There's something about a Michael Zeppetello photograph that can really get a man's blood pumping. Whether it's the bathing beauties he shoots for Maxim and Sports Illustrated, the lingerie models for Victoria's Secret, or the sexy celebritiesincluding tennis temptress Anna Kornikova, whom he photographed in a white tube top and tight shorts for the cover of GQZeppetello's lens knows desire.
And for someone who spends his life traveling between New York, France, and Italy to photograph some of the world's most beautiful women, this jet-setting playboy definitely knows something about desire, too.
He pauses to consider the question. "Well, the only thing I'd trade it for is to be a film director."
A film director?
"Yeah, it's the only true dictatorial position left in the world," he says with a laugh. Zeppetello's only partly kidding because, as he's the first to admit, he's gotten used to doing things his own way. And it's a formula that's been highly successful for him, from finishing at the top of his class at the Brooks Institute of Photography in Santa Barbara, in 1982, to working as an assistant to Irving Penn in New York, to launching his own career shortly thereafter.
Zeppetello's recently revamped website, www.zeppetello.com, shows the fruits of his labors over the years, spotlighting a variety of images that aren't just sexy and sensuous, they're also conceptual and playful, classy and classically beautiful, and always simply and stunningly lit.
"If you look at my work, it's all pretty simple," he explains. "I try to use just one light and even if there's a second light, I try not to let you see it. Because, as human beings, we're used to viewing things from one lightthe light of the sun. And I try to use this light to reveal the soul or the truth of the subject, whether it's a girl in underwear or a portrait of a man."
Though he only assisted Irving Penn for three years, his time working for the master clearly had an influence on him. "As Penn once said, we all have only three or four ideas and we spend our entire career going through these ideas," he says. "It's not that my work is repetitious, but there's a similar approach. Some of it is indescribable. It's something that just happens over time. With my lighting, it is simple. The only reason it got that way is I tried every combination possible and the one I like is simplicity."
Things weren't always so simple for Zeppetello. A self-described "problem child," he was able to escape through his early forays into photography, most of which consisted of shooting candids of students for his high school yearbook with an old Yashica box camera. But things took a turn for the worse after he fell in love, got dumped, and had a close call with the law.
Zeppetello's come a long way since then, but not before toiling at some colorful early jobs, including driving a truck in New York for photographer Klaus Lucka. "It turned out to be a 24-foot truck with 16 gears and I had never driven a truck before. Here I was, driving this truck in the middle of the summer in New York. I'd do anything to get my foot in the door."
Getting a break with Irving Penn was another golden opportunity. Apparently, he landed the position after running into one of Penn's assistants, who was getting ready to start his own business. "He was looking to find someone to replace him as assistant, so he brought me in and I met Mr. Penn." After a two-month tryout, Penn offered him the job.
"The Brooks Institute taught me a lot of technical stuff, but Penn was graduate school for me," says Zeppetello. While working for Penn, Zeppetello began picking up jobs of his own on the side, including shooting editorial for Esquire and advertising for Macy's.
"I was the cheap version of Penn for a lot of my clients because I could do it for them for less expense." Though he was still learning a lot at Penn's studio, after three years, he knew it was time to strike out on his own.
PUSHING THE ENVELOPE Times have changed since the mid- to late-1990s, when Zeppetello rode the roaring economy across the Atlantic to Paris then back to New York. Despite the current recession, he's been able to establish himself as the "go-to" photographer for the still-thriving crop of men's magazines, including Maxim, GQ, and Stuff.
The first portfolio will include 50 spreads of his portrait and celebrity work; the second, his "sexy supplement," will feature 24 provocative spreads of scantily clad supermodels; and his third will center on "conceptual beauty," including 26 spreads with an artier edge to them.