The man behind Altoids' curiously strong photography.

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Tony D'Orio doesn't care if you laugh at his subjects, but doing so might make you feel a little funny. His bodybuilders, pubescent geeks and female professional wrestlers, among many other slightly oddball characters, for Altoids and Leo Burnett, take nostalgia to another level through a heightened use of what he calls "a blend of humorous Americana" that hits close to home.

Noting that comedy in photos can often be cruel, D'Orio, who's repped by Hurewitz Creative Partners in New York, explains that it's even better with just a taste of cheekiness. "The comedy has to be well placed in the hierarchy of the photography," he says. "So many people get confused that comedy is laughing at a person, but I think that it's laughing with a person. What you have to do is establish that empathy, show that you know what that person is feeling, so the joke becomes much broader and better. Compare that to just putting a wide lens on someone and laughing at them from far away. That's easy. But it doesn't have a solid snare hit."

D'Orio's work on the Altoids campaign (he's been the sole photographer since Burnett won the account in 1995) stems from a long relationship with creative director Mark Faulkner, with whom he worked previously on Maytag print ads. "It was a small budget at the time, much smaller than the typical Leo Burnett client," says D'Orio of the origins of Altoids. "We had a lot of freedom with it, and it gradually grew into the phenomenon that it's become." That phenomenon features people who brush up against stereotypes yet maintain a curiously affecting individuality. "I try to conjure up characters that are in all of us-a sort of compilation of two or three characters that we all know from popular culture-and then I create a 'singular' out of many. It kind of rings a bell in your head and attaches you to it, so that it makes you vulnerable to the joke."

He cites the teaser campaign for Altoids Sours, which features '70s-style kids with obvious teenage flaws, cast from actual middle schools. "I told them straight up that I wanted to do these portraits, and they got totally into it, even though we're talking about zits and little breasts." Those flaws are what stand out and lend the images a bracing zap of realism, but they're finessed after the fact-D'Orio often layers pieces of different shots into the final image. "There's a lot of subtle dysfunction in my photographs, and that's where much of the humor comes from. There's a sense of heightened reality; it's not incredibly staged, it's just slightly heightened."

As for his evident preoccupation with the past, D'Orio suspects that it has something to do with having a large extended family, which he believes has influenced much of his work. He points to several "goofy" uncles who helped raise him in the '60s and '70s and who shaped the way he looks at the world. "Being from an Italian family, tradition was always strongly promoted, so, yeah, I guess we always held on to nostalgia."

Besides the obvious necessity of great casting, he believes the right set design and props are crucial. "I understand period work," he says.

"A lot of photographers shoot period work where if they're shooting a 1963 photograph, everything will be from 1963. People don't live that way. People hold on to things. You have to think about the natural evolution of people's possessions and environments. It doesn't mean that everything is from 1963, it means that things evolved into 1963. The chairs could be from 1958."

The next phase of Altoids work is a campaign for gum, featuring photos that D'Orio calls "stupid and really funny. Prepare yourself."

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