He makes his living behind a viewfinder, but makes a point of not living life through a lens. Meet Tucson-based photographer Dominic Arizona Bonuccelli.
If you know the work of photographer/TV presenter Dominic Arizona Bonuccelli, he’s the last person you think you’d find posing for a photo on Santa’s knee.
His resume includes National Geographic, Lonely Planet TV and Metropolitan Living. His website includes a snap from a photoshoot with Sting. He’s recently been making music videos. And when he’s not taking travel photos, he tends to create elaborate, highly styled images: a woman in a bathtub in a blood-smeared dress; a Steam Punk-esque scene in an airplane graveyard; vampires; a mermaid.
The guy could easily have stayed in Los Angeles (where he went to college), grown an even fatter and more impressive resume, and an ego to boot. But instead he settled in Tucson. Why? For one thing, he thinks cities on the verge – satellites of the major metropolises – are more interesting. For another, he’s not into big egos.
Which is why on his Facebook page he unabashedly shows a recent photo of him and his girlfriend on Saint Nick’s knee at Tucson Mall. Dominic isn’t exactly grinning, and he can’t help but take a cynical tone with his comment: “Santa only smelled slightly of bourbon and despair.” But it’s telling that he even did it. It’s even more telling that every Christmas he dresses up his Jack Russell Terrier for a photoshoot with Santa at Petsmart.
His images may be lavish, epic, often very dark, but the guy himself likes to keep his feet on the ground, and is just about the most open, friendly, un-brooding person you could meet.
Dominic’s route to Tucson was a circuitous one. Brought up near Spokane, Washington, he moved to L.A. to attend the University of Southern California’s School of Cinema/TV. He began studying film, but after befriending a photographer there, he soon realized he wanted more instant gratification, not to mention variation, in his work. He also didn’t like the thought of huge crews, and all that schmoozing. “I’m sort of a loner. I’m an only child. I need solo time.”
And so in his last year he took all the photography classes he could. He left L.A. with a small photo portfolio and hit Seattle. It was 1994 – “post-grunge, pre-Intuit, a great time to move there”. But after seven years as a freelance photographer, the weather got the better of him, and he got itchy feet. He put his stuff in storage, flew to Australia and bought a camper van. It was while traveling around Oz that he met some TV folks, and on his return to the USA he began shooting and then presenting for Lonely Planet and National Geographic Adventure Channel.
He moved to Tucson two years ago, although his links to the place started way further back. His dad bought a property in Oro Valley in 1988, while Dominic was still in Washington. That same year, acting on a whim and a dare with some best friends, the 16-year-old Dominic Alan Bonuccelli decided to formally change his middle name. It had to be something else starting with an ‘A’ (to avoid having to change his driver’s license) and he liked the idea of having a ‘Z’ in it, just for fun. And so Arizona it was.
His work now spans a wide range of clients, from travel show host Rick Steves to design firms and architects, to Seattle alt-circus company Teatro ZinZanni and Tucson singer Sahara Starr. But if there is a dark side to Dominic, it’s in the work he produces away from the travel and corporate gigs. Having to put smiling bodies in front of the Eiffel Tower for travel clients can get wearing, he says. “When I come back from a travel shoot I just want to shoot something dark and brooding.” A call this year on his Facebook page for people to model in vampire-themed photos sparked more interest than he expected. “Next thing I knew I had shot twenty of them.” And so for his 40th birthday in the Fall he threw a vampire-themed art show at Tucson’s Hotel Congress. Self-described “horror rock band” The Mission Creeps played.
Next on his list is mermaids – he aims to have a collection of ten of them. His other penchant right now is for “evil dukes and duchesses and queens… I always find the evil queens more interesting”.
The characters come first, he says; he dreams up a character – usually an evil one – and takes it from there. His filmmaking background shines through, and he is upfront about his influences – Scorsese and Ridley Scott, rather than Leibowitz and Avedon.
As highly produced as the end results appear to be, Dominic is not one to prepare well ahead of time. “I’m very scattered. There’s an element of adrenalin when you don’t plan everything.” He shoots many hundred photos at a time. “I never want to edit myself when I’m shooting. I can edit things later,” he says.
And although he adores doing what he loves, he makes sure he doesn’t live his life through the lens of a camera. He believes it’s important to put the camera (a Canon 5D Mark III, if you’re interested) down and enjoy a moment. The point was brought home to him on a safari in Kenya, where “so many people were living the entire trip inside a 1×1 viewfinder”. People’s preoccupation with camera phones and Facebook is “a double-edged sword”, he says. If you’re constantly documenting, whether on a phone or a camera, “you’re not in the moment and it defeats the object.”
“There’s nothing but now,” says Dominic. He gained citizenship in Italy; he has relatives living near Pisa. And it’s perhaps no coincidence that when he speaks Italian, it’s always in the present tense. The New Year should see him doing more work for Lonely Planet TV, and you can expect many more mermaids, plus a few naughty dukes and duchesses. But while there will undoubtedly be more travel, he has no plans to desert the desert. “If my only goal is to be famous or flush with cash I would move to L.A. Although that would be smart fiscally, it’s not the only thing.”
* Note from the editors: We always like a scoop, and this story is no different. So here, as a special Holiday treat, is a Dominic Bonuccelli photo you won’t see anywhere else: the very young Nic on Santa’s knee.