Emily Shur is an award-winning LA-based editorial and advertising photographer specializing in celebrity portraits, fashion, landscape and fine art photography with a client list including Details, Nylon, Elle, Paper, Rolling Stone, Outside, Vogue Japan and Vanity Fair, American Express, MTV, Fox Searchlight, Dell and Head and Shoulders among others.
Emily also writes a widely-read photo blog, My Four Eyed Fantasy, in which her candor, transparency and personable writing style hint at what makes her unique among photographers and was one of the reasons I was interested in talking with her and knew she’d be a great interview. She also brings a high degree of intelligence and conceptual and stylistic intent and skill to her work.
Her blog features exceedingly well-written posts (she said she sometimes spends hours fine-tuning before she hits publish) that are personal, focus on the work and are written as if you are sitting in the room with her. And similarly, her pitch-perfect lighting, light-handed retouching, and minimal style (and I imagine approach on set) produce celebrity portraits that balance accessibility with glamour and allow the personality of the subject to come through and create a relationship with the subject as if they might be one of your friends.
And this is exactly how I was received. As if we were already friends who hadn’t had a long conversation in a while. We spoke for two hours, I sent her a summary and questions and two weeks later I had a very thoughtful interview that talks in-depth about portrait photography, her personal projects and getting through the downturn with a renewed love for photography.
Importantly, I also wanted to talk with Emily because she is among the photographers who are bringing a new perspective to documentary style landscape and location work that includes a subjectivity, a renewal of the personal relationship to the mundane spaces that modernism brought to all of us but whose objectivity kept us at arm’s length. They are evolving the tradition of finding and revealing beauty in the simple or mundane by including the personal, inviting us to relate to the subject matter in a new way.
Thank you to Emily for her time and for sharing so much of her work with POP.
POP: When did you discover photography and where did you study?
I discovered photography when I was about 14 years old. I took my first photo class as a high school freshman. I went on to get my BFA in photography at Tisch School of the Arts at NYU. At the time, NYU’s curriculum was mainly geared towards conceptual/fine-art photography, not so much on making a living or doing commercial work. I took one lighting class—one semester, one class. However, I took art and photo history pretty much every semester.
POP: Photographers during this time who had an influence on you? Artists?
In high school, I was really into fashion photography and celebrity portraiture – Avedon, Penn, Annie Leibovitz, Herb Ritts, etc. My bedroom walls were filled with magazine pages I tore out. All I really knew about photography was what was in magazines. When I went to college I realized there was a more personal side of photography, and that really hit home. The two biggest discoveries for me were Nan Goldin and William Eggleston. I didn’t know that photography like that existed, and it changed the way I photographed and saw things.
POP: How did you get your start in NY?
My dream was to be a big time magazine photographer, but when I graduated college I was afraid to go out and try. So, I took a job at Rolling Stone in the photo department. I thought photo editing might be a good path for me as it was still in the world I always wanted to be in, but without all of the potential rejection. I was there for less than a year. It quickly became obvious that I would always regret not at least attempting to be a working photographer. I continued working part-time at magazines over the next 3-4 years as a photo editor. I would freelance when needed for a week here, a month there.
I eventually wound up working at Newsweek for a couple years part–time. I never really assisted, so working at magazines was the income supplement I needed while I was trying to get those first shoots. I would go to the darkroom after work and print. I would do shoots with my friends and work on my lighting skills. I would drop off my portfolio at magazines on their drop-off days, and slowly I began getting small shoots here and there.
POP: What did you start out shooting?
Most of my first shoots were for women’s magazines. I shot a lot of pictures for stories like “Is He Cheating on Me?” with a picture of girl looking confused or “How to Lose Those Last 5 Pounds!” with a picture of girl eating yogurt or berries or something like that. I also shot some interiors, mainly restaurant interiors for restaurant reviews, and little by little I began to get some portrait jobs.
A lot of my first portrait jobs were for hip-hop magazines. I don’t have too many fond memories of shooting hip-hop. This isn’t to say the publications weren’t good because a lot of them were and had great photo editors (George Pitts and Dora Somosi at Vibe Magazine come to mind). It was the mentality of many of the subjects that really got to me. While I was excited to be working and published, I often felt disrespected. I would meet and photograph people that I was a huge fan of and was often let down by the experience. I don’t take a lot of hip-hop shoots nowadays. Every once in a while I will do it for a client I really like, but I have to mentally prepare!
POP: Have you always shot fine art/landscape work as well?
