Long before Tony Hawk hit the mainstream and skateboarding became an Olympic sport, Jon Dragonette and his twin brother, Tom, were the envy of every Saratoga Springs skater, including me. They knew all the toughest tricks, had the nerves of steel required to skate on the East Side Rec’s half-pipe and made the local kid competition look silly. That was more than 20 years ago.
Jon Dragonette (pronounced DRAGON-etty), who graduated from Saratoga Springs High School in 1997, is now based in Los Angeles and has become a talented professional photographer and photo essayist, focusing his lens in on everything from the natural beauty of Big Sur in his adopted home of California and celebrities such as former NBA star Dwyane Wade and wife Gabrielle Union, to his bread-and-butter of old, skateboarders. Past clients have also included Jack Daniel’s Whiskey, Interscope Records and longtime skater magazine, Thrasher.
Fast-forward to March 2020, when the pandemic hit, and Dragonette found himself out of work and living by himself in an eerily empty city because of LA’s early lockdown. “I just started shooting the city,” says Dragonette, “because I didn’t really know what was going on—nobody did at that point.” He realized that, as a professional photographer, he had the unique opportunity to document a moment in history like no other. “I spent 72 days riding my skateboard around and documenting the empty freeways, downtowns and buildings,” he says. “Just painting a surreal picture for people who were locked in their house and not going out. Fortunate for me, I don’t live with anyone, so I didn’t really run the risk of contaminating anyone, if I did get COVID.”
After that first stretch of nonstop shooting, he was a little burned out, so he went a solo camping trip for a weekend to clear his head. “I realized that, when I was going to go back, rather than photograph a now-somewhat-open city—people were sort of out and about—I wanted to shoot portraits of people, because these cities are really just an empty shell of steel and concrete until you fill them with people. That’s what breathes the life into any city. I wanted to recognize people who were dealing with COVID, whether it was getting sick or losing a loved one or a small business or being an essential worker.”
Dragonette entitled his new project The Corner of COVID and Main St., and began doing open calls on his Instagram page, telling followers or interested parties that he would be at a specific location at a specific time and date and that, if they wanted to get their portraits shot, to just show up. “We were still in lockdown, so people were taking the opportunity to do it, because it was the first thing that they had done since quarantine started,” Dragonette says. The project morphed from there, after the killing of George Floyd at the end of May, with some people showing up to their portrait sessions to make freeze-framed statements. The word quickly began to spread about Dragonette’s project, because he, smartly, had been handing out a copy of each photo to each person he shot, who would then post the picture to their social media and onward. The project marketed itself.
Then, something amazing happened. “Maybe after the third or fourth session, the director at the LA Natural History Museum sent me an email,” says Dragonette. “She was like, ‘I stumbled upon this project and I think it’s amazing, and we would be honored to have it live in our permanent collection once it’s done.’ Obviously, I wasn’t going to say no to that. Any museum that wants to showcase and hold my work, I’m definitely down to do that.” Once the museum got involved, he wanted Main St. to be something bigger. So Dragonette launched a GoFundMe page, tuned up his 1976 Buick Electra and hit the road, driving across the country and shooting anyone he could, anywhere he could do it. Besides LA, he’s shot in Salinas, Monterey and San Francisco, CA; Phoenix, AZ; Austin, TX; New Orleans, LA; Birmingham, AL; Nashville, TN; Asheville, NC; Washington, D.C.; Philadelphia, PA; New York City; and just recently touched down in Saratoga, to see his brother and sister-in-law and document some Saratogians for his project. Although the snowstorm that hit on December 17 kept him from returning westward on schedule, he was able to set up in front of City Hall on Broadway and Lake Avenue on December 12 and shoot about 100 people. All in all, he guesstimates that he’s probably photographed 1,000 people so far. “Everyone’s story, to me, is important,” says Dragonette, when I ask him if there were particular people whose stories resonated with him. He’s certainly seen some patterns form during his travels: people who have isolated themselves due to pre-existing conditions; or those who have lost their jobs and are trying to figure out how they’re going to pay their bills; or others that have lost a loved one.
Clearly, there’s risk involved in driving across the country during a global pandemic, photographing people in states, in which COVID rates are spiking but concerns might not be as pressing as, say, the northeast. “There’s always that risk of getting sick when you’re on the road,” says Dragonette. “I was doing [this latest run] during all the political stuff that was happening, so there was also that risk—you know, running into people who maybe didn’t have the same thinking of what was going on that I did.” But he managed to avoid any run-ins of that type and hasn’t gotten sick just yet.
To view some of the fruits of Dragonette’s labor, click on the lead image. (And given the times, you might event want to donate to his cause.) Because years from now—decades or centuries, even—historians will want to know what happened in 2020, and somewhere in the archives at the Natural History Museum in LA, there will be an answer.