The work is impressive. Environmental portraits, the study of light and figure, the stories and images constructed within four borders and an exposure—the work speaks to a decade of practice. But there’s one photo missing: the bull. Unless you follow my friend and music collaborator, Scott MacDonald, or regularly read the Salinas Californian, then you haven’t seen the bull photo. Here’s the story: one Sunday afternoon a bull escaped from a jaripeo (A Mexican rodeo) on the northern outskirts of Salinas, a farm town on California’s central coast. Back then, both Scott and I were working the Sunday shift at a small newspaper. We raced to the scene. When I arrived, Scott was already there, dusting himself off after having come down from a tree. The bull had just stomped a brave young Mexicano who attempted to lasso the beast. Scott shot the photo of the attempt and consequent attack and narrowly avoided being gored himself by climbing up the nearest tree trunk.
As the bull ran through spinach fields along the northern border of town, police assembled to take down the bull should it cross into Salinas. At the same time, the jaripeo’s promoter ordered his ranch hands to corral the beast into a mobile trailer.
Scott and I followed the bull and story and found ourselves side by side with the ranch hands as they tried to lure and lasso the bull. At some point, I looked up from the action and noticed more than a dozen police rifles aimed in our direction, targeting the bull. Nobody had to ask me to move. I ran, but not Scott. He clung to a steel gate of the mobile trailer as the ranch hands lured the bull inside, which responded angrily by slamming into the trailer’s wall. All the while Scott clicked away with his camera. The bull grew tired of its game with the ranch hands and turned from the spinach fields and toward the crowded parking lot of the Home Depot across the street. Scott clicked away.
He continued to shoot as the police began to fire their first volley.
Within moments the bull collapsed under a hail of bullets. I asked my friend about luck in photojournalism. In response, Scott said “there’s some old adage about luck having to do with preparation and skill, and I think that’s true.”
There’s no way to prepare for a runaway bull. Clearly the jaripeo promoter and his ranch hands found this out. Salinas Police had never responded to a runaway bull either. But Scott “Smacky” MacDonald knew what to do.
– George B. Sánchez-Tello
GBST: How did you end up in photography?
Scott Macdonald: I was a reporter at a daily newspaper. When I started, I was occasionally shooting photos for my own stories, but only in a pinch. My career path I laid out for myself was to be a reporter, go on to be editor at some point and climb up; maybe be a professor. While I was starting my career, my little photography hobby became bigger. I was buying cameras and books and really having fun with it. At the same time, I was really getting frustrated with my reporting gig. I really like reporting on government. I like how deep you can get into the issue and explain things, but I found myself frustrated with the politics and unable to navigate it. I found the idea of getting at something truthful was harder than I expected, harder than I thought it should be.
So I was at the state capital, reporting on the opening week of the Florida legislature—a dream job for young government reporters. I’m in this press balcony with my notepad and my tie. I’m surrounded by all these veteran reporters. We’re all watching the new Republican majority plan how they’re going to slice and dice the state for the interests that funded their campaign.
All I could do was watch the photographers work the floor. There were guys down there with their big lenses, running around. They were wearing sports jackets that didn’t fit them because they were issued to them by the people who work the capital building. Looking all disheveled and tough, doing their thing and being creative. I was upstairs in my monkey suit and that was the moment when I decided I had to get into photography.
GBST: How much longer until you became a full-time photographer?
SM: It was within six months. One of the staff photographers quit and I applied. I didn’t get the job and I shouldn’t have because I wasn’t ready, but the photo editor was impressed and when something opened up at the weekly paper that came out three days a week, the editor recommended me. I got that job based on the recommendation and some really crappy photos that made up my quote-unquote portfolio. I took over for a guy who retired after 20-some years. He was burned out.
When I had my first job, I was shooting color film, developing it myself. I was learning as I went along, but I was also roommates with this dude Chris Crook. He also had his first photo job, but he had a degree in photography from RIT—the Rochester Institute of Technology. So I’d come home every night after fumbling through my photo assignments. I’d show Chris my work and ask what I did wrong. We’d stay up late, drink beers, and look at photography online. That was a huge help for me: my own, personal photo degree—learning on the job and from a friend. He helped immensely.
When I first decided to pursue photography as a career, there were two things that scared me. First, photo jobs were way harder to find than reporting jobs. So I knew I’d have to be completely dedicated, otherwise I wouldn’t get a job.
GBST: That’s something I’ve always appreciated about your work—your background in reporting.
