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8 questions with Spokane’s most famous photographer

Dominic Arizona Bonuccelli, a Gonzaga Prep grad, is an award-winning photographer and filmmaker who has traveled to more than 70 countries, capturing images as the lead photographer for Rick Steves' Europe and Lonely Planet travel guides.
Credit: submitted
Dominic Bonuccelli

SPOKANE, Wash. — Dominic Arizona Bonuccelli has traveled to dozens of countries as the lead photographer for Rick Steves’ Europe and the Lonely Planet travel guides.

Bonuccelli grew up in the Spokane area and attended Gonzaga Prep. He now calls Tucson, Arizona home, but makes many trips back to the Inland Northwest.

KREM 2 asked Bonuccelli eight questions about his career, Spokane, and the one place he’ll never visit again.

Note: Check back on KREM.com every Saturday, when Bonuccelli shares a story behind some of his favorite images. 

1. What made you fall in love with still photography? 

My mother was the librarian at University High School for years, and when the first VHS video-cameras came out, she had me help her set them up. I would make ridiculous movies in the forest north of Millwood, and I decided I wanted to be Steven Spielberg.

My senior year at Gonzaga Prep I was lucky to be cast as co-host on a teen talk show on a local TV station called Airwaves, which helped me get into USC Film School. But I soon learned that big film productions weren’t my favorite thing - these were the years before “digital” revolutionized the industry, and making a movie meant two months of working with 200 people every day on set, then waiting a year or two for the editing. It was too clunky and I realized I need solo time.

I discovered the most fun part of my academic year was the meandering road trips between Spokane and Los Angeles, taking travel photos. I took every photo class I could in my last year at undergrad, then moved up to Seattle in 1993. I worked at a photo lab to pay the bills while starting to get some freelance jobs shooting for Seattle Weekly and other weekly community papers. It was a great time to be in Seattle - grunge was still surging, and the internet was just about to explode. Photography was perfect for me - a brilliant excuse to meet interesting people for a day and immerse in their world. VIP access for a day to make art. Projects were shot and printed within the same day, and the next you were on to another adventure. It was 1/2 science and math (apertures and F stops) and 1/2 art and psychology (talking people off the ledge to actually enjoy the photoshoot).

Even nowadays, I can never predict what shoots will manifest each week. I just today finished shooting 10 days in France for 3Form on their new lighting and acoustics line, and next week I’m shooting an Arizona rock band music video. Every day is a fun surprise, and I never would have had the opportunity to meet so many amazing people without photography. And while traveling or shooting in Europe for Rick Steves, the same holds true - the camera is this passport which allows you to approach a complete stranger and strike up a conversation. Without the camera, you might get Tased.

2. What is your favorite picture you’ve taken, and why?  

I’m going to give you two. One was early on in my career, beneath the Matterhorn in Switzerland at the top of the train route at Riffelberg. I was sitting in the fog on a rock wall waiting for the train, as I noticed the hotel staff setting up for an alpine wedding. Out of the mist came an Accordion Man who must have just turned 197 years old. He swiftly approached and began to pound out a rousing ditty, yodeling and doing leg kicks and spins, incredible. Then he disappeared into the fog. It was like a scene from a Fellini movie. I only got a few shots on my roll of black and white TMAX but they still make me cackle.

Credit: Dominic Bonuccelli

The second one was a piping hot day walking throughout downtown Panama City shooting for Lonely Planet. I always like to stroll fisherman’s ports for photos of texture, nets, hands with fish, crusty pirates - all the gritty reality of a working-class day. There was a gentleman sandblasting a huge wooden boat under the roasting sun, sweating and straining. I asked him a few questions in Spanish and he took a break to have a sandwich and chat. He told me he crafted his goggles out of the lids of plastic gasoline cans. I’m sure he was making $5 a day, and it was horrible work. When we were done with lunch I asked if I could snap a photo, and he prepped himself and struck the most regal Don Quixote pose. A total class act.

