Elizabeth Renstrom isn’t afraid to make photography weird. She encourages it. The photographer, Vice Magazine photo editor, and Luupe member blurs the lines of personal, commercial and editorial photography in her own practice and in the photographers she hires. From Instagram-commissioned photos referencing her early adolescence in the late 90s, to punchy portraits of celebrities and public figures like Jeff Goldblum, Cynthia Nixon and even Grumpy Cat (RIP), Renstrom’s eye and creative direction continues to surprise and delight.
Luupe photographer Pauline Magnenat spoke with Renstrom about her consistently fresh approach.
Pauline Manganet: When looking at your work, my first impression is how much fun your subjects seem to be having. Your images are colorful, fresh and energetic. The shoot you did for VICE with Lauren Servideo is a great example of that. When working with people who might not be as willing to get wild or have more of a serious persona – like Cynthia Nixon, for example – how do you get your subjects to feel comfortable and ultimately, get you the image you want?
Elizabeth Renstrom: First off, thank you so much!! I think in a lot of my work I lean on specific propping and set design to help make my subjects feel more casual right away. I emphasize that most people dread having their photo taken (especially me!) so I try to start off just asking general questions and making them feel as comfortable as they can, then we move into playing more with set pieces which I find can break down certain anxieties when people don’t know what to do with their hands and body position.
With Cynthia, we had a limited amount of time and I knew I wanted to have a shot that felt relevant to her campaign but also way less formal than I had seen her before. She was actually really excited and it was a lot of fun having a laugh while getting the shot.
PW: You’ve been a photo editor at VICE for a few years. I know you worked in other publications before, including Time. I’m curious, from your childhood and adolescence which magazines do you first remember first making a mark?
ER: I think my first interactions with magazines were pretty classic to people in my age bracket (lol.) First and foremost being Highlights at the dentist’s office and figuring out the ‘What’s Wrong’ page at around 6 or 7. Second – at 9 or 10, I was truly in Leonardo-panic when Titanic came out and I used to buy every single magazine that provided his mailing address as well as a pull-out poster of him. The one with the most premium of imagery was definitely Tiger Beat or Bop.
PM: You also founded Tagtagtag with Alex Thebez. What was the inspiration behind it and how do you balance working on this, working at VICE and working as a freelance photographer?
ER:I love Alex! What a joy to find a friend and creative partner like him. We’ve been practicing shine theory since the start (credit: Call Your Girlfriend Podcast.) We started Tagtagtag out of college as a way to make our own magazine and collaborate with other artists communicating across a common theme. I think we did because we were scared of losing the community we found in school and wanted to continue providing prompts and excuses to look at work and talk about photography.
It ended up being a really meaningful project for us both at different points in our career as a way to showcase the way we edit and organize artists. We saw it as a way to share the work we wanted to see, so there weren’t a ton of constraints other than how they interpreted or responded to the person of interest who inspired the issue.
PM: What constraints would you say apply to Tagtagtag versus those you face at VICE when commissioning and featuring photographers?
EW: At VICE, I’m normally assigning based on a specific theme so it’s been helpful to apply the same process to how I chose photogs at Tagtagtag. I don’t know how to balance everything. Probably not well all the time, but I try ^_~ I think it’s important to have a side hustle that’s not just a day job because at least for me, it informs the work I do as a photo editor as well as a photographer.
PM: As technology and media has changed, how do you usually discover new talent to commission? Do you still ask to see portfolios, books in person? Do you find photographers on Instagram? All of it?
ER: It’s kind of a blend of all of the above. I try to attend portfolio reviews in addition to as many student reviews as I can. Schools typically have professional development days as well as portfolio sessions toward the end of senior’s final term, so it’s always good to catch students as they’re prepping their ‘final’ body of work.
I’m also always checking Instagram and love following photographers and various publications for inspiration. It’s so different and easier to access how someone like myself or another photo editor assigns. You can do so much reverse research as a photographer to find out how your style could work for xyz brand or publication.
I also think it’s great to see when a perfect assignment plays out on a photographer’s Instagram. It’s very satisfying! I’m most recently thinking of Chris Maggio’s shoot involving a Santa Cruise for NYtimes.
PM: What are the best and worst things about being a photo editor?
ER: I love collaborating with artists and making their visions come to fruition and capture a wider audience through my current post at VICE. I also love being able to help finance a portion of a photographer’s passion project and assist in the editing process of it.
I hate email and paperwork. I just don’t like being bogged down on the computer and scheduling. I’ll be the first to admit, I’m not a Type A personality. I never played resource management games like SIMS, so I feel stressed out when faced with excel, etc. Obviously, we all have to adapt ^_~ and I as a photographer also have to do my own paperwork to get paid.
PM: Aside from VICE, which magazines matter to you most these days?
ER: So many of my friends and mentors are at a variety of publications so I love supporting and stalking their work and brains. To name a few: Nicotine Magazine, Fader, TIME, Topic Stories, Interview, Matte Magazine and more. In terms of other magazines I regularly read and gawk at in admiration: Let’s Panic, Aperture, Buffalo, Editorial, Gentlewoman, Foam, Sassy 4ever, RE/Search!
PM: Circling back to your own personal projects and commissions, how do you find inspiration after a whole week of looking at other people’s work? Do you sometimes get sick of photography?
ER: It can be tough sometimes! My job can take up a lot of the creative energy I have during the week because it’s a ton of problem-solving and commissioning (especially if I’m doing editorial work for other publications.) However, I’m a HUGE believer in not rushing a good idea. I don’t like to participate in constant output and the pressures that social media brings to constantly feed your…feed. I’ve been inspired enough recently to take steps towards completing a project that’s been on my mind for a long time and I’m (most importantly) being patient with myself but pushing to finish it before the end of the year.
I haven’t been as excited about personal work since the end of my undergrad and that’s a fun space to be in. Regarding the question about ever getting tired of photography…of course! I think it can be challenging to be defined by one medium, especially when it’s a means to an end to document an idea of mine. That’s why I’m excited to explore different approaches in my current projects. However, I don’t ever get sick of looking at other people’s work. There’s always an artist that will make me fall in love with the photography all over again, and it’s why I love to photo edit.
PM: Could you describe your absolute dream shoot?
ER: I have SO many! They fall into the categories below:
Portrait Shoot: I have always wanted to photograph an oral history of Buffy, ie. some kind of portrait series of Sarah Michelle Gellar that encapsulates some of her most iconic outfits as Buffy Summers now. I love portraiture because it connects me to a crew and subject unlike any other type of shoot and I have selfishly always wanted to meet this hero of mine growing up.
Still Life Shoot: I would love to do a conceptual still life series dedicated to iconic horror-set pieces. Ie. the mask from Scream, the green gunk Linda Blair vomited up in The Exorcist, etc. My ideal setting for this would be access to maybe…Wes Craven’s estate?
Fashion Shoot: Every look from ‘Welcome to the Dollhouse’ recreated….I guess this is similar to Buffy. I just want to meet Todd Solondz ^_~
That’s all I can think of right now, but I have SO many more schemes.