An exclusive interview with almost-famous photographer Jon Dragonette
L.A.-based photographer Jon Dragonette was 13 when his mom gave him his first camera and in college when he decided he wanted to be the guy that takes insanely cool photos as a profession. We caught up with him about these same insanely cool photos he's getting so well-known for, as well as grilled him about what he'd make us for dinner if we were to, you know, ask him over ...
What's your background? How did you get into photography?
I'm from a small town in upstate New York. I have a identical twin brother, who happens to be the raddest dude around. We are sons to the most bitchinest Dad and the sweetest mom. My mom actually got me into photography. She wanted to be a photographer when she grew up but getting pregnant at 19 with twins put a damper on those plans. Still loving the art, she got me my first camera when I was 13. I think it was a Vivitar, a real piece of shit. I thought, "Cool, now I can take photos of all my friends and document our skateboard trips." That's really the only thought I put into it.
It wasn't something I was passionate about at first. I mean I was a teenager, all I wanted to do was skate and chase tail. It wasn't till after high school that I started giving it more thought, and it was really only 'cause I was faced with the question, "What the fuck do I do now?" I remember taking a photo class at the community college I was going to at the time. The instructor said I had a really good eye and was learning quick in the dark room (yeah, this was way before digital when you still shot film and had to develop and make your own prints, ha ha). That's kinda when it clicked that I really loved doing this and I wanted to figure out a way to make it my life.
What is it that you do, other than take insanely cool photos?
I try to stay busy always, I hate being bored more than anything. Up until recently, I was skating a ton It's has always been my favorite thing to do. But I'm getting older and I've got no insurance, so it's kinda becoming less of a everyday thing. I started playing drums a year ago, and I started a band with two of my closest friends. We're called Midnight Crisis; it's kinda like stoner-psych-blues-rock-and-roll. We played our first show my most recent photo show, called The Prowlers. I was so nervous, but it was really fun and we didn't fuck up that bad. I've also been boxing for the last few months, training with the amateur team. My friend is on it, so they all get to beat me up in the ring. I ride motorcycles, usually we go on rides to go camping or just to get away, other than that hang with my dog, eat. I love eating! That's kinda my deal at the moment.
How has skateboarding influenced your aesthetic?
I'm not sure skateboarding has influenced my aesthetic, but more the way I shoot. Skateboarding is one of those things where people don't want you doing it anywhere, so you are constantly faced with security guards, cops and just the average asshole citizen playing narc and kicking you out. Being sly, sneaky and stealth comes in handy when skating but also when you are shooting, especially without permits, and even more so here in Tinsel Town where everything needs a permit or is rented for movies, TV, and commercials. Skateboarding has influenced my guerilla tactics when it comes to shooting here in the city. Maybe a little in the ability to capture movement as well, where timing is a huge factor.
Do you prefer impromptu moments or premeditated sets for shoots?
I go back and forth with that. Sometimes, I want to be able to control every aspect of the shoot, whether that's environment, lighting, model, posing, etc. Other times, I want it to just happen naturally, go with the flow, and work with whatever is in front of me I feel like that is the best way to really sharpen your skills, especially in problem solving. Shooting for clients takes up a lot of my time, so I don't always have the choice of how I want to shoot. I feel like if I have been shooting more towards one end of the spectrum, I will switch it up, mostly cause I get bored of doing the same thing 10 million times.
What's your favorite thing to shoot?
Probably people. People are crazy, weird, beautiful, ugly, big, small, young and old. It's challenging and rewarding at the same time.
What's your favorite photo that you've taken and why?
I don't really have one. As I grow as a photographer, I tend to have new favorites all the time. I also like to look back through my archives and see my progression as a whole. I feel like if I had that one favorite photograph then I might as well quit now, because how can you out-do what you already feel is your #1?
