Bruce Dorn looks to youth and the future of photography

When young Bruce Dorn graduated from the Herron School of Art and Design in 1973, the landscape for photography and the school looked a lot different than it does now. Classical teaching methods were beginning to merge with more abstract ideas. The school did not yet have a separate photography program and was desperately in need of improved darkroom facilities.

When Dorn returned to the school this week, some 45 years later, he encountered not only newer facilities, but also more contemporary attitudes. The number of young women enrolled in the school’s photography program is tremendously higher than when he attended and he found both students and faculty anxious to embrace a photography industry that Bruce describes as “more and more entertaining.”

A native of Indianapolis, Dorn has achieved a level of success many photographers would envy. An Emmy-award nominated member of the Directors Guild of America and a Canon Explorer of Light, the photographer considers himself fortunate to have never needed to look for any other means of feeding himself and keeping a roof over his head than “image painting.” Though he seldom makes it back to his hometown, he is here this week to visit with Herron students and faculty. Dorn is sharing some of the reality that comes from not merely being in the industry for 45 years, but being relatively successful at it. Included in the trip is a lecture that is open to the public tonight (Wednesday, September 20) at the Basile Auditorium of Eskenazi Hall, 735 W. New York St. on the Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis campus.

When Bruce speaks to students, he doesn’t pull any punches about the challenges of being a modern photographer. He tells them that they have to keep up with technology, not run from it. He warns them that keeping on top of their social media accounts, especially Facebook and Instagram, is as important to their success as maintaining a strong portfolio. He understands how important it is to constantly evolve and learn and try new things.

One example is Dorn’s almost accidental transition from still photography into film-making. A seemingly random phone call one afternoon in 1983 asked Dorn if he “worked with film.” Naturally, Dorn thought that was a rather obvious question since digital imaging had yet to be invented. He told the caller that yes, he did work with film. As the conversation continued, though, Dorn realized that the caller was talking about film as in motion pictures, not film as in a specific type of media. Having already inferred that he knew what he was doing, Dorn answered the caller’s questions as best he could and got the job.

Since this was well before Google and the Internet, Dorn then rushed to the library and checked out everything he could find on filmmaking. He relied on the advice of mentors and learned as he went. The resulting commercial, the first he had ever shot, ended up nominated for one of advertising’s prestigious Clio awards. The company that won the Clio soon hired Dorn and from there he went on to not only photograph but direct over 700 commercials.

It’s not like television killing radio, one replacing the other. The car changed our perspective of the horse. We no longer look at the horse as a beast of burden, but something to be valued and cherished. Still photography is much the same way.

Transitioning from still images to film is not something that every photographer finds natural. “I still have a long, deeply-rooted love for still images,” Dorn said. As he looks to the future of image making, however, he sees the role of still imagery changing. “It’s like the car didn’t kill the horse,” he told me. “It’s not like television killing radio, one replacing the other. The car changed our perspective of the horse. We no longer look at the horse as a beast of burden, but something to be valued and cherished. Still photography is much the same way.”

Bruce went on to explain how that the eventual advent of 8K video will produce single frames that, when shot at 1/125th of a second, are 32 megapixels in size, considerably more detailed than the 8 megapixel files derived from 4K video. At that point, Dorn says, “still photography is as relevant as steam fitting or wicker basket repair.” He goes on to warn that photographers must “evolve or die.”

As a result of this evolution, Dorn says that he no longer refers to himself as a photographer, but rather a media provider. He instructs that it is “more valuable to be considered an influencer,” emphasizing that creatives are “not called to execute but rather to conceptualize.”

Dorn also talked with me about the rapidly changing effect of technology on photography, something photographers have at varying times both cheered and found demoralizing. “I want to be the first person to shoot an entire feature film using the backup camera in a Prius,” he said, laughing. Not that he thinks automobile-based cameras will improve to quite that quality, but as an example of the type of creativity he finds possible given the constant state of change in equipment.

Fostering that level of creativity is one of the reasons Dorn thinks schools like Herron continue to be important to the future of image making. “I am thankful for the education I got in Indianapolis,” he said. “A formal education does more than teaching nuts and bolts—it’s the group factor. Two people working together end up doing the work of three or four, We do more.”

Still, even with all the changes to his alma mater, some things never go away, such as the constant need for funding. “I’d love to see someone in Indianapolis step up and put some dough into the photography program at Herron,” Bruce told me. With all the emphasis on science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education, liberal arts schools have found it challenging to obtain the funds they need to keep up with perpetual changes in technology.

And what does Dorn think about the younger generation of photographers? “I find them incredibly exciting,” he said. “Everyone comes theater-ready now. With all their social media … it’s like everyone has their own reality program. They’re bright, really intelligent, and ask good, thoughtful questions.”

Sitting and talking with Dorn was itself exciting and stimulating. His enthusiasm for image-making is contagious and uplifting. Anyone who has a chance to attend his lecture tonight, whether a photographer or not, should be encouraged to go. Let Bruce spark your imagination and passion for creative arts. We’re betting it’s the best Wednesday evening you’ll have all month.

Follow Dorn on Instagram.
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