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When I call photographer Dana Neibert to discuss visiting his studio in Coronado, California, he warns me, “There isn’t much to see.” Coronado is an island connected to San Diego by a 2.1-mile-long bridge that boomerangs over the azure waters of the San Diego Bay. I get to Neibert’s picturesque home, replete with a charming Dutch-style front door, and a small dog greets me first, trailed by a smiling Neibert. After his wife, Heather, plies me with cookies in their kitchen, I follow Neibert across a sun-dappled patio to his studio, a single room attached to the garage. It’s tidy, and the combination of French doors and a skylight makes it feel bigger than it is, but still, I get the joke. “Sometimes I get young photographers telling me they want to apprentice in my studio, and I have to explain to them that there literally isn’t room for two people to turn around,” he says with a laugh.

Small studio or not, young photographers and mammoth corpora­tions alike seem drawn to the otherworldly quality of Neibert’s work, a cinematic hyperrealism that leaps off the page. As in a dream, the colors and textures of his images are plucked from the stuff of our lives, but rendered so vividly that they occupy a realm all their own. In that world, an omnipresent sun waxes platinum and wanes soft gold, and the ocean is its glittering mirror or a deep blue foil. Neibert’s portfolio is thick with exceptional work across the breadth of his field, for companies such as Four Seasons, American Express, the USPS, Chevy, Dodge, American Airlines, Intel, Frito-Lay, MassMutual, Olympus, the United Way, AT&T, Farmers Insurance and more. However stylized or naturalistic a particular image may be, Neibert’s ability to harness the sun, Earth and water in service of his subject is remarkable.

THE JET SKI DAYS
Neibert grew up on the other end of California as the oldest of three siblings, born and raised in Kentfield, just north of San Francisco. “I played around with cameras in high school. I always liked photography, but I was too naive to know you could make a living from it,” Neibert says. He did some desk­top publishing while working on the student news­paper, which touched on elements of design. That would carry over through a stint at the local junior college and into a graphic design program at California College of the Arts in San Francisco.

Consider the fact that one could credibly say Neibert’s climb to his status as elite commercial photographer began with a professional Jet Skiing career after college, and you get an idea of how unusual his journey has been. He was introduced to Jet Ski racing by a friend in college and continued to pursue it after college, eventually turning pro. “I was making a little bit of money, between what you could win at a race or get from a sponsor.”

One of those sponsors was a wetsuit company that offered Neibert a job in San Diego designing suits, catalogs and ads. He worked Monday through Friday in the office and raced on the weekends, but eventually that ran its course as Neibert’s interest in the sport flagged. He transitioned to a design firm and, finding he enjoyed the occasional ad campaign that came through the office, moved into advertising. It seemed that he had found his niche as an art director; his eye for visuals, his design training and his ability to manage a team all helped him become quite successful and still left room for his own creativity.

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“I worked for a lot of small agencies, so we would either use stock [photos], find a type solution or shoot it ourselves, and that last part is what helped me break into photography,” Neibert explains. His passion for photography grew, but he still felt hesitant about his ability to turn it into a career. “When the agency did have budgets to shoot with pro photo­graphers, they always had all these high-end cameras and strobes, stuff I really wasn’t familiar with. I always thought, ‘Wow, this is over my head, I’m glad we are using this guy,’” Neibert remembers.

Then he met Andy Anderson. While with Matthews/Evans/Albertazzi, Neibert booked the critically acclaimed commercial photographer for an agency project and was shocked when Anderson arrived without the bells and whistles he had come to expect. “We start shooting, and I notice he is using the same Graflex Crown Graphic 4×5 camera as I do, he is using the same Polaroid Type 55 film, he didn’t have any strobes, it was almost all natural light—just like me,” Neibert says. There was a down day on the job, and Neibert took the opportunity to invite Anderson to San Diego to shoot some personal work. “I showed him my stuff, and he said, ‘If you want to make that switch to commercial photography, I think you can do it.’” Six months later, in 2003, Neibert left his adver­tising job.

RISKING IT ALL
While it sounds romantic and daring, to some extent Neibert’s career shift was a serious leap of faith. By then, he was married with a baby at home and no formal photography training outside of a darkroom class in junior college. He had put together a website and booked some local work before he left his job, so it wasn’t a complete shot in the dark—but San Diego is not Los Angeles or New York, and it wasn’t easy to gauge what his long-term prospects might be. He credits Heather for putting on a brave face, given that she had left her full-time job when their daughter was born. For her part, she remembers it as a nerve-racking time, but says she never doubted their decision. “I sincerely believed he could do it. He is the hardest-working person I have ever met,” she explains. “I made a commitment to encourage and support him no matter what. I didn’t know what would happen, but I wasn’t going to be the reason he didn’t pursue his dream.”

