First off, thanks so much for having me on Solstice Retouch! I’ve been an admirer of your work for some time. I’m very humbled that you’ve chosen to ask me about my story.
My name is Theo Civitello, and I am a 25 year old photographer and graphic designer born and raised in Houston, Texas. I’ve lived all over the city, primarily in neighborhoods like the Heights, Rice Military and Montrose. Growing up, I must have acquired a sense of design from my parents, my dad being an architect and my mom feverishly revamping and remodeling each successive house to be more aesthetically pleasing. In addition, my stepmother, a successful children’s book writer and illustrator, was always adding a creative twist to the mix when I was growing up. You would think that with all this influence that I would be creatively charged right off the bat, but in fact I was quite the opposite. I was largely uninterested in drawing, painting and other creative outlets with the exception of writing, which I did frequently.
Photography wasn’t a large part of my life until much later on. In the summer of 2003 my dad, stepmother and sister booked a trip to Paris to explore the city for 2 weeks. Having never before been overseas, I was excited, but not truly prepared for the culture shock that I would experience while there. Upon arriving, I was totally blown away by the utter night and day difference when compared to Houston. Houston simply paled in comparison to Paris, a city steeped in history, tradition and art. Suddenly immersed in this amazing place, I searched for a way to document what I was seeing so that I could hold on to this feeling in the future. Not having a camera of any kind, I resorted to borrowing my dad’s 20-something year old Olympus OM-1 that he’d brought along for the trip. With only one 35mm manual focus lens, manual metering and a few rolls of black and white film, I was forced to take a crash course in the basics of photography from my dad while sitting under the shadow of the Eiffel Tower. While the photos I took were nothing to write home about, in those two weeks in Paris my love for photography was born and began to grow exponentially. (Sidenote: You can see those photos here, if you’d like).
After graduating from high school in 2004, I moved to Nacogdoches, Texas to attend Stephen F Austin State University. Having no clue as to what I wanted to major in upon arriving, I declared that I was an undecided major and started taking core classes to hopefully gain some sort of guidance. During my sophomore year, I enrolled in an advertising and marketing program which I immediately became drawn to. I eventually changed my major to advertising with a minor in graphic design. During this time, I still had an unshakable itch for photography that seemingly haunted me. I owned a 1996 Acura Integra at the time, and always found myself snapping terrible photos of it with my cell phone’s camera. Having a little money saved up, I decided that it was time to buy a camera of my own. In April of 2006 I bought a brand new Nikon D50 SLR kit and began to take shots of my car, trying (and failing) to mimic the photos I’d seen in magazines like Car & Driver, Automobile and Motor Trend (Sidenote: You can see some weak attempts here). I was amazed at the way these photographers could portray these vehicles, like shiny jewels against epic landscapes – and sorely jealous that my lowly D50 and I were not up to par. I soaked up all the technical information I could from photo magazines, forums and online tutorials, slowly gathering a better appreciation for composition, lighting and other important aspects. While in school, two more trips to Europe in both 2006 and 2007 further solidified my love for photography and travel.
Photography was still more of a hobby to me, and I remained focused on the goal of working in media marketing after school. I interned at a large media marketing company in Los Angeles in the summer of 2008 and graduated from SFA in December of 2008. I moved back to Houston to begin the job search, which lasted a little over a year until I obtained a sales position at a large local company. In the time between graduating and working with that company, the stress of “real life” resulted in the camera generally sitting unused and collecting dust in its bag. Probably because of that, I began to feel stagnant in my current position, unhappy with spending all my waking hours in a gray cube on the phone with customers. Noticing this, my girlfriend Ashleigh urged me to take the camera out again and begin shooting. Insisting that it would be possible for me to take paying gigs and actually turn a profit using my photos, she urged me to think about quitting my job and working freelance. I initially dismissed this idea in favor of a bimonthly paycheck, but it remained in the back of my head, growing all the time. I had been taking small paying gigs as the months went on and was making more money on the side, which began to make me a little more comfortable with the idea of venturing off on my own. Finally in May of 2011, Ashleigh’s gentle coaxing paid off and I officially quit my day job to pursue photography and design full time.
Admittedly I was extremely anxious in the beginning, having stepped out into the vast unknown with no net. The gear I’d amassed, which I still use, was a Nikon D700, a Nikkor 80-200mm f2.8, Nikkor 105mm f2.8, Nikkor 85mm f1.8, Nikkor 50mm 1.8, a SB 600, a SB 900 and various wireless triggers, softboxes and other equipment. Primarily an automotive photographer up until this point, I began to second shoot at weddings and stand in on portrait shoots in order to learn from professional photographers. I was amazed at some of the portrait and wedding photographers that I saw on Flickr and other photo sharing websites, and wanted to try my hand at it. To this day, it has been one of the most eye opening experiences dealing with photography, where I was able to absorb great information from seasoned professionals while working on the job. I took this knowledge gained from second shooting and began to branch out on my own. With continued effort and determination I was able to start booking gigs for both automotive and wedding photography. I am most proud of a private collection of amazing vehicles I shot for the auction house Bonhams & Butterfields, which received interest from a few news outlets.
Thus far, it has been an extremely tough yet extremely rewarding experience that I wouldn’t trade for anything. I now realize that my biggest mistake in the past was not taking my talents seriously. I saw photography as nothing more than a hobby and ignored any potential that it held for far too long. If I could now give advice to someone in a similar position that I was in, I would tell them to trust themselves and their talent. If they believe deep inside that they are capable of doing what they love full time, push aside the fear and go for it. Is it hard? Yes. Is it scary? Yes. Will it fail? Maybe. But you won’t get another chance, so take the opportunity once it presents itself. Don’t let it become something you wish you’d always done. I have my girlfriend to thank for the constant motivation that slowly made me believe that I could do this. If there’s someone in your life doing the same, listen to them – it just may pay off.
Today, I am trying to diversify my portfolio and continue to improve in all aspects. I always believe that once you feel you don’t need to improve further, your work becomes stagnant. The photographers I look up to are always moving, always innovating, and I strive to do the same.
Thanks very much for checking out my story, and please feel free to ask any questions you’d like, I’d be happy to answer them!
We thank Theo for his great story! Feel free to check out his work at:
or through his flickr at: