Congratulations on the ASME Next Award! How are you feeling? Can you tell us a little bit about your career thus far and what has led you here?
Hello! I am feeling very good! Really honored to have been nominated for this.
I’ve been taking photos for as long as I can remember, but I haven’t been getting paid to do it for very long. [Photography director] Jody [Quon] gave me my first real assignment shooting the Best of New York openers in 2013. Before that, I was assisting other photographers, shooting book covers for Rodrigo Corral, and making silly still-life pictures on a small Ikea table in my bedroom.
One of New York Magazine’s recent issues was centered on “aha!” moments — what was your photography “aha!” moment? Was there a particular shoot or experience you had that made you realize this was what you wanted to do?
Well, a lot of it had to do with my grandpa when I was younger. He was a painter and a photographer and an actor and, at the time, seemed like the only exciting adult in the world. He lived in this amazing apartment in Little Italy and collected beautiful old stuff and always had interesting stories, and everything else I knew was in the suburbs and boring and from the mall. I just wanted to be exactly like him.
As a child, what did you think you’d be when you grew up? What about in high school and college?
I feel embarrassed telling people that all I’ve ever wanted to be was a photographer, but it’s true.
Do you remember the first photos you ever took? Can you tell me about them?
I was given a camera around the same time that Harriet the Spy came out in theaters, so the obvious thing to do was sneak around my neighborhood at night and take photos through the windows of families eating dinner and watching TV.
What were some of the most challenging moments in your career? Can you recall any particular shoots you struggled with?
The most challenging moment in my career springs up all the time. I’m always freaked out. It’s the best part of my job.
What are some of your favorite shoots to date?
Shooting Cheap Eats is always interesting because it’s kind of this nonstop flow of strange food that I don’t know how I’m going to photograph until it’s in front of me. Shooting John Cleese was terrifying. He was great, but I had no idea what I was doing. One time I took a plane to North Carolina to shoot a 3-D-printed nose and came back that night. Shooting Bobby Shmurda was a strange blur. I think I just introduced myself and then he rapped along to his own song for 30 minutes straight. Marie Kondo had a much larger entourage than Shmurda. I was always proud of myself for figuring out how to freeze a bunch of Barbies upside down for “The Everything Guide to Being Frozen.” I once photographed [former New York designer] Karishma [Sheth]’s hand holding an iPhone with a naked photograph of my boyfriend for a story about sexting in the very same issue that contained a portrait of him for a story on tipping. I sent that issue to his parents. Shooting R. Kelly was kind of sad and surreal. The only time he gave any insight into what was on his mind involved getting a McRib. I once spent hours trying to get a cooked lobster to look like it was holding a fork and knife (that was never published). I think I had only worked here for a month before we were digging through stinky garbage bags from all over the city and artfully arranging their contents. There was the time I had to convince a PR person from Cartier to let me put a $730,000 necklace on a dead octopus. I sat unprotected in a swarm of bees for a few hours. I arranged and photographed 200,700 pounds of dirty clothing in a warehouse in Astoria. And of course the woman who trains dogs to play piano.
If we had to fast-forward 20 years, what would be your fantasy job/life?
I’m sure in 20 years photography will have evolved into some sort of monster that makes me totally obsolete. 3-D rendering will have become so advanced that we’ll stop taking photos altogether. Anyhow — I’d like to have kids, and I’d like to have a sprawling estate. Lots of hedges and stuff.
Is there anything you like to shoot in your spare time that’s different from what you shoot for the magazine?
You started out as New York Magazine’s in-house still-life photographer — and now you’re doing it all. Do you have a preference between still life and portraiture? Do you find one more challenging than the other?
Portraiture is really hard for me. I use to think I was a lot more charming before I starting shooting portraits for this magazine. I think I prefer portraiture right now because it still freaks me out. If taking portraits ever became easy for me, I would miss the days when it was difficult. Still life has always been kind of therapeutic and breezy.
Are there any photo skills or techniques you feel like you’re still trying to master?
I worry about this a lot. Style is kind of a trap because people want to have a concrete idea of what they are getting when they hire you while still being totally surprised. I first really got noticed for making really bright, repeating still-life images, and eventually decided not to make them anymore because I didn’t want to only be known for performing the same trick. I need to feel like I’m moving forward. I really don’t want to be known for a certain kind of lightning or technique because that’s boring. It’s much better to be known as a tone.
Is there anyone or anything you’re dying to shoot?
I think I get the most excited photographing musicians I actually listen to. It’s so far only really happened with Panda Bear and Junglepussy — but I also think those were two of my best portraits. I like shooting medium-famous musicians because it’s like the portrait gets to age alongside their music.