Yes. Always. But I only recently (within the last 5-6 years) realized their importance and place within my overall photographic career. I was always so focused on “getting work,” so I never showed them to anyone or dedicated any real time to editing and presenting those pictures. “Work”, to me, was always portraiture. I didn’t see where the landscapes fit in or who would care about them aside from myself. When I began to redefine and expand how I want to be seen as a photographer, I realized the landscape work had a very big role to play.
POP: Why celebrities and how did you build a career shooting celebrities?
My desire to do celebrity portraiture stems from my introduction to photography. As I said earlier, the first photographers I took notice of were portrait photographers, and I was really drawn to their pictures of performers. It seemed very glamorous to me. It was always my goal, and I pursued it from the start even though I didn’t know any celebrities and had none in my portfolio. It’s not easy to get that first celebrity shoot. If you don’t have any celebrities in your book, photo editors are hesitant to give you a celebrity shoot, but how are you supposed to build up that aspect of your work if no one will give you a chance? I had to wait and hope that someone would give me a break one day. That eventually happened with a shoot for Interview Magazine, and it was a very slow build-up from there of one shoot here and one more shoot three, four, five months later and then another after a few more months. It’s taken me years to build up a strong celebrity portfolio.
It’s definitely not as glamorous as I imagined, but at the same time, I am proud of what I do. Celebrity portraiture sometimes has a stigma associated with it – mostly that it’s boring pictures of vapid people – but I disagree that this is what it has to be. It is a difficult job, and the people who do it well continually impress me. I enjoy photographing performers; people who like having their picture taken, understand what makes for a good photograph, and can vamp it up to create a little bit of an escape from reality. It’s way more interesting to me than shooting people who are uncomfortable and tortured by the camera. There is real possibility with celebrity portraiture for great collaboration and memorable, iconic imagery.
POP: You bring a very high production value to your work. What is your retouching/production philosophy? I’ve spoken with many people, art buyers included, who feel the pendulum is swinging back from the lo-fi and flash-on-camera look to a new level of authenticity that includes attention to craft.
My philosophy is pretty simple. I want to take fundamentally good photographs. For me, it’s all about light, composition, and emotion. In terms of production, I think good photographs can be made at any level – low, high, and in between. In terms of retouching, I like to keep people looking like themselves, but I remove distracting elements.
I do think craft is extremely important. This isn’t to say that everyone needs to be shooting with big cameras and complicated lighting. When I say craft, I’m talking about understanding how a camera works, understanding what affects different elements of a photograph, having a point of view in one’s own work and knowing how to execute that point of view. That point of view can very well be sort of lo-fi and snapshot-y. Some photographers do that exceptionally well. There are good pictures to be made in that style. However, not everyone with a decent camera is able to make professional level images. I think it would be nice if there were more of a distinction between a picture anyone could take and a picture that a professional photographer takes.
I get why this type of photography became so popular when it did. A lot of things came together at the right time. The economic crash had a lot to do with it. Imagery became less about the unattainable polished and stylized look of the 90’s and early 00’s and more about accessibility and in some ways, camaraderie. It seemed like ads and magazines were saying to us, “We’re all in this together. You don’t have to be a millionaire to have a good time. These people look like you do. These pictures look like pictures you take.”
This is all fine and good, until the work starts looking too pedestrian. Thoughtfully crafted images can still illustrate an accessible moment that feels real. I don’t think these two looks or concepts are mutually exclusive.
POP: As a celebrity and portrait photographer, what are you known and hired for? What makes for the most successful shoots?
Every photographer has their own formula and special sauce that is unique to them and that produces their pictures. I don’t think that any of the individual components are unique to me. I carefully compose my images. I seek out the light that best suits the shot. I respect the people I work with and photograph. I always try to make a photograph I haven’t seen before (although it doesn’t always work). I suppose the full combination of these elements is uniquely me. My approach is my own.
In terms of how I deal with the people I photograph, I’m more of an observer and work with what their personality is saying to me. If someone is extremely animated I let him or her be animated. If they are quiet, I let them be quiet. I do as much research as I can before the shoot to try to get a sense of the subject’s personality so that I’m not way off base in terms of the set up and what I’m asking them to do in the picture. There are always surprises, some good and some bad, but I try to be as prepared as possible all the time.
The most successful shoots are a combination of a good idea and an enthusiastic subject. Good styling and locations don’t hurt either.
POP: What are some of the challenges and what is your process on set?
