We got to chat with one of our favorite photographers. Dennis Elliott (known on Instagram as @ddesigns_ and on Twitter as @_DDesigns_), is a conceptual portrait photographer from Chicago who regularly blesses our timeline with quality cinematic conceptual images, and SVGE Magazine's Chioma Nwana got to pick his brain:
CN: The most obvious question, how did you get into photography? How long have you been shooting?
DE: I’ve been shooting for three years now. My dad is a hobbyist photographer, so I have actually had a camera around me forever but I really didn’t think much of it. I’ve always been creative, though, but couldn't stick with anything. Early on, I drew for about 5 years, then I did hip hop/footwork dance for about 2 years, dove into creative writing and poetry, and then graphic design before discovering my love for photography. I transferred schools my junior year of high school and met this kid Bakari who had a camera. That was so crazy to me because at the time, I thought that photography was an adult thing. There is so much money and responsibility involved with it - no way a kid can do that, right? Well Bakari was doing it. So I messed around with my dad’s old camera for a while and eventually got a job that lasted 8 weeks, saved every paycheck, and bought my first camera. That same week I got a smartphone and got Instagram. So I instantly started posting the photos I was taking on Instagram and found about this weird community of strangers that came together and took photos. I went to my first “insta-meet” and it was a wrap from there. 3 years later, here we are. I thank my Dad and Bakari for inspiring me to pick up a camera and shoot seriously.
CN: You’re from Chicago – or at least currently live in Chicago, right? Does living in Chicago influence your photography? Does it influence the way you see the world? Does it influence the way you see yourself?
DE: Yeah it has. It’s kinda crazy to think about it. I grew up on the south side of Chicago – 63rd and Cottage Grove. It wasn’t great growing up, and I had a hard time getting along with others in my community and at school, so I would always try to get away from it all. I read a ton of science fiction books and comic books and watched cartoons and movies all the time. I see that reflection in my photography now; I’m always trying my best to create otherworldly cinematic scenes with my work. I think my biggest influence on my work was my childhood experience growing up. That experience and living in Chicago have had a big impact on my work ethic. I’ve always had an “all or nothing” mentality. I’ve always been hard on myself because I have to be. The fact I had two parents and an older sister who loved me is a blessing that I don’t take for granted. I can’t let them down after all the sacrifices they’ve made for me.
CN: What is a lesson that photography has taught you? What is one thing photography has taught you about yourself?
DE: It has definitely taught me to be a problem solver. So many things will go wrong all the time, so you have to be ready to adjust and make the best of the situation. My photography has taught me that I’m a weird and dark dude. I like strange and dark things, and I’m cool with that.
CN: How would you describe your shooting style? What is your favorite thing about your photography?
DE: Cinematic Conceptual photography for the most part. I guess my favorite thing about it is that I can look into one of my photos and be taken to another place and feel a variety of emotions for that scene that I made. At least I do when I actually like the image.
CN: Where do you see yourself with your photography (or even in general) in 5-10 years?
DE: I have no clue actually. Not sure if I’ll be a photographer in the next 5 years – or I should say I’m not sure if photography will be my main career. I like the idea of jumping between career fields. I would like to be a videographer for the next 5 years, to be honest, and then I would like to be a creative director after that. Maybe I’ll be all three, but I definitely want to experiment more with video and directing. Nonetheless, I hope to create conceptual campaigns and art installations that specialize in giving back to communities or bringing awareness to an issue.
CN: Who are your favorite photographers?
DE: Tim Walker, Chris Hainey, David Uzochukwu, Alina Tsvor, Ryan Chun, Denise Kwong, Taylor Rafaleowski, Elizabeth Wirija, Jonathan Sosa, and Martina Matencio. I’m probably forgetting a few people, but these are definitely my favorite photographers right now. They truly have spectacular work that keeps me refreshed and inspired.
CN: Where do you look for inspiration when planning shoots? What is your process?
