Get to know photographer and Polaroid extraordinaire, Greg Giannukos, in this beautifully honest and amusing interview.
Greg Giannukos knows how to capture the alluringly gritty spirit of the west. A genuine Texas cowboy, he owns a cattle ranch, wears custom-made cowboy boots, drives an extra-large pickup truck and takes a photo that you’ll long to revisit for days.
Greg is a photographer like no one else. He’s brilliantly talented, yet inspiringly humble. He captures soul, life, feeling. Lose yourself in his photos and learn more about this innovative wild-west photographer.
Where are you originally from? Where do you live now?
I was originally born and raised in Houston, TX. I grew up and went to school there. I left for a few years to waste some time in Miami, FL before coming back to Texas. I wish I had started shooting when I lived there, but that wasn’t where my head was at the time. I moved back to Houston in 2002. I met my wife in 2003. We started dating pretty shortly after that and moved to Austin, TX, in 2005. I didn’t pick up the camera until 2009.
How would you describe your childhood years? What kind of kid were you?
My childhood was great. As far as parents go, I got pretty lucky. My older bros wore down most of the hard corners before I came along. So, my folks were pretty damn cool. I loved being a kid. Shit, I still am a kid… growing up the third of four boys in the suburbs of Houston, back in the ’80s, was rad. We shared weekends between Houston and Galveston Island. I learned about music from my older brothers, who were in high school. MTV was all I watched. Atari was the game console to have… and you had to have a Walkman and a Watchman if you wanted any entertainment on the go.
I was a happy kid, and was always pedaling my Mongoose to get around. My buddies and I owned the streets around our neighborhood… and our neighborhood was the whole world, as far as we knew. It stretched from the bayou to the Stop & Go store and all the way over to the community swimming pool. We ran fast and we hit hard… for a bunch of 10-year-olds. That was about the time I quit running from the girls that wanted to kiss me, and started trying to steal kisses from the rest. I was a pretty good thief.
When did you first pick up a camera? Did you feel an instant connection?
I took a point and click down to Mexico for a wedding back in 2009. We were down there for about a week. So to keep myself entertained, I started setting up shots and snapping pics. When I got home, I sent the pics to the friends that got married, and forwarded the album to their entire guest list. Shortly after, I started receiving emails from people saying, “you’ve got a great eye. You should consider doing this professionally.” So, I bought my first professional-grade camera, set it to manual, and taught myself how to shoot. Within six months I started taking paid jobs and began thinking about quitting my day job.
Have you always been drawn to photography?
Yes, I believe I have. There were always been cameras around, but I never looked at it as a means of creative expression until 2009. Once I focused… I wasn’t been able to stop pursuing it. My folks always had these great big stacks of photo albums laying around in different rooms. I spent countless hours, flipping through those albums, again and again. I feel like the attraction to photos was always there.
Who are some of your favorite photographers?
Damn, that’s a tough question. There are so many great photographers out there, and I’m drawn to so many… but I’ll give it a shot…
Jim Marshall, Danny Clinch, E.J. Beloqc, Horst P. Horst, Bill Wittliff, Jeff Bridges, Mike Brodie, Mary Ellen Mark, Bob Gruen… and the obvious ones… Avedon, Penn, Lindbergh, Leibovitz, Mario Testino. I love surf photography. Too many legends in that field to really get into it… and as important and broad as any of them… many of the journalistic photographers from Time and Life magazines over the last 75 years or so.
What does your dream photo gig look like?
Damn, that’s another tough question… I still dream of assisting some of my favorites… it’s such a great way to learn and grow. I’ve also ended up shooting right alongside some of them, on occasion. So, sometimes, it seems that I’m already living the dream… but that’s not really what you asked. Is it?
I’m not sure what it looks like. I can say that I hope it contains a strong team of creative collaborators. I love showing up for a gig when everyone is really inspired and focused. Did I mention money? My dream gig pays really well…$$$,$$$
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You take beautifully gritty music performance photos — do you have a favorite genre to shoot?
Wow. Thank you so much. That’s definitely my focus… I like to try to capture the story, feeling and the environment… I love shooting performers and their fans, especially when there is an intimate interaction between the two. There is usually so much kinetic energy at live music performances. Sometimes you can actually see it ebb and flow through the crowd… it’s like seeing wind through the trees. I don’t necessarily have a favorite genre, but do have a few really good buds who play that I hope to continue shooting for years to come. I love the blues, classic rock, classic country and jazz.
I also shoot for the Fun Fun Fun (FFF) Fest photo team here in Austin. That’s been really cool because its turned me on to, and provided access to shoot, so many bands I hadn’t heard before. Plus, the team is really great and I love the whole FFF and extended Transmission Events family. They take great care of us as visual content providers.
What do you love so much about black-and-white photography?
I once heard that “color photography is for capturing clothes, but black-and-white is for capturing souls.” Don’t get me wrong… I love color photography, and the fine art of fashion photography… but there is just something deeper to which I have connected to black-and-white, personally.
Say we’re on set with you — what music is playing?
Hmmm… unlike most of my portfolio, that’s not so black-and-white. I have a wide taste in music. It all depends… the right mood is important. For most people, music has a direct “light switch” relationship with memory and emotion, and those things can translate in camera. So, the music on set can help set the tone for the shoot, and each shoot and subject is different from the next.
