By NOAH BOSTROM/ Montana State News
Standing before the Photography 101 class, Dan Wise smiles from ear to ear. A short, broad, dwarf-bearded man, professor Wise has a mischievous feel about him. As with every 101 class, the freshman students are unsure of themselves – and even more unaware of the difficulties of photography. Yet as they will soon find out, there could be no wiser man to guide them than black-and-white photography guru Dan Wise.
“Dan by far has the biggest heart for students I’ve ever encountered” says senior photography student Matt Thomas, “he really just knows what each student’s difficulty level is.” But he doesn’t let his students just slide by, he adds. “He pushes you to your very best, constantly testing and learning your abilities.”
Wise had quite the experience-filled life and was not as many believe “born with a golden camera around his neck.” Growing up in small town nothing-to-do Wisconsin, Wise had a very average Midwestern childhood. Yet on his 18th birthday, Wise enlisted in the Navy with hopes of joining the famous Navy Seals.
Yet his fate lay elsewhere. Soon after enlisting his appendix burst. This left him three options: become a ceremonial guard, a bomb handler or a photographer. To Wise, the most appealing of the three was photographer. “Even though I’d only ever used a Polaroid Slider previously, the idea was compelling,” he says.
Beginning as a complete novice, Wise became a junior technician. The Navy focused on the technical implications of the images and thus Wise was required to remain a lab technician for the first two years. Those two years Wise worked hard at becoming a technical expert at a seemingly unpredictable process. After the years studying the technical lab work and observing senior photographers, Wise was ready to start doing his own work.
He jokes to this day: “Instead of going out and shooting with a gun, I got to shoot with a camera.” He fell in love with the work.
While the war raged nearby, Wise hardly ever photographed combat. Assigned to the Antarctic Support Team in Christchurch, New Zealand, Wise photographed “anybody that the U.S. government was wooing for monetary and other support for Antarctic exploration,” including visiting astronauts, congressmen and senators.
However, Wise did not escape the brutal war scenes completely. The nearby battles needed documenting and being the junior photographer he drew the short straw. “I was left with the grotesque bodies and indescribable expressions of death.” Photography thereafter became his way of interpreting the world around him.
“No longer was I content walking down the street; I began noticing the details and the mundane.”
When he wasn’t in Antarctica, Wise was stationed in Washington, D.C., at the Naval Photographic Center, which he described as “the largest photo lab in the world.”
After returning to the U.S., Wise continued using his technical and journalist photographic abilities on a small scale. Adapting to many other forms of photography, he began considering photography as a career. After traveling around the U.S. doing freelance work, he and a friend decided to venture out to Montana for college. Originally thinking of a wildlife management degree, he was soon swayed by a friend and photography professor Rudi Deitrich.
With his newfound inspiration in photography as more than just a documentation tool, Wise began to explore photography as an art and “study of life.” He graduated four years later with a bachelor’s degree in film and TV production with a focus in photography.
After graduating, “I finally considered myself a photographer.” He then spent his time in Bozeman working commercially for fly-fishing companies, outfitters and other small businesses. He also free-lanced for National Geographic and other small magazines on occasion.
Deitrich asked Wise to help him build an actual photography program. So Wise set about making it his mission to generate interest in the medium; especially in the architecture program. While it started with late-night five-hour classes, as the program grew it was given space during the day.
In 2003, Wise’s expertise as an instructor of beginning and intermediate photography was formally recognized with an excellence award from the Alumni Association and Bozeman Chamber of Commerce. He also teaches 500-level photography in the School of Architecture, where he is entering his seventh year as an instructor
Wise loves teaching black-and-white film photography to beginners because “It’s the foundation for everything we do here … and makes for a more knowledgeable photographer.” He said his best reward comes when he stands before a class of novices.
“Photography is the perfect vehicle for discovering who you are,” he said. “Two people standing in the same spot won’t make the same photograph. How cool is that? How blessed could I be?”
-Edited by Ben Havens