Sometimes you are lucky enough to come across an artist you instantly fall in love with. Meet photographer Emily Shur. After spending far too long looking through her portfolio and shouting things like: “That’s totally how I would have done it!” and “She got to shoot HER as well?” I realized I’d come across someone I highly admired and was secretly just a tiny bit envious of. Arcade Fire, Aziz Ansari, Jason Schwartzman, Joel McHale, Mila Kunis, Mindy Kaling, the list goes on and on. Blend together Shur’s super stylish eye, quick witted sense of humor, and just pure talent that goes on and on AND ON, and you end up with one of the best photographers working today. Read on for a lovely interview with Emily and to see some of her even lovelier work.
Serial Optimist: Hey Emily! Thanks for taking the time! What city do you live in, and what did you do today?
Emily Shur: Hi! My pleasure, and I live in beautiful Los Angeles, California. It’s approximately 9:13pm on a Monday night, and my day went like this:
-Woke up from the first decent night’s sleep I’ve had in three nights due to a disgustingly gross cold I inherited from my husband
-Blew my nose
-Submitted my “Best of 2010” work into one of the many annual contests we photographers enter, purely for validation and self-promotion
-Picked up two very large prints at the lab
-Five-dollar foot long from Subway (veggie on whole wheat)
-Some pre-production for a shoot later this week
-Currently watching Pawn Stars and drinking orange juice with a snoring bulldog beside me
SO: LOVE the detail. That cold/flu bug is attacking people coast to coast. I’m so glad you’re feeling better though!
When did you first realize you wanted to be a photographer? Do you remember the first time you played around with a camera, and was it something you were instantly drawn to?
ES: I took my first photography class when I was a freshman in high school. I liked it, but it wasn’t love at first sight. I enjoyed drawing and painting, so I took the photo class on a whim just to try it out. I wasn’t fully invested in photography or much of anything at that point in my life, but for some reason I stuck with it, and by the time I was sixteen I was completely focused on photography. I knew then that photography was my future and what I was going to do with my life.
SO: Did you go to Tisch specifically for photography, or did you know you just wanted to do something within the arts?
ES: I went specifically for photography. I also wanted to live in New York.
SO: What was your first big shoot that made you feel really legit as a professional photographer? Like that surreal moment where you thought: “I’ve made it! I’m DOING this!”
ES: Before I began shooting, I worked as a photo editor and/or general photo department assistant at a few different magazines. One of those magazines was Rolling Stone. A couple years after I left my job there, I got a call from my old boss to shoot an entire package for a special issue. She left a message on my answering machine (yep, before cell phones) offering me the shoot, and I still remember coming home and listening to that message like it was yesterday. Little did I know that one shoot is just that: one shoot. But at the time, I was blown away.
SO: Are you at a point now where you can pick and choose what projects you take on? I ask because your celebrity/music portfolio is unreal. For me personally, as you can see with others I’ve interviewed on SO, the majority of the people you shoot are people I would hand pick to shoot if given the chance. Does that make sense? It’s kind of like the “hip list” of comedians, bands, and actors. Does that happen randomly or do you seek those particular opportunities out?
ES: I rarely turn down work. I’ve never felt comfortable saying no to a perfectly good shoot. I’ve had good years, bad years, and everything in between, so I’m always nervous that things will slow down or worse, just stop. It’s the neurotic Jew in me that I just can’t shake. I’d like to think that over time, art directors and photo editors have come to appreciate my sense of humor, my aesthetic, my general style and offer me appropriate subject matter to shoot based off of those things. A lot of the shoots I do don’t wind up in my portfolio or on my website. My site and my portfolio are definitely tailored to showcase what I think are my most successful shoots.
Having said all that, there are certain people I’ve been very excited to photograph because they are also on my “list”. When I get opportunities to photograph people I’ve always wanted to work with and really admire, I try to take full advantage of that opportunity. I realize that I may never get another chance, so I better make it good.
SO: How would you define your artistic style professionally? Would you say you have a certain approach, or vision that separates you from other photographers?
ES: The qualities I strive for in an image are based in the fundamentals of what I think make up any good photograph – good composition, nice light, and some basic level of technical expertise. What cannot be taught in school is one’s eye and what happens when a person is introduced into the mix.
A portrait has so much to do with the photographer-subject relationship, and this is where every photographer does things their own way. I try to deal with people I photograph in a very respectful way.
I try to make the shoot fun, and I try to take a picture that I haven’t already seen a thousand times. I think when you approach someone with a sincere interest in making a good picture; most of the time they’ll oblige you.
SO: How does that style, or your eye, change for your personal work? Is it somewhat freeing when you get to work on your own projects? It’s still work, but more personal and you’re doing it because you love it, not because you’re getting paid.
ES: There’s not a huge shift in the basic approach. Again, I look for a well-composed picture and some really nice light. I look for a little bit of tension or just plainly put, a reason for taking the picture. It’s extremely freeing to be able to work on my personal projects. I don’t do it for anyone but myself. Taking time to make that work has renewed my love of photography many times over.
SO: Where do you draw inspiration from for your personal projects?
ES: I mainly draw inspiration from my…ummmm…how to put this politely…my sometimes-unfulfilling interactions with human beings. So, I shoot landscapes.
SO: Who are a few of your favorite all-time photographers?
ES: Stephen Shore, Richard Misrach, William Eggleston, Irving Penn, Richard Avedon, Helmut Newton, Annie Leibovitz, Martin Schoeller, Takashi Homma, Guy Bourdin, Katy Grannan, Taryn Simon, and William Wegman.
SO: What is the best advice you have ever received as an artist?
ES: A long time ago, a very successful photographer gave me some great advice. He said, “Show what you want to get”. In other words, when putting your portfolio together, show people the type of work you would like to do.
SO: Love it. Thanks Emily!