Photography: Shawn Michienzi

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Things just seem to happen to Shawn Michienzi - like great situations. At age 40, he's a hot ad shooter without the confines of a niche; a virtual house photographer for the more creative Minneapolis shops; and apparently just an all-around easygoing nice guy - which may have something to do with why he so easily falls into things. "I'm fortunate enough to get hired by good teams a lot," is about all he can offer by way of explanation for his freewheeling success. "It's all about relationships."

Michienzi - the weird spelling is a Sicilian-Irish thing - works out of a mini photo collective in Minneapolis, called Ripsaw, with fellow shooter Joe Paczkowski and two producers. "Joe is more a still-life studio guy, and these days I'm more of a locations guy," says Michienzi, but he works in categories that are frequently mutually exclusive in the ad world. He's got portraits for United Airlines, Gibson guitars and BMW Films; cars for Porsche, BMW, Nissan and Mercedes; motorcycles for Harley-Davidson; landscapes for IBM; comedy for Lycos, Sega, Sony Playstation . . . see, where the list goes on, like the Energizer Bunny, which he hasn't shot, at least not yet.

"I have a lack of style," he laughs. But how did he achieve such a wide latitude in ad work? "I really don't know," he shrugs. "It just accumulates. The car thing, for instance, started back when Fallon had Porsche. I was asked to do a test shot; it came out OK, that's all. Then it ended up in a direct mail piece. Then I was asked to do another car shot . . . Nowadays it goes in waves. There'll be a car period, then, say, a humor period. I don't control it. Like, whatever comes along." Does he leave even a trace of his "non"-style, regardless of the genre? "Not really. I don't try to leave a signature. My main concern is to make sure the photo complements the concept."

Michienzi is from Buffalo, N.Y., and he wasn't a camera nut as a kid, though he says he was fairly artistic and a decent draftsman. His schooling was minimal. "I went to one of those two-year art institutes, in Pittsburgh," he scoffs. "At the time, I was totally into photojournalism, Eugene Smith. Most guys start out enamored of that street-shooting style - then they get a job at the local Pennysaver and cover the grand opening of a coffee shop." So he deliberately avoided that? "Nah." Oh, right, he just falls into things. "I had a family friend in San Francisco, so me and a school buddy headed west - and I ended up working out there for eight years." He assisted still-life master Terry Heffernan, then worked in an art foundry for a couple of years, casting sculpture and welding. "It was excellent training," he says. His actual photo career didn't start till he worked for Sharper Image in 1989; he moved to Minneapolis in 1990, started Ripsaw in '92 with Paczkowski, and things have been going just fine ever since - except for their building burning down two years ago, in what was probably an electrical fire, with the loss of two decades' worth of his film. "It was pretty brutal at first," Michienzi recalls. "I had a lot of family stuff there, too. Of course, you have no choice but to go on. People tend to put too much value on this stuff; you have to take a step back and say, 'They're just photographs.' " After a couple years of "moving three times and working out of boxes and off of tables from Office Max," Ripsaw found a new permanent home just last month.

Though Michienzi has the distinction of having photographed "Dick," for Fallon's notoriously edgy 1997 Miller Lite campaign, which severely backfired, he pooh-poohs this as ancient history. He's particularly enthusiastic about his post-9/11 United real-people campaign, which is "classic portraiture in natural light," he explains. "It was the day the Afghan war started; the employees were originally going to be shot in action, but the airport was on high security, so we went to the studio. I was just going for powerful straight portraits."

Finally ensconced in his new headquarters, he's looking forward to more such work. "Now I can settle down and start thinking about photography again," he says with relief.

Though we're sure he'll keep falling into things.

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