Daniel DeArco is a 22-year-old photographer who has crafted a career around the human body. Originally trained as a dancer, DeArco experienced a series of unfortunate events that led him from a prospective career in Cirque du Soleil to a successful career as a photographer. His understanding of movement has helped him develop a creative vision that has set his work apart from others in his field. He seeks to create timeless moments in which the performer is the sole focus of the photograph.
Phoblographer: How did you get your start in photography?
Daniel: My path into photography was not very orthodox–nor was it typical. I was a creative person throughout my entire life, but had no pride or interest in being that way growing up. As a child, drawing anything that interested me, sculpting with clay, building things out of aluminum foil, popsicle sticks, or anything that I could find was just second nature to me. Ironically, I first got a Canon Rebel T1i during my last year of high school, but had absolutely no idea what I was doing with. At that time, I was a dancer and acrobat, and saw photography as a mere hobby since my camera was usually used to document only my training videos and nothing else. A few years passed, and I found in college covering general courses, studying a bit of business marketing, and training to one day audition for Cirque du Soleil as a performing artist. My future goals had absolutely nothing to do with photography, but it still served as a fun hobby on the side when I got bored. I was such an amateur with the camera that I hadn’t even considered myself a “photographer”; at least, not until I had a life changing experience.
Unfortunately, one day while I was training, I messed up during a tumbling session. I was practicing double and triple saltos/flips into the resi pit, and there was a technical issue with the training area I was using. Without getting into too much detail, I ended up landing straight onto my head and breaking my neck in two places––the C5 and C4 cervical vertebrae. I temporarily lost feeling in my upper arms/shoulders, but made it back home in time for the ambulance and my family members to bring me to the hospital, and before my body went completely into shock. Following the series of unfortunate events, the doctors took x-rays, CAT scans, and MRI scans and told me that my cervical spine had been literally crushed––along with the ripped tendons and internal muscle fibers. It was a disaster but the doctors told me that it was a miracle to be alive and not paralyzed/dead, as the bones were just a few millimeters (yes millimeters) away from hitting my spinal cord. They performed extensive surgery on me, installed titanium hardware into my neck, and let me go after 2 weeks of hospital care. I sat at home contemplating on what I had lost, and what the future held for me after the 3-4 month recovery period.
Eventually, my cousin brought me a photography book to cheer me up, and I realized that my camera was the only thing that I had left as a creative outlet (without physically exerting myself). Things began to look up from there. I recovered completely, got back in shape, and started shooting again; only, this second chance gave me something to live for. 2012 was the year I started taking photography seriously, and I understood that I could make a living off my creative half while fusing my innate love for both fine art and performing arts. I felt that it created a romance between two worlds.
Phoblographer: What attracted you to focusing on dance, action and the performing arts?
Daniel: My past experiences with dance and performing arts enticed me to work in those genres. I remember shooting and experimenting with everything when I first started building my portfolio: portraits, fashion, landscapes, head shots, dance, still life; however, whenever people looked through my images, I noticed that the most memorable reactions came with the dance/action photos. This warranted my idea of just sticking to something that felt natural to me. Instead of shooting pretty girls + pretty clothes + pretty makeup, I found that I would much rather be photographing guys back-flipping on set or ballerinas doing ridiculously complex poses on their toes. Maybe I’m just weird.
With the nature of my performing arts background came the ability to direct models, dancers, and performers through a language that nobody else spoke. I knew the timing, the form, and what they wanted to feel like when they saw themselves in a frozen image. Since I myself could no longer chase the spotlight of a stage, I wanted to shine that spotlight onto others.
Phoblographer: How long did it take you to develop your style?
Daniel: This is tricky question to answer. My “style” is similar to many photographers out there, but did not take too long to develop once I learned the basics of lighting and composition (a year or less). The vision, on the other hand, took a very long time to figure out.
To be frank, vision is more important than style. I believe that style is really just the aesthetic/technical propensity of a photographer, and can be copied by anyone given they know the basics. Vision is the meat of the matter–the reason and the why behind the images being shot in the first place. It is who you are as an individual and displays uniqueness through your work.
Phoblographer: There’s almost an ethereal nature to some of your work. What’s your lighting setup and what do you shoot with?