Favorite clients to work for:
The ones who pay on time! I'm kidding. I tend to like the clients that work collectively and creatively with me. Make it a team effort. Ones that hire me because they trust me and my work and know that I will give them above and beyond what they are expecting. A lot of the times my favorite clients are small business with the tiniest budgets. They have fresh ideas and are willing to do fun new things, try and push the boundaries.
What do you think makes something beautiful?
T&A (Rooster suspects this means "tits and ass," but we're not dismissing "tacos and aspirations.")
What's the hardest thing about what you do?
Networking. I am lousy at it. This may be me being too honest, but I fucking hate being forced to pretend someone is interesting, has great ideas, is cool, or that we share some sort of common interest. Most people aren't, or they offer none of the above, so I tend to keep my head down, work hard and pick and choose who I want to engage with.
What's the most rewarding part of what you do?
Making images that people get a feeling about, be it a client or the people that look at my personal work. If I can evoke something out of the viewer, I tend to feel like I did something right. Even if they don't like it but still felt something, that is rewarding to me. Put simply, engaging people with my work.
What's the craziest on-the-job experience you've had?
I was doing an assignment for this start-up magazine called Hood Star when I was living in San Francisco. I met up with this dude who was the owner of the magazine, who seemed somewhat legit, but I could tell was probably laundering some money to start the magazine.
We ended up in Oakland At this gangster-ass house so I could photograph these dudes. We go into the garage and these guys pull ski masks over their faces and pull out all these gnarly Mack 10s and other fucked up assault rifles. I'm like, "What the fuck?" The magazine owner starts taking photos, telling me, "It's cool, you're with me."
So, I start shooting these dudes, thinking "What the fuck am I doing here? Am I gonna make it out?" Turns out they were all super rad, and kinda stoked that this dumb white kid was in their hood in Oakland taking their photo. We sat around for like two hours listening to their stories. Now that I think about it, I'm retarded. I gotta find those images.
What do you want viewers to take away from your work?
I want them to want to know more, or to want to have been there.
Are there any other artists or photographers who you're really feeling right now?
Too many. There are so many talented people it makes me wanna barf.
What's your biggest pet peeve in your line of work?
Everyone is a photographer nowadays. Digital has made photography so accessible to everyone, which is rad, because so many people are getting to enjoy making images. The downfall of that is everyone who owns a camera and Photoshop has now become a so-called "photographer" overnight, and it's flooded the market. It sounds bitter, I know. I'm trying to get over it haha.
What was the inspiration for your latest photo project, The Prowlers? What were you trying to convey?
That concept came to me on a test shoot I was doing. I just wanted to capture groups of chics that ran together in their collective groups, Don't let a pretty face fool you, these girls roll hard. Some of it's exaggerated, but 98% of it isn't. What you see is what you get and that's what I wanted to capture. No models, no casting, no bullshit. Just real women.
Describe your perfect day.
Family, friends, motorcycles, skateboards, beer, dogs, guns, fishing, swimming, camping, BBQ, fire, music.
If we were to invite you over for dinner, what would you make us?
Fuck, Dragonette spaghetti for sure. Great Grandmother's recipe. You'll never have better.
What's your go-to karaoke song?
I don't karaoke often, but when I do, either Beastie Boys' "Fight for Your Right to Party," or some Frank Sinatra song.
Is there an interview question you always wished someone would ask you?
What's it like being a twin?
What is it like being a twin?
It's the raddest, most unexplainable thing. I mean, fuck, we where womb-mates, you don't get any closer than that. It's difficult to explain cause I don't know any thing else other than being a twin. We have our own secret telepathic language. My mom used to get so pissed at us for it. She would be trying to talk to us and we would be in our own little world not paying one iota of attention to her or what she was saying. She would get mad and me and my brother would just be cracking up. It's fun to play tricks on people. We are identical so at school we where always up to something. If one of us got in trouble we could always blame it on the other one. Principals and teachers hated it ... they would get so frustrated. Probably why they split us up as much as they could. Dicks!