Shedding Light on Dan Phelps, from A LEGO a Day
A few days ago we inaugurated F-BoM (Featured Blog of the Month), with January’s “trophy” going to Dan Phelps, curator of the blog A LEGO a Day. Today we bring you an interview with the man behind the camera in front of the LEGO.
Hi Dan! Can you tell us a bit about yourself? What do you do in real life? How did you first get interested in and involved with photography?
I’m 27, and a 5th grade science teacher in Virginia. It’s my second full year teaching, and it’s a great time. I love working with children of this age. THey are so much fun, and love to learn. When I’m not grading papers, I’m either snapping pictures, watching my plethora of favorite TV shows (sci-fi geek: LOST, Stargate, Battlestar Galactica, Futurama, an of course 24!), wasting life on the internet, or out and about with friends. I love to camp, hike, bike, and rock out to some classic rock.
I’ve always liked photography, even as a child. But I never really thought about doing it a lot than just on things like vacation. When I got my first point & shoot camera a few years ago, it allowed me to do some more creative things – digital helps a lot that way. But it wasn’t until last year when I had the money to finally take the D-SLR plunge – and I’m so glad I did. I think it’s a great outlet for my creative side. I love to think of ideas, and capture interesting objects in interesting ways.
How did you get the idea to start a 365 blog using LEGO? Did you want to start a photo blog and were looking for a theme, or had you already been photographing LEGO and wanted a public outlet?
I’d actually taken a few LEGO photos previously – it was just for fun. But as I started talking to more people who were into photography, I came across this 365 idea. Of course I said to myself ‘hey, i should do that.’ But so many people do self-portraits, or random pictures. And I figured, well, I love taking pictures of these LEGO mini-figs, I might as well roll with that. It definitely adds a different dimension to it I think, and allows for a broader audience perhaps.
There seems to be a huge LEGO following amongst adults, especially those with cameras 🙂 Searching for “LEGO” in Google Images returns over 3.5 million hits. Despite all this, I am not aware of any other 365 LEGO blog out there, are you? Could you be the only one?
I doubt it. Well, I may be alone in the 365 aspect, but I know there are countless people out there doing fantastic things with LEGO. Search YouTube for parody videos, search Flickr for LEGO, and you will uncover an insurmountable number of different ideas…and 95% of them are totally worth looking at too.
There is a guy on Flickr that recreates famous photographs with LEGO, have you seen them?
Yup. I came across Balakov’s photos about a year ago or so. He was kind of an inspiration to make me try my best at this 365 project. His photos are fantasticly planned, and shot. I admire his dedication to detail, and seeing some famous photos redone in LEGO are the kind of thing that make you laugh – but in a good way. I like coming up with original ideas though – and he certainly does too.
I admire people who keep a 365 blog; it’s a challenge to take a photo every day. But I admire you even more because you actually have to set up the figures and create a story; you can’t just point the camera at a tree or at your face and call it a day. Where do you get the ideas for the scenes and how long do you spend between preparation, photographing and posting?
It’s tough some days…and especially with school in session. Some ideas I think of prior, and take time to work out the details. Some my friends have. And some days I just look around my apartment, or outside to see what I see. I need a little inspiration. There are definitely days when you can tell I was too tired, or too rushed, and just banged something out quick and easy. And there are others when you can tell I had time to sit down and put stuff together. I really have no plan. I do have a couple ideas jotted down on a sticky note as back-ups – and some are ideas I know I want to do. When something comes to me, I make sure I write it down because I have a mind like a sieve. But luckily, I haven’t skipped a day yet. I don’t always get to post every day, but I make sure that picture was taken on that day.
Do you carry your LEGO and camera with you everywhere you go?
No. Only sometimes when I know I am going to be somewhere I can snap something quick and easy. It’s too much of a hassle to lug around the equipment, and if you’re out with people, just a bit rude. If I am going on a walk with the intent of taking a picture, then, naturally. Otherwise, they are all at home!
