Everything has a story. Dean Alexander’s studio is full of them.
Alexander works from a converted post office in Baltimore’s Federal Hill neighborhood. Brick houses surround the building, and inside, there are too many spaces to explore: The huge area where Alexander builds his sets and shoots photos. An enclave that rewards stylists with enough natural light to perfect hair and makeup. The bathroom, with a luxurious claw-foot bathtub that models can relax in postshoot. And a comfy hangout nook. Here, Alexander sits on a green couch, cradling a mug of hazelnut coffee as an oil painting of three figures floating in a tub on a stormy sea looms overhead.
“There’s an apartment on the second floor of the studio,” says Alexander, looking up. “Karl Connolly rented that apartment from [my wife and I]. He painted that when he was in graduate school, and it showed at the Walters Art Museum. He’s an amazing artist; he paints in a completely different style now—ultramodern lines.”
Sharp-eyed fans familiar with Alexander’s work might recognize the couch that the director and photographer is sitting on, which served as a prop in a brand film for Georgetown Optician titled “Our Family Knows Glasses.” Alexander’s work for the eyewear brand—created with Washington, DC–based agency Design Army—will strike an instant chord with anyone who loves the quirky aesthetic of The Addams Family and The Royal Tenenbaums. It has certainly swept judges at the London Fashion Film Festival, Communication Arts’ 2016 Photography Competition and the One Show off their feet.
Such accolades reflect how solid Alexander’s relationship with Design Army has become. After cofounding Design Army in 2003, Jake and Pum Lefebure—chief executive officer and chief creative officer respectively—kept track of Alexander’s work for years before collaborating with him in 2009 on a project for Washingtonian Bride & Groom magazine. “Fast forward to 2018, and we can’t even count the number of shoots or awards we’ve won working with Dean,” the Lefebures state.
“Design Army is a very hands-on agency, and to us, Dean is like a partner, not a vendor,” says Pum Lefebure. “He works with our creative team every step of the way, from scouting to art directing to bringing the vision together for the client. The best part about working with Dean is that we like the same things, so there isn’t a lot of guessing on the day of the shoot.”
“The Georgetown Optician films—motion and still—were one-day shoots,” Alexander says. “People think we’re lying when we say that.”
Another recent collaboration between Alexander and Design Army promotes CityCenterDC, an urban mixed-use development in Washington, DC. In the spot, dancers from The Washington Ballet—which Alexander and Design Army have also created work for—perform a choreographed dance, wearing brightly colored clothes that pop against the gray, contemporary-style architecture of the development. A humorous vein runs through the work, with its strong focus on repetition and surreal aesthetics—similar to the ambience that pervades the Georgetown Optician campaigns.
“For CityCenterDC, we had a clear objective of what we had to show and shoot, but Dean’s great eye came into play on this production,” Jake Lefebure recalls. “He captured the movement and energy flawlessly. We also shot it in the fall, in the rain, in the cold—but you would never be able to tell. Dean has a great technical side that complements his creative mind.”
Alexander’s creativity continually pushes him to explore new boundaries of storytelling. “For me, having a well-executed image that is beautiful—but also has a thread of humor or fashion—feels a lot more memorable,” he explains. “You might have these neat little packages in your head—
you know what humor is, you know what a fashion shoot is—but when everything starts to get mixed up, you pay attention to it more. I’ve always been fascinated with where everything intersects.”
This fascination with intersections began fueling Alexander from an early age. Raised near Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, right on the state’s border with Maryland, his interest in photography bloomed during a special-interest photography course at his middle school. “My dad was trusting enough to let me use his SLR [single-lens reflex camera], which was bold of him,” Alexander says with a laugh. “We had a toy closet down in the basement, and I cleared out all the toys and made it into a darkroom. And—excuse the pun—it clicked for me.”
After winning several student photography competitions at the local, state and national levels while in high school, Alexander was even more certain of his desire to work in photography, but continued exploring how to apply his love for the medium. An interest in intersectional and multimedia art brought him to Baltimore. “I went to University of Maryland, Baltimore County because it had a program that blurred the lines between still photography, film, multimedia, music and performing arts,” he says.
“I thought, ‘I’ll be an aerial photographer,’” recalls Alexander, whose father worked for the Air National Guard at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland. “And then when I started to teach skiing, I thought, ‘I’m going to be a ski photographer!’ And then I was travelling internationally a lot, and I thought, ‘I’m going to be a National Geographic guy.’ So I applied photography to everything that was an interest in life, but I knew that I would be a photographer.”
Out of school, Alexander worked on the society page of the Baltimore Sun newspaper and for USA Today magazine as a stringer, but eventually recognized that photojournalism wasn’t his calling. “I felt like my strength was more in producing photos that didn’t exist yet,” he says. “[Conceptual shots] were just fun; it was being able to be a sanctioned smartass, in a lot of ways. Whatever you’re supposed to shoot, you can put a little fun twist on the whole thing.” This ethos would carry him to work for ad agencies. Eventually, he cofounded a studio with a friend before striking out on his own in the late 1990s.
Though Alexander had originally set his sights on New York or Los Angeles, he found a home base in Baltimore that’s proven to be as creatively stimulating as it is convenient. From his studio, “you can walk to Penn Station [the major train hub in Baltimore], and the Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport is ten minutes away,” he says. “So if we’re shooting in my studio and using New York–based models or stylists, we’ll typically bring them in the evening before, they’ll stay overnight, we shoot the next day and they go home that night. If we shoot with models out in Miami, they fly from Miami that morning, we shoot and they go home.
“And the talent in Baltimore is mind-boggling,” he continues, noting that sometimes when he’s out on location out of town, he finds himself wishing that he had brought local Baltimore set builders or stylists with him.
Bold, fun concepts continue to underpin much of Alexander’s work. For IBM, he visited everywhere from California to London to Shanghai from 2006 to 2013 to shoot a series of photos for the company’s business materials; each shot translates a concept into a carefully considered visual metaphor. “This would be innovation,” says Alexander, pulling up an image of an agricultural field on his computer. “This is the Imperial Valley in California, which is in the middle of the desert. Because the farmers irrigate [their fields] off the Colorado River and put these furrows in with GPS technology that are perfectly straight, [they’re able to grow] most of the United States’ produce in the winter months from this valley.”
The emotion and the conceptual elements that Alexander imbues in his work have fueled what has proven to be another longstanding creative relationship. Trevor Villet, group creative director of Baltimore-based creative brand agency Planit, hired Alexander in 2004 to shoot chemical-
delivery pipes for a technical business-to-business print piece. “[My partner at the time and I] wanted to inject some emotion into something very rarely viewed as emotional, and we came across this guy whose photography work was heavily emotional,” Villet recalls. “But I distinctly remember seeing a few scientific shots in his portfolio in which he captured something very interesting, real and nonclinical. We hired Dean for the job and descended upon Scranton, Pennsylvania, in the middle of a snowstorm, and he delivered in every single way.”
For the Under Armour soccer campaign that Alexander recently worked on with Planit, the agency’s design team contrasted Alexander’s product shots with his lifestyle photographs. Villet credits Alexander for imbuing the typically hardcore pro-athlete brand with approachability. “[Dean] just sees so many possibilities and would rather go down a few rabbit holes than risk missing the chance at something better than the comp,” Villet says. “What he brought to our Under Armour work is an eye for where it can go without pushing it too far from its bounds.”
It’s these types of projects—the ones that defy clichés—that excite Alexander the most. And who better to help tell their stories than him. “That’s my whole wheelhouse,” he says. “I want to constantly be in unfamiliar territory.” ca