Daily Picture Show

A Lifetime Of Photos In A Little Email Retrospective

Browning, Mont., 1993

hide captionBrowning, Mont., 1993

Dennis Darling

I had never met Dennis Darling, nor heard of him, when I started receiving his emails — about two a week, each with a photo and simple caption. He simply thought I'd be interested. And how can you resist a name like that?

But in fact, it's a name not too many would necessarily know — even within the niche world of photography — and that's because Darling has kept a pretty low profile over the years. When I probed to learn more about his origins, Darling sent me a bio he typically uses, along with this caveat:

"The rest of that stuff on the bio is old B.S.," he wrote bluntly. "I haven't done any major magazine stories in years and am only in one exhibit or two a year at this point. I have no Web presence and relish staying under most radar. ... I am far more interested in the experience of making the photographs than selling them."

Even in our conversation about the weekly emails, he emphasized that it's not self-promotional.

"I just turned 65, and I thought it would be nice to give my friends and family a gift," he says on the phone. It was mainly an excuse to begin digging through a mostly unorganized, undigitized 40-year archive that runs the proverbial gamut.

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Despite these somewhat hermetic habits, Darling is not completely unknown, nor is his work. Ask any number of graduates from the photojournalism program at the University of Texas, Austin, and they'll know the name. He directs the program there, where he has been since 1981.

Darling may not exude an unbridled passion. In fact, he seems downright underwhelmed by talk of anything too serious, and offers no strongly corroborated philosophy on photography. "I just make photographs," he says.

But there's clearly more to it — what I, personally, might describe as a certain magical realism, and a timeless quality that lends consistency across 40 years of images. He quietly pursues folks on the fringe: circus performers, motorcycle gangs, snake handlers.

His photos are endlessly curious and forgiving, even of the Ku Klux Klan, and for what it's worth, there are no societal outliers in Dennis Darling's universe. He'll shoot Miss Rodeo Texas, which he did recently, or a Louisiana zydeco legend, which he did in the '90s.

As the school year winds down, Darling gears up for a summer program in Prague, where he will work on a new personal project photographing Holocaust survivors of the nearby Nazi concentration camp of Terezin. But, if he works in his usual habit, you may or may not ever see those photos.

If there's one thing his students might learn by observation (because Darling doesn't seem like one to give officious instruction), it's a slow and steady approach to photography. His portfolio has literally been a lifetime in the making. And the gratification comes, it seems, not from an award or a book, but in looking through the photos themselves.

"This camera hanging around your neck is sort of like a magic carpet," he says. "With a good line and a roll of film, you can get in anywhere." For Dennis Darling, the journey has been the reward.

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