Credit: Dominic Bonuccelli

3. What was your most disappointing photo shoot? 

I really always try to give 120 percent at the photoshoots, which usually is a plus, but this time totally blew up in my face. A famous nonprofit I had been working for mentioned hiring me to possibly shoot a press tour of some of their big-wigs, but first they wanted to test me in Haarlem on a school shoot with the Art Director.

I love shooting kids and schools and figured it was a slam-dunk. About two weeks before the shoot, I brilliantly tried wake-boarding on a cable-tow at a theme park for the first time. Following a dare to hit a fiberglass jump, I immediately face planted and separated my shoulder with the sound of 1000 thunder claps :) I oscillated for two weeks about cancelling the shoot, but with a mountain of Tylenol I figured I could power through, removed the sling that morning and forged ahead.

Besides the fact I could barely lift my camera arm (using both hands to lift your camera while groaning all day looks really weird to kids in New York), my flash battery pack died in the first 10 minutes of the shoot, and I had forgotten a backup. I tried to courier one from the Adorama photo store to my shoot but the courier kept missing us by 20 minutes at each location. Needless to say I should have just passed on the whole thing and let myself heal. It was the Trifecta of bad moves. I definitely learned to always bring redundant gear for everything, which I do to this day.

4. What is your favorite Spokane place or landmark to shoot?

The Palouse! Is that a bogus answer? I realize Spokane kisses only the edge of it, but it’s such a world-class landscape of spartan lines and block colors. It’s the perfect Japanese Zen art piece in 360 degrees. Blue sky, tan wheat, fence lines. Even describing it resembles a haiku. Winding yellow canola fields blowing in the wind with a single red tractor. I actually heard there are photographic tours of the Palouse that are very popular with Asian travelers as the landscape speaks to that Buddhist aesthetic.

A few years ago I was hired by an author to shoot a motorcycle story for Rider magazine, a few hundred miles weaving through the Palouse on his big chopper, scribbling on the towns that went boom and bust. In the Spokesman-Review, I photographed a series of abandoned cemeteries for a Halloween story peppered through the Palouse, broken angel statues on the top of abandoned wheat fields. Ethereal and thought-provoking and sublime.

5. You have traveled all over the world. What’s the one place you can’t wait to return?

Southern Spain. It is perennially the swankiest place on the planet.

My family is Italian and I have ridiculously delightful cousins in Tuscany, and of course Italia has amazing art, food, landscapes, architecture: you can’t go wrong. But Italians infuse extra drama into every situation for mere entertainment value. Sometimes after visiting for a month I want to throttle everyone for making everything just a little harder than it needs to be.

Spain, on the other end, has all that awesome passion and art and culture but Spaniards are mellow and suave. Stores are open, people are kind, drivers are smooth, things get done. And in the south it has a desert landscape similar to the Sonoran desert in Tucson where I’ve lived for the past 10 years. The Clint Eastwood Spaghetti Westerns shot in the 1970s were shot in the southeast of Spain in Almería. More west in Andalusía, the Moorish influence is predominant, Africa is incredibly close, and it’s always been a melting pot. These are towns like Cordoba where Muslims, Jews and Christians lived together for hundreds of years. Think Flamenco dancing, gypsy guitar music, the Alhambra, amazing beaches, tapas, and smiley dusty dogs.

I’m scheming to get an apartment there so I have a European base, and discount airlines like Norwegian Air and Iceland’s WOW have shockingly cheap flights between the USA and Spain nowadays. I picked up a one way flight from LAX to Madrid a few months ago for $190.

Credit: Dominic Bonuccelli

6. What is the one place you’ll never go back? 

Orlando, Florida. I lived there a year and a half and it was not my cup of noodles. Plastic elastic theme parks dominate one side of town. Zealous officers who prosecute jaywalking fervently police the rest. 108 percent humidity, but no ocean nearby. But the hardest part for me was the lack of elevation - the tallest point in the state is Britton Hill at 345 feet, everything else is flat as a pancake. I never realized how difficult it is to frame a photograph when the horizon is dead flat everywhere. You need a wise old tree with Spanish moss to make the composition interesting. Oh yes and also I bought a house ten minutes before the real estate bubble burst.

