Seeking a ‘balanced visual diet,’ Aspen’s Daniel Bayer unplugs |

Seeking a ‘balanced visual diet,’ Aspen’s Daniel Bayer unplugs

Stewart OksenhornThe Aspen TimesAspen, CO, Colorado
Sarah Bayer Photographer Daniel Bayer in the darkroom of his condo.

ASPEN – Daniel Bayer, a photographer who has lived in Aspen for 15 years, can’t deny his gearhead nature. Names such as Hipstamatic and phrases such as “cropped square” and “film box” fall off his tongue naturally. Asked how many cameras he owned, he responded with a laugh before counting out the total: 11. (The question of how many lenses he had elicited an even bigger laugh and a more vague answer: “Close to 30.”)So when the economy took a dive in 2008, Bayer saw an opportunity. People were selling their barely used camera gear, and Bayer swooped in and bought three Hasselblad cameras and seven lenses, plus eight film backs, which allow a roll of film to be removed before it is finished without ruining the images.”When the recession hit, people were dumping stuff for little to no money at all,” the 45-year-old Bayer said. “That whole system would have cost 18 grand, maybe more, before digital. I got it for a fraction of that.”But Bayer is more working photographer than an equipment collector. His near-constant companion is a small 57-year-old Leica camera that has no battery and a tiny light meter (“a gearhead’s delight,” he called it), so that he can shoot whatever he happens to come across on his daily travels. He has put the Hasselblad collection to good use, creating a series of work, “Silver & Ice,” that features square, black-and-white images of local winter scenery, in silver gelatin prints.”It’s life’s little details dressed in snow in our valley,” Bayer said. “They’re images that might not have worked in color, but they certainly do in black and white. With this film, you don’t have the option of shooting in color. So you just wait and look for that kind of shot.” Ten of the “Silver & Ice” images – including one of a monstrous melting snowbank near the top of Independence Pass from the huge snow year of 2007-08 and several unorthodox views of the local ski areas – are featured in the group exhibition, Essence: A Photographer’s Personal Perspective, which opens Wednesday at the Aspen Chapel Gallery. The show, curated by Summers Moore, also features Andrew Braun, Michele Cardamone, Kay Denton,Bianca McCarty, Tim McEnerney, Landon Newton, AJ Smollen, Kristen Wright and Moore, and it opens with a reception at 5 p.m. Bayer jumped on the digital wave early. In 1994, a colleague showed him a Nikon/Kodak NC2000, a cumbersome, 1-megapixel camera whose battery could neither be recharged nor replaced; when the battery was exhausted, the camera needed to be plugged in to work. The friend told him, “This is the future – ride it, man.” Bayer says the image quality was comparable to a 2003-era cell phone picture.Working for newspapers (including a stretch at The Aspen Times) and magazines, Bayer needed to embrace digital technology. But over the past decade, he has found the pleasure, in both process and artistic result, of the older methods, and for Bayer, being a gearhound does not necessarily mean being a high-tech head. He has a small darkroom in his apartment; only two of his cameras are digital; and he has stockpiled a considerable arsenal of film – 4,000 rolls of medium-format film in his freezer, plus nearly 3,000 sheets of large-format, 4-by-5 film. Among his ambitions is to begin teaching classes locally in traditional photography.”Around 2004, I began thinking, ‘I don’t think I’m done with film,'” he said. That motivation was driven in part by the ubiquity of cellphone photographers.”The whole technology movement, there’s so much noise. It’s what everybody is doing. Everybody’s on there; it’s a party. But when you’re a lifelong artist, you really want to feel like you’re putting yourself in this right position to be seen. I feel I can make an image that connects me best with a person, a place, with either medium. So that begs the question: Why not film? Be a little different. Or be a little more different.”Unplugging the camera has created some interesting benefits. Faced with a limited amount of film, as opposed to the practically unlimited capacity digital offers, forces Bayer to think about each shot. Not having an LED screen to check the image means he is relying solely on the subject itself; Bayer says the LED image can be a distraction. Working in a darkroom, rather than on a computer, means Bayer won’t be wandering off into the Internet.What Bayer seeks is “a balanced visual diet,” and for Bayer, that means testing the capabilities of virtually every kind of camera that exists. From 2006 to 2011, he shot 1,284 rolls of Kodachrome film as part of a Kodak project to announce the retirement of the iconic Kodachrome film. The current issue of Snow magazine has a feature, “Letters to Aspen,” of Bayer’s images; one page of the spread is photos he took with an iPhone.”But once you get beyond the limitation of what the iPhone can do, you need more tools,” said Bayer, who shoots for the Aspen Institute and Aspen Skiing Co. and has had two images in Life magazine’s Year in Pictures issue. “If your plumber showed up with just a pipe wrench, you’d be concerned. It’s a question of bringing the right tool for the job.”As a proper gearhead, Bayer knows what equipment is just over the horizon. Hasselblad is putting out an 80-megapixel camera with autofocus lenses that will sell for around $40,000. Bayer doesn’t expect to be among the customers.”That’s not where I’m headed, honestly,” he said. “People ask why I’m still using film. The simple answer is because I can.”