By noticing small details that others may miss, the Bay Area's David Sanger specializes in finding sublime images in even the most mundane locations.
Veteran travel photographer David Sanger often wonders why anyone would visit some of the places he goes, especially when he struggles to find the photographs hiding there.
He knows some magic will probably happen, and eventually he'll find the shots to make the trip worthwhile. But first, there's often some real and powerful discouragement he must overcome.
"You can get really down and wonder what the attraction is for some places, when the light is not great or you don't see what it is that draws people there," says the veteran San Francisco Bay Area pro.
However, this discouraged state usually passes and leads to what he considers a small epiphany. "Some of my best pictures have come out of the most discouraging circumstances," he explains.
How this turnaround happens is actually quite simple: persistence. "You stay and stay; you hang on, sometimes only by sheer grit," Sanger says.
Sanger, who's been to 100 countries – i.e., just about everywhere – is nonetheless certain that every locale has a great photograph in it. "Every place has something to offer," he says. "Go to a little island or small town, and you may think it is nothing special. You're there to face that challenge."
The result of standing his ground is that Sanger almost always finds the images that answer the nagging question: What is it about this seemingly dull place that makes it somewhere to go to?
"My job is to find that," Sanger says.
Planning without a plan
Sanger, 59, is grateful to have a job that provides the opportunity to find these answers all over the world.
A lifelong travel lover, he trotted the globe during college, but then used his mathematics degree to get a corporate computer systems job where he was "miserable." Sanger stayed with it for a dozen years, "until I couldn't stand it anymore, or about five years past where I could no longer stand it."
He'd always been traveling and shooting, and he went from a photography avocation to vocation 17 years ago. Since then he's traveled a million and a half miles or more, often shooting 5,000 images in just over a week, as he did recently in Argentina.
But, as noted, the "keeper" shots often play hard-to-get. During a visit to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, said to be built over the tomb of Jesus Christ, he wondered how he'd get any photographs worth anything at all.
"It is a tourist trap, full of large tour groups, with their flags and flagpoles, and a lot of noise and vendors," he says. "It's like Times Square, yet you're supposed to have a religious experience there. It is not a serene location; maybe it was in the fifth century."
However, a pro like Sanger can see below the surface distractions. "You have to think, the tourists are just ripples on the water. Underneath is a more deep, profound calmness and spirituality," he explains.
He eventually found the signal buried under all the noise. And, of course, he has the images to prove it. There was a bearded archbishop at the church, dressed in dark blue, graciously greeting people at the door. On the way out, Sanger noticed the large, battered wood entrance door. It was well lit, but by contrast had nothing but darkness behind it.
"The archbishop was standing there in the darkness, and I asked, '˜Can you step forward just a bit?' " Sanger recalls. "He did, and I got a quick handful of shots, a horizontal and some verticals," with the clergyman caressed by the darkness. The shots conveyed "the sense of the spiritual and the uncluttered, peaceful tranquility I was after," Sanger says.
The Zen of serendipity
It's important to leave room for this sort of serendipity. One of Sanger's most common approaches is a combination of planning and not planning. "I always leave time for simply wandering," he explains. "On assignment I always have a list of places to shoot, and so I have to get them, so I wander for a while and then go back to the list."
For example, it took three or four days to get the image capturing the storybook magic of Prague that has been one of his most successful shots. He spent about the same amount of time to find a vantage point with a dramatic and uncluttered view to yield an equally iconic but fresh image of the Parthenon.
A striking image that highlights the Bay Area's unique combination of urbanity and wilderness happened in another surprising way. "I went up Mount Tamalpais to shoot the sunrise, and as I [was] driving down, I stopped at a lookout I know well," he says. He wasn't expecting to see much that was new. He framed a shot that captured pine trees in the middle distance, along with the Bay Bridge, San Francisco Bay and the undulating hills in the background.
A nice shot on its own – but then a large bird suddenly flew into the middle of the frame, spread its wings full and seemed to hang in the air for a second. The bird made the photo a lot better, Sanger says. After he took the photo, the bird promptly took off.
"These things happen when you extend yourself; if you go out there, it will happen. It is surprising and humbling, in a way," Sanger says. "The more you do it, the deeper in you get. I'm still getting new angles on the Golden Gate Bridge, even though I've done a book on the Bay Area." ["San Francisco Bay: Portrait of an Estuary," University of California Press, 2003.]
Prying images from places that don't want to give them up is a daily struggle, but it is not the main obstacle a travel photographer like Sanger faces. His single biggest challenge is avoiding cliche'd images of famous places.
He solves this challenge simply and directly: He goes right ahead and shoots all the standard, expected shots to get them out of the way, so the creative work can begin.
