Function Talks with Daniel Ehrenworth

In February, Function spoke to Daniel Ehrenworth about what it’s like to transition from school to the professional world, particularly when it comes to commercial practice. Ehrenworth explains his first experiences with agencies, early participation in portfolio reviews, how he works with clients, and advises on how to maintain a distinct personal style in the commercial industry.


Function: If you were to reflect back to when you first graduated from Ryerson, what would you say is the biggest challenge you faced that you weren’t necessarily prepared for?

Daniel: When you’re at Ryerson you … get this idea of how you think your future should go. It’s strange that you come up with that idea because you’re in your early twenties, and you don’t really know very much about anything. Late teens, early twenties, it’s a really dynamic period of your life. I spent a lot of time worrying about whether I was on the kind of path that I had constructed for myself in my own head. I think that caused a huge amount of stress, because any sort of deviation from it was really stressful. The future you think you want is almost never the future that you actually want. You tend to have a lot of pretensions when you’re at school as well. You tend to be very focused on becoming an artist, or creative person, and you tend not to think of your life holistically.

That’s kind of good … the best part of being in school is that you can think really intensely about [things] that you probably won’t have time to think about later in life … you get a chance to read Susan Sontag and Chaucer … that’s how school should be. [In] some ways I think school should be just four years of not thinking about your future and just focusing on beautiful things in the world. … When you’re done, you can figure out the future.

Function: How did you advance your professional career as a photographer to the point where you are represented by two creative agencies?

Daniel: The short answer is you just produce good work, keep making new work, and [don’t] sit too much on the laurels of your previous works. Do you remember when you first started to make … serious work and you thought, I can’t do any better, and the next year you made work that made you go, oh, I don’t even want to show [the first work]? Do you notice as you advance as creative people, the shelf life [of] your work has increased a little bit? It’s like, when you first started to make work, your work had like a six-month shelf life before you could barely look at it again, which is good because you’re making sort of big strides. How long do you think your work has now, in terms of shelf life?

Function: A year or two.

Daniel: A year or two, yeah, that’s about right. So the work that you did in second year is not necessarily the work that you might show now, right? There was another thing that Phil Bergerson taught me…. This was back in 2003, and agencies back then, I’d show them my work and they’d say, “Your work is too all over the place, we need you to focus and specialize.” Which I really didn’t want to do. I remember talking to Phil about this, and … he said that there’s a really big difference between a style and a shtick. There’s a shtick, which is that every time you shoot, you put a nice green wash over everything, everything’s backlit, and you get a smoke machine. And you can apply this recipe to everything, and that’s your shtick. And it’ll look fairly consistent across the board, and they can say, “Great! We can hire this person because we want his shtick”—but that might also have a fairly shallow shelf life. He described a style as an approach to work that you really try to get away from but you’re just tethered to it. So you try your best to shoot as different as you possibly can from it, but there’s still something that snakes through all of your work that is almost inescapable.

I remember when I was first starting to see agents, I had the opportunity to shtickify my work or to styleify my work, and I chose to styleify my work, which did not actually serve me well the first few years. It took a while to get good representation. The more work you do, the more you can start to notice that little thing, which kind of snakes through all of your work. The second most important thing, for me, is just to be a genuinely good person that people want to work with. So, there’s do good work, and then there’s have a good reputation in the industry.

Function: Do you feel there are any restrictions with being represented by an agency, and maybe if there was a difference in your work when you weren’t represented by an agency versus when you became represented?

Daniel: Oftentimes agencies challenge you, and oftentimes agencies will try to steer you towards work that is more commercially viable. I’ve been … fairly lucky that the agents that have represented me have just appreciated any kind of creative work. I think they also realize that people who work in creative fields aren’t necessarily just attracted to work that could be applicable to whatever client they are currently serving. People who work in creative fields are creative people in general. So, if you’re doing creative work that might not necessarily have a commercially viable component to it, I’ve never once encountered an agent that was disapproving.

Function: How did you find the agency you work for?

Daniel: I went to a portfolio review. I had known of [this agent], and I’d shown her my work, but then she was just like, “Keep in touch.” When you go to portfolio reviews they say that all the time, so you take it with a grain of salt. But I did keep in touch, and I sent her some work. Then, once I released two big creatives, I got a lot of attention from the industry. So then I decided I’m going to go after some agencies.… I think it was two years after the portfolio review—this was with Sparks—I met Pam, who was the rep at that agency. Then we met again for a coffee and I showed her some of my new work, and after lunch I got back to the studio and she’d sent me a contract. [She] said review and let [her] know if I wanted to join. I thought, great, it worked out well. I was with them for about five years and decided to leave. Now I’m with another agency called Rodeo who also sought me out. I didn’t have to approach them this time, they approached me.

Function: So our next question is about balancing your personal work and work you produce for clients. We are wondering if you find it difficult to do that.

Daniel: I will speak about the work I did, because right now I’m balancing four different things. I have my commercial work, I have a personal art practice that is sort of a continuation of the work that I started when I was at Ryerson, I have a commercial creative practice, which is creative work that’s mostly intended for an industry audience, and then I’ve got my kids. So there’s four things to balance.

