Roger Cabello ’85 slathers, dollops, swirls, and dabs cosmetics into abstract masterpieces

My shrink once told me, ‘I don’t know if you’re going to be a painter or a photographer,’” Roger Cabello says. “Now I make abstract paintings and photograph them.”

He’s a painter, all right, but his medium is makeup. The Peruvian-born Photography grad has made a career of shooting all kinds of cosmetics—foundation, lip gloss, shampoo, nail color—in blobs, crumbles, swirls, and smears. While working for Allure magazine in the early aughts, he perfected the now-ubiquitous style of photographing makeup out of its packaging, highlighting textures and colors so enticing you can’t help wanting to touch it, put it on your face, or maybe even eat it. In addition to photographing 900 pages of cosmetics for Allure, he has also shot features for Glamour, Harper’s Bazaar, Wired, and Vogue China. Estée Lauder, Bobbi Brown, Michael Kors, Sephora, and Avon have hired him for advertising and marketing campaigns.

At FIT, Cabello dreamed of a career in fashion photography, but after assisting John Manno and Constance Hansen, luminaries of still-life photography, he changed his focus. He shot accessories for Vogue for five years in his studio on Wooster Street in SoHo. But the work felt repetitive; there was only so much he could do to style a handbag or a pair of eyeglasses.

“I didn’t see a way of separating myself from the pack with accessories,” he says. “I wanted to do something with more of an impact.”

Roger Cabello ’85.

In 2000, he was hired by Deanna Filippo, Display and Exhibit Design ’88, who had just become design director of Allure, to photograph the magazine’s annual “Best of Beauty” feature—similar to the Academy Awards for the cosmetics industry, according to Filippo. Allure had pioneered the “blob” (photographing cosmetics without the packaging); Filippo and Cabello pushed the concept as far as it could go. Over the next 15 years, they developed an artistic style that defined his career— and a generation of makeup editorial.

“Every year we would try to outdo ourselves,” Filippo recalls. “We wanted the quality to be so good that we could blow it up and hang it in the Museum of Modern Art.”

MoMA has yet to acquire a piece, but a gallery in Peru has expressed interest in exhibiting a retrospective of Cabello’s work, mostly of those “Best of Beauty” images. (See page 17 for a sampling of his greatest hits.)

When Cabello walks into his studio—now located in his house near Poughkeepsie—he doesn’t know what the shot is going to look like. Instead, he relaxes completely, listening to instrumental music and loosening up his hands, and lets instinct take over. “If anybody talks to me, it’s done,” he says.

“I have to take a break or start over the next day.” He starts by trying out a variety of ideas, spreading the cosmetics around with brushes, sponges, and all manner of cooking utensils, and photographing the artwork every time he manipulates the cosmetics. Then he works with the editor or art director to sharpen some of the concepts, making them cleaner and more focused.

After hours, sometimes days, of being cooped up in an airless studio, the feedback can be hard to take. “I used to go through an angry period for half a day,” he says. “Then I would do the picture again, and it always evolved into something better. Now I don’t get angry anymore. I realized it was just the creative process.”

Shea Moisture Mineral Powder Foundation, which Cabello used to create this self-portrait, was developed by Jessica Vaccaro, Fashion Merchandising Management ’11, Prestige Innovation Marketing manager, and Lea Locascio Esposito, Cosmetics and Fragrance Marketing ’12, Prestige Innovation Marketing coordinator at Sundial Brands.

Jessica Vaccaro ’11.

Vaccaro and Esposito help develop and market cosmetics for the Farmingdale, NY–based Sundial Brands, including Nubian Heritage, Madame C.J. Walker Beauty Culture, and SheaMoisture. Vaccaro, who has been with the fast growing company four years, assists with the ethical sourcing of ingredients and works with chemists to perfect the formulations and shades. In addition to supporting product development and marketing, Esposito serves as SheaMoisture’s in-house makeup artist, doing demonstrations at customer events and for the brand’s Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat posts.

The Mineral Powder Foundation, sold at Target and Ulta Beauty, is remarkable as much for what it contains (shea butter sourced from co-ops in Ghana, as well as grape seed extract and vitamin E) as for what it doesn’t (parabens, petrolatum, pesticides, and more). Diversity is also important to the brand: SheaMoisture’s foundations come in 20 different shades, which suit a wide range of skin tones, including darker tones that were hard to find at mass retailers.

Lea Esposito ’12.

Market research bore that out. In developing SheaMoisture cosmetics, the team watched the shopping patterns of women of all ethnicities. “As darker-skinned women were shopping at a mass retailer,” Vaccaro says, “they were buying two to three different shades, then going home and mixing them to achieve a perfect shade for them.”

“When we see every shade we’ve created on the shelf,” Esposito says, “it’s very exciting, because we’ve developed it from the ground up.”