7. What’s your next adventure? 

The tentative plan is to drive my motorcycle this year from Tucson, Arizona to Argentina. My friend Nicolas from Bahia Blanca near Buenos Aires has done it twice - flown to Alaska, bought a cheapo motorcycle for a few thousands bucks, and driven it the entire way down to the bottom of South America.

I see his Instagram feed, with his bike on yet another abandoned beach in Guatemala drinking out of a coconut, next to a sloth, and I am always jealous. He tells me you have to ferry your motorbike around the Darien Gap - the most dangerous part of the Panamanian/Colombian border. I never get a straight answer about whether it’s lack of roads or the fact you will get kidnapped, probably both. Mexico also has some dicey spots, but it’s one of my top five favorite countries replete with such an amazing culture and warm people.

I have an older Suzuki dirt bike; I plan to strip all the plastic pretty parts off so it looks as Mad Max and undesirable as possible. Scratch it up a bit. I’ll probably do the same thing with my jacket. I might do the trip all in one shot, but I think a better plan is to do it in waves - Arizona to Guatemala, then park it for a spell - come back to the USA and shoot some photo jobs. Return and do Guatemala to Colombia, etc. I might drag it out over a year (to hit the heat). The Instagram feed will definitely follow this particular Odyssey.

Credit: Dominic Bonuccelli

8. What’s the funniest thing that happened to you on one of your many return visits to Spokane?

One of my best friends, Aurora, a fellow Gonzaga Prep grad, is a world-class Star Wars aficionado. She spent one year assembling from eBay and elsewhere online a biker scout stormtrooper costume from the Return of the Jedi, and dremmeled it to perfection. It’s so authentic she was accepted into Washington’s 501st Legion of Stormtroopers, and occasionally has appeared with them at events in the area.

I flew back to Spokane in December to join her for the premiere of the seventh Star Wars movie at River Park Square. We enjoyed some Panda Express in the food court with her in full regalia, and did a trooper shoot on the condiment bar that was very popular with the other diners.

In my camera bag I often bring a rubber crow mask to lighten the mood at jobs (sloth masks also work great), and I busted it out for some duo shots in front of River Park Square in the blizzard.

As we entered the premiere, Aurora received a rousing applause from the crowd and a standing ovation from a few viewers. As I entered as the crow, there was a smattering of applause from three people. I sometimes wondered during the movie if some viewers kept waiting for the scene where the crow was going to show up.

About Dominic Bonuccelli

Dominic Arizona Bonuccelli is an award-winning photographer and filmmaker who has traveled to more than 70 countries - from Cuba to Cambodia and Kiribati to Tibet - capturing images as the lead photographer for Rick Steves' Europe and Lonely Planet travel guides. His forte is environmental portraiture, although his projects include corporate, editorial, travel, and fashion work, including music videos. He has hosted six seasons of travel shows for Lonely Planet, the National Geographic Adventure Channel, Discovery Asia, the Travel Channel and the BBC across Latin America, Europe and Asia. His editorial work has been featured in Lux, Forbes and The Wall Street Journal, and he is the cover photographer for MovieMaker Magazine in Los Angeles. His photographs are represented by AGE Fotostock (Spain), Arcangel (England) and Getty Images (USA). His film and photo clients include the Space Needle, the Gates Foundation, 3 Form, the Clinton Foundation and the United Nations. He has shot such luminaries as Stephen Hawking, Channing Tatum, Salma Hayek, Kenneth Branagh, Barack Obama, the Dalai Lama and Sting. A graduate of the University of Southern California School of Cinema, Bonuccelli is a dual American and Italian citizen, and is currently working on a coffee table book of his best images of the last 20 years for Rick Steves’ Europe.