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David Spagnolo | Photographs
By Adam Saake
May 2009
January 2, 2008 - for J. Gomez (2009)
Contact print on gold-toned printing-out-paper
9 1/4 x 7 1/8 inches
David Spagnolo sits across from me at a small wooden table we are sharing at Bonn Lair, a British-style pub that is tucked neatly into a row of shops and restaurants on Sacramento’s busy J Street. His head is usually bicked clean but today it’s grown out a bit, which is helping him fit in a little better with the scruffy regulars that are huddled up at the bar. A pair of smoke colored Giorgio Armani frames hug his face. They compliment his gray shirt and black jacket. He’s an introverted artist type; the kind that doesn’t like to talk about himself and so he’s cautious of the interview that we’ve met for.
“I feel really strange about my voice being recorded,” he says to me with a grin. “You’ll erase it when you’re done with the article, right?”
He’s quiet, but David is at no loss for words when he’s describing his work and the process. His knowledge of art history is laced all throughout our conversation. What’s important to understand about the creation of great artwork is that those who hope to achieve it study those who already have. David Spagnolo understands this. He speaks fluently about the influence that such painters as Giorgio Morandi, Willem de Kooning and Antonio Lopez Garcia have had on his work. In his quaint East Sacramento house where he lives with his wife, Lisa, and his seven-year-old son, Michael, there is a wall in the living room where makeshift bookshelves filled with art books are stacked one on top of the other all the way to the ceiling.  
“I always have a book open, whether I’m looking at something that I want to reference, or reading right before bed,” says Spagnolo.
David started to draw correlations between art and pop culture early on, before he had really picked up a camera.  Another of his favorite artists, Edward Hopper, had a large influence on not only other painters, but also photographers and cinematographers, and traces of this influence kept popping up in movies that David was watching. One particular cinematographer, Gordon Willis, who worked on the iconic Godfather films was really catching David’s eye.
“That guy drew from Edward Hopper blatantly. He would make his compositions match Edward Hopper’s in real subtle ways,” says Spagnolo.
He first noticed the Hopper-like scenes in the early Woody Allen films, but it was the movie Pennies from Heaven starring Steve Martin that David noticed it the most.
“He just went completely overboard,” recounts Spagnolo. “I mean, it was the director too who he probably collaborated with, but there’s a famous painting called Nighthawks and they staged a recreation of that composition and put it in that movie. I was really young and it just blew my mind. I was pausing these movies and taking Polaroids of the still frames off the television that matched the Hopper images. That was the first thing, as far as influence, that really got me going.”
Study and practice have become routine for David who is now in his early 40’s. His work gets stronger and more focused with each new project that he finishes. Elevations is his newest series and is a culmination of everything learned from past work completed. It’s visually powerful and is a departure from the tranquility of past work like Flootlit or Sound. Instead of quiet corners or peaceful sections of water embankments, we are thrilled by massive trees exploding like fireworks in and out of the compositions; a light show. David described his work best in a past show titled Shadow Belongs to Light. The definition of each photograph relies heavily on where the light source is provided and how the shadows are then cast. The trees take on new lives that are not defined by nature's structures but rather by the lines and constructs of architecture. Branches become structural entities, splitting the composition in all directions to allow the spaces in-between to be defined. This series, shot during the late fall and winters of 2006-2009, is calculated.
“Those trees are stripped bare,” says Spagnolo on the time frame of shooting for Elevations. “Then early February they start budding a bit and I don’t want any of that in these pictures. It’s the architecture of the trees that I’m really interested in. And so, having just a couple leaves, you draw associations from tiny elements like that.”
And associations can be made, such as the tiny satellites that probe the bottom of one photo, sparking, yet not incinerating the often discussed subject of modern man impeding on the natural world. The trees in David’s photographs rival, if not, dwarf the modern structures, though. The roles are reversed and trees become skyscrapers; houses become ornamentals. David’s work highlights the unseen more than anything. He’s conscious of the unconscious and helps us to be so too. The sleepy bottom corner of buildings that are traveled everyday by pedestrians and automobiles are brought front and center in a collected fashion. It’s the grouping that’s important; it’s what tells us to stop what we are doing and look. And furthermore - think.
The subject matter is thought-provoking, but it’s not just the image itself that carries Spagnolo’s work; it’s the processual execution. Every detail of his work is thought out, researched and examined. The amount of patience that’s invested into each facet of his work is exhausting to think about. Printing and selection aside, David’s 8x10 camera, a large 1950’s Burke and James model, is enough to deal with on its own. It’s hardly point and shoot. The heavy camera and tri-pod is a challenge to lug around and once the spot is chosen where David will shoot, the work has only just begun.
“Like for the Elevations series, I’d stand in front of the tree and stare at it for a long time and move my body around it, pre-visualizing the camera setup and composition,” David recites. “One inch backwards or forward can make a huge difference. Then I mark it and go get the camera which is another five minutes of set-up. I continue staring, making sure it’s all in there. Then what takes the longest is focus, especially if I’m shooting at night. Then exposure is anywhere between 5 and 20 minutes.”
He spends time with his photos. He “lives” with them, often times just staring at the photos that he puts on his walls, over and over. The sixteen to twenty photographs that makes up a series starts out as hundreds of negatives that David sorts out, searching them until he finds what is that he’s looking for. He calls this distilling.  
“I’ll spend months and months staring at proof prints and trimming little bits off the edge, if there’s a little part of a tree that needed to be a little bit thinner - to achieve a certain balance in each of the pieces. The negative is 8x10 and so they’re contact printed.  As I crop the proofs, I’ll keep my shavings too and if I don’t like my crop, I’ll go back and I’ll tape the piece back on so that I can look at it again. This paper that I’m using is super expensive, it’s rare, it’s hard to get, and they stopped making it this past year. If I make a crop, I don’t go back and print a new one. I save the strip and tape it back on and stare at it some more. Once the cropped proof is exactly as I want it, I will then actually crop the negative and start final printing an edition.”
David received his Bachelor of Arts in ‘90 and then his Masters in Fine Art in ’94 - both from California State University Sacramento. The following year was spent preparing for his first solo show that opened in ’95 at the J Maddux-Parker Gallery that was located on the 23rd and K Street in midtown Sacramento. The show consisted of images from a couple different series that David had started while he was in graduate school and then cleaned them up a bit to display.

