His round face and tousled blond hair are still boyish, but Daniel Proctor has already won almost enough awards to fill his gargantuan photography studio on Clay Street. “It’s amazing space, isn’t it?” he greets you in his soft voice, immediately putting himself where he’s so used to being: modestly behind the scene.
“This used to be an art gallery and before that it was a dance studio. There were ballroom dance classes going on in here,” he says, turning into the huge main room, a rectangular cavern sparsely furnished with a large format camera and an audio system sending out the saxophone sound of ‘60s jazz. “Look at all this wonderful stuff I found in the basement!”
On a conference table tucked in its own niche, Proctor giddily spills a decade’s worth of invitations to the dance from San Francisco’s well-bred ladies of the era when the telephone exchange 346 was Fillmore 6. “Aren’t these wonderful!” he smiles, picking up one of the elegant black on white offerings of membership in Frank Kitchens’ Dancing Classes.
“Look at this one. ‘Girls must come in white ankle socks and black shoes with straps,’” he reads. “’Boys must wear a suit jacket that is either gray or navy blue with any color tie.’ And I’ve found all the old ledgers downstairs too.”
It’s hard to find, even see, any signs of Proctor’s celebrated work until you look carefully at eight objects assembled on a shelf of one of the kitsch etageres stuck here and there against the walls. Two of the trophies, the triangular ones, are from the San Francisco Advertising Association for “Best of Show.”
“There are a few more I’ve put away somewhere here,” he reluctantly admits when asked if he’s won other awards over the eleven years he’s worked in this studio. He has also put away the books that won some of those prizes. The first, which didn’t even feature his name although he was the sole photographer, was the Il Fornaio Baking Book by Franco Galli, published in 1993 by San Francisco’s Chronicle Books.
Proctor’s foray from the West Coast’s prestigious Art Center College of Design in Pasadena into food photography was, he points out, not surprising, for after graduating he moved to San Francisco, the food city. “There was a lot of packaging work here,” he shrugs. “It was available to me.” He took it and quickly it took him to an agent here--his first, to that book and eventually to a nomination—one of only three a year--for the super prestigious James Beard Award for cookbook photography.
Proctor subsequently did three more books for Chronicle including Flavored Oils which features his name on the cover, right below the celebrity chef author’s, Michael Chiarello. It brought him a host of big name corporate clients and made his name big enough to be on book covers ever since. He is now represented by, arguably, the country’s premier photographers’ agent. “My dream,” he smiles puckishly. “He saw me back when I was in college and said: ‘Kid, you’re not ready for the national scene.’ Ten years later he signed me on!” Proctor also has an agent in Tokyo.
Although he did move on to brand name retail apparel, home furnishings, communications giants and most recently nomadic work in Oregon for Travel and Leisure Golf, Proctor did not leave food forever. The last book to feature his name on its cover was The Book of Tea by the late Kakuzo Okakura, published in 2000 by Charles E. Tuttle Co. He is also now actively working for the magazine Wine Country Living, putting his artful spin on wine bottles. “It’s the area,” he says with the shy inflection of someone not seeking credit. “I live here.”
Although his equipment and technology come from SOMA where most photo-graphers congregate, Proctor says his clients love that he lives in this neighborhood. All remark they can park without much stress. It’s quiet. And the food Proctor brings in from local restaurants for lunch conferences or long shoots is the best anywhere.
It’s also convenient for location shooting. One of Proctor’s newer clients is HBO, or actually its new hit show “Six Feet Under” whose large-scale ad campaign features his work. That rearview of the shiny hearse with a flower-topped casket now on display at bus shelters here and in the subways of New York was taken in Golden Gate Park. And that searing image of a gleaming gurney in an eerily empty, shiny hospital corridor was actually, almost unbelievably shot at San Francisco General. “Yup, we had the permits and we went.”
It’s not point and shoot stuff. Capturing an artful image like that may take only one day on site, but it needs all the paraphernalia of a movie set including a caterer in a mobile kitchen. “How else are we going to feed people and keep working in some of these places?” he asks, pointing out that a normal shoot keeps maybe as many as a dozen people on hand. There are art directors, lighting wizards, prop people, assistants, once even a grip imported from Hollywood, and in the center orchestrating everything as the director and cameraman in one is always the boyish Proctor.
He doesn’t work alone on Clay Street either. Even though he has never advertised and is not listed on any Yellow Page, he has enough commissions to sustain a staff of two. One is an office administrator who sends and pays the bills, orders the portapotties and lunches, secures permits, contacts consultants Proctor relies on like location scouts (he has two favorites in this town). The other is his production assistant. He also keeps a freelance computer savvy assistant busy, working on what he calls the “digital end of things. We do a lot of crafting here in post-production.”
Proctor also needs an assistant for what’s become increasing travel. “It’s the equipment,” he winces. “I need a lot of it and mine tends to be big. I don’t do a lot of 35mm shooting.” He works mostly with a 4x5 large format camera. To create the special look of one ad campaign he used an 8x10. “It’s a question of fidelity sometimes,” is how he explains his choices.
Such choices define the refined aesthetics that distinguish Daniel Proctor’s pictures: choice of lens, paper, type of film, film format, quality of light and sense of composition. Proctor believes he knows how to give a project “a look” because he knows how to fill a frame of film the way a fine painter would fill a canvas. His is the vision of still life painting, the course that indelibly inspired him in college and led him to, for example, once photograph neckties draped over a bulbous teapot.
The work is inevitably high art even when Proctor is just joking around. Portfolio 14 of his 15 volumes to date has a series of seven hand tone gelatin silver prints collectively labeled: The Paramount Theater, showing three ‘40s looking double breasted dudes in wing tips, with their hair parted stylishly and martinis in their hands. A closer look reveals a mirrored background. But look again and the mirror is the triptych dressing room kind where the side panels come out at angles. Look even closer and you realize the picture is actually a mirror image of the men looking at themselves in that mirror and the middle guy clutching the martini is also holding a vintage Argus camera. It was a 27-year-old Proctor shooting himself and his pals at a dress-up event just for the fun of it. “Look. I didn’t even put my drink down,” he says. ”And it won a prize…a big one. It ended up in the 1996 GRAPHIS annual—right next to a photo by Herb Ritts. Herb Ritts!!!!”
People right next to Proctor may not even know he is their neighbor. There’s no sign, no indication at all. His calling card says simply Photography and features his logo: a Fedora. “I used to have a hat like that which I loved,” he says. “So a friend of mine drew it up as a logo for me and I’ve kept it, even though I think I’ve lost that hat some-where.” A fedora with no words is in fact what identifies his portfolios and press kits.
But you can see his work at his website: www.danielproctor.com, and, right now, all over town. Not only the ads for “Six Feet Under” but those huge new gothic bus shelter pictures of Musee Mechanique at Fisherman’s Wharf. Like the startling images of hose sprinklers and chain saws as lethal weapons in the recent Friends of the Urban Forest campaign, he created these eye-catching photos pro bono as his way of thanking San Francisco for his success.
And now he’s off to New York to collect an award for them!