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Chicago Reinvented – Meet Danny Mota

Meet Danny Mota: a photographer born and raised in Chicago who has risen to fame through the advent of social media, primarily Instagram. There you will find his vibrant, surrealist images that play with the reflections and architecture of the city.
As an explorer and a 5AM early-riser, Mota enjoys scoping out the best shots in the city before sunrise, and delving into a journey to find under-appreciated beauty in the city’s crumbling urban decay. His dream:
“One day, someone’s going to look at a photo of Chicago and say, ‘Oh yeah, I remember that photo. That’s a Danny Mota photo!’ I don’t know how far I am from that, and I don’t know if I’ll ever achieve that, but I will try everything in my power to reach that achievement one day.”
Q. To start off, can you tell me a bit about yourself? How did you first get into photography?

I work full-time at a creative ad agency called Havas Worldwide in Chicago. I met my boss Jason Peterson, Chief Creative Officer, when we connected over Instagram about a year and a half ago. My start in photography was out of a love for Chicago. At first, I thought Instagram was for the documentation of food and lunch, but when I was going to look for actual pictures, I was blown away by the quality. I started looking at people’s feeds, focusing on shots of the city and architectural stuff, and thought, “Why can’t I do that?” I wanted to know what apps they were using, what they were doing, and I definitely went into everything I could to learn about them.

Q. How would you describe your personal style/aesthetic?
I like to tinker with colors a lot. I find a lot of things that inspire me in terms of color. A lot of the blues that you’ll see on my photos are colors I try to pull from the Chicago flag. It’s a small thing that many people enjoy because it has a meaning behind it. I also like to have this “surreal” thing, with boldness and tension, finding that raw angle or perspective. To me, that’s 50% of what I do: figuring out how to become more bold and dramatic. Tonality for me is that desire to be bold and dramatic. When people see a pink or purple sky, it’s really vibrant, and it captures your attention, and I think that my followers tend to enjoy those more. I definitely do.


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Q. On your website, you linked a report on “Urban Exploring” from WGN News starring you and a couple of fellow urban explorers explaining your fascination with urban decay, because it was “once beautiful, or once functional, and now it’s wasting away”. What do you think draws you in the most about documenting urban decay?

That was one of my favorite things that I’ve ever done. It was at Rocks Candy factory, which I believe is no longer there, but when a couple friends of mine asked me to go check it out, I said of course. It had basically been converted from a candy factory to a graffiti art gallery. We had gone at the the perfect time: it had just rained, there were puddles all over, and we were playing with the reflections. I think a lot of times, this is when you appreciate that. When you walk into something new or that you’re curious about, you’re already excited, and that excitement carries over to your ability to hopefully create something that looks beautiful in its own right. It doesn’t have to be a skyline or a major sunset. It can be a torn-down white wall, or a wall that’s been graffitied hundreds of times. To me, these types of images are what make up Chicago. I always try to find a balance between what people tend to believe in terms of urban environment and what they forget about or what they tend to under-appreciate. To me, that’s looking down at the ground and finding a puddle, or just looking at the subway system that we have that I love. To me, that’s just being able to appreciate the entire thing, and not just picking and choosing what people like. “I’m just from Chicago.”

Q. How do you find new areas to shoot?

I tend to go with a few of my friends to places I see in photos and articles or on my drive to work, but I also enjoy photography as an intimate thing for myself. Sometimes I’ll just grab my phone and go for a 2-hour photo walk. Luckily, I work at a creative place and my boss, Jason Peterson, is a great guy. He’s one of the few people who seriously inspire me to be more creative and to take pictures. Just yesterday we decided to just walk around Chicago and find fun stuff to shoot. And we stumbled across a couple of spots we hadn’t seen before. Jason and I then got to explore an underground paddy and so we went on like an hour-and-a-half exploration like that. Taking these types of walks is a good way to refresh my creativity.

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Q. Your website features several 15-second clips shot with an iphone and music in the background. My favorite one is the one of the back of the train leaving the station after which a view of Chicago suddenly appears. Can you tell me a bit more about this clip?

I think that it’s hard to convey Chicago in one image because people only think of its beautiful skyline. You have to realize that there’s so much beauty in the city that’s under-appreciated. Sometimes I’ll tell people, “Get in the back and look out the window, and just see, see it go by! Or sit at the edge of your seat and watch the people waiting for the train.” A photo can’t compare to a video. For me it conveyed a longer scene. You just put your earbuds in and take in the song. I want to give you a mix-byte of something. There’s always a sound track for any moment in your life.

Q. What drives you as a self-taught photographer to constantly innovate and seek improvement?

I sometimes like to say that I have photography growing pains, because gaining photography skills is a learning process where you make little tweaks here and there and ask yourself, “What have I learned?” and “How can I do better?” I would be super happy to just look at a shot that I took a year ago, and see that I’ve gotten just 10% better. I grew up with my dad who was a boxer, and a mentality of “It’s never going to be perfect.” That’s my drive – to become perfect.

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Q. How has your success on Instagram affected your career goals or personal goals?

I think Instagram affects me on a personal level. My main motivation has always been to be able to create stuff that not only I look back on and feel happy about, but also that people who have really supported me along the way really enjoy. People such as my mom, my dad, my girlfriend, and people like Jason, from before I had a following or anything.

For my job, being able to do this type of stuff supplements what I learn at work. They aren’t parallel paths – they’re very unified at times. What I do on my own and what I do at work are very similar. Down the road I want to be a full time director, lead big campaigns, have the ability to speak from wisdom and truth, and I think that at the end of the day that’s my goal. Whether it’s photography or videography, I just want to create work that people are excited to see and can really enjoy. It’s simple.

Q. Is there any advice you would have liked to give yourself when you first started out?

Don’t be scared and be honest. I think putting work out there on your own is a nerve-wrecking feeling because you put your work out there and people judge you for it. Don’t be scared of that. I always tell people that if anything that you really want comes with hardships, just go out there, do something with what you want, whether that’s shooting a photo, a video, writing something, just do it. You’re never going to know how good it is unless you get out there. Don’t think everyone gets it right on the first try. I don’t think I got it and I’ve posted over a 1,000 photos on Instagram. It’s just about improvement. Whether it’s improvement at the speed of a cheetah or a speed of a turtle, I got to the point where I am now, by doing what I really enjoy, and you’re never going to put the best work out there if you’re not excited and motivated.

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Be sure to check out Danny’s  Website and follow his work via Instagram or Twitter!
Danny Mota Instagram



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  1. Claude Forthomme

    Fantastic – I lived many years ago in Chicago and in spite of the years that have passed, indeed whole decades, his photos hit a spot, they meant something, they reminded me of my Chicago experience, stirring up long-forgotten memories – which meant he is able to go beyond the temporal and reach out to the “eternal” that hides under everything. That’s a very unique capability and one that distinguishes talented amateurs from inspired artists. Danny Mota belongs to the latter category.

    • Danny Mota

      Claude, thank you for the kind words, truly too kind. I was made in Chicago, and I started to create because of it. I want to share it’s beauty with the world and let others know that this place is special, beyond the what they see in the skyline. I hope all is well and thank you again for the comment.


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