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For Stuart Dance, photography is a saving grace

"My name is Stuart Dance and I am from Raleigh, NC.  I am a graduate of the North Carolina School of the Arts and have been involved with the arts since an early age.  I grew up with a darkroom in our house and first began shooting on a Pentax K1000 (which I still use from time to time) and simple, homemade pinhole cameras.  I find myself primary using a Rolleiflex 2.8D these days, along with a Graflex Graphic35, a Lomography Super Sampler, and a Canon IIs2 ...but I have an extremely large collection of cameras dating back to the early 1900's, which I rotate in and out of use. 

Photography has been a saving grace in my life.  I've struggled with crippling alcoholism for the past 15 years.  I have literally been on the streets, homeless, broken and lost many times, but somehow always had a camera.  Photography has always been there for me.  It's the one creative light that has always led me back to finding the self that I thought I had destroyed and forever forgotten.  Photography validated my existence through the years that I thought I had no one and almost literally had nothing.  

Today I am sober and shoot almost everyday.  It's a mindful reminder of the brevity of life and the importance of the moment.  I am grateful beyond words for what a simple photograph can do for me.

To see more of my photos and my camera collection, my Instagram is @stuartdance."

Website is

ALTER/ANALOG: What processes were used to create these photos?

SD: Well, I own several bulk film loaders and about half a refrigerator of expired film.  My father is an artist who never throws anything out. I grew up with a darkroom in the home, so I learned to spool my own film and develop at an early age. A few years ago I picked up a Pentax 6x7 for him which meant I inherited all his expired 35mm film. Typically everything is a c-41 process, and I own a JOBO rotary processor (you can luck out and find these things on craigslist or eBay for fairly decent prices).  I love being refined and clean in my work, but I can also be really sloppy and impatient with processing which sometimes works in my favor.

I keep a fairly tight photo journal when shooting. Photography is an exercise in mindfulness.  This means frame by frame accounts of what I am doing with each roll. It’s not uncommon for me run the same roll through different cameras.  Results vary, destroying many rolls of film…but occasionally a frame with emerge that is very pleasing.

I shoot with several 35mm and 120mm cameras.  My 2.8d Rollieflex is a favorite, but I also use a Graflex Graphic35, a Pentax K1000, the Lomography super sampler, a Lubitel 166b, a Canon IIs2, a few LandCameras and several others from my shelves.

ALTER/ANALOG:  Anyone who follows your Instagram knows you have a huge collection of cameras.  How many do you have?

SD: Hundreds. Dating back to 1897. I think what surprises many, particularly those not into photography, is that it is not an expensive hobby. Many cost me twenty bucks or less. Anyhow, perhaps collecting cameras was born out of that early analog introduction through Dad. Each camera is a different machine. So, it is exciting when a camera arrives or I find one at a yard sale or estate auction. Then the experience of learning that camera and seeing what it may do or can do differently is the real fun. The character, quality, inflection and feel of a photo can be different contingent on the camera. Obviously, one cannot stroll the streets with seven suitcases full of cameras, so choices are made to embark on an adventure with one or two. But with some of the finished work, you see that you wish that you brought another camera instead. Subsequent to lomography, you can stack on the rending, materials and processes in the darkroom. You twist the Rubik’s cube and learn old cameras in ways they were not known before. I can be really careful and clean in my process, but I also enjoy absolutely destroying traditional approaches to producing a photo. The combination of all these things is the fun. So is taking old cameras apart and fixing them so they work again. Acclimating to each old camera may be akin to learning a different instrument or repairing and rebuilding a life.  For me it begins with an unwanted or discarded apparatus.  I see a little bit of myself in these broken instruments.

ALTER/ANALOG:  Do you have an alternative process you find yourself gravitating towards more than others?

SD: It’s the Rubik’s cube thing. I’d have to first point to the piles of cameras residing on my shelves.  Everyday might suggest something different when using them.  For me, the end result cultivates only about 15% of the cathartic reward photography offers me. And most of what is stumbled upon can be discarded, but some of it sticks or seems useful.  When I was younger I made a lot of pinhole cameras and loved destroying film with household cleaning products.  I might be up to that again next week.  My tastes and impulsive urges change day to day.  Beyond that, I learn a lot by meeting others who are interested or have found a way to engage in photography professionally.  Discovering work by stopping by spots like ALTER/ANALOG. I may not be a photographer, I don’t really consider myself a photographer, or even an artist- I am only someone who has found solace in photography and the tools and techniques involved in creating something visual.  These exercises have helped me maintain a certain emotional sobriety and mindfulness with living. These exercises are all referential ideas from my past which inform my ‘artistic’ endeavors – they are just spun in new directions. 

ALTER/ANALOG: What inspires you?

SD: I relate my cameras and my art to what I’ve survived.  I’m an alcoholic who has destroyed and rebuilt my life several times.  I’ve been involuntarily committed, hospitalized and run through a series of institutions. I’ve been told that I might die.  I’ve lost jobs, ruined relationships, and demoralized myself to the point that I wanted it all to abruptly end. I’ve slept on the streets, passed out in fields, and I’ve stolen food and alcohol to stay alive. I have lost myself, mended my life and demolished it all several times over again.  I’ve lost the will to survive.  Somehow photography stayed there, faithful to me.  It helped bring me to love myself again.  It mended my self-control and slowed my mind away from the racing urge to drink it all away.  That’s what I do. I go until oblivion.  That’s forever a part of me, that chemical piece of mind, and that irrational, insane method to cope with life. Somewhere near here my inspiration resides-  A photo is confirmation that I’m still alive. It’s a reminder of the brevity of life and the moment. It’s not just something I do while I live in order to find inspiration, photography plays a crucial role in inspiring me to keep staying alive.

Today I do my best to stay in the moment. Japanese artist, painter and printmaker Hokusai died in poverty at the age of eighty-nine, having produced an estimated thirty thousand pictures. At age seventy-three as the epilogue to his “A Hundred Views of Fiji”, Hokusai wrote: “I have been in love with painting ever since I became conscious of it at the age of six. I drew some pictures I thought fairly good when I was fifty, but really nothing I did before the age of seventy was of any value at all. When I am eighty, I shall have developed still further, and I will really master the secrets of art at ninety. When I reach a hundred my work will be truly sublime, and my final goal will be attained around the age of one hundred and ten, when every line and dot I draw will be imbued with life.’ Hokusai signed this “The Art-Crazy Old Man”. There are still old cameras out there I’ve not yet come across.  There will decades of photos in each camera. And perhaps some things which will be truly sublime.

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