Daniel: I do not have a distinct lighting setup, and I typically shoot with:
• Canon 6D currently (used to use the Canon 1Ds Mark II and 1D Mark III)
• Paul C Buff Einstein 640’s + a variety of modifiers
• Yongnuo speedlights
• Profoto studio strobes (occasionally)
People have pointed out that my lighting setups look very signature, but every single concept or production that I shoot is different, which means the scenario will be different, which means the lighting will always change. I don’t subscribe to the idea of having a “go to” lighting setup because this will just limit your creative process; however, having basic setups to build off of is always great practice.
Phoblographer: How do you develop a rapport with the performers you photograph?
Daniel: Building trust is always the hard part when you’re pitching creative ideas. For me, there are two parts to this: prior to the shoot, and during the shoot.Before the shoot:
My dancers, performers, or models somehow always build trust with me (regardless how crazy my ideas get), but I think that my portfolio is what gets them interested at first. If I haven’t met them yet in person, I’ll chat with them online or on the phone, and will make sure they’ve seen what I do. After I clarify this, I just talk to them for a while and get to know them personally–asking them questions about their background with dance or performing arts, covering random topics, and answering whatever questions they might have about my history with dance/action photography. From there, it’s all about proposing one of my concepts and making sure that they’re interested enough to participate. I usually will present accurate mock-ups or illustrations of my ideas to the models/clients. This displays my vision 100%, gets them to see what my final product will look like, and is the best way to get them to trust in my work. Once an idea is drawn out and put onto paper, it is brought to life, and is suddenly seen as a master plan that they want in on.
During the shoot:
Right off the bat, I am very friendly, loud, outgoing, and optimistic about the day. I am sure to have most of the props, lights, and set finished before the models arrive so that I can make conversation with them and focus on getting them comfortable. One important thing is to make sure that the models have everything that they need, and give them a quick one minute breakdown of how the shoot will go down. This puts them at ease and gives them reassurance that there is an agenda and basic outline. Full transparency is key.
Phoblographer: What’s your post-production workflow?
Daniel: The amount of post production will depend on the shoot. I try my very best to get most or all of my images shot correctly in camera. This means that 80-90% of the effects, props, and lighting that you see in my images were really shot in camera during the shoot; however, there are obviously certain concepts or jobs that require compositing to achieve the final image. If it does happen to involve composites, I will still shoot the components there on set or the same day before I merge them together later. As for aesthetic touches, I like to boost the contrast a lot in the images, add a tad bit of clarity, and desaturate.
Phoblographer: Your photographs of performers seem to be moments outside of time rather than moments in time. What’s your approach to your mode of photography?
Daniel: Yes, that is precisely what I am going for. I like to make my images timeless––which means that every element that associates with or represents past/present/future time is banned from my photographs. This list can sometimes consist of: clocks, trees, graphic t-shirts, signs, modern products, etc. (This mindset would not apply if I were shooting for a commercial client.) I feel that these not only serve as distractions, but take away from my image as a whole. My portfolio pieces are about the ideas as opposed to the “capture the moment” mindset that many photographers tend to follow. Taking a cool photo is easy, but putting an idea in peoples’ heads, or rather making them see something your way, is a very hard thing to do. I take my photographs as far away from our reality as possible without having them look “fake”. I suppose surrealism is what I try to achieve.
Phoblographer: What advice do you have for nascent dance and action photographers?
Daniel: Dancers and performers are artists as well. They are athletes who work very hard to get where they are, so do your best to respect and cultivate that through photography. In other words, uphold their integrity and augment their physical abilities through photographs. Don’t slack off on your timing and composition just because they are amazing at what they do. The ability to recognize bad form is highly respected by dancers/performers since they often will point out those fine details themselves. If anything, they will appreciate you trying to perfect their form.
It is easy for dancers to make photographers look good because of their amazing physical capabilities, but it is sometimes rare to find a photographer that makes the dancer look good … if that makes sense. Study the movement, research the performing arts, understand the basics of lighting/composition, and know your timing. The most important thing overall is to define your unique vision––this is how you will stick out as an artist. I hope that this helps!