There are few professions that are as competitive as photography. In every market, every niche, photographers step on each other to get to the top of the pile. Somewhere along the way, the industry decided that there wasn't enough work to share and wasn't enough fame to go around. Most ambitious photographers have bought in to this fixed mindset and have embarked on a laborious and solitary trek to some undefined pinnacle.
But photographers Frank Diaz and Deb Young realize that the view from the top (if there is a peak) is best enjoyed with company. For the past years, Frank and Deb have been working together on their critically acclaimed International Collaboration Project (ICP), an engine that has already produced several photographic series and continues to rack up accolades and awards. The team continues to produce photo montages that leave their viewers entranced. But it is the collaborative nature of the project that calls all artists to question their solitary stance.
Frank Diaz and Deb Young
To you Frank, Coney Island is much more than a boardwalk or a summer promenade. Can you describe what your upbringing was like in one of New York’s most famous landmarks? How, exactly, did your youth on Coney impact your visual aesthetic?
F: Well, for me Coney Island was quite poor. So much of what made it great had fallen into disrepair. On side streets there were still some of the “freak” shows. The beach was still wonderful and I remember every Tuesday in the summer there were fireworks. As a child, the area held a lot of mystery and discomfort. I think those feelings inform my aesthetic today to some degree.
In your biography Frank, you mention the influence of a cheap supermarket encyclopedia that introduced you to the concept of the Renaissance Man. Do you consider yourself to be a polymath? If so, how does this affect your photography craft? What other interests do you have outside of the art world?
F: Yes, I think so. I have taught myself to do everything from building furniture and house painting to playing the guitar and photography. My primary interest outside of the art world is racquetball. I play about six to eight hours a week. I take this wide ranging point of view and use that sense of searching, seeking and trying to understand more into our photographic work.
Deb, our passion for photography sizzled when you began working for New Zealand Photography Magazine. How does one begin working in the industry before their zeal for the craft fully emerges? What industry insight did you glean from your position at NZPM?
D: I had a passion for photography before I went to work for the New Zealand Photography Magazine and this made my experience there all the more rewarding. I came away from that experience understanding how important it is to learn to work well with others and learning that all aspects of photography – the technical aspects and the business aspects – contributed to that better understanding.
Deb, there was a point in your life that you decided to devote yourself to art. Why is it necessary to listen and respond to one’s inner voice?
D: Happiness. That inner voice can guide you to what truly makes you happy in life. Art fills me with joy, excitement and deeper understanding. The more I learn through art, the more I want to learn.
The International Collaboration Project
With as many digital artists as there are stars in the sky, how did you find one another ?
F: A good photography friend, Brent Pallas, kept encouraging me to join Facebook. Finally, I gave in and joined. He sent me 10 contact names to reach out to and Deb was one of them. At some point, I began reviewing her work and we began to discuss the possibility of exhibiting together. Facebook was the portal for our early ideas and discussions on collaboration. It was a fertile ground where we could see so many different ways in which photographers were expressing themselves. That was exciting and it spurred our search for a way to move photography forward.
D: The Facebook photography community was pretty exciting with all sorts of genres, styles, and cultures. At the time I was exploring street photography, but Frank’s work was like this vibrant colour oasis of florals and unnerving narrative pieces that left you scratching your head. I just loved that sense of deep discussion Frank’s work evoked and was totally intrigued to learn it was all photomontage. In the beginning we would comment on each other’s work but the dialogue between us on Facebook had to be concise. Leaving a comment was really about being observant, reading visual clues and broadening that artist/viewer response beyond “I like it!”
Facebook also opened up an incredible sense of community support and encouragement. Some of our earliest connections are still a huge part of our community today. Our relationship really sprouted from that rich field of creativity, camaraderie and like minds – the digital version of artist-hangouts opening up connections and inspiring new ideas. I distinctly remember being in awe of Frank’s sense of narrative and story-telling in his images which totally appealed to my analytical side. Even from the very beginning we had this visual language exchange that tapped into our need to search and understand.
Do you recall any points in the beginning stages of the ICP where you knew you had a special idea or artistic relationship?
