Traveling is in Danny Zapalac’s blood. When Soviet tanks rolled into Czechoslovakia in 1968, his parents fled west. Thirty-nine years ago, Zapalac was born in the Greenpoint section of Brooklyn, New York. Five years later his parents moved again, this time to East Long Beach, California, where he was raised.
Attending college locally, Zapalac went to Long Beach State University, and graduated with an International Business degree. After graduation, he worked at a snowboard shop. He eventually realized it wasn’t for him, and, at 26, he picked up a camera for the first time and fell in love with photography.
This love affair happened when a friend at Orange Coast College in the Photography Department also was making a student film. Zapalac got the lead in this gritty, black and white horror film shot on 3200 T-MAX. In the last scene of the film, Zapalac was filmed reacting to seeing a series of fiber-based prints of himself in different mental states. After that scene, he said to himself, “This is what I want to do for the rest of my life,” he recalls. “I went straight to photo school that fall.” He graduated again, this time with an A.A. degree in Photography from Orange Coast College.
Along with being raised in Southern California came the usual activities done in SoCal. Zapalac would often snowboard in the morning, drive back to L.A. and surf in the afternoon, then skate at night. The accessibility of these activities helped shape his laid back nature and eye for that type of lifestyle photography. Zapalac is definitely creating art from what he knows, and knows well.
While in school for photography, he was approached by a friend who was working at Oakley when they introduced their snowboarding outerwear line. Zapalac was offered an enticing deal to shoot for Oakley. He eventually went on staff for seven years. It was his entree into the snowboarding industry. Eventually he shot for Snowboarder Magazine, and traveled the world.
“I don’t really consider myself a sports photographer,” says Zapalac. “I consider myself a lifestyle photographer, but just every aspect of life, whether it’s the sports-related side or a personal side or clothing side. I take instances from that—those differing aspects—and that’s how I capture it. I capture feelings in my work. I don’t really capture, say… action. I do capture it, but I always view my work as I capture feelings, whether it’s a person or something in action.”
When Zapalac started his career he was strictly a film shooter. “My camera bag would just be two strobe heads,” he recalls. “My other roller carry-on would be all film and two strobe heads.” Although he shoots some digital work now, he typically works with medium format film. “I picked up that Mamiya 7 II as a rental, and I said, ‘Wow. This is my camera!’ It’s completely changed the way I shoot from about 2006 until now.”
As we’ve heard with other 7 II users, there’s a tactile quality to working with this Mamiya model. “Yeah, there’s something about it that really captures that emotion,” Zapalac says. “It’s a quiet thing, it’s a peaceful shutter, not just this click, click, click, or a 35mm, where you can hear it. I’m not a voyeur, but if people don’t know you’re taking a picture, I think that’s very good when you do photography and you can really capture something without them knowing it. I think the 7 II really put me just on another path, another step in my career. I love it. All of my personal projects that I travel for are all on my Mamiya 7 II. It just doesn’t feel right shooting, with another digital 35mm.”
When Zapalac is at home, he spends his days in a small outbuilding he built and turned into a studio in his backyard. It houses a high-end Imacon Flextight scanner he got for pennies on the dollar as other shooters went digital. He rents time on his scanner to other photographers, who typically book it for a day at a time.
For other hardware, Zapalac uses a Profoto Pro-7B and two heads. He often carries this setup into the backcountry. In 2011 he used it in Jackson Hole, Wyoming when doing stills for the snowboard movie The Art of Flight. A limited-edition 204-page companion book was produced in conjunction with the film, and features eight other photographers. When he does shoot digitally, Zapalac uses a Canon EOS 7D and PocketWizard MultiMAX and Plus II units.
In the past year, Zapalac got involved with Adobe Lightroom. He has achieved a level of skill with it where he can tweak digital images to look like they were shot on film. “That just comes with me being from the old school,” he says. “I just don’t really like that super slick, hyper-gloss focused look a digital camera is capable of. I’m able to take the past into this—take my knowledge from the past, and correspond it to the present and the digital world and still make it look the way I want.”
Just a few years ago, Zapalac was going through a transitional phase in his career. “It was a pretty tough time for a lot of photographers,” he remembers. “I shot snowboarding for seven, eight years. I knew I wanted to do something different in my career. I knew I had the talent to extend outside of this little niche market, so I got an agent in New York, and that’s where everything just dropped.”
As stock photography agencies merged or closed, it was a dark time for pros. Seeing many photographers trying to shoot motion with their HDSLRs while working under increasing demands of their clients who expected greater productivity for less money, Zapalac created a book as his own backlash to the digital blowout. “I got back to a tangible product that will be on your bookshelves ten years from now, and it’s not going to die on the Internet in one day because attention span is so low these days,” he says.
The result was the hardcover book Mile Seventy Eight. Shot over three days in 2009 at the Angeles National Forest, just an hour and forty minutes away from his home in Long Beach, Zapalac grabbed his Mamiya 7 II and headed into a storm. Originally intending to just snowboard, on the way home, the road was blocked by the authorities, so he ended up hiking and camping, too. Feeling good about the images, Zapalac decided to use these photos as the basis of a book, but also as an opportunity to learn the process of making a book from the ground up. He started with papers and printers, learned offset printing, the art of CMYK, and layout.
Mile Seventy Eight has resonated with several different groups, from film photography-lovers to snowboarders. Travis Rice has released a limited edition print from one of the images, and the book has gotten excellent press. The Japanese market has been especially interested in it, with many copies being sold there.
A quick flip through the pages of Mile Seventy Eight and it’s easy to see why Zapalac is in demand for his lifestyle photography. The exposures are dead-on, and the compositions are unexpected, original, and beautiful. These photographs do what the best art does. They make you wish you were part of the action it was unfolding. When you get to the end of this book, Zapalac makes you wish for more, and not because the content is lacking. At the end of Mile Seventy Eight, we want the journey to continue.
Zapalac describes himself as “super hungry right now.” He’s creating new work, and still thrilled to be a photographer. He can see himself teaching photography years from now, but that won’t be for some time. There’s still far too many slopes and beaches to bring his camera to. Zapalac still has more traveling to do and we can’t wait to see what he captures there.