I’ve known Tony Donaldson for a few years and he has taught me a lot about photography. I’ve marveled at some of the techniques and action shots I’ve seen and his constant search to do better. You can read more about Tony is this Spring’s edition of LPIK Photography. In the meantime here is an interview Tony gave to me a few weeks ago which I found fascinating.
How did your parents influence you as a young creative ? Were they encouraging?
My parents encouraged me and my sister in our creative pursuits. My sister was big into dance and painting, she’s now a jewelry maker. I grew up with several creative outlets, from Lego to BMX freestyle to creating/improving computer games. We were encouraged to use our imagination a lot, we didn’t have money to spend on many of the toys we wanted. Imagination is often better than the real thing. We made guns with sticks, collected random stuff, repurposed a lot of things.
Did you have any major influences as a boy that motivated you to become a photographer? BMX riding?
BMX was a major influence. My parents bought me my first BMX bike as a present for Christmas when I was eleven or twelve. I immediately started hanging out with kids from school with BMX bikes and we all started racing. We did tricks on the weekdays between race weekends, emulating stuff we saw in magazines and creating our own stuff. I then found I loved the attention I got by doing tricks, so I started a freestyle team. We did shows around the midwest, it was amazing. It truly was like being a rock star. I had groupies and learned a lot about promotion.
In college, a friend who worked for the associated Press took me to a football game (Illini vs Michigan). I had no idea how to work a camera. He handed me a Nikon F3T (titanium body) with a Nikkor 300mm f/4.5 lens, loaded with Tri-X and showed me the basics of focus and metering. I shot two rolls while we were there. That was back in the days when it was 100% film. At half-time, he showed me how to rewind the film and put in another roll for me. He then went into the AP darkroom, processed his film, sent a print out over the wire, then came back out and shot the rest of the game before doing it again. He didn’t process my film then. Afterward, we went to a women’s volleyball game. He shot it, I watched. It was indoors, and that’s a lot trickier than shooting in daylight.
He processed my film that night, walked out of the darkroom, and exclaimed, “I’ve been trying to get this fucking shot for 15 YEARS!”. In my first two rolls, I had gotten the quarterback flipping over the one-yard line, ball in hand, scoring a touchdown. Luck or skill, I got the shot. He then took me under his wing and started teaching me the basics. Within a couple of months I started shooting assignments as a stringer for AP and had taken over as the photo editor for the college paper. Living in the capital city, every Presidential hopeful came through to speak before the primary election. I have a lot of stories about that, but that’s a whole other article.
I decided to shoot something I love, so I picked a National BMX event in Memphis, Tennessee to shoot. I wrote to all the magazines just to tell them who I was, that I’d be there and that I’d like to meet them. John Ker from BMX Plus! magazine called me and said they had nobody going to that race and asked if I’d shoot it for them. After I picked up my jaw from the floor, I agreed. I shot it, they liked the images so much that they asked me to come out to California and hang out to see if I got along with the staff. I finished the semester and flew to California for my first time ever at age 19. I met my childhood heroes, the racers and freestylers that were just these figures in the magazines before that. I spent a week sleeping on one of the editor’s couches and traveling all over Southern California shooting. It was amazing. And the magazine really liked what I shot. It helps to have grown up reading the magazines and being involved with BMX to be able to portray it in pictures dynamically. And having the greatest riders in the world made it even greater.
They didn’t have an opening, but had me traveling all over the midwest for a couple of months shooting events near me. A 19-year-old kid, absolutely excited to be living a dream he really had just had! Then John called me up and asked me if I’d like to take a staff position because somebody was leaving. I jumped at the chance, packing what I could into my car and driving 2000 miles in 2.5 days. I drove 14 hours a day, got a hotel, then went riding for a couple of hours. The first night I made it to Texas. I stopped in the town of Shamrock. The natural ham in me wanted to show off a little, and since this was a small town, I headed for the local Dairy Queen. I knew it would be the hangout. It was. I was jeered at first, but I made friends with the locals and even taught one of the kids who wasn’t even a BMX guy how to do a really hard trick. To his credit, not only was he a quick study, but he did it in COWBOY BOOTS! I love making friends, and BMX and photography have been amazing facilitators.
I arrived, got a nice check for all the freelance work and got settled. But I was still flying someplace almost every weekend to hang out with my friends at racing and freestyle events. Once again, a 19-year-old rock star lifestyle.
How did working at various magazines influence and shape your work??I was hired by American Freestyler, a title under the same publisher and in the same office as BMX Plus! Freestyle was on a downward part of its cycle, so that magazine that had spun off from Plus! was incorporated back in. I was a terrible writer at first, but I ended up writing almost half of every issue of the magazine every month, so I improved pretty quickly. Working for enthusiast magazines, you don’t have to be Kierkegaard, you have to be personable and know the sport. John Ker was my second photography mentor and a great mentor for writing as well. I learned to write conversationally, instead of the inverted pyramid news style I’d learned in journalism classes.
Working seven days a week without a break for over a year burned me out pretty quickly. I wasn’t making much and had no time to relax. Even as a 20-year-old kid, that’s a lot to handle. Especially when I was constantly butting heads with another staffer who was my age. I left and worked for photo labs and then for an automotive collectibles magazine for a while. That was interesting, because the ENTIRE staff of the magazine was two people, including me. I had to write, shoot, sell ads, ship issues, answer phones. It was fun, but eventually the publisher ran out of money and sold it to another small publishing company. I went with it, but the publisher was a complete asshole so I left and went out on my own.
I was freelancing, but not super-busy. I decided to start assisting. Seems backwards, work for ten years as a photographer and THEN become an assistant, but it was great all the way around. I got to learn and get paid, something I’d highly recommend if you’re going into photography. Better than photography school. I worked with a lot of photographers, and they all said that the first thing you have to do with a photo school graduate is make them unlearn everything they learned about doing photography “properly” and learn to do it in the real world. I’ve experienced this as well. I assisted every kind of photographer, from product to people to weddings to architecture and more. And for magazines, catalogs and advertising. It was the most amazing and practical education ever. I learned how various photographers use and shape light and what equipment they use for it, how they deal with various economies (how to squeeze every penny out of editorial shoots, how to properly handle the seemingly cubic dollars on advertising shoots, etc.). Things went wrong on shoots. Capacitors blew. Lenses broke. People didn’t show up. Rental equipment didn’t work. And I got to see how different photographers dealt with these things. Some were masters at rolling with the punches. They were the greatest to work with!
Now, this knowledge comes in handy, as does my childhood use of my imagination, to be able to create images I want to create on assignments with any budget. And when something goes wrong, I’m prepared. I carry spares of a lot of things, always multiple cameras and lenses, often multiple lights. I also always bring good snacks and food. A happy, well-fed crew is WAY more productive. People love to work with me because I’m low-stress, able to communicate what I want and create a collaborative atmosphere. I end up working with the same people over and over because they like working with me. Same with athletes, etc.
When did you start writing articles about photography and why did you start?
I’ve always been a really technical guy. I said that the football game was the first time I’d ever handled a 35mm SLR, but it wasn’t my first time with a camera. My dad had an old Polaroid Land camera and some expired film. I loved shooting stuff with that. Even shot action, like Lego cars I made jumping off of steps. And shot my friends skateboarding with my dad’s camera with a detachable flash, setting the camera on bulb and using the flash to freeze action at night. I got the concepts Seth (Perlman, my friend who works for AP) taught me quickly and have always been thirsty for knowledge. I’ve always pushed my cameras.
To read more about Tony go to LPIK MAGAZINE