F: Yes, it was after Deb had taken some amazing landscape shots of Manukau Harbor and then worked on them. She shared them with me and I was blown away by how unique they were. We then spontaneously decided to work on one and created “The Wolf + the Bird” piece. Our collaborative development was truly organic – no plan, no strategy. We immediately entered it into a competition and got in! We knew at that moment we had done something remarkable.
D: The moment we created our very first piece “The Wolf + the Bird” we were blown away because it was unplanned. Sounds a bit like conceiving a child! One minute I was sharing some landscape snaps I had been working on, and the next we had combined concept with imagery and something unique and beautiful was born.
In your Playground series you explore the “innocent complexity of playground society.” What roles did you individually hold on the playground? Do you still see remnants of your playground life in adulthood?
F: I was the competitive kid who always wanted to be part of the team! I am not quite as competitive today as I was when a child, but I do like to be at the head of the class if I can.
D: Ah that’s an interesting question. I think we all have a tendency to act out certain roles shaped by the temperament we’re born with and our early experiences. I was a pretty shy kid and hung back, but if a kid was sick or injured I was quick to help them to the sickbay. I think I manifest that sensibility today by being a sympathetic and encouraging team member. We tend to hang on to certain traits developed in those early years but by the time we get to adulthood the intensity of reaction is expressed differently.
In large, your work deals with complex themes of youth and adulthood. However, in The Wandering Kind, you turn your focus to animals. What catalyst led you to devote a series of work to animals?
F: There has always been a fondness on our part for the animal portraiture from the 1700’s and 1800’s. They were not just beautiful images of animals but held interesting symbolic elements. We also love the Hudson River School of painting, where the landscape embodies a spiritual sensibility.
D: Anyone who has a natural curiosity and deep sense of investigating the meaning of life will be drawn to symbols. Throughout the history of art, animals have been used as metaphors and symbols to express psychological themes of human culture and identity. We also have a deep respect for those old masters who set scenes of flora and fauna against sumptuous backdrops of majestic landscapes. The very first landscapes that I took of the Manukau Harbour in Auckland, NZ, inspired us to create these scenes where animal persona can be used to link humans and the natural world.
What artistic/photographic/technological skills do you individually bring to the ICP?
F: Good question, Andy. Well, I tend to bring a big picture sensibility to our conceptualization process. My knowledge of the camera is limited because I see us as artists who use photography as our medium. Deb is truly the techno geek in this duo. I think I also bring spontaneity and speed of production to our work flow. Deb is continually shifting me into 2nd gear from 4th to make sure we don’t zoom past the details!
D: We begin with conceptualizing together, always bouncing ideas off each other and fleshing out our narrative. But when it comes down to image construction, if there are any technical glitches, I tend to be the techno geek/problem solver – most probably a spillover from my playground days?
You work together in real time to create your photo montages. Can you summarize the reality of this process?
F: We actually use about six different apps to communicate together because we are over 8,000 miles apart! This quirk of distance makes what we do that much more unique. Our face time together incorporates ideas that we bring to our conceptualization sessions. We discuss and research our ideas, then we plan out what we envision the specific work might look like. We always allow for a piece to change as the idea becomes more visible to us. We are aware of our peers who may be doing individual images that cover a similar territory and we are aware of our predecessors in photography and painting. Since we are not trying to simply redo other people’s efforts, it’s important in our sessions that we understand how we can move photography forward.
D: The idea of moving photography forward is why we decided to work in photomontage. This allows us complete control over our imagery and composition. Much of our inspiration though is from watching movies. Directors such as Hitchcock, DePalma and Tarrantino play a big inspirational role in how we think and set up each piece. In our development sessions we discuss composition, spatial relationships, narrative and the relationship the work has with the viewer. The impact our work has on our audience is crucial to us. We are trying to have a dialogue with viewers.
Of the five you have produced, which series are you most proud of? Why?
F: They all hold a place in our hearts, but at the moment The Playground Series has been a big part of our focus. We want to create the definitive series on childhood playground interaction.
D: Although we’re currently focused on The Playground & Suspicion Series, each series has its merits and allows us to express our ideas in different ways. The Playground Series would have to be the most rewarding to date – an endless, bountiful rich source of imagery that taps into the mystery of childhood.
Why is the work you produce together important?
