Manny is one of those creative talents whose passion and enthusiasm for what he does is like a perfect wave: You just want to surf it right along with him. He’s worked with Mariah Carey, he’s worked with Oprah, and he’s worked with some of the largest cosmetics companies in the world. And yet, even after close to twenty years in the business, he’s not jaded. In fact, he seems to find inspiration in even the smallest of details. Maybe it’s because he knows what to look for—he comes from a family of artists, and most of his close friends, including the photographer Jesse Frohman (whose interview you can read here), are artists as well. Spending time with Manny made me look at makeup ads differently…read on to see why, and let us know in the comments if you have a similar experience!
I feel like there are all these terms in what you do—set design, art direction, prop stylist—are they all the same job? How would you describe what you do?
I’m a set designer. I can go from large sets with molding and cathedral settings to setting up a shoe for Clinique…the stop clock, the macaroons. It’s all about dealing with model makers, the production, the pre-production…all of that stuff. Flowers. I usually hire a really good florist, but I’ll art direct the whole thing. Some clients come in with photographs and say, “We want this chair, we want this desk, we want this chair…” Some people are really specific. Other people let you come in and collaborate. Ninety percent of my work is advertising. You’re dealing with stuff that’s been signed off on by marketing, PR and legal.
They’re like, “Here’s the stuff,” and you have to make it look good? How much autonomy do you have?
No, I have to bring in options galore. All the layouts they send us, and all the mockups that they do, it’s not the real thing. There are about three thousand problems that could come up. The color didn’t work out, legal doesn’t like this…and it’s always the day of the shoot.
What’s the weirdest set of circumstances under which you’ve worked? What were the craziest things you’ve ever had to coordinate?
I once had to cover 50,000 square feet with green carpet for Fructis. It was flown in via helicopter, and the helicopter was late because there was a storm up north. And the client’s like, “Where’s my green carpet?” President Clinton was one of the guests. Believe it or not, some of the custom jobs for beauty companies are rough because of the model makers, who have to make stuff overnight.
When you say “modelmaker,” what are they building?
When we use a shoe for a beauty ad, like with a lipstick, it can’t be a designer shoe, because you can get sued for using it. So they hire me to go buy 30 of the best shoes that they make, Christian Louboutin, McQueen, Aldo, and then we have to make a fake shoe. So when Clinique calls you up and says, “We’ve got a new eyeshadow coming out, and we want you to help us with the shoot,” what’s the first thing you think about?
If you’re not making a model, it’s more about options. For the Clinique Christmas tree we did with the Happy perfume bottles we had all of these orange bows, which cost a lot of money. The client wanted to see every single kind of orange ribbon out there, from India to down the street at Kate’s Paperie. On every project you learn about all of these different random things. For Sephora, I got a baby tiger.
Why does everyone like animals so much?
Because of the textures. Usually the colors of the products come from a safari experience or something like that. Animals shoot well—in that they look good—but cats are hard to deal with. Birds are hard too. I’ve done snakes that are so venomous they have to be shot in separate studio. They put the snake on the floor and then everybody jumps on the tables to take the photographs.
How did you get into the whole still life part of it?
Clinique was my first client. I was 24. I came from Mexico City when I was 22, and I was modeling, actually. My family’s always been artistic. We’re singers and soap opera artists, things like that. Super-gaudy. Really gaudy. So I was on set as a model, and I saw Donnie Meyers, who was my mentor, working, and I thought, “I love that job.” I started working, assisting him for like $800 a month.
How did you live in New York on $800 a month?
I was a total socialite, you know? At the time, my friends and I were the downtown kids. Bungalow 8 was still open…Suzanne Bartsch is my godmother. She really opened up my world.
So you move to New York, you fall in with this crowd, you’re modeling, and then you start assisting a set designer because you love the job. What did you love about it?
It’s about décor. It’s always been a passion of mine. I’ve always collected stuff.
Do you buy stuff for every shoot?
Antiques and stuff I rent. If it’s 1960s, 1970s era, really mod, you have to rent—they’re not just lying around. Most of the stuff would come from collectors or boutiques.
Do you ever feature new and upcoming designers?
My sister is a lampshade designer, and I try to put her lamps in every shoot I do. It gets harder as the years go by, because the smaller mom and pop shops are going away. All these people are coming in and putting people out of business. Plus, the rents are so high now. Once CB2 goes into the Soho, a small furniture retailer doesn’t stand a chance.
Have you ever wanted to do a lot a line of furniture?
Yeah, but it takes a lot of money. In my line of work, you’re always advancing money. I spent $30,000 a year that I then have to try to get back. Very few of the magazines pay you back, but they get so much exposure and they’re so cool that you do it anyway. You want to put in the five grand. Most of the stuff that’s awesome on my website is editorial stuff where I’ve had complete editorial control.
What’s your favorite thing to shoot?
It’s makeup. I love makeup. There’s so much detail. You really can get involved. You can spend four or five hours on a smear of blush or eye shadow. You can play around with the photograph and blow it up and it’s like a piece of art. And that’s cool.
Do you have any advice for people who are shooting still life?
Light well. The lighting is everything. When you do retouching people can tell, and it looks bad.
Light well—do you mean use natural light?
Well, with still life it’s super-hard to do natural light, unless that’s your concept, and you’re doing it by a window. But to really light something, you have to know what to do. It’s such a turn-on when a photographer can light, because you just know your stuff is going to look good. I love it. It’s a real science. Retouching is expensive. Photography is expensive.
What happens if you break something? Do you have to pay for it?
No, it just happens. I’ve broken lights. If you trip over a light, it just falls.
That’s why I would be terrible on set. I would be tripping and falling all the time.
I’ve seen photographers hit their heads on poles. Stuff gets heavy—I’ve seen backdrops fall on people. I was shooting Oprah—I love Oprah, she’s one of my favorite clients—and the walls, which were ten by ten, just started coming down. Anytime I rig something like a chandelier I get nervous. Or when people want to get super creative and sexy, and they start lying on a glass table you’ve brought in. I’m always like, “That’s going to go.” But it’s their set, so I can’t say anything. It’s such an interesting job. And every job is different. It goes in cycles too. The Victorian will come in, and then there will be tons of Plexiglas, or it’ll get super-gay, or it’ll be super-minimalist. It’s interesting. It goes up and down. It’s work, though. You have to work on it.