At age 13, he was already hooked. And he paid for it; the youngest member of the audience by far, he was picked on mercilessly by the comedians he’d go see perform. But the kid from Sonoma kept coming back for more. And now, from the Hollywood Improv to the Gotham Comedy Club in the Big Apple, from San Francisco’s Punch Line to the Sydney (yep, Australia) Comedy Store, his shows run around the clock.
But Dan Dion ’92 isn’t known for his stand-up routines. Rather, it’s his photographs of comic legends and hot new talent that adorn the walls of some of the world’s premier comedy clubs, and that are displayed in festivals from Montreal to Edinburgh. Among those on the business end of his camera lens: Jonathan Winters and Dave Chapelle, Lily Tomlin and Chris Rock, George Carlin and Judy Tenuta, Tommy Smothers and Ellen DeGeneres, Michael Palin and Margaret Cho.
With a shock of curly, reddish-brown hair and an easy smile, Dion carries himself with enough of a swagger to let you know that he knows what he’s doing. He’s also down-to-earth enough to offer this as lesson number one for aspiring photographers: “Don’t leave the camera gear in the car.” Lesson number two? “Photography, at its core, is about light.”
While he was studying philosophy at Santa Clara, the makings of Dion’s career were already falling into place. He went to work shooting for photographer Michael Kohl ’73 and for The Santa Clara, took a class in photography with Susan Felter, hosted a radio show spinning comedy records, and served as campus comedy director—a position he used to bring the likes of Greg Proops, P.J. O’Rourke, and the Second City troupe to SCU.
Graduation took Dion from the Mission Campus to a job working the door at the Holy City Zoo—then a “tiny little dive” on Clement Street in San Francisco, and the stuff of comedy legend since the 1970s. When an opportunity to assist the head photographer for the San Francisco Giants came along, he jumped at the chance—and his work in portraiture got him the job. He’d never actually shot sports until he stepped onto the turf at Candlestick Park. “Then, all of a sudden, to the local comedians,” Dion says, “I was a photographer…and they’re all baseball fans.”
Dion has a lifelong love of rock ’n’ roll, too; as a student, he’d sneak his photography gear into shows, camera body tucked into a bag of Chips Ahoy! and a telephoto lens wrapped up in paper, disguised as a deli sandwich. These days he sets up backstage, since he’s the official house photographer for the Punch Line, Warfield, Fillmore, and Shoreline Amphitheatre—where Dion’s photos line the concourse.
So add to his arsenal of comedian portraits a stockpile of photos including Beck and The Boss, George Clinton and Pink, David Bowie and Lucinda Williams. You might have seen his work on the cover of Billboard magazine in August, or in Rolling Stone, Time, People, San Francisco magazine, and a raft of other publications.
Marriage and familyhood are part of the picture now: Dan and wife Lisa (wed in 2003 in Sonoma) have a daughter, Parker, who just turned 2. He also holds an MFA from San Francisco’s Academy of Art College. And, on the professional side, there’s a book project in the works.
What is it that he loves about photographing comics? Their expressiveness, the lack of a need to always look cool—“and the best comedians are philosophers at heart,” he says. “These are my people. There’s no other forum that allows you to say anything you want…and get paid for it, instead of getting fired…. That’s real freedom of speech up on stage. One microphone, one spotlight, and a two-drink minimum. If that’s what we have to pay for freedom, then I think it’s worth it.”