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BEST OF 2013, Nicolo Sertorio
Oakland, CA
Project: Fine-art image series on safety rest areas, which are part of the US interstate road system and mostly sit abandoned in relation to the surrounding landscape.

© Nicolo Sertorio

© Nicolò Sertorio


Nicolò Sertorio’s award-winning fine art series Rest Stops is part of a more extensive study of America’s southwest, which he has been documenting for the past several years.

“These safety rest areas are relics from an older interstate, traveled in a time before most cars had A/C, and lunch on the road usually meant some type of picnic,” Sertorio says. “Now, they sit mostly abandoned and unused in varying states of decay. Having lost their function, they become all about form, the empty symmetries attempting to control nature as per bygone ideology seeking to conquer the terrain.”

ASMP: How long have you been in business?

Nicolò Sertorio: I left another job and started assisting in 2004. My own business started gradually along the way.

ASMP: How long have you been an ASMP member?

NS: Since 2005.

ASMP: What are your photographic specialties?

NS: I have a commercial side where I specialize in what I call ‘refined lifestyle’ (mostly people, portraits, luxury living), and a fine-art side that’s more conceptual.

ASMP: What do you consider your most valuable piece of equipment?

NS: It depends how we define value! The one piece of equipment I use the most is of course my phone: I use it to stay in touch with clients and friends, do most of my social media, take photos (it’s always with me), find directions and so on.

ASMP: What is unique about your approach, or what sets you and your work apart from other photographers?

NS: I blend commercial and fine art. More than a ‘style,’ it is about a vision. And a vision is a mixture of the visual world we grew up with and the philosophy of life we develop over time. What I mean by this is that, in my work, I notice many unconscious references to the Italian renaissance and baroque art I grew up with, but also my personal reflections on life, beauty, the sense of identity in the disenfranchised world we live in, etc.

ASMP: What first inspired you to photograph this particular type of rest area in the American Southwest?

NS: I remember traveling through the American Southwest as a kid with my mother and brother, and being in awe of the vastness of the natural environment in comparison to human constructs. Growing up in Europe, everything was a lot more ‘crowded.’ When I came back to live here, I started traveling again and the rest areas attracted me for their mixture of childhood memories and that certain abandoned beauty and lost ideology.

ASMP: How do you locate rest stops such as these? Do you drive along certain highways, hoping to come across a compelling rest area or research these locations in advance?

NS: I drive by myself on very long trips that become my own form of meditation. I travel different routes all the time and stop at every rest area along the way. After a while, I started to have pretty comprehensive coverage, as there are not that many routes in the desert. It makes for very slow driving. I love it, but I think it would drive anybody else crazy!

ASMP: Are there any online resources or books that you’ve found helpful to research about this subject?

NS: I’ve tried to research the subject but, honestly, there is not that much about it out there. Each state department of transportation has different approaches and philosophies, university architecture departments look down on rest areas, and most people just overlook them.

ASMP: You’re originally from Turin, Italy and now live in Oakland, California. When and for what reason did you come to the United States initially?

NS: I first moved from Italy to Switzerland, where I lived for about eight years. From there I moved to California, when I was still working in HP’s digital imaging group.

ASMP: Did you study photography in the US, or elsewhere?

NS: My formal education is in business; I have a degree in Economics. But I took many classes and courses in photography while in Italy and Switzerland. When I left the corporate world, I assisted for a few years to learn the more practical side of the business.

ASMP: Do you think your foreign perspective influences the way you photograph the American landscape or specifically these rest areas in the Southwest?

NS: Mine is not a totally foreign perspective, it is a mixture of both. I guess living in the United States as a child gave me memories that attracted me to the rest areas, while living outside the U.S. made me notice them more as artistic objects, rather than something we pass without even noticing.

ASMP: What attracts you most to these rest areas: the shapes, the light, the color, the lines, the subject matter, nostalgia about the past or something else?

NS: Shapes, lights, color and lines are part of the composition of the image. But the attraction comes from those iconic constructions lost in nature that stand as living testimonials of an old and forgotten ideology of conquering nature while also living in it. I think nowadays our relationship with nature has become much more conflicted.

