“There was one newspaper in the county, the Daily Record,” the now-grown but equally precocious Lippisch remembers. “I was into photography in high school and on the staff of the yearbook and all that, and I thought, “I’m tired of hauling these papers around!’ I knew a photographer on the paper and talked to him, and he had me talk to the owner of the newspaper. I’m 16, and I went from tossing papers on people’s porches to talking to the top boss! The next thing I knew, I was a newspaper photographer shooting high school basketball.”
That apple-cheeked, all-American boy ironically came from, yo, Brooklyn. “My dad got a job at Rubbermaid out here in Ohio, so when I was 5 we left the Big Apple,” Lippisch says. “I really consider Ohio my home.” So, of course, after getting his BFA from the Rochester Institute of Technology in 1979, running his own studio in Wooster for a couple of years, and then side-tripping briefly to Cleveland as a photographer/producer of corporate multi-projector slide presentations, “I moved back to New York,” he says. “I lived in Astoria, Queens, for five years and got married around that time. My wife is from Cincinnati. She wanted to become an actress and I wanted to pursue photography. As I tell people,” he says, with a chuckle that lets you know he’s OK with it, “we were in search of fame and fortune and found neither. So we left.”
Lippisch is being modest, since he actually did well for himself in one of the hardest and most competitive cities on Earth. He became part of Manhattan’s downtown art scene, playing synthesizer with what he calls “an improvisational fusion band.” Also as with any young shooter in the big city, he assisted established photographers.
“I came to New York thinking I was going to assist for Irving Penn,” Lippisch says with a laugh. “That didn’t happen, but Beth Galton was close to that level,” he adds, citing the renowned food and still-life photographer. “Beth had assisted for Michael O’Neil who was a legend in still-life photography in New York — he was fabulous with lighting — so I learned about lighting from him through her. I learned about dealing with high-level clients, I learned composition, and I learned how valuable it is to put together a team. She had a prop stylist who would go to antique and junk stores and had an eye for buying exactly the right thing. You’d have a table full of watches, and she could pick any one of them out, drop it into the frame, and it’d look perfect. As a team, they were almost telepathic. I also worked with still-life, conceptual and X-ray photographer David Arky.”
Lippisch’s dad, who worked in product design, was a picture-taking hobbyist who encouraged his son’s photography. When Lippisch pere left Rubbermaid for a job at competitor Sterilite in Massachusetts, he recommended Alex when photo needs arose. Of course, as anyone who’s taken product shots for a major corporation can tell you, dad or no dad, your pictures have to be slick and hot enough to push the merchandise or else you can just put your camera on a shelf. Lippisch had the goods. “I’d go to their headquarters outside Boston and shoot there for a few days on location in their offices,” he says. “I stayed alive with that account and did that for several years.” Then came the opportunity for a full-time staff job at the now-gone Boston ad agency McDougall Associates.
One of their accounts was Gorton’s Seafood. “Because they were a high-level client,” Lippisch says of the frozen-fish giant, “everything’s complicated. You’d have five people from Gorton’s all with a different opinion of how the picture should look, plus and art director and an account executive trying to keep everybody happy, and me and an assistant, and a food stylist. During these shoots, after several hours we wouldn’t have anything useable. They’d keep changing props and trying different things, and I would be like a U.N. peacekeeper: ‘OK, David, hold on a second, what I hear you saying is you want color. Cheryl, I know color doesn’t matter to you, but you want such-and-so.’ I was like a therapist.
“Often, clients don’t know what they want,” he explains. “The think they do, they have an inkling or a few ideas, but they haven’t been able to boil it down. The objective is to help them define their vision, to find what’s really important to them, and they won’t know it till they see it. Your job as a photographer is to help them verbalize what they want, and then show them an example so they can see if that’s really it.”
But then came desktop publishing and online stock databases. “Stock photography replaced a lot of what I was shooting,” Lippisch recalls. “I saw the future coming, and at first I didn’t know what to do. Then I noticed art directors negotiating with stock-photo agencies. I told my boss, ‘I can do that — I know photos, I know the process.’ So I became the art buyer at that agency — only because there wasn’t much else for me to do. Desperate times call for desperate measures.”
Around that time, with an infant daughter now in the picture, Lippisch and his wife Nancy began to miss Ohio. “We used to come back here for holidays,” he says, “and every time we used to say, ‘Gee, it would be nice to come back here to live.’ We wanted to give our kids the kinds of childhoods we had.” With Nancy now a nurse, the Lippisch family traded Boston for Medina, Ohio. But transferring his photography business and starting over wasn’t easy.
“The first year was unbelievably tough,” he recalls. “I’d had a studio in Wooster for a couple years after college. I was the best commercial photographer in my little county, so it was a cakewalk. But most of the people I knew had either moved onto another job where they didn’t hire photographers, or had moved away period, or their memory wasn’t as good as mine and there wasn’t that little click you need where they say, ‘Oh, sure, I’ll be glad to call when I need photography. The two things that really saved me is my friends in this area, and the ASMP [American Society of Media Photographers].” One friend was the local chapter’s president, who introduced Lippisch to a commercial photographer “who was already very digital. I knew I had to learn all I could about digital if I were going to survive. I practically worked for free so I could use his equipment. Then I started shooting for his clients, and that’s how I got back on my feet.”
What he’s gotten in his hands lately are the Panasonic Lumix and the point-and-shoot TZ3. “I was surprised how good it is in automatic mode,” he says of the latter, “and at how much detail it captures. I am also impressed with the little innovations, such as the feature where if you hold the camera up high, like over a crowd, the viewfinder view shifts so that you can see it from an angle.”
Lippisch, who counts the Bauhaus and Russian Constructivist art as inspirations, as well as the Dadaist artist Marcel Duchamp and the surrealist Man Ray, has had a career of clients that include Time-Life Books, Sylvania, GE, Marriott Hotels, Digital Equipment Corporation and Prudential-Bache. He found his niche in industrial and commercial photography, since you can’t find stock photos of custom-manufactured products, and a computer can’t light them like he can. He and his wife wound up raising two daughters — one now 18, the other 15 – amid the greenery of Ohio.
“The ability to think creatively and see differently – that’s what you need to be a photographer: Lippisch says. “Then the technical skills to manifest your ideas.”
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