Keith Dannemiller was born in Akron, Ohio on May 27, 1949, and educated there in Catholic elementary and high schools. He graduated from Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee with a B.A. in Organic Chemistry. In 1976, after four years in San Francisco, he moved to Austin, Texas where he worked for The Texas Observer, Third Coast and Texas Monthly. While living there, he began the first of many photographic trips to the north of México, in the area around Espinazo, Nuevo Leon, where he documented the festival of the Niño Fidencio, a folk saint renowned in México during the 1920’s. In 1987 he decided to live and work in México. A relationship that began with the Mexican photo agency Imagenlatina in May, 1987, resulted in two trips to the Middle East (1988 and 1989) to cover the Palestinian Intifada.
While currently independent, during the past 27 years he was associated at different times with two US photo agencies: Black Star and Saba. In Latin America, he has covered a wide variety of situations, ranging from Nicaraguan recontras to street children in México City to life on the US-México border.
A reoccurring theme in his personal work is the effect on Mexico’s rich traditions as the country modernizes. Visual projects that have captured his interest include: a fundamentalist sect that uses exorcism to deal with social problems; portraits from the streets of Mexico City’s Centro Historico; Danzón in public parks; the modern syncretic rituals associated with the growing cult to the Catholic saint, Jude Thaddeus; the struggles of Central American migrants in Mexico enroute to the United States; and currently, the effects of drug violence on the internally displaced persons of the southern Mexican state of Guerrero. His most recent book, Callegrafía, is a look at the intimate strangers who move through the streets of the Centro Histórico of Mexico City each day.
He lives with his wife and son in the Colonia Condesa of Mexico City.
– How and when did you become interested in photography?
Without really being aware of an interest per se in photography, I used to look at a collection of stereopticon cards in a 3-D viewer that we had when I was a kid. They were images from all over the world — camel drivers by the pyramids in Egypt; factory workers in steel mills in the USA; little-known exotic tribes in the Amazon Basin. I looked at all of them at least a thousand times and the idea of being able to make such images I know entered into my subconscious. It wasn’t until years later, when living in Berkeley, California, that a visiting friend needed a quick loan for some marijuana, that I began to realize the the enticement that photography held for me. I lent him the money but I also asked for some guarantee, against him skipping out without paying. He gave me a Canon F-1 to hold on to as collateral. He ended up leaving the West Coast without my knowledge, but told a common friend to give me the message, ‘Tell Keith to keep the camera.’ I soon moved to San Francisco, its wondrous streets beckoned and I began in earnest to photograph.
– Is there any artist/photographer who inspired your art?
Like many young photographers in the USA, I first encountered the work of the Farm Security Administration photographers (Russell Lee, Dorthea Lange, Walker Evans, etc.) that was made during the Great Depression. I was struck by the directness of the imagery and the social commitment on the part of the photographers. I would like to think that both those qualities show up in my work today. When I began to walk all over San Francisco and make more ‘street photography’, I encountered mentors such as Joel Meyerowitz, Garry Winogrand, and Lee Friedlander who inspired me and changed the way I viewed the role of photography in my life. Another master who has stayed with me throughout my career is Andre Kertesz. I feel an affinity with his manner of portraying ordinary human beings in their environments — a graphic realization of man-in-the-world.
These days, much of my inspiration also comes from music and literature.
– Why do you work in black and white rather than colour?
I just feel there is nothing more beautiful than a well-realized black and white image. It is an arresting abstraction.
– How much preparation do you put into taking a photograph/series of photographs?
My preparation for the photographs I will take tomorrow comes from the time I have spent walking, seeing and photographing today. Anticipation of the upcoming image is fortified by practice and patience.
I attempt to anticipate the potential for a photograph by immersing myself in an awareness of the elements that will make up that image — light, movement, incongruity, surprise and serendipity. I look for the beautiful absurdity of the moment. My photography is a way to live within and live without that moment.
– Where is your photography going? What projects would you like to accomplish?
For the moment, my muse is, and will continue to be, the Centro Histórico of Mexico City – its streets and the public that gives them life. It is a treasure trove of chronicles, where the patina of history serves as a backdrop for the quotidian drama of modern urban Mexico. I can think of nothing more attractive for a photographer.