Photographer Bill Dane’s Website

Bill Dane is an amazing artist and an amazing friend.

I find it difficult to imagine being the sort of friend to as many people as Bill Dane has been in his lifetime. For me, I could only see that happening over perhaps a hundred lifetimes. Because focus. Because getting things done in the day. How he did it in one lifetime I will never know. But we all know Bill Dane. Somehow. He does have a trick he does with talking code at people though, so maybe that helps. But a little more on that below.

I met him on Flickr where he has curated online galleries of photos he admired by many artists, myself included. This is more of his generosity, but when Bill would add a piece of visual art I made to one of those galleries, I would look at it again and then see a little of Bill Dane in my original piece. That would make me smile. That’s even if it was made before I knew of Bill Dane or his work. So that’s the weird magic of connection, I guess. We meet the people we were meant to meet because they are already a little bit us and vice versa.

Off the top of my head without checking facts: Bill Dane started out as a painter. Bill probably sent more photo postcards of his work to people all around the world in the days of mail art than almost anyone (I think nearly 70,000). Bill Dane is one of a precious few photographers who have had a solo photography show at MOMA. Bill was a social justice warrior every day of the week decades before there was such a term (Berkeley). Bill’s been all around the world and has had boatloads of solo and group exhibitions of his art. Bill recently had a thick book of some of his greatest hits, called Bill Dane Pictures, come out and this was expertly produced with the help of artist Dan Skjaeveland. Bill Dane lovebombs you with emails until you answer and sometimes you aren’t sure what language means when Bill Dane uses it in his idiomatic Bill Dane way, but you know it means something good and you go with that feeling.

I just wanted to say you might want to check out his website, because it’s ensorceling and fun. When I enter one of the galleries, I just stare at a particular photo until I realize I am looking at a gestalt-eye-trap where I need to let go and relax the mind to be able to see how these compositions are about time travel and archeological strata as much as they are often funny critiques of capitalist narratives which overtake the image, body and soul, in commercial and even other settings.

I’ll share just a few photos here from different periods of his career. And try to say a few insufficient words.

1970s

Okay, this is 1969 and Bill probably did not take that photo. That is a big painting, Bill. Bill is ready to say “painting is too damn slow” and “I need to take to the Open Road, take a million photos and meet about as many people.” So that’s what he did (I’m pretty sure).

1970s (for real)

Not dated except “1970s, Athens.” I love the rhythms everywhere. A bit of a charmer piece. All that stuff at the right makes me think about how Bill is probably wondering what sort of personality is going to fit this young wonderstruck kid when he starts to grow up and really bite into the red meat of life. For now, he’s a little spectator. Strange to think that kid is in his fifties now.

1970s, Florence

There’s an icy perfection to this one. The huge edifice and the cars try equally to impress us with their ideas of design which one particular age has divinized. But there is a comical interplay between the two competing forms of structure. We realize how loud the present comes to be when we are living within it. And how funny its idea of perfect design becomes once it falls into the past.

1970, Paris

Paris. Where else could this be? I could enjoy this on my wall. It’s about perfect in its wabi-sabi imperfection. It reminds me of Eugène Atget (1857–1927) whom I adore, but Atget would have shot this in the early morning without any signs of humanity present in the composition. He was all about the city and its parks and outskirts dreaming in the morning fog. Without us. Here the massive classical figure seems to be humorously fretting: something in Paris or the world has gone wrong. He is scouting for something which will never be found by a classical sculpture in a park. Some mere mortals are casually enjoying or tolerating mortality in the photograph and this adds a nice tension between the classical and our daily life dramas and boredom.

1980s

1982, Watsonville

This feels like a crime scene photo by Weegee. And it is, since nature commits crimes all day long but can’t be charged or sentenced due to her natural immunity. The pathos of those feet which aren’t quite feet gets me every time. We’ve come such a long distance, all of us on this planet, together. It seems doubly sad because it should be a burial at sea. The photo wouldn’t be nearly the same without the legs of the death-voyeurs.

1986, San Francisco

I love how grotty this is. This is about the period, I think, when Bill starts falling in love with the grottiness of everything. He’s always called himself a street photographer (and he is, but also an art photographer) and I guess if you spend enough time on the streets, you tend to fall in love with the grottiness of walls and sidewalks and everything else the city touches with its bespotted and sooty hands. Maybe this Frank O’Hara poem explains it better. And the famous artist is just a cut-out at the end of a long dirty hall. Truer words never spoken (sans words).

1990s

1991, Pleasanton

Oh, we are in love with images of images now that the nineties arrive. This launches a delicious and delirious lifelong obsession. So much of this work is sideways archival work, capturing the living styles of decorators in shop windows, graffiti art surely long blistered away or otherwise erased and other strange camouflage of the skins of cities. Bill does this so well. But this stratagem also applies to something as simple and complex as photographing a jigsaw puzzle so that it becomes almost a Magritte painting. Bonus points for the play with multiple perspectives here.

1998, Oakland

How strangely we decorate and everything along these lines are ideas about ourselves. The things we say by the things we place in windows are not always easy to pin down. Maybe that is where the real cultural exchange takes place. But, if so, there is a lot of signaling going on from subconscious to subconscious. Evolution is clearly on the move and electrified now.

2000s

2000, San Pablo

Images intrude into other images. Images are palimpsests whether they tell you or not. Scratch the surface of an image to find out what’s beneath. Or look through the scrim layers of reflection in a wall of glass. The city has a thousand skins and it’s sloughing so many at once you’ll never be able to count the desquamated scales at your feet.

2003, San Francisco

A difficult image of an image which remains an enigma that nevertheless speaks its truth. The mind tries to prise open this image to make sense of it, but it is the resistance and repulsion at inexplicable suffering which remains the dominant feeling.

2010–2014

2011, San Francisco

There is a pathos in the stop sign dwarfed by the ancient trees. Clues are given that this is an image of an image (the way light falls). The waviness of elements within the image and the image itself make it feel as though someone’s eyes are welling up with tears. This gives the image a narrative or cinematic feel for me. It feels like a photograph quoting (or bracketing) an older style of movie making.

2012, San Francisco

I love this foray into the horror genre. Or, if not horror, definitely the subconscious at its most disturbing. What might have been a storybook character is coming up the stairs, and he’s many times larger than we imagined him to be. Who is telling what story, we wonder. Or is the villain an innocent victim of ours trying to escape. It could go either way but it’s never going to be revealed.

2015–2022

2015, Berkeley

I find this image so humorous. The art world’s self-fetishization. Endless little altars to itself exist. I think Bill Dane has remained a stable outsider even as he’s participated in that world. I think he wants us to know how big we should consider these “repositories of power” to be. They are toys and playthings. The real thing is us, each day, not the Mosler vault of art.

2015, San Francisco

Let’s end with a loving image. It also feels like death is somewhere around this photograph, but for now it’s only sleep which is making our fellow creature translucent to us. Looking through the dog, we are looking through our own translucency. Oh, the dog isn’t really translucent, you will tell me. That’s just the glossiness in his fur. It’s just that he’s an image in a window that is reflecting the city that dreamed his sleeping form. But the play with positive and negative space fools the eyemind. The soft material of the doggie bed is clearly his long dead mother. See how it takes on the form of another body offering comfort? May we all find such peace in our beds when we lie down to sleep.

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William Keckler

Writer, visual artist. Books include Sanskrit of the Body, which won in the U.S. National Poetry Series (Penguin). https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/532348.