February 11, 2008 (2009)
Contact print on gold-toned printing-out-paper
9 x 7 5/8 inches
January 6, 2009 (2009)
Contact print on gold-toned printing-out-paper
9 5/8 x 7 3/8 inches
December 29, 2008 (2009)
Contact print on gold-toned printing-out-paper
9 3/8 x 7 1/2 inches

January 15, 2009 (2009)
Contact print on gold-toned printing-out-paper
9 1/4 x 7 1/4 inches
Elevations (2006 - 2009)
More of David’s photographs here >
“It was a huge deal,” says Spagnolo.
After the show, David and his wife, Lisa, packed up and moved to Seattle where Lisa was to attend graduate school for English. The move wasn’t just for her though - David needed a change of scenery. Under the instruction of professors like Roger Vail and Oliver Jackson who galvanized Sacramento State’s art department during the 90’s, David was encouraged to get out. Quick. While they lived in Seattle, David shot some of his best work for Sound, Floodlit and Stations, taking advantage of the distinct scenery that makes up the Pacific Northwest.  A show at the now defunct Foto Circle in Seattle was his second, and the space itself was beautiful and unique and would help shape David’s view of where and how his work would be shown in the future. Then, in 2002, David and Lisa’s son Michael was born and two years later they moved back to Sacramento where they live currently. Since he’s been back, three more series have been produced that reflect the world around him. These aren’t pictures of Puget Sound anymore, but rather busy urban landscapes made serene.  
“These are the things that are around me. This is the stuff that is probably overlooked by most people, and for me it’s paying attention to these miracles you can cross everyday,” he says about his images.
A month prior to this articles conception, it was the first day of spring in fact, I had been invited over to the Spagnolo’s for dinner to talk art and drink wine, but more importantly to see some of David’s photographs. As we shared a Nat Sherman, a rare treat for David (‘I never do this anymore,’ he told me once.), he thanked me for coming and for being genuinely in love with his photographs. He also told me something that I will carry with me for the rest of my life.  
Art saves lives.” He said to me. “I really believe that.”  
With David’s photographs in the world, I believe that too
To see more of David Spagnolo’s work visit:

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Adam Saake is a full time arts and culture snob living in the beautiful city of Sacramento, CA.  Whether he's playing drums, writing articles or sharing his artwork he lives by one motto: Don't talk about it, be about it.  His strength comes from the amazing network of people he's met along the way and he's dying to meet you.http://www.davidspagnolo-photographs.comshapeimage_9_link_0
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