For photographer Danni Valdez, his photos are only as good as his subjects. And the more interesting the model, the better.
You could say Danni Valdez has his mother to thank for giving him an edge. His birth name is Daniel. His mother called him Danni with an ‘i’. Sister Jennifer was Jenni, brother Donald was Donni and Christine was Christi.
Many people mistake the photographer for a woman, thanks to that spelling and also the fact that his Facebook profile photos are usually of women he has photographed. But he’s grateful. Having that unique spelling means Google searches work to his advantage, he says.
The four kids with the ‘i’-ending names grew up in the East Bay area of California, in Contra Costa County. There, Danni mixed a love of music and playing bass guitar in bands with a range of jobs – from assembly lines and fabrication, to die casting and glass blowing.
From music he got into acrylic painting, beginning with painting on his own leather jacket. “But it was real slow. Sometimes it would take me a few months to do a painting,” he says. On the advice of a friend, he went to college to study graphic design. Work at an ad agency followed, and it was there that he started learning about photography.
At first, Danni was soaking it up through their hired photographers and models, and going out on shoots. He had had fun with a digital point-and-shoot camera (he came back from his honeymoon in Europe with more than 2,000 photos). “The bug grew there, visiting places like Berlin and Prague,” he says.
He invested in a Canon Rebel XTi. A photographer friend explained the basics of aperture and depth of field, and from there Danni experimented. He offered to shoot products for the ad agency, and asked friends and acquaintances to model for him (one was a local seller of vintage clothing, hence his foray into fashion photography).
And he pored over YouTube. “I was really into flash and studio lighting. YouTube became like a learning channel for me. I was self-taught,” he says.
It’s hard to believe of a guy who is now making a name for himself for his slick, often highly produced, fashion and portrait shoots. But modesty, and honesty, are part of Danni’s deal.
His move to Tucson came in June 2010. He had met his wife on MySpace, and they lived in California when first married. She is from Tucson, and wanted a new start back in the desert. “I was against it, but I got tired of working out in California. It’s crowded, it’s expensive,” says Danni.
What really changed his mind was the video for Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Scar Tissue, filmed in Joshua Tree National Park and other parts of the California desert. The wide open desert and road trip feel of it called to him.
Here in Tucson with his photography business Shutter2Think, Danni’s subjects vary widely: live bands, fashion models, commercial interiors (including some work for 3 Story), family portraits, products and weddings.
His love of music – fave bands include Marilyn Manson, PJ Harvey, Oasis, Social Distortion and Tom Petty – leads him to shoot live bands often just for pleasure. His photos of The Love Me Nots, a garage band from Phoenix, caught the band’s attention. “We get photographers at shows all the time, but there was something about Danni’s shots – the timing, the clarity, the poses he captured – that just caught our eye,” says singer Nicole Laurenne.
Danni was making conversation with Nicole before they went onstage when he showed her some photos he had shot of a model with a black and white lollipop. Later, the band hired him for a photo shoot and an album cover. They asked him to recreate that lollipop shot for the cover of ‘Sucker’.
The band credits him for giving them some of their most iconic images, and talks about him affectionately. “He’s incredibly prompt, organized. And he has a personal cool factor,” says Nicole.
He also has a reputation for being dogged. Says Hillary Solterbeck, one half of the make-up pair Strawberri Gashes: “He gets this image in his mind and he won’t rest until he’s captured it. His attention to detail is impeccable.” She adds: “He’s always willing to try something new no matter how simple or outrageous it may be.”
Danni’s professional inspirations include Diane Arbus, celebrity photographer Dan Winters, and photographer/music video director Dean Karr, whose award-winning work has included subjects such as Marilyn Manson, Tommy Lee and Stevie Nicks. He follows these photographers’ leads by choosing subjects that are interesting, rather than pretty. “I choose people with a really unique look, whether they’re considered model types or not. Diane Arbus was a really big influence on me. She shot a lot of weird people. They’re like characters. They’re unique, interesting people. I figure if the person I’m shooting is interesting, then the photo is automatically unique.”
One of those interesting faces is Heather Grey, who has modeled extensively for Danni. Drawn to what she calls his “avant-garde aesthetic”, she says she could see influences of famous photographers and artists reinvented in his work. “It becomes a completely different entity,” says Heather. She adds: “Many photographers have an agenda and want what’s commercially popular and are not as willing to experiment or take chances. When I work with Danni it always feels like a joint collaboration in which we create art that invokes emotion.”
Music remains a big inspiration for Danni. “Often I try to create photos that give me the same feelings and emotions that songs do. Sort of a reverse of a film soundtrack. In my case it’s trying to achieve a visual to go with the sound,” he says.
Danni’s marriage ended, although he remains in Tucson, where his live-in girlfriend is just one of his photographic muses. When he’s not getting paid for his photo gigs, he’s taking photos anyway. This is when his imagination runs to the gothic, sometimes grisly – from vampiric scenes in a graveyard to, recently, an axe-wielding murderess (although, in Danni’s mind – he makes up a detailed back story – the murderess was acting in self defense).
One of his shoots, for 3 Story Magazine earlier this year, featured a male murderer and his slaughtered wife. It was set up to showcase the make-up talents of Strawberri Gashes. But it caused quite the stir in Tucson on social media.
Danni shrugs off some of the negative comments, including claims of misogyny, confident that he is far from misogynistic (just ask any of Tucson’s feminist and body positive activists, whom he supports). He is just glad he got people talking. “I guess my main goal is to get people to think. I want them to feel something from my art.”
* See more of Danni’s work at shutter2thinkphotography.com