“50 Years Behind the Lens”

Don Giannatti
8 min readMay 19

How Persistence and Passion Shaped My Photography Career

Photo by Don Giannatti

It would sit there on the console of the old truck my dad drove when we went camping in the rugged Mogollon Rim country.

It sat next to him on the seat when we took cross-country trips to Pennsylvania to see my grandmother. Route 66 to St. Louis, then my mom would take over and navigate from little pieces of giant, foldable maps.

It was gorgeous. It had dials, knobs, and twisty things on it. My dad loved it so much that he rarely let go of it.

I remember him discussing it with my mom.

It was a Voigtländer Vitomatic II.

Voigtlander Vitomatic II

It would soon become mine when my dad bought something called a Nikon.

(Which also eventually became mine… heh.)

I took photographs of everything. And we worked in the darkroom together.

Then music happened. And other things.

Road trips… with girls.

And photography became that thing I did while I was doing those other things I was doing.

I never stopped, as I didn’t consider photography a thing. At this point it simply just a part of me.

Eventually, I bought my first new camera. A Nikon F2 Photomic. The best camera ever. I got a 43–86MM Nikkor lenst to go with it. The worst lens ever.

Nikon F2 Photomic

By this time, I was playing in jazz and R&B bands all over Arizona.

From a popular Luke Air Force Base with the “Salt and Pepper” R&B band, (guess who was salt?), to the Playboy Club with two different jazz trios, I kept really busy.

But photography kept percolating, and one day I turned around and was standing in my own photography studio on Melrose Avenue.

(I shortened this part up because this isn’t a history lesson in my climb from amateur to pro.)

The above is all there to give context for what I am going to tell you about is now.


When all hell is breaking loose and creative photography is dead and nobody wants to pay anything for it, and we should just quit.


I have heard it all before, dudes. And dudettes.

A bit more context:

I worked in LA as both a shooter and an assistant. I assisted some very big names and some starting-out nobodies, one of whom became a huge name. But that is another story.

The model was clear back then.

> Build a good portfolio by any means necessary.
> Show it to every ad agency art director and graphic designer you could get to sit down and look through the thirty or so images.
> Do it again and again and again.

The best way to start was to get a job ‘assisting’ a working photographer. It cost nothing to do that, but many photographers decided to go to Art Center, or Brooks, and still ended up standing next to me putting tape on the floor, or setting up the Balcars for yet another white seamless OTR fashion shoot.

One of us had thousands in school debt.

Hint: It wasn’t me.

I saved and scrimped, and my wife and I found 30 different ways to cook macaroni and cheese.

And I built my portfolio while shooting ‘model composites’ for Elite, Blanchard, and Wilhelmina.

If I wasn’t shooting, I was in the darkroom.
If I wasn’t in the darkroom, I was planning a shoot.
If I wasn’t in the darkroom or planning a shoot, I was assisting.
And if I wasn’t doing any of those, I was driving to the lab in Orange, CA, or up in the ad district of LA, hawking my wares to overworked art directors and magazine editors.

And occasionally, I would be shooting for a client.

It was the nature of the beast.

Kill all distractions because when you stop, you can hear your competitor’s hoofbeats just a few steps behind.

Hopefully, the other things will give way to the paid shoots.

And they did.

I wanted to be a busy photographer, and one day I turned around and had a 2500 sq ft studio, a custom darkroom, and five employees: a full-time darkroom printer, an office manager, a stylist, and two assistants.

When I started out, it was great to make pictures of musicians and meet girls. It was a truly great way to meet girls.

Now it was a business, and I had people working for me who depended on me standing in the studio making photographs so they and their families could eat.

By this time, I was back in Phoenix (a long story better told over single malt) and busier than I could ever have imagined.

The business began to change in the early 1990s. Acquisitions of small agencies by the larger ones that started in the mid-80s had decimated the number of art directors on the job, and the work began to be more client direct.

