socially conscious nature of his process, and that his work transcends the genres of documentary or ethnography. The artist recently completed his MFA at San Jose State University and he talks with Peripheral Vision about what drives his art and the future of his practice.

Describe a work of art that has been meaningful to you or influential in some way.

The 2012 documentary “Chasing Ice,” through which National Geographic photographer James Balog highlights the growing dangers of depleting glaciers worldwide was a huge inspiration as I applied to graduate school programs. Through watching that film, I decided I wanted my photography to draw attention to important issues and create a launching pad for social change as well. Not only were his photographs technically and visually arresting, the amount of effort and passion that went into putting remote cameras all over the world in some of the most desolate regions and harsh conditions was extremely inspiring. He designed the software and housing for the cameras to be in harsh conditions and shoot continually for a year, while fighting through physical pain and several knee surgeries, sacrificing his own personal health in order to place his cameras on glaciers to document the excessive recession. The images that resulted were undeniable proof of the ill-effects of global warming and helped to change policy within our government. This is a great example of using art to help change the world.

How old were you when you decided to become an artist? Describe your training and how it has contributed to your current practice.

I think all of us are born artists as children and are trained to not be an artist by society as we get older. I knew as a child I wanted to be a photographer, but I didn't start my photographic journey until a trip to Ecuador with my parents when I was twenty years old. I borrowed my step-father’s camera so much that he decided to buy me my own for my birthday that year. Since then I have been shooting constantly for the last 12 years. Unfortunately, my high school did not have photography courses. My training started at El Camino College during evening classes taking basic digital photography and lighting classes. A lot of what I have learned has been through self-teaching and experience as well. My MFA at SJSU contributed greatly to my conceptual portraits in this series of work, as well as developing a series that tells a story and learning how to print my own work professionally.

What are the dominant themes in your current body of work and how did your practice evolve to focus on these concerns?

My practiced evolved as I evolved in my own struggle with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and learned how to better manage my symptoms. My work illustrates unique personas of individuals living with a diagnosed mental illness. It conveys an authentic and genuine perspective of their life to the viewer. The purpose of this work is to inspire hope that one is not defined by their mental illness, and can overcome adversity. The portraits aim to enhance the viewer’s understanding of mental illness by juxtaposing the realities of people living with a mental illness with societal stigmas. Thus, the work humanizes the misconceived perception of mental illness by fostering dialogue and giving voice to a misunderstood and misrepresented community.

Dan Fenstermacher,  Never Finished , Chromogenic print, 2014

Dan Fenstermacher, Never Finished, Chromogenic print, 2014


How do you make your art? Please describe your materials and techniques and how they developed.

I make my work by photographing my portraits during several different photographic sessions with the sitter. I use off-camera flashes to introduce drama to a scene, and create shadows that are representative of the unwanted thoughts or emotions attributed to mental illness. I like to print my work large on Canson Platine Fibre Rag paper in order for the viewer to see rich and vibrant details and tonal range in the colors, as well as navigate throughout the print.

I like to photograph people in their home environment to convey an authentic atmosphere and give the viewer insight into that person’s life. Printing on a large scale allows the viewer to see all of the details of the scene. To identify new subjects, I put out several calls for participation through Facebook and Craigslist. I also created a flier I posted around campus, and distributed it at my NAMI (National Alliance of Mental Illness) class and several OCD support groups. I would then drive to the homes or locations my subjects chose. I would interview each person and get to know him or her better before even unpacking the camera. I would discuss with the sitter how he or she wanted to be portrayed, he or she wanted to say about mental illness, and his or her toughest symptoms living with a mental illness. My role as an artist then, is to listen, and to communicate the message of the subject through a narrative image.

During the initial creative process, I asked myself the following questions to help plan what I was going to relate to the viewer: 

  • What is this expressing to the viewer? 
  • How do I want the world to interpret my art?
  • What is the value of my work?
  • Who is the intended audience?
  • What is my goal and expected outcome with this project?

In each picture, I try to add an element of drama that will enable the viewer to interpret the scene in various ways without immediately giving away the answer to the story. In this way, the viewer is required to read the accompanying text and learn more about what is going on to uncover the truth of the image. One of the most challenging issues when photographing my subjects relates to showing an authentic side of mental illness without reinforcing false stigmas and stereotypes. I do not want the viewer to be further misaligned from the truth about mental illness when viewing my portraits.

Questions of spectatorship and participation in art history and theory have insured that the ‘viewer’ or 'audience’ have become increasingly visible in contemporary art discourses. How does your practice respond or contribute to these conversations?

Within these photographs, the viewer has the opportunity to be involved in an exploration of what it is like to have Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). By revealing the omnipresent lingering effect of OCD, these photographs demonstrate authentic experiences that, without being framed, would remain unnoticed and misrepresented. By giving the viewer a window into the daily challenges we face and overcome, this project demonstrates the powerful effect that sharing stories can have on others. I adopted motivational author Jeff Bell’s concept, the Greater Good Perspective Shift, of going beyond oneself by sharing my experience of OCD as a method of trying to help others who also struggle with OCD. This work allows for the viewer to imagine himself or herself as the person in the photograph, and compare similarities to their own life. Thus, this work shows that mental illness is not only common, but normal.