Neibert started bidding on as much work as he could, sending out more than 1,500 promos, including some to reps and agents he knew from his time as an art director who were “out there really hustling.” He ended up signing with the New York–based agency Fox Creative, which is still his home today. And though he wishes he had gotten serious about photo­graphy at a younger age, Neibert values his time in advertising. “I know when I am on a job that everybody has to answer to someone,” he says. “The art director is answering to a creative director, the client on set is answering to some­body else. I know that if someone is saying ‘no’ on set or is making a request, it’s not just [to be difficult], it’s because they are thinking down the road.”

Dana has always surprised me with his sensibilities to the craft of photography.”—Andy Anderson

Every campaign is its own beast, so although Neibert tries to be consistent in his approach, flexibility is a must, from the bidding phase, during which estimates have to be recalibrated as a client’s plans coalesce, to treatments that must be tweaked to accommodate the most Byzantine of parameters. “You end up shooting a pharmaceutical job, and they might say you can’t use anything green because that’s the competitor’s color,” he says. One variable Neibert does control is his crew, and he prides himself on working with the same tight-knit team of about a dozen on every job. “That’s why I am successful, because of the people who support me,” he explains. “They make it so all I have to do is press the button. That goes all the way back to my wife, who, when I’m shooting on a beach at a Four Seasons resort on the Indian Ocean, is back here taking care of the kids on her own.”

Michael Ancevic of the Boston-based advertising agency Fantastical was with Neibert on the aforementioned trip, and he watched the photographer cover every base. “Dana has the skill sets to think on his feet in a very collaborative way and deliver stunning shots time after time, while also having the bedside manner to be comfortable with an agency and their client for three weeks in a row on the go,” Ancevic recalls. “Some photographers aren’t capable of being ‘on’ that much, both in terms of a creative performance level and a client skill level.” Brian Wood of FCB Chicago echoes the sentiment. “His personality is calm, collected and positive. No matter what gets thrown his way on a shoot, he’s ready to deal with it and make the best shot happen.”

OLD MEETS NEW
Neibert had started this portion of his career working exclusively with film, and he held on for a long time, wary of the depth and noise problems that plagued early digital photography. Even though he eventually made the transition, Neibert’s background in film—and not just film, but 4×5 and 8×10—informs his technique. “I’m not a spray-and-pray guy,” Neibert says unapologetically. “I don’t go out and shoot 1,500 frames a day. When I was [working in large format], composing with a ground glass, I might only have had 10 or 20 sheets of film with me, and each one had to load individually in a dark room.” When shooting in large format, he explains, “I started making images I was really proud of. And it’s because of that process, that slowing down.”

Neibert takes that same deliberate approach to post-production. Before printing, he lets the work sit for a few days, visualizing where he wants to take the image before he returns to it. When he picks it up again, he already knows exactly what he wants. “Most of the major adjustments are done in the first ten minutes,” he says. If a client’s schedule allows, he will set it aside again, then come back to see if the treatment is still working for him.

That’s why I am successful, because of the people who support me.”—Dana Neibert

His meticulousness has charmed his mentor. “Dana has always surprised me with his sensibilities to the craft of photography,” Andy Anderson says. “His treatment of color and ability to bring emotion to commercial work is something I feel is lost by most photographers. Dana’s work has moved leaps and bounds. It’s matured to a wonderful visual place.”

To make these creative strides, Neibert sees his personal work as the key to a sustainable career in commercial photography. He takes on only a limited number of jobs every year; his own projects are where he is able to really grow as an artist. “The more you shoot and experiment, the more your work will evolve and become refined over time. Just like any craft, it’s something that just gets better over time with practice.”

We pause to mull over the idea of dedication as we sit on his patio. Then we talk about his daughter’s athletic talents and his son’s love of Polaroids. Soon the sun is beating a retreat over the treetops and the kids are trooping into the house, tan and limber, full of questions and stories. It’s time for me to leave, and the Neiberts and their enthusiastic dog come out into the yard to see me off. I am reminded of his clearly true statement that the people around him make it possible for him to succeed. Driving away, I can’t help but think that, during our first phone conver­sation, Neibert was wrong about one thing: seeing where he works showed me exactly how he thrives as a photographer. ca

Dzana Tsomondo (dzanatsomondo@gmail.com) is a freelance writer living and working in New York City. Passionate about music, art and politics, his work has appeared in publications from Photo District News to Cool’eh Magazine.
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