DE: This year I’ve really been drawing inspiration from life. It’s pretty crazy how many movie-like scenes you will notice when you start looking at life like a movie. Last week when coming home from work, the clouds were so big, dark, and dramatic. There was this older lady crossing the street. The street lights turned on, making everything blue and orange. That was so beautiful to me. Small moments like that have really been inspiring me. But, of course, I look to other visuals for inspiration. “Stranger Things” was probably the most inspirational thing I’ve seen all year. Solange’s recent music videos for “Cranes In The Sky” and “Don’t Touch My Hair” as well. I also enjoy busting out a print magazine, and taking that in or going to check out an exhibit in a museum. Seeing art in physical form is another experience entirely.
As for my process, when I get an idea I immediately put it in my notes on my phone or write it down in my notebook. Then I expand on the idea and basically have a creative “throw up” and write everything I would want to do for that idea. I then select my favorite things from the written mess and go from there. Sometimes I’m able to figure everything out when I’m writing it out, but other times, there are specific things I just don't know at that moment (such as the model I want for it or the location to shoot it). When that happens, I just wait until I see the perfect location or model to execute the idea with.
CN: Who has been your favorite person – or people – to work with thus far? It can be anyone from models to creative directors to other photographers even.
DE: Oh god, that’s so hard. I love working on projects with my closest friends, Spencer, Jackie, and Anisha, but that’s a given. I guess I’d have to say that Rachel Lanne, a very talented fashion designer based in New York, is one of my favorite people to work with. She’s so crazy and talented; we’ve worked together twice now and both times I’ve created some of my best work. There are a ton of people I could add to this list. I’ve been able to work with a bunch of talented and amazing people this year.
CN: What is your favorite aspect of photography?
DE: Storytelling. I love a good story, and I’m a visual person. So I’d say visual storytelling. A photo is worth 1,000 words, right? So I love to create a series of images that send people on a cinematic adventure.
CN: So many people love your work, and as always, with fans come imitators and haters. Have you ever had to deal with that? If so, how do you handle it?
DE: This is the world we live in. Despite my fixation on fantasy and surrealism, I consider myself a realist. If you post your work on social media, be prepared because it may be hijacked. Imitation is the greatest form of flattery so I don’t take offense to it. I mean honestly, that lets me know I’m doing something right, right? The only time I would be offended is if someone or an organization/business was making profit from my work without my knowledge. That’s super fucked up.
CN: Do you incorporate your personality into your photography? Can we see you in your work? What aspect of yourself do you try to express to people through your work?
DE: I feel as though I do all the time. Like I said before, I’m a pretty weird dude. All of these concepts I shoot are just as weird and dark as I am. I’m just expressing my way of seeing the world and all the stories it contains.
CN: What are three things you think every artist should always keep in mind when creating?
DE: Be ready for something to fuck up, be respectful of the people you are working with to make the vision happen, and put your heart into it.
CN: Is there anything special that we can expect from you this month?
DE: I have a few videos I’ve been working on that I’m excited to put out. Recently I’ve been learning so much about videography and trying to get a grip on it. As for photography, I have a ton of work coming. I’ve been so busy and haven’t been able to edit, but soon I’ll have time to edit all my photos. Really excited to put out all the experimental work I’ve been doing.
CN: When you wake up in the morning, what is the driving force that pushes you to continue to create?
DE: If I don’t create, I get bored, and if I’m bored, I don’t do anything, and if I’m not doing anything, then I’m dying. I feel as though time is the most precious thing we have, so any time I’m just sitting around and being bored and doing nothing, I’m just slowly dying. That sucks. When I’m creating, I’m more alive than ever, which doesn't suck.
CN: Last question, I promise. This is out of sheer curiosity: where and when are you happiest?
DE: It can be anywhere, but when I’m creating something I believe in with people I find genuine, inspiring, and creative is when I’m on cloud 9. If we’re getting paid on top of that, it’s almost too much to handle. I just want to make weird stuff with my friends and people I look up to and be able to eat, sleep comfortably, and travel.