"There doesn't seem to be any way around it," he says of his particular technique. "I see the Golden Gate Bridge just like everyone else at first, with the same cliched eye. So I have to shoot the really obvious pictures, the straight-on standard classical shots.
"Sanger says a high percentage of his images in the first few days at a location are "postcard pictures," but those photos are seldom keepers.
When he gets the obvious out of the way, "then you begin to notice things," he adds. "You see a hill and wonder, what would the bridge look like from up there?"
Sanger doesn't spend a lot of time reviewing his images in the field. "I rarely think about them," he says. "I look at them after I get back and have decompressed. They first look great, then look terrible and eventually settle down to a mix of good ones, after the junk is thrown away."
Thanks to his many years practicing the art of perception, he begins to see how one piece of the landscape relates to another. "You see the juxtapositions, what you do and don't want in the shot," he says. "At a cloudy beach you'll see that you must come back during a storm. Each time you go and try a new approach, one thing leads to another idea."
He also believes that such perseverance leads to true discovery. "When you're engaged with the subject, having shot the clichÃ©s, well, stuff just happens," he says. "Clouds will part and you'll see something totally unexpected; it is often awe-inspiring and profoundly moving."
The clouds literally parted quite dramatically for Sanger, for one brief moment in Ecuador. He was shooting a climber's hut with a dramatic glacier in the background, late in the day. "I spent a lot of time intently reframing the building," he says. Meanwhile, a more compelling image was lurking behind his back.
"Someone behind me said, '˜Wow, look at that!' " he says. "I turned 180 degrees and the black clouds opened for a moment, the setting sunlight broke through, I got one frame and then the clouds closed right back up." The result is a powerfully dramatic and otherworldly cloudscape.
Man in a suitcase
Despite moments like these, there is a downside to being a travel photographer. In a word, it is travel – the drudgery of actually getting where you've got to go.
"It is an effort to get myself, my gear and luggage intact through three stopovers and 12 time zones," he acknowledges.
Sanger has all this pretty well sussed out, too, however. The secret of dealing with all the travel is knowledge, experience, patience and, of course, the frequent-flier mileage benefits of a corporate mega-titan.
He estimates he makes about 10 trips a year, eight of which are international. Last year alone, Sanger flew about 118,000 miles, visiting Japan, China, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, England, Germany, Belgium, Peru, Argentina and Uruguay. In 2007, he flew 102,000 miles.
"Once you've learned the ropes – how to rebook yourself, knowing airport facilities – you can eliminate a lot of the aggravation," he advises. "It helps to be fluent in negotiating airports – to know how to get through customs in Bahrain, for example."
And once the aggravation is quashed, a seasoned traveler like Sanger has learned how to look on the bright side of today's notoriously challenging travel experiences. "If the plane is three hours late, some people get agitated. I try not to do that," he says. "I'm not thrilled when a flight is cancelled, but I know I might get a few extra miles as a result."
As long as he keeps up his 100,000-mile-per-year average, Sanger gets all the top-level executive upgrades that airlines can offer, including "a special desk with personalized service," he says. "If there's a delay, there's a much better chance of getting rebooked quickly. In the meantime, the airport lounge and wireless access are a great help in keeping in touch with clients."
However, once he is in the field, the perks often stop. Getting sick while on assignment is, of course, a hazard of the job. "It is no fun having a fever in Laos when you have to shoot next morning," he notes. "You simply must get up and shoot, if you're on assignment."
And even when he is well, the hours are long and the work is tiring. "You can get up at 4 a.m. to shoot the sunrise at 5, and then you keep going till 10 p.m.," he says.
Northern locations, like Stockholm for example, are lovely in June or July, but the long midsummer days can also make them exhausting places to shoot. "It is light until after 11 p.m.," he quips. "There's no excuse to stop working."
Much of Sanger's expertise has come from hard work in the field and perseverance – but he didn't do it all alone. Being a member of a professional photography association is critically important, he says, especially in today's challenging business climate.
"The economics are difficult. You have to learn how to work with travel professionals, tourist boards, magazines and guidebooks," he says. He urges professional shooters to include travel as part of a broader repertoire, which should also include work in stock, commercial, industrial, documentary and editorial photography.
"Also, it is really important to get good access to markets," he says. "Getty Images is a big help in getting the widest possible distribution of images in many different countries. Alamy [Images] is strong in editorial in the U.K."
Sanger served two years on the board and one year as president of the Stock Artists Alliance, and is also an active member of the American Society of Media Photographers, the Society of American Travel Writers and the Travel Journalists Guild.
