How to Balance Editorial, Commercial and Personal Photography: A Conversation with Gabriela Herman

Brooklyn-based Gabriela Herman’s vibrant energy hits everything she shoots – from editorial projects for The New York Times, Wired, The Guardian and The Atlantic to commercial clients like Airbnb, Nikon, and Jenny Craig.

She’s also highly productive on her own work. Her 2017 photobook The Kids, a series of photographs documenting children with at least one LGBTQ parent received critical acclaim and has been recognized for her work by The Magenta Foundation, Critical Mass, and American Photography.

Fellow Luupe photographer Leah Fasten speaks with Herman about what got her started, the importance of photographic peers, and how to balance editorial and commercial work.

This is Gabriela Herman

Leah Fasten: Tell me about how you got here. What has your path been like?  

Gabriela Herman: I grew up in Boston, but traveled extensively and lived abroad in Mexico, France, and Brazil. I got my start with photography in high school in the black and white darkroom and took classes throughout college, though I was actually a psychology major. Post-graduation I moved to Sao Paulo, where I have some family, and got a job assisting for a top photographer in Brazil. I made it back to NYC a few years later and have been freelance shooting ever since. 

Fasten: Who have been some important mentors for you?

Herman: I wish I could answer this question better. One of my biggest frustrations with my career thus far is that I really haven’t had any mentors and have had to do a lot of figuring things out on my own. My only true mentor has been my high-school photography teacher who set me on this path. To be honest, I look to my peers most often for advice. 

Maine Apple Orchard © Gabriela Herman for Martha Stewart Living


Fasten: I’ve heard this similar thing from many women (both photographers and other artists.) It seems there are natural professional support networks for creative men, but not as much for women. Many women have had to figure things out on their own. Yet you’re clearly very successful and have mastery. Can you talk a bit more about how you figured things out and how you look to your peers?  


Herman: I think when I was assisting, I came closest to gaining insights and knowledge from photographers I admired. I was never the best technically, but I loved assisting because it allowed me to watch how another photographer works, how they run their business, how they direct their talent.

Once I stopped assisting, that kind of window closed and I think I turned to the internet, especially at the time that blogging was really taking off. Photographers who I respected would be sharing personal anecdotes and behind the scenes images and unpublished work. I followed a zillion blogs then, thanks to google reader (rip). Now that has basically become Instagram.

Ailey Extension director Lisa Johnson @ Gabriela Herman for The Cut

Fasten: When did you add New York to the places you live?

Herman: I moved here in 2007 after five years living in Brazil and am here to stay for the long haul.

Fasten: How do your images change based when you’re in NY, Brazil or Martha’s Vineyard?

Herman: My time in Brazil was really focused on self-portraiture before selfies were even a thing. Being out on Martha’s Vineyard is really where I come alive photographically. My first big break came from shooting a project there on a friend’s farm. The bulk of what I get hired to do is outside summery types of imagery which is basically anything shot on the island! 

Navajo Lands © Gabriela Herman for Conde Naste Traveler

Fasten: I’m new to the Cape and the Islands. My family moved to the Cape from California last year. The light is incredible. It’s only summery though for a short time. Compared to California, how do you bring that summery type of energy to your work all year round? 


Herman: Great question! I travel a lot for sure, always in search of that golden light. I actually find it harder for me to shoot in Brooklyn and NYC then when I’m on the road. I think some of that energy isn’t just focused on the lighting but also what I can bring to set. So if I am, let’s say, shooting in a drab office in the winter but am looking for vibrant images, I always try to find whatever pops of color I can. That could be from scouting around and finding any wall that is not white, to asking a subject what wardrobe options they may have. And I always make my subjects feel comfortable and give positive encouragement while shooting them.

TWA Hotel © Gabriela Herman for Bloomberg

 

© Gabriela Herman for Nikon

Fasten: How is your process different on set for a commercial project vs an editorial project?

Herman: The biggest difference is the scale of things. For my editorial shoots it’s often just me plus maybe an assistant if I’m lucky. There are circumstances where this is beneficial, keeping the production slim, but other times I wish I had more support. One of the things I love most on commercial shoots is having a big crew where everyone involved is there to help you and make your images look better. 

Fasten: Yeah crews! The best right? How does working with a crew and creative team, vs just yourself, change the final images you make? 

Herman: I think all the crew and support (ie $$) you come away with more polished images, which presumably is what the client wants.

Ingredient Hunting with Yael Alkalay © Gabriela Herman for T Magazine

Fasten: How is being a photographer different for you now than it was 10 years ago? Do you think that’s due to your own personal path, or more to changes in the industry?

Herman: The biggest change for me has been becoming a mom- I have a 1.5yrd old and 3.5yr old at home. I feel so lucky that I’ve been able to keep shooting while having young kids at home but it has certainly been the biggest challenge I’ve faced. My time has disappeared. I’m hoping this is just a phase right now and as they grow older I’ll have some time back, but right now I’m able to shoot my assignments and commissions, but finding the creative space for personal work has been a challenge. And personal work is so important. It fuels all the rest, so that is certainly a difference for me from 10 years ago. 

Hope © Gabriela Herman. From her series “The Kids”

 

Molly. © Gabriela Herman. From her series The Kids

 

Mark. © Gabriela Herman. From her series The Kids

Fasten: I often think about how the experience of becoming a parent and the day in day out process of parenting impacts my own creative process. Did you do your phenomenal project “The Kids” before you were a mom? How do you think those portraits would be different now that you have your own kids? 

Herman: I started the project at 29 and 7 years later published the book when my daughter was 6 months old. In the beginning of the project I certainly had way more time- some of those early interviews with three hours long! I got the book deal when I was pregnant and had shot about 50 subjects at that point over 6 years and the publishers were like, great, we’d like you to shoot another 50 more in the next 6 months! It was certainly a challenge, photographing up until 8 months pregnant, but somehow I did it because my time was still mine. Not sure if I were in my current situation with the 2 kids that I would’ve be able to. 

© Gabriela Herman

 

Tangled Garden © Gabriela Herman for Martha Stewart

Fasten: What’s your support system like? Who are the people in your life who help keep you going, help move your work forward and help you maintain a joyful life?

Herman: My family. I’m extremely lucky to have a supportive spouse 100% of the time and a close-knit family where we actually enjoy spending time with each other. 

Fasten: What are you excited about right now?

Herman: New decade, new beginnings! I’m excited to take my career up a notch. I’m excited to see more and more of my friends become parents. I love my neighborhood and watching it grow. I’m thinking about a new personal project about my neighbors. Oh and the new season of Schitts Creek!