ASMP: Obviously this series involves a lot of traveling. Do you photograph other people, places or things as you get to and from your destinations? Please elaborate.

NS: Of course! A few years ago I started my series ‘Passages: The Road’. This is about how we think of ‘nature’ versus how we experience it. My point being that real nature is the one we see and cross in our cars going from one place to another, not the one, void of human presence, that we tend to photograph. As such, all the images were taken from the middle of the road, from the point of view of the driver.

ASMP: You have 39 cameras. 39! We need to know which ones. Please list them. Which camera do you use most often?

NS: Well, many of them are now mostly part of a small collection: my old film cameras, cameras that people give me as gifts, those that I find at flea markets. I still occasionally use my Fuji 680, while I currently use a Nikon D3X and D800E on a regular basis.

ASMP: You have three Web sites: one for commercial work, one for fine art work, and one for stock and travel images. Do you find the separate treatment between your commercial work and fine art work has been helpful in presenting your photography? Do your commercial photographs ever end up on the fine art Web site?

NS: I think so. Commercial and fine art are very different: The first is about promoting a person, product or service and, in some sense, it’s an idealized vision. The latter is about personal ideas and reflections, and can in cases be critical, or at the very least ‘real.’

ASMP: You’ve lived in eight different countries and visited 36. Which ones? Have you always been such a traveler? How does this perspective affect your photography?

NS: My parents were both University professors and as such moved us around a lot. Somewhere along the way, I caught the bug and started doing it myself. I’ve lived in Italy, Switzerland, Ireland, Belgium, India, France and Germany. I was born in Princeton, but grew up mostly in Italy. It has taught me to understand and explore different points of view, which in turn pushed me to form my own opinions. A small, silly example: In Italy it is common for women to be intimate (hold hands in public, etc.), while in India it is the opposite. That led me to my own reflection on intimacy, boundaries and the like. My work reflects this: On the commercial side it’s a mixture of cultural influences, while on the fine-art side it is an attempt to understand different cultures, the ‘sense of place’ from a deeper personal space.

ASMP: On your fine art Web site, visitors can download a PDF of any of your portfolios. Have you found that your clients or potential clients find this feature useful?

NS: Both my commercial and fine art sites are currently based on a Livebooks platform and the download PDF feature is standard. Unfortunately they do not give us statistics of PDF downloads, so I cannot really tell how often this feature is used. I have personally used it in the past when I really found someone else’s work interesting and wanted to be able to easily go back to it. I think anything that makes it easier for potential clients to see and remember my work is a good thing!

ASMP: In 2012, you attended the FotoFest portfolio review in Houston, where you met one-on-one with a wide range of photo professionals in 20-minute portfolio reviews over four days time. Did you find this experience beneficial to your career?

NS: I found FotoFest an incredible experience. I have been there twice now and probably will go again next year. It has led to a huge growth in the maturity of my work, in personal contacts with key industry figures, and to many of my shows and publications of my work.

ASMP: What was your most inspiring or beneficial review at FotoFest? What review was the least helpful or informative for you?

NS: Every review is beneficial, good or bad. I think that a good critique can be extremely valuable in pushing the work farther, the reflection deeper.

ASMP: Have you attended any other portfolio reviews? Which review event has been the most helpful or enjoyable to you?

NS: I have also attended the Fotoworks reviews in NYC and LA, which are purely for commercial work. They in turn have led to finding a rep (SmartMagna), on-going connections, and one potential large job (still under discussion).

ASMP: What kind of follow-up do you send to reviewers after you’ve met with them to show your work?

NS: I see follow-up as maintaining and growing relationships, not pushing for work. As mentioned, this has led to shows, publication and jobs. But also to learning, the maturation of my work and better understanding.

ASMP: Your fine art photography has won several awards. How many competitions do you enter every year? Do you have a specific strategy for this part of your outreach?

NS: I enter around 10 to 15 competitions every year. There are more and more, so I try to focus on the bigger ones that give more visibility. I see it as a key marketing component in an industry that does not have formal accreditation — anyone can call himself a ‘professional photographer.’ To me, having many awards is a way to show professionalism, a unique vision, and commitment.

