About a decade ago, if you walked into the San Francisco home of Deborah and David Van Dommelen, there was a good chance you’d find some of the Bay Area’s most popular rappers crammed into their son’s bedroom. No, he hadn’t constructed a makeshift studio. Twentysomething Ian Van Dommelen was creating images that gave his hometown’s music scene a distinctive, sometimes gritty and often tongue-in-cheek humorous visual identity.
The CD art and merchandising images he made had the composition and attention to detail that would typically come from a creative director in the corner office of a record label, but the UC Santa Cruz photography graduate brought something else: an understanding and connection to the music itself. “These artists tell universal stories, like happiness, sadness, partying, poverty–but there’s a lot of unique, street culture to this area. My job is to take these stories and relay them in a visual sense,” he says. Van Dommelen’s reputation spread as his name and face became more entrenched in the Bay Area hip hop scene. “Back then, people could sell 20,000 copies of a CD, so there was money in it,” he remembers. “And when I started making some of the money I thought, wow…let’s do it.” So his company Photo Doctor was born.
What has changed since then? In a word, everything. Not surprisingly, Van Dommelen has moved out of his parent’s house and is now a married father of two. But he is still doing what he loves, the A to Z of designing a visual identity for musicians. “I do the photography, design, and art direction,” says Van Dommelen, who creates album artwork, websites, logos, and ad campaigns. He has worked with Bay Area artists that the world knows, like Too Short, E-40, and Kreayshawn, as well as ones who haven’t yet transcended the local music scene. For Van Dommelen, who considers himself an artist first and a businessman second, this is the payoff. “I’m motivated by other artists. All the visuals I create spiral off of the music.”
Yet as any artist-turned-entrepreneur will admit, creative inspiration does not always pay the bills. And paying the bills has gotten harder now that the entire music industry has changed how it operates. When Photo Doctor opened, artists went into the studio and made music that was sold on actual CDs or records, items that you could hold in your hand and look at the artwork. Now, with the dependence on downloads, images, and liner notes are no longer as in-demand. “A couple of years ago, I would’ve sworn I wouldn’t still be doing this because the industry was going south so fast,” he admits, adding that while he continues to get hired for CD cover packages, it has slowed down, meaning more of his output consists of merchandising items, like T-shirt images.
For Van Dommelen, this seismic shift in the music industry has meant a major readjustment to how he runs his company. Though he has just completed album art for platinum-selling rapper Sage the Gemini, Photo Doctor is broadening its purview to include online banners, website design, and Instagram ads. “You still have to have some sort of image to sell your music. Kanye did that blank cover [for 2013’s Yeezus], but even that was an image,” he says. “Trying to make that one still moment intriguing remains the most powerful advertising.” Van Dommelen also wants to branch into video games and other avenues that use motion. In addition, his client base has moved beyond the Bay Area, including former Roc-a-Fella rapper and Philadelphian Freeway. Like the musical genre that inspires most of his work, Van Dommelen’s success relies on his ability to innovate and fearlessly break new ground–a talent he has proven he has in droves.