One of my favorite interviews to date! Thanks Alex!
A N I N T E R V I E W W I T H E L I Z A B E T H W E I N B E R G
Elizabeth Weinberg is a rare talent in my eyes. She’s one of the few artists I enjoy who has equally appealing commercial and personal work.
With such a heavy emphasis on portraiture, you must rely on people skills during a shoot. Is this something that came naturally to you, is it experience based, or something you had to acknowledge and teach yourself?
I’m definitely not a shy person, but directing subjects is something I definitely had to make a point to improve on when I was first starting out. If someone is really easygoing, it’s a piece of cake and we have a blast. Things go well when people are relaxed and up for anything; This is the ideal, but doesn’t always happen. I like to keep things as low-key as possible. I don’t often have an assistant for an editorial shoot because I believe that the more it seems like a “formal photo shoot” the more anxious a subject can be, especially if they aren’t used to being in front of the camera. A lot of my editorial subjects are real people, so this is something I deal with frequently.
If I’m shooting a celebrity or musician who’s got an entourage and all sorts of rules and it’s obvious they have a wall up, I know I’m not going to get much out of them; it’s a lot more of a challenge, and that’s where the on-set survival skills come into play. Sometimes they aren’t as adventurous, but I have learned how to get the kind of image I want. Of course, there’s always room to get better. Shooting big-name celebrities is a major Catch-22. A lot of PR people won’t let you shoot people you’ve never shot before. Interesting how that works, huh? When it comes to shoot time, though, I don’t think there is ever an excuse for pretentiousness, be it photographer or subject. It’s pretty crazy that we think of it as “refreshing” when someone acts down-to-earth and not crazy on a shoot. We are all people, and if you strip away the artifice of PR people and hair and makeup and handlers whatever else, we are the same damn thing. Mutual respect is key.
Speaking of mutual respect, it’s really tough looking young in this business. I am realizing this more and more as I get older but don’t look older. I’ll be 30 in 2 days and I can’t tell you the amount of times a subject of mine says “Wow, you look too young to be doing this shoot,” or something like that. I’ve been told I look like I’m in college, and recently, high school! I try to brush it off, but I think back about how many times people haven’t said out loud what they were thinking about how old I am, and I wonder if they think I’m 20 more often than not. Sometimes I prefer if someone says I look young so I can tell them I’m not. If they don’t, though, it can really mess up the dynamic of the shoot. If I’m not being treated with respect, I can tell the shoot is teetering on the edge of falling apart. I’ll start to lose that person completely because they think I’m just a kid. I can see it happening before my eyes. This also happens with photo editors and art buyers. You can’t control people’s perceptions. I can be as eloquent, professional, and put-together as I want, but if someone has a preconceived idea, it’s tough to change that in 15 minutes. It’s all a matter of balance. I sometimes have to sneak in snippets in conversation about how long I’ve been working, little hints to let the person know that no, this isn’t for a high school project. This is for a major client and I’m older than you!
Long story short: people skills are important, and respecting your subject and having them respect YOU is paramount to a successful picture.
Is there a difference as to how you approach a commercial project as opposed to a personal one?
Well, there are definitely differences in terms of logistics. With commercial jobs you have creative calls, castings, scouting, pre-production meetings, etc. You’re working with a team and have to balance the expectations of the client and the agency. A personal project has none of that. However, I take the style that I apply to my personal work to my commercial jobs. That is why I am hired in the first place. I like to keep my shooting method consistent. Sometimes it doesn’t work out that way because the job calls for something different, but that’s fine too. Being able to adapt is really important. In the end, though, I am most proud of my commercial work that looks very “me.”
I don’t really like to plan much when it comes to my personal work. I don’t have a process. I’m not meticulous. I’m hasty and spontaneous. I’ll go on an adventure and come back with something. I like to keep the distance from my eyes to my brain to my hands to my camera as direct as possible. When I go through an edit I’ll find a picture that I almost forgot I took, because I was just shooting from the gut and not planning. I was living it, and it was there. It isn’t always like that; other times, there’s a picture I see that I do my damnedest to frame just perfectly. But for the most part I just do what I feel is natural based on how I see things.
East coast or West coast?
I’m born and raised on the east coast, but I love going west. I just like being able to come back to New York. Going west feels like going to the end of the world for me, in a way. Our country is so huge, there’s something really epic and romanticized about the west coast to someone from the east coast. Another crazy land with weird trees and mountains and stuff aaalllll the way over there to the left. And the ocean faces west! Six hours on a plane and you’re still in the same country. I go to LA all the time but the difference is still so amazing. I think I’ll always be an east coast person in mentality, though. High-strung and fast-moving! Also, we can swim in the ocean and it isn’t freezing!
Tell me about the photo of the Michael Jackson boy.
August of 2009: Michael Jackson had just died in June, and Brooklyn was going crazy. Cars were blasting MJ all the time. Photos of him were up in bodegas. Spike Lee organized a 51st birthday party for MJ in Prospect Park’s Nethermead, so I decided to self-assign the event and go shoot and see what I came up with. I was totally amazed. People from all over the borough, probably all over NYC, were dancing, singing, going nuts. It was a huge dance party. I spotted this kid who had an inherent grace. He was just emanating style and confidence way beyond his years. I asked him if I could take his photo and he slowly and deliberately placed his gloved hand out, leaned into the pose, and I had it. I was so glad I went!
I follow you on Twitter, and one day you had a string of tweets that made me very very jealous. You and John Roderick are pals?
Ha, yes. We met when I was shooting the Bonnaroo Music Festival in 2006. We were leaving the Radiohead stage I think, and I recognized him. I’d seen The Long Winters open for The Decemberists in June of 2004 and I instantly loved them. I never usually like the opening bands. I’m lucky I was there early enough to see them. Anyway, John is of the best songwriters working today and a hilarious, talented writer as well. A good photo subject, too.
What’s the next thing in line for you to work on?
I am working really hard on my next printed promo, which is going to be beautiful, functional, and something I hope people will want to keep. I have a bit of travel to the west coast lined up, and a lot of my upcoming work is more fashion-based. Lookbooks and stuff. I haven’t done as much of that as I have other things lately so it’s nice to get back into it. I always felt kind of like an outsider to shooting fashion photography, like I wasn’t allowed to be doing it or something. This is all completely in my head, probably, but it’s just something that felt like I club I didn’t belong to. I wear mostly vintage or second-hand clothing; I don’t pay attention to fashion week. I don’t really read fashion magazines, but I love shooting it, especially on location. I’m realizing now that I don’t really care and I’ll just shoot it and if people like the work then it’s all good.