F: First, our process of a male and female working together in real time, 8,000 miles apart is inspirational. It shows how people can create today, regardless of borders and distance. Out of that process has come work that questions apparent reality because they look like snaps but are really works composed of many disparate photographic images. Though photomontage is not new today, our use of it is important because we don’t try to make surreal or fantastic images. We are trying to present another way of seeing our reality.
D: Our photomontages are a reflection of our dual efforts - showing that with the right dynamic, collaboration can be effortless and seamless. This is important in a creative industry where photography is mostly a one-man-band from holding the camera to post processing. The work we are producing from our collaborative efforts also shows that in art a male and female can work together equally. When a viewer sees our work they are viewing something that is not simply a conceptual creation of a male and female but it literally has been created by their hands together through cyberspace.
For many photographers the idea of collaboration is completely foreign. Why, exactly, did you choose to enter into an artistic partnership for your unique ICP project?
F + D: After our initial surprise at how well we collaborated together, we started thinking, is it possible for a male/female duo to create photographic imagery together in real time. We wanted to move photography forward because so much of photography is replaying the first 100 years of this art form. We wanted to move away from the single snap mentality and see if we could create some real narrative work. We realized that our collaboration was necessary to create this new vision - a real mix of female and male sensibilities.
At his point, you have worked long enough on the ICP to be able to relate some drawbacks to the collaborative process. Can you relate any frustrations you have encountered throughout the project? How did you address the problems?
F + D: In relation to the art world, collaboration in fine art photography between a male and female is incredibly rare and difficult for people to understand. One frustration is that people have a hard time understanding that we are a DUO! Another is with the distance between us. Technology can be frustrating – glitchy connections, freezing images, etc. Our interpersonal relationship allows us to problem solve very easily.
Another issue is the time difference. We’ve had to set up routines that take advantage of the time available over weekends, and using free texting/phoning apps makes the most of each other’s availability on a daily basis to discuss our work as ideas come into our minds.
How did you view artistic collaboration before the International Collaboration Project?
F: I had collaborated a few times in the past with other artists. We were always in close proximity to each other. Each of those collaborations ended in turmoil. Too much ego, too much competition and too much proving of points. So, though I have always felt collaboration was a wonderful ideal, in practice that ideal was always elusive.
D: Prior to Frank and I coming together I didn’t give the concept of collaboration in photography any thought. Why would I? Photography is usually an individualistic craft. For me, working with a camera meant that I was the only one in control - I owned my own camera, I took my own snaps and made my own decisions about post processing. When Frank first posited the idea of collaborating I was pretty flattered! I had no idea what it entailed, but I was totally onboard and keen to find out.
What personal dispositions do you have that allows for successful collaboration?
F + D: Well, we both are communicative, cooperative, curious and open to alternative ways of seeing things. It seems that we have good flexibility in our attitudes and in our work ethic.
We have a positive “glass half full” sensibility and the ability to put ego aside – coming into this with a spirit of true equality. We’re both helpful and see the importance of maintaining harmony throughout our workflow.
We allow the other the space to express and develop ideas, honoring the diversity that collaborators bring to a project. There’s a respect for each other’s strengths and ideas. All of these values are important to foster a relationship where collaboration can run smoothly and get the job done!
What qualities does your collaborator artistically possess that you lack?
F: Deb sees finer details and will take the time to research how to get a particular task accomplished so that it can be repeated in the future. This allows us to move more efficiently and not have to keep reinventing the wheel. Deb is excellent at looking over an idea and laying out how it can be done. She’s much more organized in her work flow methodology then I am.
D: Frank has an incredible work ethic that seizes every opportunity – even before they occur. I love how fast he can work – Frank’s speed and endless well of ideas always inspires me, and keeps me on my toes! Where I tend to be quite laid back, taking on one task at a time, Frank makes the world turn faster and usually has everything checked off by the time my day swings into action on the other side of the world.
Do you feel that the ICP casts a shadow over your individual careers as artists? What value has the ICP added to your personal artistic endeavors?
