Transitioning at 40: How Christina Gandolfo Built Her Portrait Photography Career
July 5, 2017
For Harvard Business School’s alumni magazine, Christina Gandolfo photographed a recent MBA grad and musician, Kiran Gandhi. Click to see more of Gandolfo's work.
Gandolfo photographed the owner of a taco truck in California’s Silicon Valley for Coupons.com.
For The New York Times, Gandolfo photographed children's books publishers Melissa Medina and Frederik Colting.
Christina Gandolfo specializes in colorful and quirky portraits of both people and pets for clients including The New York Times, Los Angeles Magazine, Coupons.com, Friskies, the DIY Network and many others. She was in her early 40s when she started landing her first magazine assignments, after transitioning from a 16-year career as a magazine writer and editor.
“Telling stories visually provided a challenge and freedom that made me feel happy and engaged,” she says. “What attracted me [to photography] was the connection between subject and photographer. I liked the surprising results.”
Because she was off to a late start, Gandolfo pushed herself to figure out lighting and develop a style quickly. She also got the attention of her first clients with her natural ability to connect with portrait subjects.
“There was a point that everyone was showing me dark, moody, serious portfolios. So when she showed me her book, I thought it was refreshing,” recalls photo editor Leslie dela Vega, who met Gandolfo in 2012 at an NYCFotoWorks portfolio review. “There was an energy about her images, as well as the amazing ability to loosen up her subjects, who were relaxed, comfortable and natural with her.”
Gandolfo grew up in Orange County and Palm Springs. She studied photojournalism at San Diego State University, but ended up working first as a reporter, then a magazine writer and editor. She was in Minneapolis in 2005, working for a start-up magazine called Her Sports + Fitness—it is now called Women’s Running—when she was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 37.
She started documenting the experience to help her process it. “It was the best therapy for me. Once I finished treatment, I kept shooting,” she says. She approached a local photographer for an internship. The photographer suggested she take a lighting course at a local technical college. “I learned the fundamentals [of lighting] that I’m still using today,” Gandolfo says.
She practiced her lighting skills on her cats, which eventually led her to pet photography. At the same time, she practiced portraiture on the children of friends. Word got around that she was good, and Gandolfo started charging for family portraits. In the back of her mind, she thought about reaching out to magazines for work—she knew the business and had connections—“but I wanted to wait until I was ready,” she says.
Through the creative director at Women’s Running, Gandolfo got a job in San Diego as a studio manager for photographer Tim Tadder. “I quickly learned that I wasn’t the studio manager type. I wanted to shoot,” she says. So she moved to Los Angeles, where she shot family portraits while she built a portfolio. She ended up shooting headshots for friends who were actors, and their managers started sending other actors for headshots.
“That was a training ground for me,” Gandolfo says. “I would shoot the headshots they needed, and use [the sessions] as an opportunity to practice editorial portraiture.” She took a few cues from photographer Ty Milford, whom she knew from her magazine days, and assisted a couple of times around 2010. “He put people at ease by being himself, by being an approachable person. I saw how that got him good results, and I thought: That’s a strength of mine, too. It reminded me that I should really use it,” Gandolfo says.
Her style evolved over the next couple of years. Portfolio reviews were a vital part of her development, she says. At her first portfolio review, she recalls that one reviewer told her: “I like your work but I’m not sure what I’d hire you for.” Comments such as that pushed her to create a consistent look. “For me, [my style] clicked just by making sure I was interacting with subjects” in a consistent way, she says.
Another important lesson she learned from portfolio reviews was about the limits of technical skill in photography. “Unless a photograph is moving you in some way, it doesn’t matter how [well] lit it is,” she says. “If someone isn’t feeling something, it’s not successful.”
Soon, the reviews were paying off for Gandolfo with assignments. For instance, she signed up for a review at an American Photographic Artists/LA chapter event in 2011 where Sharon Suh, former photo director of Los Angeles Magazine, was one of the reviewers. Suh ended up hiring her to make 30 studio portraits for a special women’s issue.
In 2012, Gandolfo invested in the NYCFotoWorks portfolio reviews to get an audience with dela Vega, then DOP for Fast Company. Dela Vega hired Gandolfo to shoot a portrait of Issa Rae, when Rae was an emerging talent.
From those assignments and relationships, Gandolfo steadily built her career. She cultivated relationships with Suh’s successors, Amy Feitelberg and Jennifer Dorn, and has shot dozens of assignments for Los Angeles Magazine over the last several years. And since dela Vega joined The New York Times last year, Gandolfo has shot several assignments for that publication.
Meanwhile, Gandolfo has been landing commercial work, too. From one of her first promos, in 2014, she got an assignment from the DIY Network to shoot promotional images for a show called The Treehouse Guys. She also signed with Glasshouse Assignment for representation in 2014, after they saw one of her 2012 Issa Rae portraits, which had been licensed by People (and other publications). Since then, Gandolfo has shot campaigns for Coupons.com and Friskies.
Gandolfo got the Friskies campaign after meeting with art producer Laura Tamburino, who was at the time with the brand’s ad agency Avrett Free Ginsberg. “We had corresponded by email and I’d bid on a couple of jobs but it wasn’t until the face-to-face [meeting] that I actually got awarded a campaign,” Gandolfo says. “My most powerful marketing [has been] the face-to-face meeting.”
Gandolfo says starting a photography career after 40 has advantages and disadvantages. On the positive side, her experience gives her maturity and patience. She knows how the editorial business works, and how to be both persistent and gracious with editors. The disadvantage, she says, is that she’s not as adept as younger photographers with social media, and clients put a premium on youth in their perpetual search for new photographers.
“I let my work speak for itself,” she says. “Can clients tell how old I am by looking at my work? I don’t think so.”
Her advice to other aspiring photographers is: “Have a consistent vision, and stick to it,” then identify the publications and ad agencies that fit your style of photography and persist in trying to get meetings with them, at portfolio reviews or at their offices, if you can. “Understand that it’s a process,” Gandolfo says. Launching your career “doesn’t happen overnight. You’ll have peaks and valleys, and hopefully each time you peak, you’ll be a little higher.”