Photo by Danny Fulgencio

Many of the pretty pictures in advertising for Sam’s, Neiman Marcus and J.C. Penney are made in a 15,000-square-foot warehouse in the design district. This is the headquarters for Manny Rodriguez, who is one of the top commercial photographers in Dallas. Rodriguez was born in Cuba, raised in Miami and moved to Dallas in ’94. He and his wife, Vanessa Semifero, have lived near Kidd Springs Park for 10 years. Rodriguez, who turned pro as a teenager, specializes in food photography and home fashions. He recently sat down with us to talk about life, photography and his plans for an Oak Cliff studio.


How did you get into photography?
I bought my first camera, a Canon FTB, for $379. It was a 50-mm with F/1.2 lens, case and three rolls of Kodak film with processing. I was 18, and I had literally never taken a picture before. I read the manual and just fell in love with the idea of processing and printing and all that. Then I got my first assistant job at 19. They called me in on a Saturday, after waiting for three months. My first day on the job was Sunday, and I worked for 21 days straight. I knew that’s what I wanted to do right out of high school. I remember a Sunday morning taking a picture of downtown Miami, and I said to myself, “I have to make this a career.”


So you’re self-taught?
Well, I took a lot of workshops. I took a workshop in Winona, Ind., on commercial photography. And reading the entire 21-volume Kodak encyclopedia … people ignore the manual, but they’re a course in photography. If you buy a camera and read the manual, you will learn a lot about photography.


Tell us a little about what you do. You’re a food photographer?
In the last five or six years, I’ve been getting tons of food. I haven’t always been a food shooter. I’ve always been a home fashions type of shooter. We’ve been doing the Neiman Marcus holiday book, all food-oriented, since ’98. That was one of my biggest food clients. But I shoot a lot of food for Sam’s Club. We do the in-store signs for the meat and produce departments. It’s kind of cool to see that in the stores.


Are there a lot of tricks to food photography?
Fifteen years ago, yes. Today, the trend for a long time has been to make it look as real as possible. You have to have very skilled food stylists who know how food should look. They have to know how to cook and prepare it well and make it look pretty.


How did you get into shooting home fashions?
I had a mom who was very much into decorating and doing things around the house. She taught me from a very young age to hang drapes, move the furniture around, find the right artwork. She always had me involved. It wasn’t that my mom had great taste, but she always had me involved. She was also a seamstress.


Do you have any advice for young photographers?
Shoot a lot. I don’t think they shoot enough. They go to school and do the assignments. Nowadays, you have to have a passion for photography because if you don’t, you’re not going to make it. There are too many good photographers out there. You have to shoot, shoot, shoot and discover what you’re good at. Clients want someone who can bring something to the table. If you don’t have an opinion, and you don’t have a passion, they’ll never call you again.


This seems like a fun place to work.
I think we give our clients very high-quality pictures. They like to be here. It’s a drama-free environment where we come to have fun. It’s not like they’re coming to work. It’s like being at home. In Cuba, we say, ‘Love enters through the kitchen.’ It’s kind of the same way in the studio. Feed people, give them something to drink, have some good music for your soundtrack, and life is good.


I heard you have plans for a new studio in Oak Cliff.
We moved here in 2004, and we went from about 2,000 square feet to 15,000 square feet. That has allowed us to attract bigger clients, but we don’t use most of this space. So we are working on buying the yellow brick house behind the Belmont, and we want to build a modern barn-style studio behind it, attached by a corridor. We are working on that.