Professional photographer Jon Dragonette, 37, grew up in a small town in the Adirondack Mountains in upstate New York.
At 22, he moved to San Francisco for six years and then moved to Los Angeles for seven years until coming to Nashville last November.
“I grew up skateboarding, and that’s how I got into photography,” he said. “My mom wanted to be a photographer. I have a twin brother, and she had us when she was super young, so she had to put those dreams aside. When I was 13 or 14, she gave me a little 35 mm camera.”
His mother told him to take pictures of his friends and to use it when he traveled and skateboarded.
Jon said after high school and a little bit of college he knew he wanted to do photography. He just didn’t know how to turn his hobby into a profession so he went west to California.
“I had friends out there, and I was still involved in skateboarding so I just went out there to see where it would lead me, and 13 years later, here I am,” he said.
the MAGIC and the MOVE WEST
When Jon’s mom first got him the camera in the early 1990s, he said it was nothing more than him capturing memories of he and his friends skateboarding and going on road trips.
“Right around my senior year in high school, I started developing film and once I did that, everything changed. I remember being like, holy shit, this is magic. You take this piece of plastic that you’ve exposed, learn how it all works, and you start developing it to make prints, it’s like magic appears in front of your face.”
Jon moved on from photographing his friends and skateboard adventures when he moved to California. He said luckily for him, he has had a few friends there who were older so the transition was a little bit easier because of that support system.
Other than seeing national geographic he didn’t know how to become a professional photographer.
“I didn’t realize when I looked at advertising and fashion, that was something I could do. I’m so used to seeing it that you don’t realize someone has to take those photographs,” he said.
Not long after getting settled, he began assisting with a commercial photographer who was doing product photography for tech companies.
“He would take this stupid inanimate object like a cell phone or a game system, but the way he would fix the lighting around it, made it look amazing and like you would want to buy it,” he said. “I was learning all those lighting techniques, but I was also learning that you could make something be more appealing to people by more than just simply snapping a photo of it.”
Jon assisted until he began getting his own work. Next, he got a job as a photographer with a clothing company and started doing their lookbooks. Through the clothing company, he started meeting and networking with other people.
“Then I started working for this art magazine called Juxtapose, which at the time was the leading contemporary art magazine for the younger demographic. That was cool because I began shooting portraits, which was something that I was interested in doing,” he said.
As an upcoming photographer in San Francisco, in 2008 when the economy took a dive, work became difficult, and competition increased considerably. Instead of just competing with his peers he was also competing with the big names that came down a few notches to photograph things they normally wouldn’t.
“There was nothing there for me, and I wanted to push myself as a photographer. At that point, it was New York City or Los Angeles, so I made the uncomfortable move to LA,” he said. “It just seemed like it was time.”
Jon said starting over was difficult but also exciting.
“It makes you do things you that you might not normally do,” he said. “It’s uncomfortable, but it’s one of those things that makes you grow.”
MAKING the MAGIC HAPPEN
For Jon, being a professional photographer is a lot like riding a rollercoaster.
“There are so many ups and downs, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
For the last four years, he’s been doing it on his own.
“I’m not going to lie, it’s tough, but you just have to keep pushing forward. If you give up because it gets hard then you’re not going to succeed at it,” he said.
“I’d rather eat ramen and give change to get gas than to work somewhere that I hate day in and day out. Money comes and goes. I’d rather have the freedom and know that whatever I do, I do it on my own.”
He said the most rewarding thing is when people approach him because of his work and what he does, whether it’s his eye for shots or his attitude.
Jon is currently transitioning from lifestyle and fashion photography to photojournalism themed work.
“As far as a photographer, I feel like that’s my strong point,” he said. “I’m getting to the point where lifestyle and fashion work is cool but just not as fulfilling as going out and shooting a story.”
Lately, Jon has been going out and giving himself assignments.
“When you’re documenting things in society, it’s history, and I think that’s one of the magical things about photography. It’s literally freezing a single moment in time. How the fuck do you do that?” he said laughing. “It’s there forever. It’s kind of trippy when you think about it. You can’t stop anything else like that.”
Jon said it’s important for him to be stimulated on a daily basis. He said he wants to tell people’s stories and wants to document history so people can look back and learn from it.
As a part of that documentation effort, Jon shoots with a film camera.
“My stuff is raw and gritty, and I think film only enhances that whereas with digital images I almost have to knock it down,” he said. “I still like digital, and I’ll still use it. I’m just trying to use more film.”
Jon said digital photography is moving more toward digital imagining and less photography. He said it’s not necessarily a bad thing because that’s just the way technology works now.
“But for me, when I look at two different images, a film and a digital, it’s like night and day,” he said. “Film has a more natural and organic feel and I like that.”
new SURROUNDINGS, new INSPIRATION, new CITY
After living in LA for seven years, Jon began to get burnt out on the city.
“I love the city, and maybe I’ll end up back there, but right now it’s going through such a transition,” he said. “My last year there was crappy, and I lost a bunch of friends. I went from having the best year of work to absolutely nothing, and I couldn’t figure out why.”
Jon said he needed new surroundings and new inspirations. He had been to Nashville a couple of times and liked it. He said it reminds him of LA five or six years ago where it’s on the up but hasn’t exploded yet.
“Nashville is a decent size city, but it has that small town feel that I like,” he said. “It’s got a friendly and homey feeling. There’s the less hustle and bustle, which is nice but there’s still a lot going on, and it’s a growing progressive city.”
Jon has traveled quite a bit since moving to Nashville.
He spent Christmas with his family in New York. In January he was in Washington D.C. photographing the Women’s March, and in February he was at Standing Rock in North Dakota taking photographs of the resistance to the pipeline access.
“Traveling helps me not get stir crazy, and it helps me not get bored of a place. I think that’s why I lasted in LA for so long,” he said. “There, you could be in the mountains, the ocean, the desert or any of the surrounding areas really fast. We would take a lot of small couple day trip or road trips.”
For the most part, Jon goes with the flow. He said if he likes where he’s living then he’ll continue to live there and if he hates it then he’ll move.
Jon has a show at Nashville Community Darkroom, March 11th featuring some of his protest photos from Los Angeles, Nashville, and Washington D.C. The show, entitled Steadfast, ranges from the Black Lives Matter Movement to the Women’s March to the response to President Trump’s immigrant ban, this will be Jon’s first Nashville show.
Jon feels like the way people are nowadays, things seems to be more egocentric and less about helping and reaching out to others.
“What I want a community to be is just a bunch of human beings from all walks of life just living together and working and helping each other out, which can be difficult because of the things that separate us.”
Jon thinks it’s starting to come around because of the presidential election and what’s going on with the national discussion on immigration.
“I think people are taking a step back and saying to themselves that they need to support the people they live around no matter what color they are.”
He said he’s interested to see what happens here, in the South, given the history of racial equality.
“You don’t typically think of the South as being progressive or having young people who are doing cool stuff, but to get here and see that happening is really awesome and exciting to hopefully get involved and be a part of it.”
To see some of Jon’s work click here!
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