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Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Steve Vaccariello: Classic Perfection

Fashion and celebrity photographer Steve Vaccariello defies digital gloss to capture the person behind the persona

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Steve Vaccariello always makes a splash with his fashion, celebrity and dance photography. He's inspired by the human form, with a portfolio of high-impact, fine-art portraiture that applies classic aesthetics to modern photography. Vaccariello is humble about his work, but acknowledges that he's a master of making his subjects feel at ease, allowing him, in his own words, "to get inside their soul in order to evoke a captivating image unlike no other."
One of Vaccariello's strengths as a photographer is that he's also a good director. He feels that his tightly knit crew of associates, including business partner Todd Szopo, who has been with Vaccariello for more than 20 years now, are all an absolutely indispensable part of the creative process. Vaccariello will work with them to map out a project all the way from initial concept to final image, and he truly gushes about his team and is absolutely adamant that credit is given to them as an integral part of his vision as a photographer.

"Preplanning is key to a good shoot!" he says. "I surround myself with mad-talented individuals who are at the top of their game. I have a make-up artist, Paul Innis, who's instrumental in the look and creative aspect of my pictures. We brainstorm together on lighting, ideas, make-up and set design, and all along the way we're teaching each other about what we do for a better understanding of the process! Stylists, producers and set designers are also key and, of course, my invaluable first assistant, Zachary Bako. This is the guy who knows my every move before I do; he thinks like I think. We solve technical problems together and create the vision for the clients. I trust my assistants with everything because they have my back! It's always a team effort, and without these talented people, I would be nowhere!"

Adds Vaccariello, "Putting together a campaign involves a lot of thought and leg work—deciding on the concept and then creating it, either in the studio or on location, by coordinating stylists, make-up and hair people, assistants, location scouts, models, equipment-rental houses, permits, set designers, caterers, travel agents, along with many more small details! I've worked on jobs where the client keeps the reins tight on me with a very specific image they need delivered, and also where, more recently, on a job for Nikon, they gave me free creative control of the shoot, allowing me total control of subject, models, lighting and concept, and that's what I call the 'dream assignment!'"

For this "dream assignment" with Nikon, the company's only caveat was that his work would showcase the capabilities of its SB-900 i-TTL Speedlight on-camera flashes. Vaccariello is a great fan of working with other artists, and he chose to focus the campaign largely on dancers, whose fluidity and bristling energy made an ideal choice for showing off the versatility of the flashes. He used a combination of multiple SB-900 flashes and a selection of diffusion panels and bounces to present a series that was sharp in execution, but subtle in aesthetic, a trademark look found frequently in his material. (You can see images from the series and a behind-the-scenes video of the process at www.nikonusa.com/lande/flashforward.)
Preplanning is key to a good shoot! he says.
I surround myself with mad-talented individuals who are at the top of their game.
Especially fond of working with dancers, Vaccariello finds great satisfaction in projects where multiple creative forces come together to produce something unique. (Two of his more famous dance clients are the esteemed dance troupe Alvin Ailey Dance Foundation and The Washington Ballet, a troupe that Vaccariello has worked with often.) He has spent a great deal of time perfecting his skills in this difficult area, where the difference between a split second in timing can mean a successful shot or not.

"I've been drawn to dancers in particular for over 25 years," Vaccariello says. "They captivate me with their artistry coupled with their physical prowess. They can do things with their bodies that nobody else can; they push the limits in so many ways. It took me a good five years to learn how to photograph dancers properly, by learning technique, language and the limitations of the body. There's nothing like capturing that elusive moment that only lasts 1/1000th of a second. You have to be ahead of the curve to get the precise moment; any hesitation, and it's lost forever."

Vaccariello offers some advice to up-and-coming shooters. "Stay focused," he laughs. "Stay true to yourself and to your vision, and shoot, shoot, shoot! Never put your camera down! It's a tough business, and you have to carve out a niche for yourself somehow in a world that's oversaturated with photographers and imagery. Go out there, get noticed, and have the work to back yourself up!"


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