Commercial photographer Alex Cao seems unfazed by the persistent banging erupting from below the parquet floors of his spacious studio on New York City’s hardscrabble Lower East Side. Despite the hammering, he soldiers on like a man with a larger mission.
“I’m lucky to be able to do what I like and make a living at it. But I also try to do a lot of different things. And if I end up failing, at least I tried,” he says with a shrug.
It’s only later when Cao takes us downstairs to guide us out that we get a peek at a piece of what that larger mission is all about. The hammering from the first floor is actually part of one of several photography-related business projects Cao is currently involved in. In this case, it’s a workman putting the finishing touches on one of two new galleries Cao is set to open in Manhattan with his partner. The first exhibit at the gallery below his studio is by a photographer who shoots 360-degree cityscape panoramas that have been mounted onto massive lightboxes. As we enter the gallery, the workman is struggling to hang a sprawling lightbox of pre-9/11 downtown Manhattan onto one of the walls.
And who exactly makes those gigantic lightboxes?
Well, along with the galleries, a new digital imaging retouching company he’s launching, and a forthcoming stock photography business, manufacturing lightboxes is another recent venture of Cao’s. Being able to juggle several projects at once while anticipating where the photo market is headed is not something that came to him by accident. “Before I became a photographer, I went to business school for advertising and marketing,” Cao says. “In the beginning, I didn’t know if it would help me or not, but now I really appreciate it.”
Early on, Cao knew he wanted to work with water in his photography, but he had little experience. Instead of wasting time through trial and error, he decided to learn from the best—New York’s David Zimmerman, a commercial photographer renowned for his high-speed liquid images that incorporate still-life objects.
“I worked on a lot of campaigns with him—every shot he did using water looked good,” Cao recalls. “He would put a bottle in a shot, shoot water at it, and it would look good. He would put a glass in a shot with water and it would look good. Everything he did, from the lighting down to the splash, looked good. He’s the master.”
After assisting Zimmerman for a few years, Cao broke off on his own, opening his first studio in New York’s SoHo district. Along with wanting to shoot with water, Cao wanted to focus on still-life photography, particularly jewelry. For him, jewelry was the Holy Grail of still-life for two reasons—it was incredibly hard to do, with all sorts of tricky lighting requirements that could try the patience of even the most meticulous photographer; and of almost all still-life assignments, jewelry has the potential to be the most lucrative.
“Jewelry was my ultimate goal, because I thought if I can shoot jewelry, I can shoot just about anything. You really need a good teacher, and you need to be really good at lighting. Not just good—really good.”
And Cao is really good at lighting, using a single Broncolor ring light and multiple mirrors to capture ultra-crisp images of jewelry that accent a gem’s hardness as well as its crystalline beauty. Shot primarily with a Phase One H 20 digital camera back on a Mamiya RZ67, Cao’s images are then manipulated and refined by his digital department, led by D. Tyler Huff, who oversees two other full-time digital employees. Huff is a friend of Cao’s from when both were photography students in New York City—Cao at the Fashion Institute of Technology, and Huff, at the School of Visual Arts.
Along with the in-house work Huff and his team perform on Cao’s images, the digital department does retouching for outside clients, a sideline that’s been so successful it’s becoming a separate business. Dubbed PixelSpace New York and armed with the latest computers and software, Huff and his team work with commercial imaging clients to fulfill all their digital needs, from basic retouching to full-scale graphic design work.
“Digital retouching is obviously a big part of the business for the future,” says Cao, who is partnering with Huff on the new venture. “We were thinking: Since we have the knowledge, the skills, and the equipment, why not us? To stay competitive, you can either go back to the world of enlargers and emulsions and offer that kind of specialty work, or bite down really hard into digital.”
Cao has also been buying up the rights to images of other photographers for a stock photo company that will also include his own images. Images by other photographers for the stock company are scattered about Cao’s 5,000-square-foot studio.
“You have to adapt,” Cao says. “Photography is a business. Having a website is wonderful, especially when it comes to stock photography. I want to shoot less photography and do more stock.”
After assisting Zimmerman on his still-life work, Cao put together a killer portfolio of eye-catching images, many of which are still featured on his website. Among those attracted to Cao’s portfolio was Bonnie Winston of the Winston West photography agency. “My first two jobs were Vogue and The New York Times Magazine,” he recalls. “To get those two jobs right away was incredible for me, and it’s been nonstop ever since.”