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Part of Vitality Arts

Framing the Story of a Photographer

Photographer, musician and teaching artist Ian Donald is drawn to the moments of daily life

By Julie Pfitzinger

At this point in his career, photographer Ian Donald has taken hundreds of thousands of photos, but not long ago, he was involved in a memorable, yet unexpected, photo shoot.

"My daughter, who is five, and I went to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden and she asked to use my phone to take some pictures," said Donald, who lives in Brooklyn, N.Y. "She was lying on her belly taking photos, and I was taking photos of her. It was fun to see her doing that."

Black and white photo of rooftops in Brooklyn, NY. Photography, photographer, Next Avenue
A shot of Brooklyn rooftops  |  Credit: Ian Donald

It is just those kinds of small moments that Donald not only likes to capture himself, but also encourages students in his photography classes to seek out when they have their own cameras at the ready.

And in today's world, that's just about constantly, thanks to the prevalence of smartphones. "Everyone has a high-powered camera in their pocket at all times," Donald said.

His First Photos

The first camera Donald received was not remotely high-powered – it was a Kodak Instamatic given to him by his parents when he was seven years old.

Whether a beginner or a seasoned professional, "framing things differently" is a skill photographers can all use to capture the best images, he said.

"My sister and I both got cameras at the same time. They had these little stickers you could put on the winding device – mine was a spaceship," he recalled. "I'd line up my Matchbox cars and take pictures of them."

Donald's interest in photography really took root when his uncle, who was an archaeologist, would come over to visit, toting along a slideshow filled with pictures from his digs.

"I remember photos of him, with a goatee, standing in a huge hole next to a half-dugout dinosaur – it seemed very exotic to me, but actually, I think he was in Idaho," said Donald.

Over the years, Donald has captured his own images in truly exotic places, including a family trip to Africa, and travels to Belize and Amsterdam. But he's taken some remarkable photos closer to home, too.

Remembering to Put the Camera Down

"During the Occupy Wall Street protests in 2011, I went down [to the area] with my camera. It was a big crowd and I was standing in the back, not really able to see anything. Then I noticed this tall guy in front of me, holding up his iPad and recording what was happening. So, I took photos of him, taking his own photos," said Donald.

Whether a beginner or a seasoned professional, "framing things differently" is a skill photographers can all use to capture the best images, he said. And sometimes that might involve putting the camera down.

The photographer's daughter sitting on steps in NYC. photography, photographer, Next Avenue
Street Scene (featuring his daughter, Saskia)  |  Credit: Ian Donald

"I'm someone who can use my camera like a crutch in social situations," he admitted. "I get to be the one documenting things, and maybe not participating. But I've found that if you just put your camera down for a few minutes, you can see things you might not have seen originally."

A Musician and a Photographer

Another way to frame Ian Donald is as a French horn player – it's his full-time job.

Donald, a native of California, began his musical career as a studio musician in Los Angeles. Rather unexpectedly, he got the opportunity to take a spot in the touring production of "Tommy" when the show was in Colorado.

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"A friend told me the orchestra had lost their horn player, and asked, could I be in Denver in four days?" Donald recalled. "And I thought, well, no, I'd have to quit my restaurant job…so I quit my restaurant job."

He toured for a few years, without a thought of moving to New York City, but then the appeal of Broadway grew, so he relocated to Brooklyn. "It's a steady eight shows a week," he said.

Until recently, when Broadway shut down during the pandemic. However, the show will be going on again soon: Donald is part of the pit orchestra for the new Broadway production, "Diana: The Musical," based on the life of Princess Diana. "We stopped rehearsals in March, but we'll be back because the show is opening in November," he said, adding that "Diana" will also be on Netflix beginning October 1.

A saxophone player at the 14th Street subway stop. photography, photographer, Next Avenue
In the New York City subway  |  Credit: Ian Donald

Donald started mixing the two aspects of his life several years ago, taking professional headshots of his fellow musicians. "Photography was always just meant to be a fun thing I did on the side," he said.

About 10 years ago, Donald further broadened the scope of his work as a photographer when he volunteered to teach photography at a local senior center in Brooklyn. At that time, the majority of his students used digital cameras, not phones, but that has since changed.

What's also changed is the format of the class.

"When the pandemic hit, I had about eighteen or twenty students in my class, so we decided to shift to a virtual class," Donald said. "I will admit that I was a little skeptical, and concerned about the extra tech challenges. But there were twelve students who stayed on, and we continued to meet every week."

Success in the Virtual Photo Studio

The response to the virtual photo studio was overwhelmingly positive.

"They didn't have the distraction of the senior center in the background, and it turned out to be a much more intimate setting," said Donald. "Rather than me standing at the front of the room, we could all see each other's faces on the screen."

The photographer in front of a red and white barn door. photography, Next Avenue
Ian Donald  |  Credit: Saskia Scott Donald

The students, and the teacher, also had the ability to do video screenshares of each other's work, which Donald said "worked really well."

Beginning on July 28, Donald will be leading the next Arts Learning Course for Next Avenue, a free 12-week online class called "Your World in Focus: Digital Photography for Everyone," offering techniques for taking better photos ("That's the number one thing students are always interested in") and leading sessions about what makes a compelling photograph.

"Social media has completely changed how we look at the world," he said. "Having a camera in your hand can feel very powerful and photography gives direct access to people about what's going on in the world, as we saw during the Black Lives Matter protests."

One of Donald's students in Brooklyn participated in local marches, camera in hand, and started a blog to feature the images she captured. "I'm excited to see her expand her vision," he said.

"I've been so impressed by how fearless some of my students have been. One student went to the local fire station and asked the firefighters if she could take their photos. They loved it," Donald said.

When asked where he finds inspiration for the photos he takes for pleasure, Donald admits that while he has a nice newer camera, he's also more likely to use his phone, too. "I have thirty-six thousand photos on my phone right now, and most of them are of my daughter," he said with a little laugh.

"Having a camera in your hand can feel very powerful."

Donald enjoys taking nature shots; he's a fan of the golden light of late afternoon and wishes he was more committed to capturing the early morning light ("I'm not a morning person," he admitted).

He is particularly passionate about street photography. Now that the pandemic has eased, he's doing more of that, and is even back on the subway again, taking photos.

"The other day, I was on the subway and I saw a priest standing up, with his hand on the overhead bar, reading 'Lord of the Rings,'" Donald said. "Those are the kinds of moments that draw me in."

Photograph of Julie Pfitzinger
Julie Pfitzinger is the editor for Next Avenue’s lifestyle coverage across the Living and Technology channels. Her journalism career has included feature writing for the Star-Tribune, as well as several local parenting and lifestyle publications, all in the Twin Cities area. Julie also served as managing editor for nine local community lifestyle magazines. She joined Next Avenue in October 2017. Reach her by email her at [email protected] Read More
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