I think the most important and perhaps most challenging aspect of portraiture is reading people’s personalities almost immediately. Almost 100% of the time the shoot day is the first time you’re meeting the subject, and you have so little time to instill trust and endear them to you/your ideas. The subject needs to trust you. If they don’t, every little tiny thing can become questionable and a lengthy conversation. Sometimes trust happens just by talking to the subject for a few minutes before the shoot begins. Sometimes it happens when they see your images on the screen and like how they look. How it happens doesn’t matter. It just needs to happen somehow and fast.
I don’t force people to do things they don’t want to do. If the subject isn’t happy about something or doesn’t like an idea, we talk about what’s bothering them and how we can improve upon what we’re doing. If it’s just a flat out “No.” then it’s time to move to Plan B or sometimes even Plan C or D.
To read a blog post on the Kevin Costner shoot for Esquire, please click here.
POP: You take some very fun and incredibly smart shots of celebrities. What is the concepting process and collaboration like on these shoots?
Sometimes there is a lot of discussion beforehand and concept approval way before the shoot takes place. An example of lots of pre-planning would be my shoot of Amy Poehler for Bust Magazine. Amy approved the idea of recreating some famous scenes from horror movies. This shoot was very low budget and didn’t require a ton of props or sets, but did require the full participation of Amy. Concepts like this really need to be approved before the subject shows up. We knew exactly what movie scenes/characters we were going to shoot. I had a plan for all three shots and Amy was on board with everything.
Another example of this type of conceptual pre-planning would be my shoot of Adam McKay for Maxim. We (the magazine and I) tossed around a lot of ideas and presented quite a few things to Adam (via his publicist). He was promoting a cop comedy so I felt that a donut shop would be a good location. I also wanted to comment on his intellect and comic genius. I tried to think of things we could shoot that would illustrate the strength of the mind. I suggested bending silverware and/or levitating something. Then I realized we could combine the cop/donut location with this idea about the power of his mind, and it resulted in him levitating a donut. Of course, he had to be fully invested in this idea for it to work, and luckily he got it and made it great.
For many shoots, especially editorial ones, the process is very spontaneous. I have to think quickly and make a lot of decisions on the spot about what the best approach is for a certain shot. Sometimes that means figuring out the best area to shoot in, finding a prop that will add to the picture, or just capturing a great moment.
POP: How do you strike a balance when working with publicists?
Working with publicists is a part of celebrity portraiture whether photographers like it or not. It doesn’t do me any good disregard them or their opinions. It also doesn’t benefit me to take ugly pictures of people. I find that when the images look good there is rarely any argument from the publicists. Their job is to protect the interests of their clients and part of that is to not let unflattering images of them into the world. Flattering images can also be interesting, and the trick is to make pictures that are both.
POP: Photographers that influenced your celebrity and music work?
Irving Penn, Richard Avedon, Annie Leibovitz, Helmut Newton, Robert Mapplethorpe, Guy Bourdin, Herb Ritts, Chuck Close, Nadav Kander, Martin Schoeller, Mark Seliger, Peggy Sirota, Mary Ellen Mark, Norman Jean Roy, Chris Buck, Philip-Lorca di Corcia, Jeff Riedel, Hiro, Katy Grannan, and Larry Sultan.
POP: Have you ever had a time when you had a creative block or professional lull?
Yes of course. Everyone has bad months or bad years or even a bad five years. I find that success and productivity come in waves and sometimes the two are unrelated. A big part of making a living as a photographer is being able to be critical of one’s own shortcomings without getting too negative or bitter. You have to know that photography is what you are meant to be doing. You have to be persistent. You also have to be honest about your pictures and figure out what’s working and what is not. If the phone isn’t ringing or you’re not getting the type of work you want, you have to be able to step back, be objective, and make the necessary changes. In the past, when things weren’t going the way I wanted, I’ve made both professional and artistic changes.
My roughest patch was probably around 2008/2009. I was broke and frustrated with where my career seemed to be headed. I was very discouraged and sort of angry. I thought I had paid my dues and wasn’t sure why I was having such a hard time getting the type of shoots I felt I deserved. The industry was changing, and I was trying to avoid changing along with it. I did not want to make the transition to digital. The magazine industry was also taking a dive, and that had been my bread and butter for my entire career. I was having a hard time being as honest about my work as I needed to be. Eventually it came down to the question of whether or not I still wanted to be a photographer. I did, and in order to do that I had to make some changes. Part of those changes involved logistics. I switched agents, made the transition to digital (over time), and tried to broaden my client base.
