When did you first know that you wanted to be a photographer?
I got serious about photography around my junior year of high school. I had taken photo classes for a couple years at that point, but wasn’t thinking about it in any sort of long term way. I was a fairly bad kid. I did a lot of sneaking around, lying, drugs, partying, etc. and eventually got caught and got in big trouble. My parents decided to take action, and I wasn’t allowed to socialize much that year. At first it seemed like the worst prison sentence of all time, but it was the best thing for me. I stopped being so destructive and focused more on productive things. I also realized my parents weren’t the enemy and that they just wanted to help me out. So, that was the year I really fell in love with photography. My bedroom walls were filled with torn out magazine pages – mostly from Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, and Rolling Stone. There was nothing I wanted more than to be Irving Penn, Richard Avedon, or Annie Leibovtiz which was a pretty big improvement from not even wanting to finish high school a year earlier.
Fellow terrible teenager here! Amazing that you made such a big turnaround so quickly. Did you end up going to art school?
I did (sort of). I went to Tisch School of the Arts at NYU. Definitely was an art school, but at NYU you take the full academic course load as well. I really enjoyed college, and the photography department at Tisch was pretty tiny so the friends I made there are still some of my closest friends today. For being such a small department, a lot of talent has come out of Tisch Photo – or at least during the four years I was there.
What brought you to LA?
I just needed a change. I wasn’t enjoying life in NYC as much as I had in the past. The only things keeping me there were a few close friends and work. I started to think about where I could live and do the type of work I wanted to do. The only other city I’d spent time and worked in was LA. I decided to give it a try for a month on my own. I did an apartment swap and was happy for the first time in a long time during that month. I also had an agent at the time whose main presence was in LA. So, I decided to spend more time there. I downsized in New York and left a very nice apartment for a small studio. I rented a one bedroom in LA for a year. During that year I went back and forth for about a month or so at a time. My goal was at the end of that year I would make a decision about where I wanted to live. I also happened to meet my now husband during that year in LA which ultimately made the decision for me. Professionally, it was a more difficult transition than I had anticipated. I think there was a novelty to being a New York photographer in LA, but once I moved here I was just another LA photographer. Also, there were a few other inconvenient obstacles that popped up around that time – the economy was crappy, digital became the industry standard, and magazines were folding left and right. It was rough for a couple years, but I adapted and changed. Now I’ve been here over eight years and am so happy I made the move.
Can you tell me about your project Untitled Japan? How long did you spend on it? Are you currently working on any personal projects?
Yes, I’m actually still working on that project. I’ve been working on it for about nine years now. I go to Japan a couple times a year specifically to photograph. Last year I actually went three times because I was fortunate enough to get a couple shoots there. I’ve been trying to work there more and more. I first visited Japan in 2004 with my parents and pretty much just fell in love. My husband and I went there on our honeymoon in 2006, and that was his first trip. I think he felt the same way I did, and we’ve traveled back together many many times since then.
The project is loose. It doesn’t really have a title (which is something I am working on and want to remedy) or any sort of beginning, middle, or end. It’s been a way for me to reconnect with all the things I love about photography. It’s a meditation on a place, a feeling, an experience. It’s been an excuse for me to be very quiet and just look at things, which is my favorite way of working. The whole project has been a lot about discovery and/or re-discovery. At the beginning of it, I was just discovering a place. Throughout the years, it’s been more of a deeper discovery about what kind of photographer I am and want to be. On certain trips I’ve been so frustrated with being there, with myself and my pictures. Then I’ll go back again, and that trip will be like discovering fire. So, I’m not sure what it will look like in the end. I do know that I would like to publish it in book form.
I recently finished shooting for a project called Nature Calls that I worked on for about three years. So, now I’m doing some final color correction and figuring out what to do with that work. I’ll be photographing in Japan for the foreseeable future. Hopefully I’ll find another project that interests me closer to home.
If you could go back ten years and give yourself advice, what would it be?
I think the advice I’d give myself ten years ago would be pretty much the same as what I tell myself all the time today. Calm down a little bit, and don’t be so scared of everything. Don’t be scared of failing. Don’t be scared of succeeding. This is not life or death. Just do the best you can do on every shoot, and trust that you are good at what you do.
I think trusting yourself is really important. When we’re just starting out, we really need the approval of others just to make ends meet and survive. So, shoots become an exercise in doing what we think the client wants. I think I should’ve been more concerned with finding my own voice and perspective. Only as I got older and built more confidence over the years am I finally able to trust my gut feelings more and go with them.
Emily is based in Los Angeles. See more of her work, here.