Photographers began cutting fees to compete.

By the early 90s I had stopped looking for ad agencies to take care of me. They didn’t pay on time, and I didn’t want to be a bank, so I started taking on direct clients, handling the design and publication, and making my own business unlike any other in town.

In 1993 I listed my business as an ad agency and what started in a small bedroom in my home became one of the biggest agencies in town by 1999.

I was no longer a full-time photographer, as I was now a partner and Creative Director of an award-winning advertising agency.

We worked with clients all over Arizona, California, Brazil, Malaysia, and Turkey.

I realized things were different while buying a new suit for a client meeting in Oakland and showing up to the office without my 3-foot ponytail.

Photo of Bri jumping over a highway by Don Giannatti


They happen.

With the advent of the internet, things became dicier for freelancers, and they began to look for new ways to market themselves.

In the fifties and sixties, you were like a solo violin, easily heard above the accompaniment.

By 2000, it seemed as though you were joined by 11,000 more violins, so being heard was pretty tough.

I watched many competitors walk away from the business.

Then came the dotbomb, and 911.

At the agency, our phones did not ring for 36 days. We counted.

A whole tsunami of shit hit the fan at that time.

Editorial shoot at Canyon Lake, Arizona by Don Giannatti

Companies found that they could grow without an agency. Agencies found it harder and harder to convince small companies and we ended up with a tiered system that is now showing signs of even more balkanization.

We decided to close the agency and move on.

I went back to a solo career as a designer/photographer and strategist.

I also slept better not having so many people depending on me for their livelihoods.

More changes.

Photo by Don Giannatti

I moved from a tiny studio to a bigger studio. Started handling bigger brands and worked with the best freelancers on a per-job basis.

Marketing changed. No more shotgun direct mail blasts, fewer in-person portfolio showings, and an emphasis on “social media” — the most misnamed thing ever.

Photographers once again had to face a growing mass of competition with untested and uncharted methods for getting work.

I helped photographers and businesses create websites, communities, and strategies for getting work. And I got busier and busier.

One day I turn around and I am standing in a huge 4000+ sq ft studio with a full cyc, doors big enough to bring a boat into the studio — a big boat — which we did.

Have you ever lit a 30' fishing boat?

In a studio?

Designing and shooting was a blast for another decade, but eventually, we didn’t need the studio anymore.

Changes. Again.

Photo by Don Giannatti

90% of the gigs were on location, and my accountant was apoplectic, telling me to get out of that albatross since I wasn’t using it. I was working with clients all over the country from a computer with three screens.

I had to make a change.

And I did.

Once again, I was back on my own, working for a select set of clients and teaching photographers online.

(That is an interesting story involving storbees, but also for another time.)

Today I am doing so many different things, and it keeps me excited to get to work every day.

Hearing photographers worry about the upcoming changes, I can only say, — ya gotta learn to roll with the punches.

Photo by Don Giannatti

I ask them questions:

Have you learned to do basic design?
Can you build a website (Squarespace is fine) for a client?
Have you learned to write better than most?
Can you help a company develop a visual strategy?

And how often and how hard are you marketing?

Changes are coming.

Sustainable means understanding the room, and the room is saying you simply have to do more than just one thing.

Today, I still love photography, love teaching it, and know that it will be OK after the next set of changes that are on the horizon.

But it is up to us to not get in our own way, deciding that there is only one way to do something and that things haven’t changed.

There’s a storm a-brewin’, but it is not one to fear, but rather one to understand, grab onto and ride as far as you can with it.

Will we come out the other side?


And the sun will still be shining at f-16/over ISO for shutter speed.

I am Don Giannatti. Photographer, designer, writer, educator. I write here on Medium and on Substack where you can get free access to my newest book for free when you subscribe to the premium version. My personal website is here.

Don Giannatti

Designer. Photographer. Author. Entrepreneur: Loving life at 100MPH. I love designing, making photographs and writing.