Faculty Profile: Dan Wise sees beauty in the basics

Many photographers have exceptional stories, but Dan Wise, an MSU photography instructor, may beat them all. Wise’s route to photography began in the Navy as a military photographer. During this time, he worked with a film team that printed the black and white moon landing photographs. “I got to actually see the original film for three seconds,” Wise said laughing, “then it was taken away and handled very carefully!”

Wise worked as a Navy photographer for four years, developing his initial interest in photography. After completion of service, a friend drew Wise to MSU. “Originally it was just the mountains,” Wise recalled, commenting on his attraction to Montana. Beginning as a wildlife management major, he soon switched to the Film and Television program. After completing his degree in 1979, Wise worked part time for the School of Architecture as well as teaching an evening photography class. Ten years ago, MSU introduced the Film and Photography program and Wise taught it experimentally for a year. The experiment was a success and he has been teaching fulltime since.

Wise currently teaches fundamental classes on introductory photography and intermediate black and white photography for both majors and non-majors in the School of Film and Photography. Additionally, he teaches an elective graduate level photography class for the School of Architecture. A distinctive aspect Wise employs in his pedagogy is utilizing and stressing the value of black and white analog photography. “Our philosophy here is you learn film, and then you learn digital and then you apply that in any combination you see fit,” Wise said. When asked why film is taught first, he responded, “You’re not checking the back of your camera every time you take a picture. You know if you took that photograph, it’s right.” Wise commented a change in perspective also occurs,“You learn to see in black and white, which is totally different than color.” Wise joked that although the sweater he wore was olive green, to him it was a shade of grey.

“My goal as a teacher … [is to] take what you do and make it marketable,” Wise said. He believes developing a specific style helps students become successful professionally. “Why are your photographs different?” he asks of his students. About his own unique methods and style, Wise observed he is generally a formalist and also employs abstract. “Most of my images that have a theme are conceptual … usually it has to do with layers or feelings,” he said. “These,” Wise said gesturing to a collection of photos he shot of a woman draped in gauze, slowly shifting in orientation from frame to frame, “are about the emotions of people realizing who they are and coming to fulfillment; the fact that even when we leave, we leave an impression.”

[pullquote align=”right”]“There’s always a little bit of magic; that’s the thing I like teaching.” — Dan Wise[/pullquote]

Explaining his love for traditional black and white photography, Wise said he appreciates the simplicity. “It’s really elegant,” he said, “it’s all about composition and balance.” Referring to his employment of film, he commented he likes the tangible and sensual aspect as well as the intrigue in development. “You don’t really know what you are going to get until you get it,” Wise said. “There’s always a little bit of magic; that’s the thing I like teaching.” He smiled and added, “You put this piece of paper in a chemical, and a picture appears.”

“I know it sounds crazy,” he laughed, “but I get to teach magic.”