No Problem Too Difficult

by By Arthur H. Bleich

Dan Escobar

November 01, 2010 — A kid who looked too young to pull off a big agency job, a jammed copying machine that finally nailed it for him and an earthquake that nearly killed it—that’s the scenario that jump-started Dan Escobar’s career two decades ago. Today he’s one of the most creative commercial and advertising photographers on the West Coast.

Escobar, 49, was born in San Francisco, but moved down the peninsula to Millbrae, CA when he was 5 years old; by 8 he was taking pictures with an Exakta 35mm camera his father gave him. He excelled as a runner when he was young and thought he might be good enough to pursue a career in athletics. At a Junior Olympic Track and Field meet his coach told him to take photos of the event. “I was about 12 or 13 at the time,” he recalls, “and I remember trying to make my pictures look like ones I had seen in Sports Illustrated, you know, long lenses, shallow depth of field, amazing reactions on the competitors’ faces.”

His brother convinced Escobar to take visual arts courses when he enrolled some years later at San Jose State University. But the pull of athletics was strong. “I remember an apprenticeship with a local photographer, sweeping the studio floor and thinking about which career to pursue. After about 10 seconds of serious thought, I figured I might do better as a photographer—so I kept sweeping and went in that direction.”

After that 10-second epiphany he continued on the assisting route, working for various area photographers while studying the techniques of others he admired. “Irving Penn’s light and design was so clean and simple,” he says, “and there were others, whose images were high quality, conceptual and beautifully lit.”

Then one day he got “the call.” The San Francisco Examiner was switching over to a new ink formula that wouldn’t rub off on their readers’ hands. Their ad agency had come up with a great idea—shoot models with newsprint “tattooed” onto their faces and bodies for a “Covers The News, Not You” campaign, but they hadn’t been able to figure out how (or even if) it could be done. They needed a proof-of-concept before assigning the job.

Escobar went to work and tried several methods before succeeding with ditto paper. He submitted a test Polaroid; the agency loved it, but they promptly gave the job to a “name” photographer in Chicago. “I was about 28 at the time,” remembers Escobar, “but I was new to the business and looked much younger and I guess they thought they didn’t want to take a chance on a young fledgling photographer.” But when the experienced pro found the job too complicated it bounced right back to Escobar.

Refining the process further, he used a copying machine to enlarge the newspaper type onto acetate. On the day of the shoot the machine jammed. As he nervously opened it to retrieve the acetate sheet, he noticed that it hadn’t run through the heat fuser; he was able to lift the thin surface-layer of the sheet from its base and apply it to the model’s skin like plastic food wrap. “It was less work, it was instantaneous and it was adjustable. It was a divine solution and I thanked God for that,” Escobar says.

But what the Lord giveth, the Lord taketh away. A month after the shoot, just as the campaign was about to hit the local media, the 1989 Earthquake shook San Francisco. “The Bay Bridge had fallen,” Escobar remembers, “and the new non-rub ink ads were cancelled because the supplier needed that bridge to deliver ink to the newspaper.” All turned out well, though; six months later the bridge reopened, the Examiner got its ink and the ads finally ran, garnering a multitude of awards for both Escobar and the agency. “It was a lucky break,” he says, modestly.

Since then Escobar has shot jobs for clients that include Motorola, Bank of America, American Express, DHL, Microsoft, eBay, Adidas, Yahoo, Adobe, Got Milk, and many more. The agencies he’s shot jobs for are biggies: BBDO, Goodby Silverstein, Ogilvy & Mather, TBWA, Leagas Delaney, EURO RSCG, McCann, DDB, SicolaMartin, and others. All are impressed with his ability to come up with ideas that go beyond what’s required.

“I’m kind of a problem solver in my thinking,” he says. “I like images that illustrate concepts that have great design, are simple and have a humorous element to them.” A job for Aviva Insurance with the theme “Are you insured for this?” had those elements, but with it came a very tight budget. Escobar bid on it anyway. “They [the shots] were just too funny to pass on, I just had to do these,” he remembers. After accepting the job, he says that “there were times we were shooting and I would just start laughing as I was looking through the lens imagining the end results.”

Escobar works solo out of a 6500-square-foot studio in the South of Market district of San Francisco. He has resisted the pressure to specialize. “I do my best when I’m stimulated by different kinds of assignments,” he says. “My kind of mind would probably go nuts if I had to do the same kind of photography all the time.”

He uses Canon, Hasselblad and Phase One equipment. Many of his current images have been on location—shot as wide horizontals with people in them. “I love that Panavision look,” he says, “it’s a great format and allows for beautiful compositions.”

He also likes simple lighting setups. “If the lighting requires a big production, then that’s what I’ll do,” he says, “but I try to keep it simple.” He says he likes to use reflectors whenever he can, both on location and in the studio, because they can add light to a situation fast. “I use shiny silver boards mainly. I do use Profoto Pro-7b’s for my light much of the time, but a light is a light to me. I’ll use whatever the job requires.”

While he tries to shoot as many effects “in camera” as he can, Escobar says it’s not possible for many jobs. “I am always adding or replacing pieces and parts in post production, and sometimes I alter lighting. Even that’s not always enough.” When a job for EMBARQ (now CenturyTel) required an image of a cruise ship, a real one couldn’t be shot because of copyright issues. Escobar turned to Steve Peters Digital Imaging who used computer-generated imaging (CGI) to launch an ocean liner for him. “CGI is an incredible new tool to bring concepts to life,” he says with excitement. “We gave that boat some aging in Photoshop and then were able to move it around in any direction and at any angle to get just the right composition and lighting.”

Escobar has been successful because he has the kind of mind that can grasp concepts and turn them into images. Sometimes it’s easy and sometimes hard.  But it’s the kind of challenge he thrives on. “One of my teachers once told me,” he recalls, “that you should be able to walk into a white painted room and take 20 interesting pictures within it.” Escobar could probably take 40. To see more of Dan Escobar’s work visit his Web site www.danescobar.com.


Arthur H. Bleich (arthur@dpcorner.com) is a photographer, writer and educator who lives in Miami. He does assignments for major publications both in the U.S. and abroad and conducts digital photography workshop cruises. Visit his Digital PhotoCorner at www.dpcorner.com and also www.dpcorner.com/cruise for information about an April 2011 workshop cruise from Tahiti to the Islands of the South Pacific.

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