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The art of the image

Nov 26, 2017 09:16AM ● Published by J. Chambless

Photographer Luigi Ciuffetelli in his Wilmington studio.

Gallery: Photographer Luigi Ciuffetelli [6 Images] Click any image to expand.

By John Chambless
Staff Writer

Luigi Ciuffetelli was 12 when his future found him. It was in the form of a Pentax 35-mm camera that was a Christmas gift to an older cousin.

“To me, it was just the coolest thing ever,” Ciuffetelli recalled during an interview in his sleek, fourth-foor studio in downtown Wilmington, Del. “So I borrowed it and fell in love with photography. It just fascinated me.”

Growing up in the Stanton area, “I was always drawing and painting as a kid,” Ciuffetelli said, but photography quickly took over. His parents eventually got him his own 35-mm camera. “For me, it was a passion. I loved creating imagery,” he said. “I was about 13 years old, so my subject matter was pretty slim.”

Born in 1964, Ciuffetelli grew up in the do-it-yourself days of home photography. He took his color negatives to the local Acme for processing, waiting a week until he could see what he shot. “I started building a darkroom in my parents' basement, and taught myself to develop film,” he said of his black-and-white work at the time. “I got a part-time job to help pay for it.”

Ciuffetelli went to high school at Salesianum in Wilmington, “and I wanted to absorb as much about photography as I could. We had a family friend who was our local priest at St. Matthew's Church, and he was a big-time amateur photographer. My mother was ranting and raving one day about how it was costing her so much money because they were paying for all my pictures to be developed. She didn't get it. But he looked at my pictures and said, 'This kid has got an eye.' He kind of awakened everybody to the idea that 'Don't think he's just goofing off with a camera. He's got something.'

“My art teacher at school saw my photography and said that there was a school in Philadelphia that had just started up, called The Art Institute of Philadelphia, and they had a photography program,” Ciuffetelli said.

Seeking a direction for his work, Ciuffetelli had come across the fashion magazines read by his two older sisters. “I discovered Cosmopolitan,” he said, “and I thought, 'Wow. I want to be the guy who takes these pictures of these beautiful women.'”

Being a teenager probably helped stir him in the direction of fashion models, but he laughed and said his interest in the technical aspects of the photography was also a prime motivation.

“I went to the Art Institute of Philadelphia for their new photography program,” he recalled. “My father was a laborer who worked at the News Journal. The only person my parents knew who was a photographer was Fred Comegys. So my dad thought I had to go take pictures for the newspaper.”

Ciuffetelli, though, took a different path. After graduating from the Art Institute, he got a job with a Philadelphia photographer who shot the thousands of images of groceries for the Acme ads that appeared in every Sunday's newspaper. “It was boring,” Ciuffetelli said, smiling, “but I learned a lot about photography and cameras. I was working to learn more about photography, and saving my money.”

He had connections with a photographer in New York City, so, with youthful optimism, he moved to the city and lived in a series of rented rooms with roommates while he landed a job as an assistant photographer for Macy's. The store had an in-house studio where their fashions were photographed. He was on the set as models posed for the ads that ran in The New York Times.

“They trained me for six months and then gave me a shot. It was a freelance gig, it wasn't a full-time job,” he said, adding that the world of fashion photography was a word-of-mouth network. He worked wherever he could for two years, assisting other photographers in New York City, and eventually landed a regular job as a photographer for the Macy's lingerie catalog, in many ways fulfilling his teenage dream, he said, laughing.

“Even though all the models got paid double-time because they were in their underwear, all the shoots were confined to an inside studio or a rented house,” he said. “The budget was smaller for those lingerie shoots, so they always started the young photographers on them.

“I did a lot of catalog shooting for Macy's, and then transitioned into doing some magazine work.”

Along the way, “I met Cindy Crawford once and was an assistant on the set, and I photographed Rachel Hunter for Macy's when she was just getting started,” Ciuffetelli said. “Two months later, she was on the cover of Cosmopolitan. I used to shoot Stephanie Seymour for the lingerie stuff before she became a Victoria's Secret girl. None of them would remember me now, though,” he added. “It's been too many years.”

For a decade, Ciuffetelli traveled in the world of the beautiful people. Eventually, the job became a grind, and he was beginning to transition out of fashion into assignments for magazine work – Woman's Day human interest stories, for instance. When 9/11 hit, “all the magazines turned their stories over to 9/11 families and victims,” he said.

