Interview with Sean Dorgan
As some of you may know, Homeroom is partnering with Columbia College’s Portfolio Center to begin our Emerging and Established Artist Exchange (EEE). EEE is a mentorship program where college students who are seriously immersed in a specific artistic discipline apply to work with an established Chicago artist working in the student’s field of interest.
Sean Dorgan is one of the great artists that we will be pairing with a student. Sean is a professional photographer located here in Chicago. He has been the head of the photography department at Threadless.com for the last 5 years. We interviewed him to pick his brain on how he, as an artist, got to where he is and where he will be going with EEE.
1. Your Facebook says that you studied Arts, Entertainment and Media Management when you attended Columbia, what did you plan on doing with that degree? Are you applying anything you learned in that major to your photography career?
I did get that degree with a focus in the music business. At the time I was pretty serious about DJ’ing and producing music. I planned on moving to Japan after I graduated and working for a Japanese music label in addition to playing out there. I did end up moving to Tokyo for a year and playing out, but I ended up coming back to Chicago and not pursuing the music business thing so much.
As far as applying things I learned to my photography career, there was nothing specific to a certain class I took. I did however learn how to be a really good manager of time, and how to be disciplined. During my senior year I was on credit overload, and working 50 hours a week as a production coordinator in the entertainment department at Navy Pier. I managed to get nearly all A’s in my classes despite that schedule and serious lack of sleep and time. It was a good learning experience.
2. Why didn’t you study photography at Columbia? Looking back, do you wish that you had?
I didn’t study photography at Columbia because I had taken a break from shooting at the time. I’m an all or nothing kind of person, and I got way into music and had to pick one basically. I don’t regret going for the degree that I got. It felt like the right thing to do at the time. I actually don’t mind the fact that I didn’t attend Columbia for photography because it made me have to learn all that stuff on my own. I think it probably took years longer to learn things that classes would have taught me, but I also feel like mistakes can teach you quite a bit sometimes. I know a lot of people that graduated with photography degrees and are not currently working as photographers. School can help a lot, but if you don’t want something bad enough and aren’t willing to work for it, all the schooling in the world won’t help you.
3. Do you have any professional photography training? If so, what kind? If not, how did you learn the technical aspects of photography (like actually working the camera, lighting, editing, etc.)?
I attended a community college’s photography program for a few months straight out of high school. It was back in the film days. I dropped out of the program after a short period of time. I learned the technical stuff by practicing and reading tons of books. I worked at a huge bookstore back then and this was pre-internet. I bought a Vivitar 285 flash and started shooting skateboarding. That was the first time I’d attempted to light anything, this was like 1997. Nowadays you have so many good blogs and sites to learn things from. Strobist.com was instrumental in my understanding of lighting theory.
4. How did you obtain your job at Threadless.com? Did you need to learn any extra skills to work there?
I found out about the position from a friend who worked there. I would say I obtained the job by sheer willpower as opposed to experience. There were other applicants that were probably way more knowledgeable about photography then I was at the time. Before I was even promised an interview, I went out and put together 2 different photo shoots with the models wearing Threadless product. I had to purchase the shirts because I didn’t own any at the time. The shoots were pretty elaborate, and I felt like one of the areas their photos were lacking in was lighting, so I tried to use that to my advantage. I mocked up the images I shot into their site so it basically looked exactly how it would if I were working there because I figured everyone else would just show portfolios. I knew they were looking for someone that would be ready to take on a huge workload and meet all the weekly deadlines without question, so I did what I could to show them I was the best option.
I learned a ton in the first 2 weeks I was working there. Basically I just spent a lot of time experimenting with different lighting setups, and learning how to work as part of a creative team.
5. How do you think you can help a young artist become a successful, functioning photographer?
Success is ultimately up to the individual. I can give them a realistic idea of where they stand in regards to their chosen career, and offer ideas of what they need to do to get where they want to be. I’m just looking to help someone that wants to work hard and do something in photography. I’m lucky enough to have worked in many different areas of photography (product, music, events, portraiture) and have access to a studio as well. If they want to learn, explore and grow I can give them all the resources they would need to do that.
6. Have you ever had a mentor or someone who has guided/inspired you on your career path? Do you think your experience with that person will help you mentor a student? How?
I did not have any photography mentors specifically but I did have a mentor when I was younger that helped me tremendously in my career. When I was 18-20 I was able to help produce a weekly music video show with my friends under the guidance of a guy named Tom Sullivan. Tom taught kids video production for free (He also taught at Columbia) and gave us all high levels of responsibility and accountability. He treated us like adults, and taught us how to be professional and produce quality work. Every one of my friends that worked on that show with me have gone onto careers in film, photography, and video editing. Tom tragically died of cancer in his late 40’s about 10 years ago, but I remember often how much he did for me and carry it as a reminder of how lucky i am to do work that I love. I think he set an amazing example, and I would absolutely pass on his way of doing things to any student I’d ever have.
7. Do you have any advice you would give to a young artist trying to make it in their field of interest?
Work your ass off, and find a way to stand out from other people.