Has your girlfriend left you yet? Has she given you the ultimatum?: It’s the LEGO or me, you choose! 😉
Ha, not yet. She’s been very supportive, and helpful. She’s also a lover of photography – and has been doing it much more in depth for a lot longer than I have. So she has a lot of tips and tricks for when it comes to taking the shots. I also like to make her laugh, and it’s a good feeling when she sits down and views my recent work and gets a kick out of it.
What camera equipment do you use? (Camera, lenses, lights..)
My d-SLR is a Pentax K100D Super. I rarely use the kit lens (18-55mm Pentax). But I am in love with my Tamron 28-75mm F/2.8 lens. It basically stays on my camera 24/7. For some of the more macro/closeups I use a cheap Quantaray 70-300mm F/4-5.6 – it came free with the camera. I’m currently saving up to buy a wicked nice zoom/macro lens. I also have a Pentax 50mm F/1.4 Prime lens – I don’t use it often for my LEGO, but I use it a lot for other things. I just got a Metz 48-AF flash unit for Christmas, so that will be helpful too. And then there’s my little Canon Powershot A95. I take that with me for travelling shots.
It’s clear that you don’t need expensive equipment to create great photographs; just a big imagination and a determined index finger. Have you learned anything new about photography since you started this project?
Oh yeah. Lots of little tricks about depth of field, focusing, lighting, and composition. This has been challenging to figure out what exactly I can do with my camera and a lens.
How has this venture affected your “normal” photography? Do you now find you have trouble taking pictures of anything taller than an inch?
Ha ha. No, not so much. What I like about this is that it’s actually letting my take photos every day. When I’m teaching and school is in session, I barely have time for anything – let alone photography. I’d only be able to do it on weekends, and vacations – and the summer. But at least this way I can still pick up the camera every day for a little while. Plus, all the little tricks I have learned so far I can apply to regular photography.
I’ve read that there might be a coffee book in the works, is this true?
I’d like to make a coffee-table type picture book yes. But, well, it’s up to LEGO and a publishing company really. I’m in no mood to be sued for copyright violations! I’d also like to see individual prints of each of the photos for anyone who wants that kind of thing – but again – copyright. While others are selling their photos that include LEGO without permission, I prefer to cover my ass!
I’m no lawyer, so I don’t know what you can and cannot do with photographs including LEGO (although I do think you can sell prints); I hope you iron out the details as there are a few of your photos that I wouldn’t mind hanging on my wall.
What’s going to happen on May 31st 2009 when you put up your last picture? Is there going to be a huge void in your life or will you feel liberated from the tyranny of a-photo-a-day?
It will definitely be nice to not have that nagging feeling in the back of my head. I’m sure in some ways I will miss it, but in other ways I will enjoy just being able to relax, and take photos at my leisure again.
Have you thought of taking your love of LEGO further? Nathan Sawaya is a New York artist that creates sculptures out of LEGo bricks. Would you consider something like that?
While I like to say I’m creative – I don’t feel like I’m super-creative. Also…patience is not one of my virtues (funny saying that as a teacher, eh?) I don’t have the resources either! My LEGO collection is actually pretty small comparatively. I think I’ll stick to pictures for now.
I have to ask: You’re 27; what is it about LEGO that attracts you 20 years after you should have stopped playing with it?
LEGO is awesome. It fulfils the desire to imagine, create, build, and destroy. Plus, LEGO is basically something almost everyone can relate to. It’s instantly recognizable. And, most of all, you can be 45 or 85, and it’s OK to build a LEGO set…because building is not playing!
Ha ha ha, that’s a good way to look at it. I might try to convince my wife that messing around with photos on Photoshop for hours isn’t really playing 😉
Thank you for chatting with us Dan, it was a pleasure to have you as our first F-BoM. I will continue to look forward every day to the new adventures of your LEGO buddies and I wish you the best in the future, both in Life and Photography.
My pleasure, Mis. And thanks for the attention! 🙂
Hey, thank you!