The magazine assignments to photograph women doing remarkable things around the nation led him to spend two days following chef/entrepreneur Paula Deen, working at her home in Savannah at the start of Deen's career. After all the years of traveling when an editor would call, Ciuffetelli stepped away from New York and moved back to Delaware. He shot for Delaware Today and got his name known in the Wilmington area corporate world. He married, and lived in Hickory Hill in Hockessin, a home he still owns today, more than 20 years later. He is now divorced, and his three children are grown and launching into careers of their own.

“I like Hockessin a lot. It's quiet,” he said. “It's safe, the school system is great. It's just a cool area to live in.” Living in the area also allows him to commute to Wilmington, where he had a studio in a Union Street warehouse for about a decade. He now has a sunny studio space on the fourth floor of a rehabbed building on Market Street – part of a revitalization effort at the lower end of the street. It's an ideal location with everything he needs, including a picturesque exposed brick wall, a huge white backdrop and plenty of floor space.

Now, Ciuffetelli works up and down the Northeast Corridor, commuting from New York to Washington, D.C., for assignments. Much of his work these days – “about 75 percent” he said – is photographing lawyers for advertising or trade publications. The challenge, he said, is working within the time constraints of people who are frequently very much in demand, and finding ways to get his subjects to step away from their desks.

“I sometimes come into the offices looking around for good locations,” Ciuffetelli said. “Whenever I go into a situation, my philosophy is that I don't want to be predictable and I don't want to do what every other photographer would do. Most people in the corporate world, they don't want to look corny. Their image is everything, and they want to look professional.”

Along the way, he has produced images that make a bold statement – such as the three Philadelphia lawyers he convinced to get into a boat for a photo in Super Lawyers magazine. “Most law firms want to be serious. For that shoot, I found out one of the lawyers was a rower, and the others agreed to go to Boathouse Row for the shoot. Not everybody's like that, but these guys wanted to stand out. When you have a magazine devoted to lawyers, every picture in there is an ad.”

For a photo of sushi chefs for the Delaware restaurant Mikimoto's, Ciuffetelli had all the men bring their knives and stand in an impressive V formation with the head chef in the foreground. The image, bristling with solemnity and very sharp knives, is immediately arresting.

Ciuffetelli's images for Delaware Today magazine have made his name locally. One shot for a story on the School of Rock in Wilmington features an adult instructor and a young student, airborne with his electric guitar in true rock-star style. “The kid really jumped, a couple dozen times,” Ciuffetelli said, laughing. “It wasn't Photoshopped in.”

Many of Ciuffetelli's images are of doctors and hospitals, such as Christiana Care. The surroundings can be cluttered with medical equipment and visual chaos, “but I try to go for 'organized distraction,' or sometimes I can touch things up in post-production,” he said.

Perhaps one of the pinnacales of Ciuffetelli's career are his many images of Joe Biden through the years. His association with the Biden family goes back to his high-school days, when his aunt was then-Senator Biden's housekeeper and got young Luigi a glamorous summer job doing yard work. “I spent the summer of my junior year at Sallie's working there,” he said. “His yard was riddled with poison ivy, and I had no idea. I was just being covered with it. I remember going to Sen. Biden and saying, 'I'm sorry, but I can't do this anymore. I'm allergic to poison ivy.' As charasmatic as he is, he actually talked me into staying there another couple of weeks.”

A decade later, after Ciuffetelli's New York fashion career, Delaware Today wanted to feature Biden on its cover.

“I got to photograph him again,” Ciuffetelli said. “Now, he didn't remember me at the time, until I told him the poison ivy story. He is an incredibly loyal person. And he loves family connections. It made photographing him easier because I had a connection with him.”

Ciuffetelli shot Biden several times for Delaware Today, and his photo appears on the cover of Biden's book, “Promises to Keep.”

Before Biden stepped into his job as Vice President, Ciuffetelli got an unnanounced visit at his old studio from the Secret Service, whose members checked out every inch of the studio before Biden arrived for a Delaware Today shoot.

A couple of weeks later, without even entering his name into consideration for the job, Ciuffetelli was hired to photograph Biden at the inaugural festivities in Washington, D.C. “I was shocked, but at the same time, completely honored. It was a life-changing experience to be part of that historic event.” he said. “I found out later that more than 1,000 photographers nationwide had asked for the job, and they picked me. I didn’t think I would have ever been considered.

