SARATOGA SPRINGS – Saratoga Springs native Jon Dragonette has taken a different view of the COVID-19 pandemic over the past nine months and it is all in black and white.
The 41-year-old professional photographer traveled from coast to coast completing his upcoming photo essay “The Corner of COVID & Main Street,” with a final stop in his hometown of Saratoga Springs.
“I kind of really got the idea for this project, which was to document people that were living during this,” Dragonette said while talking on the phone from his 1974 Buick while in line at the Malta Medical Center on Thursday, awaiting a drive-thru COVID-19 test. “The idea that it’s a really simple concept to look at the virus and see we’re all brothers and sisters, we’re all human beings, we’re all dealing with this no matter race, creed, color, religion, any of that stuff. The virus doesn’t discriminate.
“It’s called ‘The Corner of COVID and Main Street’ because no matter where you are, this is affecting everyone the same.”
As the U.S. goes through its first pandemic since the Spanish Flu in 1918, Dragonette saw an opportunity to record history.
“My main purpose was to document people during this time so that when we look back and remember, we can remember,” Dragonette said. “It’s every walk of life — it’s essential workers, non-essential workers, people out of work, students, elderly people. I just wanted the full gamut.”
His subjects are unpaid and the sessions include two photos, all black and white, one photo with a mask on and one off.
“Most people who have been shooting this pandemic in whatever light that they’re shooting it, everything is mask, mask, mask,” Dragonette said. “You actually don’t really get to see the people underneath the mask and see who they are and what joy, frustration, or anger that is underneath that mask of what they are dealing with.
“I made it a point to keep a safe, social distance so that when they take their mask off, they feel comfortable, but I wanted to show people’s actual faces.”
After taking photos in Los Angeles for seven months, Dragonette set out on the road taking photos in nine other cities before arriving in his hometown, Saratoga Springs.
His stops in Phoenix, Austin (Texas), New Orleans and Birmingham (Alabama) did not provide a slew of photo subjects.
“Through all of the South you see people wearing masks a little bit here and there, but for the most part it’s wide open,” Dragonette said. “I think that kind of affected how many people came out to be a part of this project because they were at work or at school or out doing normal daily life stuff versus places like California, D.C., New York and Philly, the bigger cities — they’re still shut down.”
The lack of masks followed the political climate of those states.
“All the political stuff, you get into those red states and its pro-Trump everywhere you look, everywhere you turn, billboards, bumper stickers, signs, hats, T-shirts, everywhere you look,” Dragonette said.
As his travels took him to the East Coast, turnout increased as did the variety of people.
“Philly was an interesting turnout. I wasn’t sure what to expect there,” he said. “A lot of interesting people, a lot of students that were sort of in limbo, so hearing their stories was kind of interesting.
“New York City, Washington Square Park is full of characters,” he said.
“They’ve all been interesting, in their own right, just hearing the stories and what people have been going through; they’re sort of take on it.”
Dragonette used 100 rolls of black-and-white 35mm film during his seven months in Los Angeles and he estimates using another 85 rolls to date.
All of which he develops himself.
“I do it all myself because I kind of have it dialed in with the developer [solution] that I use and the times, agitations and stuff like that,” he said. “I don’t really feel comfortable bringing it to a lab in case anything happens.
“If I mess it up, I mess it up, but if someone else does it’s going to be hard for me to forgive them.”
Black and white has been his favorite medium throughout his career.
“A lot of the commercial stuff I shoot, especially for bigger ad agencies, unfortunately is usually digital, mostly color,” he said. “Anything that I touch that is going to be something for me, especially if it’s fine art, documentary style I will always shoot in black and white.”
Like his subjects, Dragonette is not being paid for his project, setting up a GoFundMe to support his travels, but it will have a permanent home at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
“I got a random email from the director,” Dragonette said. “ ‘I stumbled across this project and I really love it. I think it would be a huge asset to the museum’s permanent collection; would you be interested in doing this?’ “
“Obviously, that’s a huge thing to have your work archived in a museum forever.”
All museums in Los Angeles are closed, staffs furloughed. He hopes that things will return to normal in the next few months.
“I’m hoping that once the city gets a handle on this and it opens back up, circle back and maybe on the back end,” he said. “Maybe get some grants or some sort of funding to help reimburse me for all this stuff.”
Dragonette said the project could roll out as an online exhibit, with a physical exhibition hopeful for later in 2021.
Saratoga is the final stop planned, based on his funding from his GoFundMe, but his excitement has not subsided.
“I really wanted to just wander. I wanted to hit little, tiny, small towns, states that may have been hit harder; wanted to be able to stay in places longer than a day or two, try to build a little more momentum,” Dragonette said. “With the budget, I’m super grateful for everyone who has donated in tough times.
“I was banking on cities at least where I knew people that could help me get people to come out and I kind of new the area where a good place to post-up would be and sort of spread the word.”
To support Dragonette’s project, visit www.gofundme.com and search for “The Corner of COVID and Main Street Project.” Visit his photography website at www.dragonettephotography.com