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Danny Upshaw: In His Own Words
Aug, 25, 2020
Danny Upshaw: In His Own Words
Graphic design and videography may be Danny Upshaw’s day job, but he’s a photographer first. Born and based in Phoenix and a member of the Navajo Tribe, Upshaw can often be found biking around Downtown either chasing storms, designing photoshoots with friends, or immortalizing the soaring Westward Ho—always with the goal of documenting the city he loves. His photographs range from the contemplative to the awe-inspiring, the subdued to the positively electric. (Just wait until you see his image of lightning splitting an ominous sky.)
Upshaw, whose work was recently featured on the latest cover of PHOENIX Magazine, originally studied architecture, an interest that continues to drive his work today. We spoke with Upshaw to learn more about who he is and his favorite things to photograph in Phoenix.
Here’s Danny Upshaw, in his own words.
“Taking photos of storms in Phoenix led me to start capturing the city as my subject, even when there were no storms to document. My love of architecture has allowed me to see the buildings of Phoenix as wonderful subjects—they have so much character.”
Danny Upshaw portrait, 2017. Courtesy of the artist.
PhxArt: What was your first inspiration, and when did you know you wanted to be an artist?
Danny Upshaw: I realized I wanted to create when I was very young but didn’t quite understand what it meant to be an artist. My early inspiration for creativity was my father. He would be in the garage building all sorts of things—tables, gates, and a few items for me to skateboard on.
When I started to think about what career path I wanted to pursue, I was uncertain about what fit me the best. I originally thought I would become an architect, but during my studies and when presenting my architectural projects, I found that visually representing those projects was my best skill, so I gravitated toward graphic design. That work eventually led me to video production, photography, and motion graphics. I think what inspires me the most now are the stories that I’m able to capture in video or photography and sharing those with people who otherwise wouldn’t have known about them.
Danny Upshaw, Westward Ho, 2020. Courtesy of the artist.
PhxArt: In which media do you prefer to work, and what are some of your favorite subjects to capture?
Upshaw: I work for a local advertising/design agency, and for that, I mostly create videos and motion graphics. Although I love video work, my passion is photography, and when I do side projects, I mostly like to pursue ones that will help feed my creative drive.
In the beginning of my photography days, I loved capturing the monsoon storms in Phoenix, specifically one monsoon phenomenon—haboobs, or dust storms. That interest started back in 2011, when I was working my first graphic design job. On July 5, 2011, Mike Olbinski, a local photographer and storm chaser, captured probably the biggest haboob to hit downtown Phoenix, and at the time of the storm’s arrival, I was driving to a friend’s house and saw the wall of dust come over South Mountain. I could feel its intensity, and as I waited for the dust to settle—because it was so thick you couldn’t see that far in front of you—I snapped a few photos of the storm with the camera on my phone.
The next day, I saw a time lapse of the storm that Mike captured and was blown away by what I saw. As part of my job at the time, I used a camera at work to capture images of various products, but after seeing Mike’s work, I kept that camera with me at all times and taught myself how to capture time-lapse photographs because I wanted to document a haboob the next time one came through. Since then I’ve become more comfortable with capturing time lapses and have captured a few haboobs in Phoenix, but none compare to the one that came in July 2011. Mike Olbinski and I have since become good friends, and I’ve joined him on trips to chase storms. It’s always lovely to run into him at a common storm vantage point. I don’t capture the storms as much I used to, but I still keep my eye on weather just in case.
Taking photos of storms in Phoenix led me to start capturing the city as my subject, even when there were no storms to document. My love of architecture has allowed me to see the buildings of Phoenix as wonderful subjects—they have so much character. When I would wait for my storm time lapses, I would watch the buildings and how the lightning would illuminate them. I would humanize them in my mind and give them personalities.
Danny Upshaw, Westward Ho, 2020. Courtesy of the artist.
PhxArt: What are some of the characters you created for the buildings downtown, and do you have a favorite?
Upshaw: City Hall is the queen with her crown. She looks after the city and personally cares for the Orpheum Theatre. The Hyatt is the stern guard of Downtown; it faces east and west and seems to watch over the city from sunrise to sunset.
Personally, my favorite building is Westward Ho. Westward Ho had a heck of a time back in its prime, hosting movie stars and even a few Presidents. It’s had quite a few owners, and around the mid-1970s, it transitioned and stopped operating as a hotel before turning into housing for the elderly. These events have given it so much character, almost like an old, wise, famous person who looks after those in need—they have a past of self-interest but have now turned their attention to others. I love capturing all angles of it in hopes that others will see its inner beauty as I do.
PhxArt: We just saw your photograph on the latest cover of PHOENIX Magazine. Congratulations! What are some other publications that have published your work, and what’s your dream publication to be featured in?
Upshaw: Thank you. The recent PHOENIX Magazine image was shot specifically to be a cover, but I had no idea whether they would choose that photo for the cover or not. That image was part of a series I captured for their Love Your Downtown spread featuring Downtown Mesa, Glendale, and Phoenix.
As for other publications, in my early monsoon photography days, I had a couple of photos featured in the Arizona Republic. Last year, I also had a spread in PHOENIX Magazine featuring a Westward Ho thunderstorm photo; that photo was a big deal for me. I’d love to get a photo in JAVA Magazine, Arizona Highways, and, hopefully someday, National Geographic or Thrasher Magazine.
Danny Upshaw, Westward Ho Skater, 2020. PHOENIX Magazine cover, September 2020 issue. Courtesy of the artist.
PhxArt: Who are your greatest artistic influences?
Upshaw: My greatest artistic influences are Frank Gehry, Salvador Dalí, JR, Daewon Song, Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, John Trudell, Bob Marley, Bill Withers, Nina Simone, and James Baldwin.
PhxArt: Who are some local creatives you’d like people to learn more about?
Upshaw: I’d love to shoutout Terrence Murtagh, Andy Brown, Blaise Danio, Nicholas Polando, Kell Duncan, Eunique Yazzie, Tato Caraveo, Zee Peralta, Diana Calderon, Brian Skeet, and Sara Anderson. These are all wonderful people making Phoenix an amazing place to live, and they deserve to be interviewed next.
Danny Upshaw, Hyatt, 2020. Courtesy of the artist.
PhxArt: What is something you’re currently working on or have recently exhibited?
Upshaw: My Westward Ho photo series is a continuous project, storm photography would be one if 2020 got some storms, and then there’s a few small series that I post to my social media accounts.
PhxArt: What can we hope to see next from you?
Upshaw: I think the community can expect more Westward Ho photos, sunset photos, and just images of everyday life in Phoenix and wherever else I’ll be. Expectations stress me out more than they should, but I think I’ll be always creating and when it’s time, people will see it.
Danny Upshaw, Dust Storm, 2014. Courtesy of the artist.
To discover more work by Danny Upshaw, follow him on Instagram @unheard_harmony.
We’re curious how creatives are navigating the time of coronavirus. Danny Upshaw shares what’s giving him life as a creative during quarantine.
Upshaw: The age of COVID-19 is both a depressing and liberating time. It’s depressing in the sense that I want to go out and be with family and friends, I want to go to all the concerts, I want to see all my homies open their businesses and do well, I want to fight for equality without the threat of getting sick when protesting. But it’s also been a liberating time because you have to forget the old way of doing things and rethink what it means to be a creative, and that depends on how you were working before COVID. I also think as a creative, it’s our duty to help others because nowadays, everyone could use a shoulder to lean on. During this time, I have found myself busier with personal side work and pro-bono work.
Danny Upshaw, Protest 1, 2020. Phoenix New Times cover, June 2020 issue. Courtesy of the artist.