Make Yourself: Carlos Serrao on Forging a Career
By Harrison Jacobs
When Carlos Serrao began making pictures in the 1980s in Miami, the resources for aspiring photographers were slim. If that was the career path he wanted, he knew he would have to figure it out himself.
Today, Serrao is one of the most sought-after photographers in portrait, fashion and fitness photography, shooting one-of-a-kind imagery for brands like Gap, Nike and Under Armour, and editorial features for FLAUNT, GQ and ESPN’s The Body Issue. Look at his career now and it may seem like a smooth ascent, but Serrao will tell you it was a turbulent ride.
Do It Yourself
Serrao’s first camera was a Super 8 that he begged his parents for after seeing Star Wars in theaters in 1977. Serrao spent his childhood making animations, and at age 13, took an interest in skateboarding that would prove formative for his work.
Skateboarding culture was just getting underway in Miami. There were no international competitions or celebrities, and the skaters built a community on a shared do-it-yourself principle. Serrao became the skaters’ documentarian, filming them in every playground, park and emptied-out pool they skated in.
“I wanted to emulate what the big skate companies did. I’d film amateur skate videos and edit them crudely with two VCRs. I’d shoot photos of my friends skating and then Xerox the photos for our zines,” Serrao tells PDNedu in a recent interview.
The skaters’ do-it-yourself mentality made a deep impression on Serrao. His high school guidance counselor told him if he wanted to go into a field like medicine, business or law, she could help him, but for photography, he was on his own. Serrao was undeterred, enrolling in Florida International University to pursue a B.A. degree. When he found his art courses lacking, he supplemented his education with photography classes at Miami Dade Community College. In his spare time, he conducted shoots with models he met at school and equipment from the photo department to build out his portfolio. He knew he wasn’t going to be able to make it if he didn’t take the initiative.
“I was always very competitive,” Serrao says.
Heading Out West
In 1992, Serrao shipped out to California with the intention of attending Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, but upon realizing that he only had enough money to last him a semester, decided it was the time to pursue photography full time instead.
After weeks spent trying to meet editors at major publications, he found success with L.A. Reader, an alternative arts newspaper. The photo editor agreed to put him on the freelance roster, sending Serrao to press junkets, theater and restaurant openings. It wasn’t lucrative, but it was hands-on training like he’d never had before.
“I would have 15 minutes to shoot this celebrity in a bland hotel room. I learned to work fast, to make interesting compositions with light and shadow,” Serrao says. “I had to make something out of nothing.”
Serrao spent nearly half a decade shooting for arts papers and alternative magazines in Los Angeles, then Miami, then Los Angeles again. Serrao took each assignment as a chance to experiment.
“Back then, most of the photographers were these old-school photojournalists that shot everything the same way,” he says. “I was this young kid that was always trying different lenses and new techniques.”
The “Big Break”—or a Series of Small Breaks
After years of “scraping by,” he had the opportunity to present his work to photography agent Laura Hinds, who had heard about Serrao from a friend. Hinds netted him assignments in national fashion magazines like Glamour and Mademoiselle, and promised him an advertising client by the end of the year. In the meantime, he had to shoot non-stop.
“That first year was crazy,” Serrao recalls. “I was shooting so many assignments that I was practically broke, because I had to pay for everything up front before getting reimbursements.”
But Hinds made good on her promise. Delta Air Lines had seen Serrao’s work and wanted him for their next campaign. Serrao was introduced to concept meetings, casting calls and committee upon committee for creative direction. In comparison, the shoot itself was a piece of cake. After years of living check to check, the shoot was a game-changer: Delta ended up buying all 36 images he turned in—33 more than they contracted him for. Serrao finally had some money to put back into his business.
Breaking Out of Typecasting
After a year of working with Hinds, he realized that editors were hiring him to do the same beauty shots for every assignment. He wanted to shoot big fashion stories and cover portraits, but it wasn’t going to be handed to him.
“It was a constant struggle. I always had to push for the bigger stories,” Serrao says.
For years, he shot experimental assignments to showcase his talent alongside the stock assignments that became his livelihood. In 1999, when PAPER offered Serrao a big fashion spread, he knew he had to make the most of it, and decided to conduct a shoot he had wanted to do since college: a science-fiction-inspired shoot at Miami Dade Community College, which had the Brutalist architecture of a futuristic dystopia.
“Occasionally, you get those shoots that come out exactly how you imagined it. Those are rare. This was one of them,” he says.
