For a year or two, I spent my spare time learning photography and taking photos of birds, flowers and landscapes around Dayton. Then a friend who worked at the Humane Society of Greater Dayton asked if I would try taking photos of dogs and cats for their website. I did and it was great. I loved trying to take good photos and then immediately putting those photos to work.
My work at the Humane Society was so rewarding that I looked for other organizations that could use a volunteer photographer. Over the last few years, I've done work for more than two dozen nonprofits, schools, churches, government organizations and small businesses.
You began a popular local Facebook page called, ‘Dayton at Work and Play,’ that showcases images of the community. Why did you start the site?
After years of doing photo projects for others, in 2013 I started a project of my own — photographing people at work. I wanted to share those photos so I started the Facebook page. Once people started following the page I realized I could do more with it. I could publicize a fundraiser or tell people about a new local business or promote a local artist. I could show people the fall colors at the MetroParks and maybe encourage others to get out and hike.
How do you choose your subjects?
I get a lot of ideas from the people who follow the page. One person who grew up in Dayton and now lives in Colorado gave me a lead when he said I'd photographed all of his favorite Dayton places except Smales Pretzel Bakery. One follower told me I would love Michoacana Mexican Market. Another told me about Fox Hollow Rodeo near Waynesville. As I visit these and other places with my camera, I'm finally getting to know the place where I've lived for the last 40 years.
Has photography changed your perspective on the community?
I am constantly impressed by the people who are working to make the Dayton area a better place to live and work. Dayton has a lot of problems. But every problem is being addressed by groups of hard-working people. Organizations like Shoes for the Shoeless or the Humane Society or Habitat for Humanity or Families of Addicts are improving this community every day.
One thing I love about being a photographer is that I can help those organizations while doing something that I enjoy.
What else do you enjoy about photography?
I am more outgoing when I'm holding a camera. A few years ago I was an extra in a movie made in the area. We weren't allowed to bring cameras and I found myself just watching the action and not interacting with the other people on the set. If I'd been there with my camera, I know I would have photographed and interviewed many of the actors, photographers and others involved in the movie.
What do you say to people when you meet them to allow them to take their photo? Are most people willing?
I usually carry a large camera so people are aware of it from the beginning. Then I start talking to people before asking if I can take a photo. Sometimes people notice my camera and bring the subject up first. I remember talking to four men as they were leaving the lunch meal at Project Blessing. I wanted to know what other places these men went to get free meals. After a few minutes, one of the men said "I guess you'd like to take our pictures." Then two of the men walked away, and I photographed the two who remained.
Tell me about your favorite photo subject.
I love shooting local artists working in their studios.
As my photography improved, some of my photos started to be shown in art shows. That's when I started photographing artists at work. I did this partly because I found the work processes of artists interesting and partly because I wanted to learn more about this new (to me) world of art exhibitions and art galleries.
At first I just shared one photo of each artist on my Facebook page. Then I started a blog called "Studio Photos" where I share more photos and some text about the artists I visit. This year Front Street Press came out with a book about my visits to one well-known Dayton artist. It's titled Studio Visits - Mike Elsass.
Three years ago, I was asked to put my photos of area artists to use at K12 Gallery and TEJAS, the area's leading arts education organization. We invited many of the artists I had photographed and asked each to exhibit one piece of art. Alongside each work of art, we placed my photo of the artist at work. The show was a success and we've made it an annual event. It's in November, during K12's annual fundraiser, the Art Off. We had over 50 participating artists in 2018 and plan to have more this year.
Do you have any New Year's Resolutions that involve your photography?
Dayton has 65 distinct neighborhoods, many of which I haven't photographed. As a New Year's Resolution for 2019 I think I'll grab my camera and take photos in as many of those neighborhoods as possible. I'd love to have Dayton residents or people who grew up in Dayton give me ideas for people or places I should photograph in the neighborhood where they live or where they grew up.
My first photo of the year was in Dayton's Downtown neighborhood. I shot a talented young skater named Tatyanna on New Year's Day at RiverScape MetroPark. Tatyanna told me she'd like to work in one of the Disney on Ice touring companies someday.
I combined my photo of Tatyanna with an abstract design and sent a copy to the South Dayton Figure Skating Club. They had it printed and framed and gave it to Tatyanna.