SM: The main goal for any photo I shoot at the paper is to inform, to capture something that helps people understand the story at hand and add something to it. I see the balance of words and photos in papers as words are the fact and the photo is the emotion. But there’s cross-pollination.
My photos can’t just be pretty. They have to be informative. When I first started out, something a co-worker said was that I approached it too much like a reporter. I was more concerned about what was happening, taking notes and interviewing people, than taking a photo of something. Sometimes you can get hung up on the details and it prevents you from seeing the emotional side of it.
GBST: How has punk rock influenced your photography?
SM: Well, I first got a real camera right when I started college, which is right when I joined a punk band. I played drums. I was going to shows all the time. Some of the first photos I took with my first real camera were of bands and my friends playing music. The first photos I shot, back in 1992, they’re sort of poorly composed negatives of young punk rockers on stage and skateboarding.
GBST: How has skateboarding figured into this?
SM: Skateboarding magazines have amazing, creative photos. Photographers who aren’t skateboarders criticize skate photographers because they say the photos all look the same, but the photographers are operating with one big limitation. Skateboarders have to be able to appreciate the difficulty of the trick being performed. To make creative and beautiful pictures within that limitation is really hard. The first photography I really appreciated was in skateboarding magazines—Thrasher and Transworld. That was back in 1986. That’s my visual foundation.
GBST: You’re always shooting. I recognize some of the photos from shows we’ve gone to or places we’ve hung out in. You were shooting at your wedding and even on this last camping trip; you ditched the group for a bit to shoot a redwood grove in Big Sur, CA.
SM: When I first decided to pursue photography as a career, there were two things that scared me. First, photo jobs were way harder to find than reporting jobs. So I knew I’d have to be completely dedicated, otherwise I wouldn’t get a job. The other thing I was scared of was ruining my love of photography. In changing it from a hobby to a career, I was basically sacrificing my hobby. Real early on, I made a rule for myself and that was if I’m not working and I don’t feel like taking pictures, I won’t. Even if it’s the most gorgeous thing I’ve ever seen, I’m not going to feel an obligation to shoot it. That being said, there are very few times I don’t feel like taking pictures. It’s still a hobby and something I love.
GBST: I admire that. Writing for a living makes it hard to work freelance or write for fun.
SM:Well, writing is harder. Now, I don’t like toning my photos in Photoshop. That shit sucks. It feels like work.
GBST: So do you have a rule for that when you’re shooting for fun?
SM: No, not really. There’s a lot of stuff over the years that I have that I still haven’t touched; raw photos sitting around. That’s just work. There’s no way around it. If you want photos out there, you have to work on them. But I always want to get the photos right in-camera so I don’t have to spend my valuable time dicking around on the computer.
GBST: Let’s talk about some of the themes in the submitted photos. What I saw were portraits, games with light and the environment. I use those terms loosely. When I think of your environment photos, it’s not just redwood groves, but I think of your photos of the rodeo with all the white hats.
SM: I like repeating patterns if you can find them naturally. To me, it’s what photos do: they inform but it’s beautiful at the same time. In that rodeo photo, it was a matter of catching it when that dude’s lasso was circling his head. It all just came together.
GBST: Is that how photography is? Sometimes luck?
SM:Yeah, to be perfectly honest, but you have to know what you’re after. Sometimes you can be 100 percent prepared and it’s not going to come together. Sometimes you are flying by the seat of your pants and something presents itself to you and you have to know what to do. There’s some old adage about luck having to do with preparation and skill and I think that’s true.
GBST: What about the iPhone photos that you’ve been playing around with? How did that idea come about?
SM:I got my iPhone and I had it for a while and didn’t think much of the camera, but then I found myself using it because it was there. Then I realized there are applications to edit the photos and upload the photos from the phone, so I realized I had a complete publishing platform right in my pocket.
So I started this iPhone photo blog and then I found that other people were doing the same thing and the applications started getting better and better. It’s a really freeing thing. For newspaper photography, there’s a lot of rules, and rightfully so. You’re there to inform and try to tell the truth. But with my iPhone, if I want to take a weird or pretty photo and tweak it and upload it, there are no rules to that. It’s fun and freeing and it allows me a different creative outlet. It also sometimes keeps me from carrying a different camera or makes me feel better when I don’t have a different camera. I’ve gotten good feedback from it. The nicest thing was when my friend said my iPhone camera blog proves that it’s not the camera that matters, it’s the photographer.