If you’re asking what I like to listen to… well, I’m from Austin, TX so you’ll probably hear some Willie Nelson, Stevie Ray Vaughan, or Gary Clark Jr., or maybe some J.J. Cale and Leon Russell… I love the Stones, ZZ Top, Allman Brothers, and Doug Sahm… and all the old blues cats too… Howlin Wolf, Muddy Waters, or Freddie King… Albert & B.B. too… don’t get me started on jazz or rap… we’ll need a whole other interview for this topic alone.
We’ve got to ask about inspiration – where do you find it and how do you keep inspired?
Inspiration…? Hmmm…? It beats the hell out of me! Nah…
Sometimes it’s obvious and it just hits me like a bullet between the eyes… but it feels a lot cooler. Movies. Music. A feeling or an emotion. A natural urge. It can be born, exist and die all in a moment… completely impulsive.
…or, it can be totally compulsive. Sometimes it will grow out of the human condition, and everyone else’s work makes me feel like my work is shit, and that I had better get off my ass and get better.
The thing about inspiration is… if you don’t get off your ass and do it, it’s just a daydream. I’ve been shooting for six years now and I still lay awake some nights, thinking about how to not suck at it. I feel like that drives me. This may sound a bit masochistic, but I hope I don’t lose that feeling completely. I don’t ever want to be apathetic in my passion to learn and execute and grow as a photographer. Sometimes I burn in that fire… and at other times it really warms the soul… so, I hope that it never goes out.
Favorite subject to shoot?
I like shooting people… I like trying to tell people’s stories through capturing moments. I love shooting portraits but, most of all, I love journalistically covering the lifestyle and performance of music and the people who play it.
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What have you learned about yourself as a photographer?
That I still have more to learn. I’ve learned how to appreciate my own work and accept it for what it is (even in comparison to some others’ work). I am not perfect, nor will I ever be. I’ve learned that it’s ok to believe that I’m good at what I do. That may sound arrogant, but I worked very hard to get there. It took years to arrive at that conclusion (and the jury is always deliberating on that verdict). I didn’t say I was the best or even one of the best… I don’t think I can imagine myself ever thinking that… but I care more about what I’m doing now, more than I ever have about anything else I’ve ever done (not including being my wife’s husband). Maybe a better way to say it is, I am better at this than I have ever been at anything else I’ve ever done… (except loving my wife)… (loving her is easier)… (than anything I’ll ever do again)…
Do you have any tips for aspiring photographers?
I have two tips:
1) get the book B&W Photography: A Basic Manual by Henry Horenstein
2) just shoot… shoot a lot… shoot all the time…
Understanding the basics, is the first step in learning to think for yourself as a photographer. Through practice, you begin to understand the relationships between the basic elements. Once you know what they are and how they work together, you will be able to work through complications in situations. Through all of that, you will develop a personal style. Be yourself. Be honest.
How would you describe yourself in three words?
Ready to Roll…
How would your wife describe you in three words?
Hunka Burnin’ Love… ;-)
I love your Polaroid work – what kind of camera do you use? Do you have a different outlook on Polaroid photography as opposed to digital?
So, these differences turn into a few different approaches in my shooting style. With digital, I tend to shoot more and pick my favorites. Yet, I’m a much more careful shooter across the board, now that I work with Polaroid and film. Also, there are sometimes natural imperfections in a pull & peel image that could never be planned or executed without advanced photoshop skills. I can think of a lot of better ways to waste my time than messing around in Photoshop. Still, I do use it in very impractical way at times. Which makes it very challenging, but if you nail it… it’s golden! I love the challenges of it. I love the flaws and imperfections in it. I love the classic and organic character it lends to the subjects and the stories I tell with it. It’s much more romantic, to me.
What do you think makes a great photographer?
Outside of being able to compose and expose a decent photo…
I think a good photographer needs to be immersed in the art and in the practice/study of his/her subject. You’ve got to have a connection to it. Check out Mike Brodie’s work. He was a photographer for only five years, but it was a full immersion. He lived what he was photographing. He was a part of it. Look at Clinch. He is arguably the most prolific music photographer ever. He is a musician. He understands music and the lifestyle of playing. Look at Josh Kurpius. The guy lives on the back of a motorcycle. His collection Living Lost was displayed at the Harley Davidson museum in Milwaukee. They guy risks his life for his craft, shooting riding shots of his subjects, while kneeling on his bike while shooting behind him, sometimes at highway speeds… and the shots are insanely well-executed. That’s immersion. That’s focus. That’s intention.
You don’t have to risk your life, but you have to be able to connect to your subject… and they have to be able to be themselves in front of your camera. If you can’t capture the truth, it’s just a bunch of bullshit… and maybe you can sell that shit somewhere… but I sure as shit ain’t buying it.
And finally, what does “being free” mean to you?
Being Free… to me, that means that I’m no longer working day in and day out at a job I don’t want and don’t care about, just to turn a buck. I am in this as a profession, but it is about more than money for me. There is pride and passion. I am free to accept or decline the jobs I get. I am living it and I am loving my life and I am free…
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Model: Delilah Parillo.