“My job was to shadow Biden everywhere he went, 24/7,” he said. “It was a quick week, but a memorable week. I met him at his house on Saturday or Sunday, then headed out on the train from Wilmington.

“Everybody who was close to President Obama or Vice President Biden got a pin. It was on my lapel. They gave us a new one every day. I could walk right over to him at any point and the Secret Service would step aside if they saw that pin. I was with him for seven straight days, I was in the motorcades, in the press car, which was behind Biden. It was me and a photographer from Time magazine working behind the scenes. I was at the motorcade early, about 6 a.m., and we would be going until 1 or 2 a.m.,” Ciuffetelli said. “There was not much sleep, but the adrenaline was going. There was so much going on that entire week.”

He was mere steps away from Bono and Bruce Springsteen when they performed for the inaguration at the Lincoln Memorial, and his images of the artists are striking.

“I ended up shooting about 15,000 images that week,” he estimated. “There are so many pictures taken on a daily basis. They put me up in a hotel room two rooms away from Biden. There were a couple of times when they knocked on my door and said, 'The Vice President-elect is going to do a press conference, and we need you right now.' I had to be ready.”

While the Biden chapter has passed into his resume, Ciuffetelli remains a very busy man, but still finds time for personal work, including landscape images of the places he visits, and a series of manipulated, pop-art style images of superhero toys that belonged to his children.

“Picasso and Andy Warhol are two of my inspirations,” he said. “I wanted to combine what they did and what I do. So I did portrait photogaphs of toys. I found a way to manipulate them that was really cool. I printed them big, 4 feet by 4 feet, and showed them several times. I sold a bunch of them. People really enjoyed them.”

Ciuffetelli has been in his current studio space for about five years, after he was invited to set up shop in the burgeoning Market Street art district. He did much of the work himself, stripping out the sheet rock walls that had been put over the original 1880s brick, and taking out the ceiling and interior walls. “We got salvaged wood, and built as much out of recycled material as we could,” he said. The studio has been rented to other photographers and as party space, and the developers used the finished space as an example of the possibilities of the art district.

Ciuffetelli has perfected the art of negotiation with clients who can sometimes be stuck in their day-to-day image and reluctant to try something new for a photo. “We have a back and forth,” he said. “I'll say, 'OK I'll shoot your ideas, but then we'll do one of mine.' I have clients come to me and say they want something different and edgy. I usually do a safe shot and then a crazy shot, and I always think my crazy idea is better. Most times, they love it when they see it, but then three weeks later when they make their final decision, they go back to the traditional picture. But I'm always trying.”

He works with digital only these days, Ciuffetelli said, but he remembers when shoots were largely a guessing game. “When we would do these big shoots, we had no idea what it was going to end up looking like,” he said of the pre-digital days. “We'd shoot Polaroids to check, but we'd still be holding our breath until that film was developed the next day. Now, I can shoot 20 pictures and I can see if I've got the right one. We can stop shooting.”

The omnipresent nature of cameras today has forever altered the way a professional photographer operates, he admitted. “That's the biggest obstacle I've had to overcome in the past three or four years. Everybody thinks they're a photographer,” he said with a sigh, lamenting clients who will use cell-phone photos in their advertising. “People will say, 'I'll just get my kid who's in art school to do it.' I tell them they can do that, but I give them my card because they're not going to be happy. I call that clean-up work. I do a lot of clean-up work now. A lot of young photographers don't have a sense of composition and style and lighting. They just know how to work the camera and they can fix it all in Photoshop. Well, you can't fix a lot of things in Photoshop.”

As his three adult children move into their own careers – there's one son who graduated from DCAD as an animation major, one son is studying to be a chef, and his daughter is a college senior majoring in screenplay writing – Ciuffetelli said he's led a charmed life.

“In my opinion, my biggest accomplishment was showing my kids to the fact that there's more than a 9-to-5 job,” he said. “I want them to follow their passion. You can make money in the arts. I never feel like I'm at work. I've done that for 30 years. Even on the crappy days, I'm still having the best day. I get to take pictures for a living. I have no regrets.”

To contact Staff Writer John Chambless, email jchambless@chestercounty.com.

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