Here’s the way most of the world once worked. Geography, limited transportation, natural resource constraints, technology levels, familial expectation, and financial opportunities conspired to enforce the common practice that trade skills were handed down from one generation to another. Your father was a Sumerian who worked the fertile soil north of the Persian Gulf? You became a farmer and spent your life doing the same thing, as your children would. Your father was a Roman coal digger in second century Britain? You became one, too. Your father and grandfather were furniture makers in nineteenth century Innsbruck, Austria? Well, that meant you were sweeping up the shop sawdust from age four, the beginning of a long apprenticeship until you yourself built furniture alongside your aging mentors.
The Industrial Revolution changed all that, and intergenerational careers are rare today, especially compared to almost mandatory sentences they once commanded. When we find examples of a father passing a passion for a trade down to son, it is largely because of that: passion. This is the case with Paul Aresu, who boasts both a father and a grandfather as professional photographers.
An advertising photographer in New York, the same city where his father and grandfather once worked as wedding photographers, Aresu now specializes in portraiture and sports photography. Professional success doesn’t come easily in photography, especially these days, but Aresu had a great mentor to learn from. His father grew his business to the point where he franchised out ten studios and had approximately fifty photographers working for him. Weddings, bar mitzvahs, graduations, and similar fare were the main jobs. “He taught me everything he knew about the business, and I’ve carried it on—taken it a little bit step further,” says Aresu.
After majoring in Photography at the School of Visual Arts, Aresu began assisting photographers such as Pete Turner. “At the time he was one of the most influential and famous photographers you could ever work for,” recalls Aresu. “I had a major opportunity to work for him, and I learned so much about the commercial world and the business from Pete.” After this turning point in his career, he began to freelance for other photographers such as Tom Arma, Tony Petricelli, Klaus Lucka, and Abe Seltzer.
By the age of 27, after assisting for five years, he began to shoot jobs for himself. An opportunity soon arose which allowed him to put into practice all the knowledge and skill he had amassed up to this point. At the building located at 200 Lexington Avenue in his native New York City, Aresu found a furniture showroom with a photo studio in the rear. The furniture designer claimed he had difficulty photographing his merchandise. Aresu offered to help. In the studio, he found a new 8×10 Toyo view camera, a variety of Speedotron strobes, and almost anything else necessary to outfit a complete studio.
At that point, Aresu made the leap from the portrait, fashion, and location work he studied as an assistant, and began shooting still life, cataloging all the furniture in the showroom. 200 Lexington was large, and Aresu branched out, going door to door, asking if anyone needed photography. Many of the companies in the building began to hire him for advertising shots. With a large client base, his transition away from assisting was complete.
It may be genetic, but Aresu uses the term “obsessed,” when it comes to that period of his life. His grandfather’s trade was paying off, and it was in the young photographer’s blood. Advertising campaigns from agencies came his way because of his intense daily practice of still life photography. On some shots he employed fifteen to twenty lights, often shooting from eight in the morning until midnight or later, five days a week, for six or seven years.
Aresu considers that kind of dedication essential to the craft, and this is what he looks for in young photographers. “If I don’t see that spark, that fire, that certainty, I don’t think they can make it in this business,” he says. “It’s so competitive, and I don’t want to hire them as assistants if they come in late. That’s the kind of dedication you have to have.”
Although he is a fan of Photoshop, Aresu feels it’s easier and takes less technical knowledge to be a photographer today. “That’s not to say I don’t love this medium,” he quickly adds. “I love digital photography. It freed me up in so many ways to become a conceptual photographer. All my stuff is made with plates and mixing and matching pictures and things that don’t really occur in reality.”
To capture the tonality he’s after, Aresu shoots tethered to a Macintosh. If images are too hot or too dark, he adjusts exposures to flatten things out, maximizing the histogram spread. This flexibility on set is enabled only by having whatever gear he needs on hand, no matter the location. A grip truck loaded with gear is par for the course. “My productions are huge,” he says. “I bring a lot of lighting—ten packs, twenty heads, twenty C-stands, four high boys, crossbars, all of that. I use hot lights, soft lights, strobes—whatever tools are there, I use.”
Aresu also relies on his excellent team he’s assembled for commercial work, including his digital retoucher Mike Moskowitz. His first assistant, Christoph Randall, has been with him almost ten years. He also has two full-time producers, a full-time digital tech, a full-time assistant on staff at his studio, plus a revolving group of freelancers. Some shoots consist of four assistants, two production assistants, two producers, a stylist with assistants, and hair and make-up artists with assistants. His location crews are often twelve to fifteen people.
Moving from still life into sports portraiture, Aresu has developed a sense for motion and the human body, which keeps clients like Asics coming back year after year. He can render a runner motionless in midair, with limbs positioned for maximum dramatic effect. “I know when a leg is going to be in a certain position. That’s when I shoot it, and that’s the shot I know I’m going to get,” he says. If a client specifies they want an elbow up, a knee first, or whatever, Aresu knows when to fire his Canon EOS 5D Mark III to nail the shot.
As a commercial photographer, Aresu stresses clients come to him for a certain look they know he can achieve, but he also knows the power of collaboration. “There’s always give and take on ad campaigns, and clients rule the world,” he says. “They want a certain look, a certain sensibility, and a certain confidence. You could be in that situation and come up with the picture, but they also need to shoot it the way they need to shoot it.”
Aresu has many ongoing personal projects, from black and white portraits of jazz musicians to urban hip-hop personalities caught on film, he keeps his creativity at maximum. One project on his hometown resulted in a book. Two years ago, Rizzoli published New York: Big City and Its Little Neighborhoods, with the writer Naomi Fertitta. “For my mental health and my creative instincts, I need to be shooting in many different ways, and to explore my capabilities and explore my technical capabilities of what I know about photography and change it up,” Aresu says.
Having built his craftsmanship upon the foundation provided by two previous generations, Paul Aresu is literally known for stopping the most brief and natural moment in human activity: motion. Commercial clients pay him for this. In his own work, he gives us compassionate portraits of artists who create art which moves us. The same can be said of all his photographs.