'Staying in the game': A look back on the career of prolific local photographer Dan Koeck

Dan Koeck has covered numerous newsworthy events over the years, including the 2009 flood in Fargo. This photo depicts the flooding of the Red River flowing under the Veterans Memorial Bridge at a record 40.84 feet on March 28, 2009. Dan Koeck / Special to The Forum
Dan Koeck has covered numerous newsworthy events over the years, including the 2009 flood in Fargo. This photo depicts the flooding of the Red River flowing under the Veterans Memorial Bridge at a record 40.84 feet on March 28, 2009. Dan Koeck / Special to The Forum

FARGO — When 12-year-old Dan Koeck received his first Instamatic camera for Christmas, he didn’t realize its significance for his future as a photographer. At the time, he just wanted to walk down the street of his St. Paul neighborhood and record what he saw with his cool new present.

“That Christmas, we had gotten an ice storm,” Koeck recalls. “Most people would use that camera to take photos of the family, the cat or the dog, but I went for a walk and started taking pictures of the ice on the trees.”

Koeck grew up in a family that enjoyed documenting their lives with photos. His mother, who he calls the “family historian,” created piles of black cardboard scrapbooks scribed with endearing captions in white marker.

Photographer Dan Koeck. Leo Kim / Special to The Forum
Photographer Dan Koeck. Leo Kim / Special to The Forum

Now, decades later, Koeck’s name appears in the credit line below featured photos for media outlets like The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. His versatile work capturing the cultural and social landscape of the Dakotas and Minnesota is in galleries around the region, including a current exhibit called “Parallels” at Choice Financial’s main branch, 4501 23rd Ave. S., Fargo.

So how did he get here? That was my main question for the down-to-earth photographer, who has built a career telling stories of other people through compelling images.

Now that Koeck has entered a new stage of his life, he’s figuring out where his own story fits among the photographs and what kind of legacy he wants to leave behind.

Preserving the past

Part of his new life stage is archiving his work with hopes of creating a book in the near future. To help with this process, Koeck purchased a scanner with a grant from The Arts Partnership.

“A digital archive of past work will show me where I’ve been and help me plot a course to explore new artistic opportunities,” Koeck says. “Every photographer should have at least one good scanner, and I didn’t have any,” he adds with a laugh.

Dan Koeck’s career has been shaped by his natural ability to get to know people and gain their trust, like in this photo called "The House of Morgan," which is on display in his “Parallels” exhibit at Choice Financial in Fargo. Dan Koeck / Special to The Forum
Dan Koeck’s career has been shaped by his natural ability to get to know people and gain their trust, like in this photo called "The House of Morgan," which is on display in his “Parallels” exhibit at Choice Financial in Fargo. Dan Koeck / Special to The Forum

Among the photographs Koeck wants to scan are snapshots he took in the 1970s during his service in the Navy. He spent his early adult years working as an electrician on a tugboat stationed in Pearl Harbor. After a crew member showed him his new Nikon, Koeck bought his own camera for the first time. Whenever his crew would dock in Japan or Hong Kong, Koeck enjoyed observing the people and capturing their culture on film.

“That got the ball rolling (in my career),” Koeck says.

Soon, the pieces started falling into place. After his service, Koeck studied photojournalism and history at the University of Minnesota, worked for a small local paper and then moved to North Dakota in 1984 to work for the Minot Daily News. He moved to Fargo in 1992 to work for North Dakota State University until his retirement in 2016, working as a freelancer every step of the way.

“(That career path) was very cut and dry back then,” Koeck says. “You had to have a nose for news and anticipate what was going to happen and be in the right place at the right time.”

Still at it

Over the years, Koeck learned to observe people, gain their trust and apply his creative instincts to capture decisive, expressive moments. His big break into larger media outlets occurred during the flood of 1997.

“That was a big one,” he says. “A lot of the big news organizations were reporting about it at the time. Their first call would be to the local paper to see if there was a staff photographer who would be willing to take a half-day and shoot for them. If not, they asked if they knew of anybody. To this day, I don’t know who it was, but someone at The Fargo Forum gave them my name.”

Dan Koeck enjoys capturing photos of people in their natural elements, like these entomologists from North Dakota State University using a light trap on the Sheyenne National Grasslands to gather insects for studying in 2011. Dan Koeck / Special to The Forum
Dan Koeck enjoys capturing photos of people in their natural elements, like these entomologists from North Dakota State University using a light trap on the Sheyenne National Grasslands to gather insects for studying in 2011. Dan Koeck / Special to The Forum

His work documenting newsworthy events has appeared in dozens of local, regional and national publications over the years, but Koeck says his main accomplishment in his career is “staying in the game” and managing to “still be relevant after all of these years.”

“I always felt good about photographing and having fun doing it,” Koeck says. “Taking a good photo is its own reward. It’s a reason for getting up in the morning.”

For more information on the photographer, visit dankoeck.com.

This article is part of a content partnership with The Arts Partnership, a nonprofit organization cultivating the arts in Fargo, Moorhead and West Fargo. For more information, visit http://theartspartnership.net.