Eli Dagostino stands out. But it’s not the shock of well-groomed bright red hair. And it’s not the ankle-skimming plum-colored chinos, cream-colored waffle tee and elegantly-tied brown chukka shoes.
It’s his energy.
At the moment Eli is in math class at the Martha’s Vineyard Public Charter School. His teacher, Calder Martin, is walking the class through a calculus problem no one has solved. Eli vibrates with impatience. He sits at the front of his chair, tapping his fingers, checking the time. He has only been at school for 30 minutes, but his mind is elsewhere.
Twenty minutes later he makes a dash for his car. “I have 50 minutes before my English class. I have to make a phone call for work. And I need to do it at my desk. I have so much on my mind . . . I couldn’t think about math.”
He jumps into his black Hyundai (he wanted a lime green Ford Fiesta) and heads for Island Cohousing in West Tisbury where he lives with his parents and his 17-month-old brother, Ari. As he drives, he reflects for a minute. “Having a brother after 16 years of being an only child was an adjustment. A big adjustment. I cried the night Ari was born. I felt like I’d lost my mom. But then I held him and fell in love.”
He kicks off his shoes as he enters his house and whispers, “Shhh. Ari is napping.” He checks on his brother who is sacked out in a stroller in the living room and waves to his father, Ron, who is on the phone. “Ron is a computer programmer. I don’t know how I am going to photograph him in that space. His office is so drab.” He looks at the time and heads upstairs to his office slash bedroom.
He has divided the room into two spaces using a sculptural white cardboard screen. One half is a neatly-organized sleeping area with an artfully-made double bed, a line of books, battery-operated candles and a large print of a photograph for which he won a National Scholastic Art award in 2011. The books include titles like Best Business Practices for Photographers, Paris Interiors, Janson’s History of Art for Young People and Schott Shuman’s The Sartorialist: Closer.
The other half of the room is Eli’s office, with two chairs for clients, a giant gray desk with two large monitors, a Photoshop pad and a large Bose speaker. “I like to edit with music exploding in my face,” he says. “I refuse to wear head phones. But I am not going to edit now. It’s Ari’s nap time. And I’ve got to make this call.”
Later, after he’s endured yet another class for which he has done his homework, he heads to Vineyard Haven for lunch and an afternoon immersed in his real passion: photography. But this is no dreamy wanderer with a camera. At age 17 Eli Dagostino, still in high school, still living at home with his parents, has already begun to make his mark as a working, professional photographer. He has two book projects in the works. His skills are in demand. He is intensely self-directed.
Today’s shoot is a portrait of Andrea Falgout Hirt, who is about to open a new apothecary called Madame Falgoux. On the way he squeezes in a quick meeting with Andrea Rogers at Mocha Mott’s. Andrea is founder of the Vineyard Artisans Festival and last year Eli photographed her for his book project Influential MV, featuring people he sees as community leaders. He shows Andrea the images and asks her to sign off on the text before the book goes to press.
Fifteen minutes later, as he waits for a grilled cheese on gluten-free bread at Waterside Market, he explains that he fails to see the importance of school. “I just want to be doing my work. I love, love, love what I do. You’ll see. It is so much fun. And the editing process is amazing.”
His current work is a personal project that involves taking a formal portrait of someone important to him every day. He edits the photo and posts it on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and his website. He calls it the 365 project. Today’s portrait is number 69. He plans to turn the collection of images into a book. This is his final project for school and also his way of practicing for his goal: to work as a commercial photographer in New York city doing ad and editorial work.
His friend and assistant Alexandra Cook arrives to help lug a couple of hundred pounds of camera equipment into Andrea Falgout Hirt’s store and set up. Alex assembles a giant light and tripod and Eli walks around the shop assessing aesthetics. He spies a rug on the floor. “I love this rug! Alex, let’s drape it over the wall. We’ll need the sandbags from the car and a ladder. Andrea, do you have a ladder?” Andrea does not, but Mocha Mott’s does. Eli and Alex fuss over the handmade Persian rug. They move Andrea into place. “Lift your shoulders . . . can you lower your chin . . . don’t forget to breathe!” he says. “Think of something that you love . . . see your son in the distance . . . Can you take your glasses off? No . . . put your glasses on. Breathe!” Eli snaps pictures. Thirty-nine clicks later he is done. “That’s it. That’s great. We got it,” he says.
He swings the camera around to show Andrea the one he likes. She agrees that it’s good. He smiles and he and Alex pack up.
Shoving the last of his equipment into the back of his car, he says, “I don’t know why, but I’ve shot almost exactly 40 pictures for every shoot on this project. And it always takes just about an hour from start to finish. Now, the fun begins. I get to edit! And that is exactly what I want to do for the next three hours.”
As images load onto his hard drive, he shows off more of his bedroom and office. He has a file on his desktop for every dollar he spends. Last year he borrowed nearly $35,000 for camera equipment from his dad. He earned it from his work and paid it back. Clothes in his closet are so neatly folded they look like they’ve never been worn. Files are specimens of labeling and alphabetization. “I don’t respect messy. I wasn’t always this way. I used to be a slob. I was a mess.” Three years ago, he was 50 pounds heavier. “I was depressed. I was, what’s it called? Stress eating. I think I started stress eating when I first came out. Around 12. My parents were so supportive. But I just wasn’t comfortable with myself. Then three years ago, I stopped eating gluten and sugar and began feeling better, looking better. I had terrible acne and it cleared up. It gave me a kind of confidence. In our society being gay is a big deal. It shouldn’t be a big deal. It should be allowed. More than allowed. Oh, yeah! The photos are up.”
He begins editing. “I love the control. I can change anything! . . . I’m not going to take the life out of her,” he says, clicking and tapping. “But I’m going to take it down a notch. I want her to look her absolute best. Beautiful. The way I see her.” He works on the photos, focused, intent. He sees his 365 project as a way of thanking the Island community.
“I don’t think I would have found my passion or had it so supported were it not for the people here. All of these people I’m photographing were influential to my being,” he says, pausing. “And it also may be my way of saying goodbye.”
Eli graduates from high school on June 2. He plans to stay on the Vineyard for the summer and do lots of weddings and other shoots, and in the fall he will move to New York, where he has already lined up a job as an assistant to a high-end fashion photographer.
“But I’ll be back,” he says with a smile.
Eli Dagostino’s Snapshot
Profession: Charter School student, photographer, former childhood actor. “I played Dan Aykroyd’s son on Saturday Night Live once.”
Motto: “I am O.C.D. down to the pixel.”
Lives in: West Tisbury.
Family: Mother Sheryl, father Ron and brother Ari, 17 months old.
Diet: No gluten, no sugar.
Wakes up: 7 a.m.
Goes to bed: 2 a.m.
Favorite photographers: Erik Almas, Martin Schoeller. “He’s important to me.”
Nikon or Canon: “Nikon all the way.”
Favorite clothing brands: J. Crew, Burberry. “The tailoring at Burberry kills me.”
Favorite musician: Robyn.
Dream car: Porche Cayenne. “Fully loaded.”