Through these organizations, Sanger met some of the industry's top leaders and got a good sense of the issues facing the industry, with input from editors, buyers, distributors, lawyers and government officials. Associations, he adds, "cover the business basics," such as marketing, putting together a portfolio and licensing issues.
"I can't overemphasize the importance of professional associations," he advises. "Photographers work as individual business owners and need to join together to improve business conditions and protect their rights."
Life in motion
It's not surprising that Sanger has tamed the travails of travel photography. He's a highly seasoned pro, after all, spending roughly 100 days shooting on the road.
However, what might surprise some is that after 40 years of travel shooting and 17 years as a full-time pro, he's not jaded about travel; he still enjoys it and still gets especially excited about going someplace new.
"Going to a new country to me is a thrill," Sanger says. "I understand why the Pope kisses the ground in a new place – it is an amazing experience! It would be nice not to have to use the jetway, to be able to step directly on the ground in a new place. I still love seeing a new part of the world, and realizing the world is much larger than even I ever imagined."
Each trip is a new lesson learned for Sanger. "At home, my horizons withdraw and my universe gets smaller," he says. "But after 40 years of travel, getting on an airplane and getting off eight hours later in Uruguay or Fiji, that is still a great, amazing experience for me. All your senses are alive and alerted to what's new and different. This sense of discovery, of the unknown becoming known, that's the best thing to me."
Even though he's a busy professional, Sanger doesn't take a hit-and-run approach to uncovering the unknown.
"I aim to absorb a sense of the spirit of the place, to know what it feels like, so my pictures are true to the location and culture," he says. "Even if I'm only there for a week, I get a hint of what life is like for the people. You can learn something real about a place in a week or two if you pay attention," he adds.
And then there are the simple yet astonishing events in the downtime. "I meet the most amazing people. The best thing is always the surprises – sitting in a yurt in western China drinking mare's milk" with local people, for instance. "I feel privileged to be invited into someone's home. I'm amazed by the hospitality, especially in the Third World, but also in Paris and New York."
Sanger works long hours and puts forth a lot of effort for his images, but it's mostly to make sure he never overlooks the details. It's the shots he knows he's missed that gnaw at him the most.
He recalls the story that photographer Dorothea Lange told about her famous 1936 "Migrant Mother" shot in Nipomo, Calif. "She said she had driven 25 miles past the sign for a migrant camp spot before she turned around to find the woman camped out with her family," Sanger says.
"I teach that you have to make those U-turns; otherwise it will stay with you the rest of your life," he adds. "I'm still haunted by shots I didn't take, especially a gorgeous sunset I missed while driving by Mount Diablo [in the Bay Area]. I didn't get out of the car; I had two other people along.
"My wife understands the U-turns, and me jumping out of the car and getting the gear out and taking the shots," he adds. "What she doesn't understand is doing the same thing five minutes later."
IN THE LOUPE: David Sanger
Home and studio: Albany, Calif.
Family Life: Lives with his wife, Sally. "My whole family likes to travel," Sanger says. "My son and I just went to Peru last year."
Favorite gear: Two Nikon 12.1-megapixel full-frame D700 DSLRs. "I don't use the D3X just because of the price advantage of the D700s," he says. Nikkor 80-200mm, 17-35mm, 24-70mm lenses – all f/2.8 – as well as a 105mm macro; SB-28 Nikon strobes; Manfrotto/Bogen tripods; Photoflex camera bag and reflectors.
Preferred digital storage: On the road: MacBook Pro laptop; three Western Digital 250GB Passport USB 2.0 drives for backup; 8GB and 4GB SanDisk Extreme IV cards. In the office: MacPro; 8TB+ storage in FirmTek RAID arrays; various other Macs.
Favorite locales in which to work: "South Africa, for the light; Europe, for the density of interesting subjects; and the Caribbean. I'm the guy you see in the Caribbean with the tripod, big lens, black camera bag and long pants, trudging down the beach, sweating."
Corporate clients: The National Park Service, RPI, the East Bay Municipal Utility District, Cargill Salt, Interorient Shipping.
Stock representation: Primarily Getty Images; also has images with Image Bank and Alamy Images. Licenses stock directly from his website and sells fine-art prints.
Recent publications: Fodor's, Frommer's, Insight Guides, Rough Guides, Coastal Living, Time, BBC, NBC, Japan Airlines, Holland America, National Geographic Books.
Book: "San Francisco Bay: Portrait of an Estuary," with John Hart, UC Press, 2003.
Advice for travel shooters: "Get totally absorbed in each location and consider it your responsibility to present each place accurately and genuinely … Get in touch with a few shooters; talk to them, take them out to lunch, learn all you can about the business and see if this is really what you want. You have to be a bit crazy."