Describe your work as an educator or administrator and how this relates to your personal art practice.

I worked in the advertising industry, but realizing this career path was not consistent with my goals, let the field to move to China, where I taught for one year. This experience led me to graduate school in order to combine my passion for photography into a career teaching photography. Currently, I teach photography at a high school and community college in the Bay Area. I really enjoy seeing my students take an interest in photography and their progression as photographers over the course of a semester. I get a lot of inspiration from my students and enjoy hearing their interpretations of fellow students' work. I like to help others through my photography, and this relates to the classroom as well. I take pride in training the next generation of photographers and helping students achieve their creative goals.

What kind of music do you listen to? Do you listen to music in the studio?

I am a big fan of hip-hop. Jay Z is my favorite artist. I like a lot of different rappers. In the studio I like listening to music like Daft Punk and recently found out about the artist Big Wild and have been listening to that on Pandora.

What work in your portfolio do you consider your most pivotal accomplishment and why?

In my current series, the photographs 'Drink Me' and 'Auditory Aversions' are my most pivotal accomplishment. These photos were accepted to the Root Division MFA Now show, a prestigious gallery exhibition between the 9 bay area university art programs, the De Young Museum Student Showcase, an MFA exhibition in NYC at 1st Gallery, and written about by the Huffington Post. These were some of the early images of this series and overall most successful, and really inspired me to put all of my energy into this work. These photographs have resonated with many people who have viewed my work.

Dan Fenstermacher,  Manic , Chromogenic print

Dan Fenstermacher, Manic, Chromogenic print


Tell us about your experience at an artist residency. Where did you go and who did you meet? Would you recommend the residency to others?

Sonrisas Jóvenes Que Hacen, Felices A Corazones Viejos (Young Smiles Make Old Hearts Happy) is my series from my artist residency I completed this past summer with Odysseys Artist Residencies in San Ramon, Costa Rica. While in San Ramon, I spent two months capturing the essence of many of the residents of Hogar Para Ancianos, a nice cottage-like senior citizen home. Much of the time, the residents there can be found sitting in old wooden rocking chairs or giant comfortable black leather recliners, listening to music, chatting, and reflecting on a long life in the warm sun and soft breeze. 
Although the language barrier between English and Spanish limited our conversations, I enjoyed listening to their stories and I feel honored to have been allowed into the community. It was a pleasure transitioning from a stranger to becoming friends with the residents. My work focused on large, close-up, detailed black-and-white portraits of the faces that make up this community.

There are many stories captured in the faces of these senior citizens. This project reinforces that elders are important to society and respects their achievement of living many years. The intimate portraits are meant to capture the essence of each individual person, and convey that presence to the viewer. While photographing, I felt inspired by their perseverance in overcoming adversity. Many of the residents have physical ailments, yet are still happy and greet me with a smile everyday.

Through this experience, I have learned that the process of life is very much a looping circle as we return to dependency on others as we age, similar to our infancy at the beginning of life. This further reiterates the notion that we are all connected and life is about helping others and in return receiving help as well. The product of one's life is measured in how you helped others as we all need help in this world.

With this work, I participated with artist JR and his #InsideOutProject. For this project, applicants apply with a series of images of a community, which are then wheat-pasted on surfaces to be displayed as impermanent street art installations. Once accepted, the #InsideOutProject team sends the photographer his or her images printed as large portraits measuring 5 feet in diameter. 

I pasted my images around San Jose on bus stops and abandoned walls in San Francisco, creating beauty out of environments that were aesthetically draining. In this work, I challenged the boundaries of global cultural interaction continually constructed between ourselves and that which is unfamiliar, examining the comparisons and contrasts between people in the United States and Costa Rica. I juxtaposed the faces of the senior citizens from Hogar Para Ancianos to the youthful and cosmetic culture abundantly found on college campuses by wheat pasting five of the images on a construction wall outside of the Student Union Building on campus. With thousands of pedestrians passing by each day, the watchful eyes of the observing senior citizens were meant to remind the youth of our community that old age is beautiful as well, and should be respected and revered within their own families.

What is next for you in your art practice?

I would like to create an online photography project that accepts portrait submissions from participants around the world who have a mental illness. These portraits will encompass the documentation of social stigmas regarding mental illness and offer a solution to how mental illness can be better represented. Through a collaborative worldwide photography sharing effort, the viewers are presented with a visual exploration of mental illness that connects a real perspective of those living with a mental illness from around the world to the viewer. Boundaries of global understanding of mental illness are broken down through online community interaction, examining the comparisons and contrasts between our own lives and the lives of others. This project serves as a foundation for self-expression and would provide a sense of purpose to participants through helping others.