We are excited to have Los Angeles-based photographer Elizabeth Weinberg for our next “Ask Me Anything” interview — Wednesday September 19th 12noon – 2pm PST. If you’re a member you can log into our Booooooom Slack Community and post a question to Elizabeth in the #ama channel ahead of time and chat with her live on Wednesday. You can learn more about becoming a member here. If you’re not a member, you can still ask questions! Just leave them here in the comments below, and we’ll ask them on your behalf.
Elizabeth is an award-winning photographer (PDN’s 30, ADC Young Guns, American Photography) based in Los Angeles, renowned for her celebrity portraits and lifestyle imagery. At this point it might be easier to list the famous people and brands she hasn’t worked with. If you’re an aspiring photographer with questions about any aspect of photography, this is your chance to get answers from someone with years of experience and a wealth of knowledge.
Jeff Hamada: I know you had a camera in your hand at a young age, what other stuff were you into as a kid? Can you paint a picture of young Elizabeth Weinberg?
Elizabeth Weinberg: I drew a LOT. Constantly. When I was a kid I wanted to be a cartoonist when I grew up. I was a major tomboy. I stayed out until 11pm all summer playing basketball and manhunt with all the boys in my neighborhood. We rode bikes, we trespassed. I was an early computer adopter. I got my first PC at 11 and joined Compuserve at 12. That changed everything for me. I taught myself how to code HTML and CSS and made websites starting in the mid 90s. I got into music I would otherwise had never heard of by co-running a punk zine on Compuserve starting around 1995.
I was living in a very boring Massachusetts suburb with barely any diversity and had no link to anything “cool” other than MTV, and from this early age I realized I was able to connect with other nerds around the world from the comfort of my basement. All of these experiences have carried over into my adult life. I’m still friends with people I met on the internet 20 years ago. I have always made my own photo websites without having to pay for others to do it. I was never afraid of meeting fellow photographers from Flickr back when meeting people from the internet was “weird.” I still get messages from people saying they had seen my work on the internet back when I started my blog in 2000. It is so cool.
JH: So I wasn’t the only one with a Geocities website! Have you ever had a nickname? Do people just call you Eliz for short?
EW: It’s funny, all of my first email addresses in the 90’s were “[email protected]“ and I always signed my name Eliz for short, but it never really became a verbal nickname until college when there was a Liz on my floor in the dorms and my friend said “you should just be E-Liz”, partly because I was and still am a major nerd and partly because it just… suited me. I used to introduce myself as “Eliz” but got annoyed that no one knew what I was saying, especially if we were at a loud party or something. Professionally I just go by Elizabeth but am always happy to have people call me Eliz. Pronounced E-liz! A few friends call me Weinberg, which is also fine. They know who they are!
JH: You’ve done so many great interviews, tell me something you’ve never revealed about yourself in an interview before.
EW: I have previously said in interviews that I planned to go to art school to major in graphic design, but I’ve never mentioned in high school I made more money than I had ever seen (at the time) by working as a freelancer for Dreamworks Records. I designed and programmed Flash mini-sites for bands in the late 90s. Basically one of these mini-sites would be a self-contained “box” that had album artwork and links for things like a bio, tour dates, sound clips, etc. They also sent me their ENTIRE catalog on CD, which for a poor teenager was insane. That’s how I found out about Elliott Smith. I still have a bunch of those old promo CDs. I was also a member of the design collective the Swankarmy. I was 15 years old! I figured that was the career path for me, until I had a lightning bolt realization that I had to switch majors (to photojournalism) the summer before my sophomore year.
JH: You were so motivated at 15! I was definitely working at McDonalds. Can you describe the first photo you took that you were really proud of.
EW: I spent a semester in London in early 2003 and we went to Italy on spring break. I took a photo at St. Peter’s Basilica that could not have happened if I was 5 seconds later. I caught a nun sitting in the pews with light streaming in from the window that perfectly bathed her in a glow. I just found it on Flickr, apologies for the terrible resolution!
JH: That nun image reminds me of that Kendrick video! It’s crazy to think that I first featured some of your photos ten years ago! In that time, your work has obviously changed a lot but I’m interested to know in what ways you feel it’s stayed the same?
EW: Yes! I was just thinking about this. So crazy. Back in 2008 blogs were sort of the only way to get your work seen by new people (besides Flickr) and I am so appreciative that you found me and posted about my work then. You and other blogs like Feature Shoot and It’s Nice That started posting my work around that time and exposed me to an audience I could never have gotten on my own.