I also felt that I needed to fall back in love with taking pictures. This is when I began to really think about what drew me to photography in the first place, what I initially loved about it, and what kind of pictures I wanted to make. This is when I began to focus more on my landscape work, and that made all the difference. I regained confidence and rediscovered the enjoyment I felt taking pictures. I stopped focusing so much on the negative and recommitted to my career.
POP: Your landscape work, while devoid of people, has a very personal feeling. What about a location inspires you? You’ve said that the emotion attached to a place is often the inspiration. Is this in part why your fine art projects are ongoing? Do you find that the relationship to the place and the images you take change over time?
It’s hard to describe what specifically makes me want to take a picture of a place. It could be that the place itself means something very tangible to me. It could be somewhere I have history or have had meaningful experiences. It could remind me of an event or feeling. I think a big part of why I continue returning to Japan to photograph is the feeling I associate with being there. Shooting there is as much about the experience of being there as it is about the actual photographs. It’s pretty much a photographic happy place for me, and I keep going back to reclaim that feeling. I think and hope that my pictures have evolved as my relationship with the country has evolved. I of course started out taking the easy and obvious pictures. Then it got more challenging. I’ve had some amazingly rich photographic trips there and then some that were just plain hard. I have felt stuck there just like anywhere else.
There is a similar intention that pervades all of my fine art work and the individual projects. Untitled Japan and Nature Calls are defined bodies of work that will only be that thing. Wild Wild Life is loose and is mostly about my point of view as a photographer.
POP: The New Topographraphic photographers removed beauty and emotion and shot from a place of detachment to focus either on irony and criticism. Your landscapes clearly draw from these forebears but you are inspired by the emotion connected to the locations you shoot and this is evident in an appreciation for your subjects and locations.
It seems like this is part of this next evolution of the authentic in a way, a re-engagement that allows us to infuse it with the beauty, emotion and appreciation that was left out so we could momentarily appraise from a critical authenticity.
POP: How do you see the relationship between your personal and commercial work? How they inform each other? It’s interesting that you have chosen different subject matter for each.
There is definitely a common perspective. It’s just the subject matter that is different. I gravitate towards the same basic elements in all of my work. I like well-composed, neat and tidy pictures. I like thoughtful images. This goes for both the landscape and portrait work. I approach everything similarly. The portrait work just has the added element of a person in the picture.
I decided to show my landscape work alongside my commercial work. This was a hard decision to make, and I know different photographers have different opinions about this. I thought about it a lot, and ultimately came to the conclusion that I wanted prospective clients to be able to see all of my work in one place. I also am not ashamed of how I make a living, and if a gallery or publisher has an issue with it then I probably don’t want them representing or publishing my fine art work.
POP: How do you promote your personal projects or use them to promote your commercial work – dedicated books? Leave-behinds?
When I have meetings with magazines or ad agencies I bring additional dedicated books to show some of my personal projects. I find that most people really like seeing the personal work. Sometimes I also do gift prints at the end of the year of my fine art work which people seem to like as well.
POP: You are also very good writer and bring a similar candor to your writing as you do your photography.
I never took a writing class. I try to write the way I talk which usually involves re-reading whatever I’m writing a million times and making small neurotic changes over and over again. Of course, there is a ton of effort in making something look effortless. This is kind of my philosophy on aspects of my photography, too. I don’t want people to notice the lighting and feel all of the work that went into the making of the picture, but it should all be there.
POP: You recently wrote a blog post about not being able to give the full account of what happens on assignment. I talk with a lot of photographers who feel similarly. I think in any job we feel this way, but photographers are now expected to write blog posts about their assignments, so this seems a particular challenge.
Yeah, this is a real bummer for me. I started my blog during the time period I mentioned earlier when I felt my career wasn’t going in the right direction. The blog was an outlet. It was a place to feel ok being vulnerable and honest. Blogs and behind the scenes imagery have become so ubiquitous that I feel there isn’t a lot of real talk going on online about what it actually means to be a professional photographer – myself included. We aren’t really able to be completely honest. It’s not professional and therefore, blogs become purely self-promotional and less of a resource for other photographers.
POP: Dream commercial project?
A great movie poster for a great movie and/or a project that would allow me to incorporate my landscape work alongside interesting portraiture.
For Emily’s full portfolio, please visit her website. To keep up with her, you can follow her on her blog, My Four Eyed Fantasy.