Oribe Bright Blonde and Silverati shampoos, which Cabello blended into sparkly ripples (above), were developed by Michele Burgess, Cosmetics and Fragrance Marketing ’08, Fine Arts ’06, director, product development, and Jennifer Lacy Smith, Cosmetics and Fragrance Marketing and Management ’07, vice president, packaging, at Oribe.

Oribe (pronounced OR-bay) is a stylist-driven hair-care line sold in 1,700 U.S. salons and select high-end specialty retailers. Cabello blended two shampoos: Bright Blonde, in a deep purple that combats brassiness in blonde tresses, and Silverati, a luminous silver cream that nourishes gray hair.

Jennifer Lacy Smith ’07 and Michele Burgess ’08.

To formulate these shampoos, Burgess started by researching beneficial ingredients that would appeal to consumers. Purple orchid extract, an anti-damage ingredient, went into the Bright Blonde line, and European silver fir extract, with hydrating properties, was incorporated into the Silverati line.

“At Oribe, the product development team creates the concepts,” Burgess says. “At other places I’ve worked, it’s more of a support role. We pull inspiration from wherever we can: a piece of art, a magazine article, or a color on the runway.”

Oribe’s bottles, designed by Smith, are objets d’art. Trained as a packaging engineer, Smith went through almost 40 shades of coral before settling on the Bright Blonde bottle color (below), and the white Silverati bottle was inspired by cloisonné, an enameling technique used on Fabergé eggs.

Oribe Bright Blonde shampoo.

The product development team is small but growing, as the company expands into skin care, fragrance, and hair accessories.

When Smith and Burgess joined in 2012, they were two of three employees in charge of expanding Oribe’s line. “We called ourselves the trifecta for a very long time,” Smith says. “Now we’re the quintet.”

L’Oreal Paris Colour Riche La Palette Lip, with which Cabello painted the images on the cover was developed by Orrea Light, Cosmetics and Fragrance Marketing and Management ’02, Cosmetics and Fragrance Marketing ’97, vice president of product development at L’Oréal Paris.

In addition to giving women of diverse backgrounds high-quality, sophisticated cosmetics at an affordable price point, L’Oréal Paris educates its customers in applying the products. La Palette Lip includes not only eight shades and three finishes of lip color, but also an application tool and professional tips.

Orrea Light ’02.

As vice president of product development, Light oversees all categories at L’Oréal Paris, including hair care, skin care, and makeup. Researching color trends is a key part of her job, but because the work must be done 12 to 18 months in advance, the runway isn’t as big a driver of cosmetics trends as one might think. Instead, she looks at textiles and yarns, art and architecture, and even the automotive industry, as the companies that create pigments for car paint also furnish color to cosmetics companies.

Light and her team test the colors on women of all ethnicities, to ensure that they will look good on the broadest possible range of people. “It’s fascinating to see who can wear what based on their lip tone, skin tone, the shape of their eyes, and their bone structure,” she says. “It’s like being a sociologist.”

In fact, this very process attracted her to the industry when she was a fashion design student at Parsons. While Light was observing a L’Oréal photo shoot, a chemist painted stripes of different foundations on her face and explained which one worked and why. “I learned that product marketing is quite different from traditional marketing: you’re working on the product while looking at consumer need, and working with research and innovation experts and chemists. I wanted to find out how I could be involved in this industry.” ◆


A sampling of Roger Cabello’s favorites over the years

To illustrate a Bobbi Brown eye pencil, Cabello asked the daughter of the company’s art director to make some lip prints, and he arranged the pencil and case into a sort of nose. However, he still had no eye, which had to be the focus of the image. In the shower the next morning, he conceived of using a pencil shaving. From there, he finished the piece quickly. The print later hung in the office of Bobbi Brown herself.


For this cosmic fusion of blue and green nail polishes for Vogue China, Cabello rented a house in Rhinebeck, NY, and shot in an attached greenhouse all night and into the morning, “watching nature come to life.” It was an exercise in restraint: he photographed this image in five stages to make sure he didn’t miss the moment when he went too far. “You have to have to get into some kind of rhythm,” Cabello says, “and you have to know when to stop.”



The Allure editors wanted to see flowers for a 2011 feature about spring cosmetics. Cabello painted this one using smears of eye shadow; the stalk is drawn with an eye pencil. This project, he says, “led me into things that were a little looser, a little more abstract.”



Cabello shot these luscious foundation dollops for Allure’s 2009 “Best of Beauty” feature. The symmetry of the silhouette and the slight asymmetry of the brown material create an appealing tension. The magazine hung a poster-size version of the photo in its editorial offices at One World Trade Center.


A show at the Park Avenue Armory inspired this radical swirl of nail polishes for Allure’s 2014 “Best of Beauty.” He swiped brushes and sponges across the glass plate, and the editors cropped in on a small section of the full composition to create this image.


This video below shows the actual creative process behind the Bobbi Brown image.