It is funny that you ask about this, as Ali Bosworth has just resurrected Jake Stangel’s old interview blog Too Much Chocolate, which I think got hacked at one point and then just fell by the wayside. So I read the interview I gave there, which was almost 10 years ago (January 2009). I was surprised by how similarly I still think about photography. I found this quote about my approach and I can say for sure that this has not changed at all. It’s kind of amazing.
“I like adventures and the unexpected, but within those loose confines I’ll hone in on a particular moment or scene, so I guess that’s where “refined” comes in. To me, those types of photographs are almost an exaggeration or super close-up zoom of something that’s far less significant than its surroundings.”
What is interesting to me is that at this point I had not done a major commercial campaign yet. Yet in the subsequent years I have done several and have stuck to this method of working.
JH: Some photographers like to do as little post work on their photos as possible but I know this is a very important aspect for you. How would you describe your “signature colour style” (I took phrase that from your site) and what are you usually adjusting to get it there?
EW: Yes, it is of HUGE importance to me. The picture is not enough. The slightest change in tone can change the feeling of the image. I have done some workshops where I take a picture and make it very warm and sunny color-wise and then put it side by side next to another one that’s very blue and cool. I ask the class: how does one make you feel vs. the other? It is so, so important to take those elements into account. It isn’t just about what the picture is of or how you compose it. There is a world of opportunity to impart a specific feeling via post production.
For me personally, I think of the setting, how it felt when we were there shooting. How do I want the viewer to feel when they see the picture? Was it hot that day? Was it raining? Were we amped up about something or was the mood calm? I think I subconciously adjust based on those elements but also don’t seek it out, if that makes any sense.
To give a concrete example: I photographed Jordan Peele for The New York Times on a super rainy LA day. In fact, you can see raindrops on the window that he is looking out from. The images in their final adjustments are so blue, so cyan, you almost want to pull on a sweater looking at them. I looked at the images in the greater body of work in my Instagram from that time and noticed a pattern of blues and cool tones throughout that time of year—and that was when we had a crazy rainy winter. I didn’t realize it, but I had adjusted everything on what was happening around me.
To bring things to the other end of the spectrum, I photographed the band Mountain Man in Durham, NC on the day before the summer solstice this year. It was so hot you could almost see the air. The pictures from that shoot are warm, as warm as can be. Almost more yellow and orange than I ever pull things. But it suits how things were that day. We were sweaty and happy and I look at that picture and feel the wide open expanse of a fresh, new summer before me.
JH: What are you most proud of at this point in your life?
EW: I am proud of having gotten to the point where I am 100% comfortable balancing a working life with having a child. I struggled a lot after I had my son because I didn’t realize how poorly the industry regards working mothers. I lost more jobs when I was pregnant. I didn’t get hired for a long time afterward. But I never stopped. Now that he’s in kindergarten, we have found a groove. It has made me smarter with my time. I can get him to school and hop on a conference call in the parking lot. I can go grab gear from my studio after school and he volunteers to carry a few light things to the car. I can head out for 3 weeks on an ad shoot and FaceTime him and promise to get a Lego before I come back. I’m proud of being able to give him an interesting life full of friends who make art and to show him that I have an interesting job that takes me places and that’s okay. He also finally knows that I don’t work in a photo booth!
JH: I always end with these two questions: What’s something you’d like to accomplish in the next year? And what about in your lifetime?
EW: I’d like to direct more music videos and commercials. I have done several music videos and they are purely a labor of love for me. I have more fun directing than anything else. Having a bit more of a budget to bring the vision to life is a major goal. A cinematic feeling is so integral to my work that is is a natural progression for me professionally. Not to mention that music is where I started in photography all those years ago.
I have been writing video treatments for songs since I was a teenager, just for fun. Breaking into this world has not been easy; it is hard to get people to believe you can do it. Sometimes I feel like I’m back where I was when I first started shooting—people are looking to see that you’ve already done the thing you’re trying to do. I have been self-funding little films and music videos that will hopefully spur creatives to hire me to direct and not just shoot stills. I know I can do it and that I will get there.
As for a lifetime goal, I would like to direct documentaries. I came from a photojournalism education, and adding a motion element is just so exciting; the possibilities of what you can create visually are just exponential. Not to mention sound design, editing, etc. Storytelling has always been the core of what I make and I’d love to collaborate with a bigger team to create that kind of art.