I’ll just go back to before kids where there’s only the three to balance. The balance was never difficult. I noticed that if I was doing commercial work for too long, it would be like sleeping on your side for too long.… You’re like, “Okay, I need to go to the other side for a bit.” Because if you were just on one side for too long it would … drive you crazy. The artwork that I make has absolutely no relationship whatsoever to my commercial work. In fact, the two couldn’t be more different. They pander to different parts of my personality. If I was working too much in commercial work, I had to start making some artwork or creative work—and even some commercial creative work, because that’s like sleeping on your back. It’s like … going back and forth between those three sides. And there was never any problem. In fact, I always found that making commercial work made artwork a lot easier. Because you had the funds to do it. I know some people who have managed to build art careers just on their artwork, but that was not me. I couldn’t do it.

Function: You have a very distinct visual style that is apparent in everything you shoot. You use a very vibrant colour palette, you tend towards quirky characters and situations. Do you find it hard to keep this style present in the commercial work you are creating? Have you ever turned down big jobs because you felt they didn’t fit the style of your work?

Daniel: I’ve never turned down a job because it didn’t fit the style of my work. I have turned down big jobs because we felt we wouldn’t be able to do them properly—whether it’s a budget restriction or a real mismatch in terms of how we saw the work versus how the client saw the work. I’ve been asked to shoot lots of stuff that [has] been outside the realm of my approach to photography. But I really like that. I’m still trying to figure out how I shoot all the time.

Function: Could you speak about the transition from the fine art you created at Ryerson to the commercial work you do now? Do you find ways to integrate conceptual themes into advertising imagery that you create?

Daniel: My artwork is extremely different from my commercial work. I made a conscious decision to not have the two meet. Think about it this way. Let’s say art is the application of technique onto content. You’ve got your content and your technique. It seems to me that when you’re integrating your artwork into your commercial work, what seems to happen is that a client will come and say, “We really like your work. We want to take your content away, put our content in its place, and still have you apply the same technique.” And I think that’s a problematic way of making work. The technique and the content are all one thing. So my approach to it, when I graduated, was that I didn’t want to apply any of the techniques that I used for my artwork onto my commercial work. I keep the two not even in separate rooms, [but] in separate houses: they don’t talk.

Function: Do you have any advice for those just starting out in the commercial industry with small freelance jobs?

Daniel: It’s really difficult for me to offer advice, because I actually don’t even know why I succeeded for sure. Based on my own observations, I think that it’s important to have both stills and motion work in your portfolio nowadays. I think it’s important to look at what everyone is doing. Because you’d be surprised. I would say about 90 percent of photographers in Toronto or Canada, they’re all doing the same thing. But in some ways that’s kind of encouraging because you’re like, “Oh, they’re all doing the same thing, I just have to do something different!” And it doesn’t have to be way different, it can just be a little bit different—which is actually a huge earthquake—and suddenly you are separated from 90 percent of other photographers. But oftentimes when you’re still at school you’re still trying to figure out if you can even do what the other photographers are doing. I would say, have a good personality, have a supportive group of friends that not only encourage you but really challenge you. Have a two-to-three-day-a-week job so you can have some money to produce good work as opposed to haphazard work you … just throw together. The more that you can practise intentionality, the better you’ll be.

Function: What would you say is the biggest component that companies are looking for when it comes to photographers representing their vision, their brand?

Daniel: Depends on the brand. Smaller brands might be looking for somebody who is cheap and cheerful. The bigger brands are looking for people who are doing things that are two steps ahead of the culture. I think brands are really interested in people who really know their details, not about technical stuff but what different light means. It’s hard to keep up with that kind of thing, but those little details really go far. I’m sure that when you guys look at photographs, and you go, “That’s a really good photograph!” the reason you’re saying that’s a really good photograph is because you think to yourself, whoever shot this noticed those details and had control over them and shifted it to something where it couldn’t be any other way. Brands … love to work with people like that.

Interviewed by Sophie Masson

Photographed by Kaitlyn Goss

Video by Donovan Bestari

Daniel Ehrenworth

Daniel Ehrenworth was born in Ottawa and received his BFA in photography studies from Ryerson University. In addition to commercial photography, Daniel is a gallery artist, dad, video director, ex-food blogger, Muppet fan, and jube jube aficionado. His commercial and editorial clients include Bloomberg, Businessweek, Canada Goose, Fader, Ford, Google, Hyundai, Kia, Maynards, SickKids Hospital, Sport Chek, Target, Tim Hortons, and The Verge, to name a few. He has received numerous awards for his commercial work from the ADCC, American Photo, Applied Arts, Communication Arts, the D&AD, Luerzer’s Archive, and the National Magazine Awards.

Ehrenworth's Website

Image List

Daniel Ehrenworth, Pitstop, Digital Image

Daniel Ehrenworth, Matty, Digital Image

Daniel Ehrenworth, Rooster, Digital Image

Daniel Ehrenworth, Gavi, Digital Image

Daniel Ehrenworth, Untitled, Digital Image

Daniel Ehrenworth, Untitled (9), Digital Image