Angelo Merendino Photographs Cleveland’s Most Interesting People for Cleveland Magazine

Jan 9, 2020
Photographer Spotlight

Freelancers are constantly searching for some sense of stability for their careers. While it’s fun to have the flexibility to take on assignments at a moment’s notice, it’s also nice to have reliable clients who can get you work year after year. Practically, it means a consistent paycheck. Professionally, it means consistent opportunities to improve your craft. For the portraiture photographer, getting better imagery usually results from spending as much time with the subjects as possible (think here bathroom breaks, naptimes, breakfast, etc.). For example, Angelo Merendino has shot Cleveland Magazine’s annual “Most Interesting People” issue each of the last three years. Through trial and error, the Clevelander has come up with a way to set up his gear that lets him give the subjects his undivided attention.

This year, I did my best to simplify my set up so I could be present and focused on each person. As a result, I had fewer of those “why didn’t I do it this way?” moments than I’ve had in the past. 

Cover tear

I think this is the strongest of the MIP issues I’ve photographed.

Angelo, who has worked with CM since 2014, had to create portraiture of 27 of the MIPs because three recipients provided their own photographs for the issue. The Midwesterner shot most of the people at a party thrown for the honorees in downtown Cleveland.

This year’s event was held in the ballroom of a restaurant. The party was three hours long, including approximately thirty minutes for the presentation of awards to the recipients. Aside from at the party, I photographed one person in my studio and another on location at The Cleveland Clinic.

Since this isn't Angelo’s first go-around with Cleveland Magazine — nor his first rodeo in general — he knows to take as many precautions as possible in order to keep the shoot running at an efficient pace. This is especially important for the MIP work, considering how little time the veteran portraitist has with each subject. With help from his assistants and staffers from the publication, Angelo gets the job done in a timely fashion.

I make sure that I have all of the equipment I'll need (and then some), that all batteries are charged, and that everything is working properly. I also bring a backup camera body, a duplicate of each lens, and another laptop if I’m shooting tethered. If I only have a few minutes with someone, the last thing I want is for my gear to fail. 

New name
Musician Paul Sidoti; LGBTQ Community Center of Greater Cleveland Executive Director Phyllis Harris

The cost of buying additional equipment is worth it to know that I am covered in case something malfunctions. Once we are set up and the shoot begins, I try to let my brain take a backseat to my gut and just make photographs. 

To best show how a shoot like this works, Angelo created a timelapse of the process. Notice how close the photographer is to his subjects while he gets shots of them. By getting the grunt work out of the way well before the honored guests arrive, Angelo can dedicate every second of the little time he has with each MIP to them.

My assistant and I arrived early to set up and dial in our lighting. From my past experience with these events, I know things can get hectic really quickly, and I didn’t want to feel rushed. Once I started photographing people, the night passed in the blink of an eye, and I tried to stay present and enjoy the evening. Thankfully, there was always someone from the magazine working to gather MIPs and keeping a list to ensure that we didn’t miss anyone, which was incredibly helpful.

Over-equipped and on site early is a great starting point when it comes to covering your bases ahead of an assignment. As for the shoot itself, Angelo went with a more streamlined approach to setting up his backdrops and whittled down the range of shot types to ensure he was getting quality imagery of each MIP, which you can get a sense of in the timelapse video. 

For the party in 2017 and 2018, we set up three nine-foot seamless rolls, each a different color, and I shot a range from tight shots to full length.

BTS to check all the boxes

This year, we used light gray and dark gray seamlesses, both 53 inches, and I shot everything waist up and tighter. Instead of making two sets, we just rotated one seamless in for the other depending on what the person was wearing.

Now that we’ve set the scene, let’s learn about some of these MIPs, shall we? Cleveland being a diehard sports town, this list is inevitably going to feature athletes and coaches from the local teams, like Indians pitcher Shane Bieber, Browns punter Jamie Gillan, and Cavaliers head coach John Beilein. But there are so many fascinating people of all ages — we’re talking from ten years old to 90 years young — doing compelling work in an assortment of fields. Like this guy:

Basheer Jones

This is Basheer Jones, Cleveland's first Muslim City Councilman. Homeless at eight years old, Jones began writing poetry while living in a shelter in downtown Cleveland and has since authored two books, worked as a radio host, and become a public speaker on the way to holding office. A run for Mayor may also be in the cards in the not-too-distant future. Learning all of this is what Angelo wants to focus on — and can do so because he’s cut his setup time significantly over the three years he’s done this project.   

I think CM likes the connections I make with the people I'm photographing. It’s easy to get caught up in the technical side of photography, which is undoubtedly important. But in my approach, I try to always remain aware of the fact that the most important part of a portrait is the person being photographed.

Perhaps Cleveland’s most world-renowned attraction is the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, for which the director of curatorial affairs is Nwaka Onwusa. The first person in her family to attend college, Nwaka now spends her days acquiring prized artifacts for new exhibits and hanging out with inductees when they come to town.

Nwaka Onwusa

Most of the individuals I’ve photographed during these shoots have been easygoing. Sometimes, people are uncomfortable being photographed, which is probably the most challenging part of a shoot like this one — creating a space where someone can feel comfortable enough to relax and doing so in a short amount of time.

I asked Angelo to name a favorite honoree from this year’s batch, an admittedly tough call for the photographer. After some pondering, he settled on Dorothy Silver, a 90-year-old theater legend with more than seven decades of work under her belt. A veteran of nearly 300 plays, Dorothy continues to act well into her golden years.

I photographed Dorothy a few years ago, and we’ve kept in touch since then. I’ve learned a lot from Dorothy, and it was wonderful to make her portrait once again.

Doesn't look 90 at all

Dorothy is one of those individuals who makes you want to be a better person. Meeting people like her is one of my favorite parts of being a photographer.

Angelo marries a technical proficiency with a desire to learn about and from the people he photographs. It’s this enthusiasm for the work, along with the crisp final deliverables, that keeps him in Cleveland Magazine’s good graces. A thoughtful, diligent photographer, Angelo uses this assignment to evolve as an artist — and will continue to do so as long as the publication comes back to him for portraits.

Meeting these individuals who are passionate about their causes and careers is a great motivator for me to dig deeper into my own work.

New name
Rapper Ezri; Newspaper columnist Andrea Simakis

I’m thankful that Cleveland Magazine has trusted me to make these photographs for the last three years. When I look back at each year, I can see how I’ve grown as a photographer. It’s good to take a minute and look back at where I’ve come from in order to keep a fresh perspective moving forward.

Credits:

Managing Editor: Kim Schneider
Art Director: Maria Amador
Associate Art Director, Cover Designer: Erin Stinard
Photo Assistants: Jeani Brechbill, Michael Larkey
Makeup/Stylist: Kellie Thomson

Check out more of Angelo's work at angelomerendino.com.

Check out our other great photographers on our Find Photographers page!