F + D: No, this IS our career! This collaboration has broadened our perception of photography – how it can be done, how it can move forward, how it can inspire. We folded our individual careers into The International Collaboration Project, not just as a way to explore how another person’s point of view can enhance and improve what the individual does, but as a way to show how gender equality can redress the imbalance of woman in the art world and to infuse our narrative work with a masculine/feminine sensibility. A blending of creative energies as an example of true cooperation amongst global “strangers” makes a point - that there is a vibrant, creative energy in our world which can unite regardless of cultural, geopolitical and gender polarizations.
Thanks to the many publications that have featured the ICP (Lenscratch, Lens Culture, Blur, etc.), both hobbyists and professionals are now familiar with your work. As “collaborative advocates,” what advice would you give other photographers who no longer wish to work in isolation?
F + D: Hahaha well, go to therapy first and make sure you are fairly free of personal issues that can hold you back from relating deeply to another person. Creating a collaboration where you work together in real time on the same piece can be fraught with issues like competitiveness, insecurity, egotism, lack of gratitude and selfishness. Any of these issues can be the undoing of a collaborative effort. So it’s important, if you wish to collaborate on more than one work, that you put your personal issues to the side and focus on cooperation, encouragement, enthusiasm and gratitude. Also, it’s essential to have an understanding of what you are trying to accomplish.
You mention in a previous interview that meeting one another in person allowed your creative drive to take on a “new energy.” Specifically, how was your work affected after meeting? How did the ICP evolve?
F + D: Stepping back and being able to watch each other working led to new ideas and new methods. There’s a lot to the whole digital process that lacks tangibility. Working together behind screens really exemplifies this modern era of working remotely, where people are engaging in different ways across a multitude of channels. In some ways we are tethered to our devices.
Meeting each other in person added depth and tangibility to our process. There was a sense of freedom. Being out in the field together, shooting in the same time zone, was inspirational and fun! It added more life, more personality to our thinking process. We wouldn’t say it affected our work as such, but on the level of communication, that tangibility added to our excitement to create together.
The ICP shifted in some technical ways that came out of watching how the other partner actually works. Working remotely, you are not always privy to seeing what exactly the other partner is doing. Being in each other’s presence allowed us to review our individual technical work approach and make changes as we saw fit. Now our technical work flow is even more in sync.
The Susan Spiritus Gallery now exclusively represents your work. Lead us through the process of how you decided to co-sign a representation agreement.
F + D: Susan Spiritus is a legend in photography. Her gallery goes back 40 years when photography was not being truly considered a viable art form alongside painting, sculpture, music, etc. She helped pioneer the economic viability of the photograph in the postmodern era. Susan was familiar with our budding reputation and when our business manager approached her, she was open to a discussion. Like many others, Susan was unclear on how we do what we do hahaha. The question of who does what came up – and it took a little to encourage the understanding that we actually work on each photograph together. Once she was clear on that, papers were signed, as they say. We were thrilled and excited to be working with such a renowned dealer.
At the very least, what do you want to accomplish with the ICP? With collaboration?
F + D: We are clear that we would like to shift photography forward. Away from the “tyranny” of the single snap and the persistent desire to have sharpness be the general mode by which an image’s quality is judged. We want to discuss the idea of the legitimacy of narration in photography – can it actually exist in a single frame? And if it can, what are the necessities for that to happen? Though there is a category called narrative photography, there is debate on whether that is a true description of what is taking place.
We would also like photography to be a more conscious art discussion – not so much a Rorschach, but a clear, direct communication in imagery so that the viewer can easily comprehend the proposed idea. We are not trying to create personal works of juxtaposed elements where the viewer is uncertain and confused about the intent. The statement from many photographers that they simply want viewers to interpret their work how they see fit, is less a discussion than a silent monologue. We’d like the work of The International Collaboration Project to be a discussion between the viewer and us, through our work, on specific ideas. Those ideas talk about content, structure and composition, style and how images are created.
We are doing this through collaboration because we see the team/community notion as a next step in how creativity can bring the world closer together in a positive way.
All images by Frank Diaz and Deb Young and are used with permission.
What do you think about Frank and Deb's approach to collaboration? How do you collaborate successfully? I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments section.
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Award winning photographer based in Tokyo, Japan. Specializing in portrait photography, he shoots a variety of portraiture, editorial, event, and commercial photography assignments. Andy is a husband, father, and lover of fried food.