His editor at PAPER loved the shots and gave Serrao regular fashion stories and portrait assignments, which in turn lead to more advertising clients who gave him the creative control he wanted. In a short amount of time, he picked up assignments from IBM, Ecko Unltd. and WIRED.
Upping the Difficulty
In 2003, Serrao got a call from the client that changed his career: Nike. After years of working for incrementally larger brands, his work had gotten on the radar of creative director Heather Amuny-Dey, who was heading up the major 2004 Olympic Games initiative at the company. According to Serrao, she was tired of the blurry motion look that Nike had been using since the ‘90s and wanted a crisp, fashion esthetic.
Perhaps what most sets Serrao apart from other photographers is his inexhaustible desire to experiment. When Nike called Serrao to shoot the biggest project of his career, he suggested he shoot the entire campaign digitally, at a time when the vast majority of campaigns were shot on film. Serrao was convinced that digital was the right decision for a high-pressure shoot where the creative team would want to see what Serrao
was producing right away. His clients were skeptical, but he lobbied hard and in the end, they agreed.
“Very quickly, I went from, ‘This is going to be great,’ to, ‘Oh wait, how are we actually going to do this?’” Serrao recalls. “I had to figure out how to do it fast.”
Serrao went to Samy’s Camera in Los Angeles for a consultation and came out of the store with a digital tech. Photographer Damon Loble, a sales rep for Samy’s at the time, impressed Serrao with his expertise, so Serrao suggested he leave his job and work with him. Loble, while skeptical at first, ultimately agreed. His role was to make sure the camera ran smoothly and to create a color profile to apply to new images so Nike could see a rough draft as Serrao shot. At the time, digital techs were unheard of except for the biggest shoots, and Serrao’s forward thinking left an impression on the client.
The Nike campaign proved to be a huge hit in the wider advertising community, and soon he was working on campaigns for adidas, Gatorade and PUMA.
Building the All-Star Team
In the years since Nike, Serrao’s list of clients has grown and his shoots have become more elaborate. While the sports-fashion esthetic that he pioneered with Nike has become a mainstay, his pursuit of challenges has become his calling card.
“I’ve become the guy that clients call when they have something very difficult that they want to figure out. Every shoot I get is a Rubik’s cube of problems that I have to solve,” he says.
Those challenges range from “beast” lighting setups to requests for complex art direction. When Reebok wanted to shoot Kendrick Lamar landing in a cloud of dust and smoke, they called Serrao. When FLAUNT wanted to shoot a high-fashion spread of Alice in Wonderland actor Mia Wasikowska in tandem with a short ethereal film, Serrao was game.
Serrao, in part, owes his accomplishments to the team he has built around him. Some members, like Loble or chief lighting technician Ron Loepp, have been with him for a decade.
“My digital tech, my lighting tech, my assistants have all grown with me,” Serrao says. “We are very well orchestrated on set because we all know each other so well.”
A recent shoot for Nike was one of the most complex he’s ever undertaken. The campaign required Serrao to shoot a new line of all-weather apparel called “All Conditions Gear.” Serrao and the art director envisioned a shoot that would have models running through the streets of New York City wearing items from the collection in rain and snow. The creative team at Nike loved the idea, but, after the budget arrived, Serrao realized that the location was too costly.
Instead of dropping his concept, Serrao scouted locations in Los Angeles that could double as Manhattan and Brooklyn, settling on the famous New York City set in the Paramount Studios back lot and a series of pre-war buildings in the city’s Arts District. Next his crew had to make the sets look like SoHo in the middle of the winter in the California heat. On top of this, Serrao was shooting stills for print, and video for a web campaign at the same time. It was a dizzying set to be on, but for Serrao’s seasoned crew, it went off without a hitch.
“It was a lot of fun because I was photographing and directing at the same time. We’d film a segment and then I’d grab my camera and shoot for 15 minutes and then we’d do it again,” Serrao explains. “We were in a great rhythm.
One Step at a Time
Serrao has always been someone who never looks too far into the future, and takes his work day by day. In truth, he never thought he would make it as far as he has.
“When I was working, I would always look at the next biggest shoot and think, ‘I’ll never shoot something that big. That’s crazy,’” he says.
When Serrao looks back, he says that there’s one lesson that he wishes he learned a lot earlier—and that he would pass on to anyone looking for advice.
“Limit the amount of time you spend on projects that don’t fit your work,” he advises. “People will pigeonhole you and the more time you spend doing that stuff, the longer it takes to break out.” EDU