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The Art of the Portrait
Aspiring Artist Eli Dagostino

by Amelia Smith

Eli Dagostino is a young photographer with ambitious goals and the determination to see them through. Four years ago, at the age of fourteen, he started his photography business. He’s been working, learning, and practicing full-tilt ever since.

Eli has lived on Martha’s Vineyard for most of his life, but some of his formative years were spent in New York City. “Photography was not my love until my sophomore year in high school,” he says, “the reason being, I was in New York working as a professional actor from 2001 to 2004.” Eli’s acting credits included appearances on Nickelodeon’s Blue’s Clues and on NBC’s Saturday Night Live.

When he and his family moved to the Vineyard year-round in 2004, he continued acting, singing, and dancing for a while. “I lost the passion for it because I didn’t have the competition,” he says. “I wasn’t in a room with tons of other kids fighting for the same part.”

Over the course of the next few years, Eli took a few photos around the island and on family vacations, but it didn’t become a serious pursuit for him until his freshman year at the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School, when he took a photography class with Chris Baer. “It sparked my interest,” Eli says.

At the end of that school year, he started his photography business. His first professional job was a commercial shoot for Sherry Sidoti of Yoga Haven, a friend of his family. He read The Secret by Rhonda Byrne and How to Become a Millionaire, books which inspired his thinking about his burgeoning business and shaped his ambitions. Jumping right into runing a business taught him what he needed to know, he says. “I’ve learned more than I’d ever learn in a business course,” Eli says. “It wasn’t heavy at the beginning, just friends saying that I took great photos, and asking if they could have some.” At first, he took jobs for free, for a couple hundred dollars, or for exposure. He doesn’t work like that any more, he says, “it was what I needed at the time.”

By the time he went back to school in the fall as a sophomore, his business had become more important to him than his old pursuits of singing and acting. Part way into the year, he dropped out of the Minnesingers, an elite choral group at the high school. “I think I was the first person ever to drop out of Minnesingers,” he says. As he spent more and more time on his photography business, his grades fell. He also had a job working at the Scottish Bakehouse, and one day he was talking to one of the customers there, a teacher from the Charter School. Hearing about Eli’s business, she suggested that he transfer to the Charter School. He made the switch as soon as he could, half way through his sophomore year of high school. The Charter School was a better fit, for him at that point, because it gave him the flexibility to run his business.

As Eli worked, he continued to learn, seeking out mentors both here and beyond the island’s shores. He followed the blog of fashion photographer Melissa Rodwell. After a while, he emailed her. “She’s huge,” he says. “I had no idea what I was doing.” She invited Eli, then only fourteen years old, to meet her for coffee in Brooklyn. “She looked at my very first fashion photo shoot and said, ‘You have a lot of work to do,’” he recalls. He went across the country to take her two-day fashion photography workshop in Los Angeles which helped move his learning further along.

Eli started thinking about going to New York to further his career and to expand his learning opportunities. Through connections here, he met photographer Alessandra Petlin. “Once I knew of Alessandra’s work, my eyes began seeing the world in portraits,” he says. “I was sooo inspired! She was here and a mutual friend told her about me. She said that she had to meet me. She did a portfolio review with me. She ripped my work to shreds and said that she was going to mentor me.”

Alessandra’s feedback sparked the 365 project in which Eli aimed to photograph a different person every day for the whole year of 2013. “She was a huge inspiration for this project, huge,” Eli says. The project started off strong, but as summer heated up he stopped to re-assess his work. “Halfway through, I’d learned what I’d needed to learn. I was shot,” he says, “and I needed a break.”

Even though he stopped after 180, rather than the planned 365-day run of portraits, he feels that the project was a success because he met his learning goals. The projects Eli has done here on the Island, have formed the core of his learning process. Throughout, he’s sought feedback from photographers he admires. “One of my mentors, Love Ablan – she’s a photographer based on the west coast – she looked through the 365 project and said, ‘You learned more from this than you would have in four years of photography school,’” Eli says.

Meanwhile, he assisted Alessandra on some shoots on-Island. “She told me exactly what was going to happen,” Eli says. “She said, ‘You’re going to go to New York and you’re going to assist for two years and then you’re going to get out. While assisting you will build a new body of work using the skills you’re picking up.’” He’s looking forward to broadening his experience in the big city. “Throughout the two years of assisting successful photographers, I’ll be shooting for my own personal creative wants and needs,” Eli says. “It’s a chance for me to be free and to develop my own work, create a portfolio to bring to magazines so I can begin my journey into editorial photography. It’s an amazing living. The big money is shooting for corporations, but it’s very competitive. Very.” Eli says that he’ll still travel back to the Island to see family and shoot weddings, too, but he’s had enough of the winters here for the time being.

This past year was his first winter on the Vineyard out of school. “Because my business runs seasonally, the winters were always for school,” he says. This past winter was bleak and very cold. Eli got sick, he was depressed, and his fiancé was off-Island finishing college. “Everything seemed to be wrong, I had too much time to think. Everything was to complain about.”

He made use of the downtime, though. “I spent my time learning,” he says. “Learning from doing is my motto, and making a lot of mistakes.” He also joined online workshops through CreativeLive, a website co-founded by award winning photographer and director Chase Jarvis. The site brings free creative education to aspiring artists and entrepreneurs worldwide. “I looked up to Chase Jarvis big-time when I was starting out,” Eli says. “He’s a cool guy with a cool studio in Seattle, and he’s a social networking guru. I still look up to him.”

He embarked on another winter project, shooting head shots of a hundred people over the course of five months, doing one day of photography per month. This summer, he’s putting another set of a hundred portraits together for the Oak Bluffs library in a project called “Geek the Library.” “It’s a way for me to refine my lighting skills and to learn how to pull emotions from my subjects better,” Eli says. “If some regular Joe ‘geeks’ love, or geeks rock music, what should they be doing in their portrait?” He wants to get those emotions across without being cheesy. The project will be displayed in the meeting room of the Oak Bluffs Library for the month of August.

And then Eli will sail off to the Big Apple for the next phase of his journey. He hopes to become a commercial advertising photographer and he’s pursuing that goal with confidence. “A goal is something that I’m maybe not in control of but it puts out the right energy,” Eli says. “There’s very little backup plan for me. There doesn’t have to be. The sky is the limit. I definitely will not be stopping until I get what I want, whether it’s in four years, when I’m twenty two, or when I’m fifty two.”