Masullo's studio—a long, tidy, light-filled room whose
contents are ordered by purpose—is, ironically, located in a
commercial building smack in the middle of Manhattan's chaotic
wholesale district. Just outside, to the south, riots of flowers
spill onto the street; notions and fabrics clutter the north and
west; electronics and assorted junk pepper whole blocks to the
Inside, there's a sort of client holding area at the threshold, a main space with room enough for three or four concurrent shoots, a loading room, a wood shop, an area for shooting test Polaroids, a nook for storing lights, another for windows and doors and flooring—all built over the years by Masullo and his partner—that can be hammered quickly together for sets. Hardly surprising, not one thing is out of place.
Masullo's got a project going. On a plain white curve of paper, a pocket watch is perched amid an undulation of brightly colored Slinkies. He bought the whole conglomeration on a recent afternoon browse through lower Fifth Avenue's junk shops.
The screen of a nearby iMac DV shows the image, shot straight in with a Kodak DCS 330. It's just waiting for a second shot to be spliced in, or some other enhancement, like a blurred edge made sharp again, or the blue and purple tones of the Slinkies to be deepened—all in the interest of achieving Masullo's signature select focus, a masculinely nostalgic style.
Over by the window, a Toyo 810G looms in shadow on its tripod, covered by a cloth, not exactly forgotten, but not much used these days.
This small scene is indicative of a new era in Masullo's work. Once, all the technical aspects would have been done in-camera. Masullo would open the lens, shoot one exposure, shift the lens, change the lighting, shoot another exposure.
It was slow going—one sheet of film could take up to half an hour to produce—and tedious, and worst of all, "hit or miss. When digital came upon us it was unbelievable," marvels Masullo. "You could do the same thing and have more control. Now I can take two, three, or four separate shots and mix them together. I don't have to worry about color because I can change it. I don't get locked into attention to detail because I can enhance it. I don't have to spend a day figuring out how not to see the rig; I can keep it in and take it out later in Photoshop."
One thing Masullo doesn't seek to manipulate electronically is lighting. He can control it quite effectively right on set. Using tungsten lights as his main light source, he mixes in strobes to bring out details. He'll use filters to even out the strobes, to highlight, to balance color.
Overall, he's looking to achieve what he calls the "consistent" look clients such as Chase, Mercedes-Benz, and Sony have come to expect from him in the 19 years since he first set up shop.
Consistency, and also an interplay of "light and shadow and texture." Naturally, these effects are best achieved in the studio, where Masullo spends 95 percent of his time. Still, every once in a while, the man who esteems control above all things will venture out on location.
Two years ago, for notable example, Masullo undertook a job for AT&T Wireless at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art. The shoot called for an overhead taken from the second-story balcony, looking down onto the entry hall's sweeping staircase.
"I went up in a cherry picker; I'm deathly afraid of heights," he Masullo. "I went every day for a week to watch the light move, so I knew when it would be optimal. [The weather] was clear the morning of the shoot. Then the clouds started rolling in, one great cloud after another. Used to being in control, I'd stand there and say, 'Cloud, move!'" He shakes his head to demonstrate the futility of such an order. "Finally, I had a 30-second opportunity to get a couple of frames off." With a tight grin, Masullo calls the event a "nice change of pace," but it's difficult to believe him.
Originally from Ozone Park, Queens, Masullo received an MFA in photography from the School of Visual Arts. "There was an emphasis, not on the mechanical, but on the artist, which is what a photographer should be first of all," he says. Sound funny coming from a guy who relies so heavily on technology? Not when he elaborates: "The computer's just another tool; it doesn't create anything for you." While he was in school he worked part time, assisting in various studios.
Once, he assisted a fashion photographer, an experience he credits almost directly with his decision to pursue a career shooting product. "Fashion wasn't for me, it wasn't my style," Masullo smiles. "I'm a quiet, reserved person. I chose not to be with beautiful models, but with bottles and gadgets." Another smile. "Things I can control."