ASMP: Have contacts you’ve made, through the competitions you’ve entered or awards you’ve received, opened up any opportunities to you?

NS: My awarded images get published, giving me visibility in a crowded marketplace. On the fine-art side this has led to a few print sales to collectors.

ASMP: You made a Blurb book called Passages. Had you made a book of your images before this? What have you learned about this distinct art form, the book?

NS: I have used Blurb and MagCloud to make small copies of my portfolio to give clients. Passages was my first self-published book. It was more of an experiment, a proof of concept. I find it almost impossible to widely market self-publishing. I am actually in conversations with a publisher, which would make large distribution possible.

ASMP: In February 2013, you were part of the ASMP Roundtable panel, “Photography in the World of Social Media.” In your opinion, what was one of the most important statements or conclusions made during that discussion?

NS: That social media is here to stay and is one of the most important elements of a marketing strategy.

ASMP: What is your experience with and perspective on social media that led you to be on this panel? Please briefly describe how you incorporate social media in your business strategy.

NS: I guess that 10 years working at HP as a solution strategist for the digital imaging group (among other positions) somehow qualified me to have some sort of opinion. Having said that, I have to confess that I am not the best marketer of my own work. I have a blog (which I do not update as often as I should!), and I maintain relationships on Facebook and LinkedIn. I sometimes publish personal images on Instagram. I maintain portfolios on various sites (APA, ASMP, Foundfolios, Dripbook, etc).

ASMP: You also shoot video. For how long have you worked with this medium? Please talk about your learning curve with video.

NS: Video is still relatively new to me. I still prefer to capture the essence of a concept or story in a single image. But ultimately, the fundamental elements of story telling, light, composition and mood are similar, and I do not exclude that I will want to explore this medium more in the near future.

ASMP: What do you enjoy most about working with video, and what do you find most challenging?

NS: I like having more breathing room to tell a story. Video is much more of a collaborative effort, which can be exciting and challenging at the same time. The equipment is very different, and it can be challenging to stay up to date in both still and motion.

ASMP: Tell us about your experience with stock photography. What percentage of your time do you devote to creating and marketing images for stock?

NS: Honestly, it is not a key component; it is more of an after-thought. As such, the income is quite small. It is normal as I spend little time on it. I find it challenging when I get spread too thin and have to choose my ‘battles.’ I am not saying this is the right strategy, just where I’m at right now.

ASMP: In your project 3 Eyes, you collaborate with a painter and a calligrapher. How did this collaboration come about? Did you enjoy working with two other individuals? Explain how the creation process worked between all of you.

NS: It has been wonderful. The work starts with one of my abstract images, which is then re-interpreted by a painter and finally by a calligrapher. It is exciting to see the work evolve and change, to absorb different angles and interpretations. In this case I would say that the end result is more than the sum of the parts. It has required a lot of learning about how to integrate different mediums. It’s allowed me to learn about different mediums and ways of seeing. And it taught all of us to work together without making any one part more (or less) dominant.

ASMP: Please talk about the business climate in San Francisco. Do you do a lot of local client work, or do you often travel for assignments? What marketing strategies do you use to reach clients locally and abroad?

NS: Again, it differs between commercial and fine art. My agent for commercial work is in New York and is very large in Europe, which is part of my longer-term desire to have clients on both sides of the ocean. Frankly, I still think that to reach clients you need to have some sort of local presence, either with visits or agents or galleries.

ASMP: What business strategies do you think are key to employ in today’s commercial environment?

NS: I think that photography is becoming more about a unique vision than technical skills and know-how. As such, I try to continue exploring my vision with personal shoots, with my series, with peer reviews and collaborations.

ASMP: What projects, personal or professional, are you currently planning? Where do you see yourself in five years’ time?

NS: I just finished a large remodel of our new studio, which took a lot of time and money. But I now have a much better playground! I’ve started a new series, but it is too early to talk about it. I’ve become very involved with the NorCal chapter of ASMP, which I find very exciting. I continue to live and breath photography and only hope that in five years it will be the same — that I’ll still have the same energy, excitement and commitment.