Photography: Craig Orsini

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Bicycle helmets have played a big role in Craig Orsini's life. His work for Boeri helmets "more or less made my career," he notes and, earlier, and of somewhat greater significance, a helmet actually saved his life. This was in 1991, when he was hit by a car while he was riding a bike. The helmet in question was not a Boeri, however. "At the time, they had the old net helmets, like Styrofoam with elastic mesh over it," he recalls. But all's well that ends well, and the accident marked a turning point in Orsini's life - after his recovery he decided to launch his own photo career and today, at age 34, he's an up-and-coming shooter in a niche he likes to call "retouched reality."

But first he had to save himself from a life of saying, "You want mustard on that?" The Connecticut-born Orsini explains, "My family owns Italian delis. This is what I grew up with. I always worked in the deli." While he was no natural-born shutterbug, "I had a teacher in junior high whose sidelight was photography - he'd show us slide shows and I just loved them. So I had an idea what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. I took some photo classes in high school, but after graduation my family's deal was, take over the deli business or I get one year to try art school. So I went to the Art Institute of Boston." This turned into a three-year stint, after which he started assisting for a photographer known as John Van S. - "one of the first commercial shooters in Boston, very product oriented," Orsini notes. Then came the accident. "I left Van S. at the end of '91, and things were tough at first. I finally got my own tiny studio in '93, I was doing drop 'n' pop product stuff on white seamless, but since I knew business from the family business, I was really willing to go out there and hustle and make the sales calls. I never even thought of getting a rep until two years ago."

Orsini's hustle has paid off. But along the way the digital era dawned, and with it a range of new possibilities. "I had no idea this was going to happen," Orsini recalls, "until one day, in 1995, I was at a photographer friend's and she had a Leaf digital camera, this thing about the size of a brick that went on the back of a Hasselblad. She clicks something, the camera starts firing and all of a sudden this image shows up on her computer screen. I was instantly reeled in. It was like the first time I developed a black and white print in the darkroom - which I still think is magic. This was it all over again." So Orsini persevered in the face of an expensive and slowly developing new technology. "When I started with digital, I was working on the seat of my pants. There weren't really any people in the business who were inspiring me. The first year was just brutal, nobody wanted to talk to me. Back in '95, digital was still really rough." Not that Orsini wants to divorce himself from the history of photography - far from it. "Edward Weston is still my hero," he insists. "Don't think of me as a digital photographer. I still use all my same tools, tricks, cameras, lenses, everything. And if I did shoot film, you'd digitize it anyway. Nowadays, at a shoot we can be ready to put it down, final takes, with multiple scenarios in two or three hours. With Polaroids and film, after four to six hours we'd have one variation down."

Orsini's variations on Boeri's "It's Your Head" campaign, which he worked on from 1991-2001 when the business was at Mullen, attest to the endless creative possibilities of digital, with swat-proof helmeted flies and slaughter-proof helmeted chickens, among many comic conceits. When art director Mary Rich moved to Arnold, along with the Boeri business, Orsini put his helmet era to rest, figuring "enough was enough." By that time, there was no shortage of digital opportunities in advertising print and Orsini has since been garnering a problem-solver's rep. Case in point: a recent Veryfine Fruit2O campaign, from Modernista, which required colorfully costumed models shot underwater (the project gets a walk-through on Orsini's excellent website, Orsini-photo.com). "An art director will call me and say, 'I have this idea. How do we do it?' I'll sit down with my crew and we'll figure it out. For Veryfine, this was an underwater fashion departure, not really the kind of thing I ordinarily do. But I was asked how I'd do it, so after I thought about it I said, 'I'd put a tank in a pool.' And that's just what I did."

When he's not in the pool, Orsini is comfortably ensconced in Boston, and he intends to stay there. In the age of the internet, "it doesn't matter where you are," he says. "There's a lot of great work here, it's a great art director's town and this is where I've built my business. But now I'm venturing out more on a national level. I just did a campaign with DGWB in California and it was all handled electronically. My work is probably 60-40 in favor of New England, but it's changing."

His latest shoots include a new campaign for Mizuno, from agency Huey Paprocki, which manages to be complicated yet "it looks underproduced," notes Orsini. An ad featuring a female volleyballer spiking a kid's balloon in the park required "three images: the woman jumping on a trampoline; the mother and the kid; and the balloon on a boom arm. It's funny, and a lot of my stuff is comedy," he adds. "I don't know why it went that way, but it did. I'm not that serious a person and I try to keep it light." And digital. "Ninety-five percent of my shoots are digital now," he says. "Technically, it's there. There are no reshoots anymore. I'm getting the shots right there and everyone can see them. It's almost like TV. We know we have the take, it's in the can. Looking at little Polaroids is over."

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