The Not-So-Overnight Career Shift From Lawyer to Photographer

Luupe photographer Marsha Lebedev Bernstein’s photography-centered childhood inspired her career shift later in life.

Growing up surrounded by her father’s photography equipment and her mother’s fashion magazines, creativity played a prominent role in Marsha Lebedev Bernstein’s life. After becoming a lawyer, she briefly lost touch with her photography, but soon realized it was time for a career change.

For Lebedev Bernstein, the journey from lawyer to photographer required patience and time. Ultimately, posting her work on social media helped carve a career path that would focus her efforts on fashion.

The Luupe spoke with Lebedev Bernstein on the challenges of her career change, advice for aspiring photographers, and what she’s working on in New York City.

The Luupe in conversation with Marsha Lebedev Bernstein

Meet Marsha Lebedev Bernstein. Photo © Claudine Williams

The Luupe: What influenced your decision to make such a drastic career change?

Marsha Lebedev Bernstein: I never thought a creative life was possible career-wise – and not because of anything my parents said or expected (as often is the case). I was genuinely interested in becoming a lawyer. It was only while working as a lawyer that my creative side went from a slow simmer to a full boil. I was always looking for ways to indulge that part of myself – I took an improv class, a sketch comedy writing class, a darkroom workshop. But never with an eye toward a career change; it was just for pure enjoyment.

Anna Wintour © Marsha Lebedev Bernstein

The Luupe: Were you pursuing photography as a hobby before you pursued it professionally?

Marsha Lebedev Bernstein: Photography had been a hobby of mine off and on for years – more off than on. I grew up with a father who was a very serious hobbyist. He developed film and printed images in our suburban basement. Although much to my mother’s dismay, as there was always some sort of darkroom equipment laying around on the washer or dryer. My dad wasn’t just into creating images but very knowledgeable about the intricacies and technical aspects of each camera. There were all sorts of books lying around as well. Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Frank photo books, for example, as well as tons of instructional books. He was – and is – very good at teaching himself things and he’s never a mile wide, an inch deep. He goes all in.

I was always drawn to the imagery but didn’t pick up a camera with a real interest until I was in my early 20s. I do, however, remember being very young and looking at the photography books we had lying around and even my mom’s fashion magazines.  I didn’t understand what an “editorial” was but I remember knowing that the interesting images were in the second half of a magazine and always looking for them. My freshman dorm room walls were plastered with pages I pulled out from W magazine – mostly, if not all, black and white photos.

Dion Lee © Marsha Lebedev Bernstein

The Luupe: What was the journey like?

Lebedev Bernstein: My career change from lawyer to photographer was definitely non-linear and took quite some time. I remember being several years out of law school and thinking I wanted to either write or do something with photography – but what?

I then had this idea that I wanted to work at a museum. I called the Met and asked to speak to the curator of the photography department (I now forget who it was – it was around 1999) and asked to pick their brain about steps I could take to make a career change. They were so generous with their time and advice. I also confided in one of the partners I was working with at the time at my law firm. I remember he said, “Why don’t you continue being a lawyer and just collect photographs?” I really felt that my creativity needed to play a bigger role in my life, not just as a hobby.

Todd Snyder Fashion Week © Marsha Lebedev Bernstein

The Luupe: How did the transition itself happen? Did you jump right in?

When I left law I took some time to regroup and decide what I would do – I had gotten married, had my first daughter (we have two girls). When she was a year old or so I told myself I would give myself one year to explore writing and if nothing happened I would figure out what to do. I started pitching newspapers and ended up freelance writing for two NYC newspapers. Culture and service pieces, fun stuff – nothing heavy.

I took photos for some of the articles but they were nothing great. I was taking more photos of family and friends, took a class or two at the International Center of Photography in portraiture and printing, and was taking a lot of street photos for myself.

Then came Facebook and I was posting my images. A contributing editor at Flaunt asked me if I wanted to cover New York Fashion Week backstage for the Magazine’s website. That kind of changed everything for me mentally. I was like ‘ooh I love this! I want to do more of this.’ Then I would post my backstage coverage and friends and their contacts would hire me to photograph their families or images for their businesses/websites.

Christopher John Rogers fashion week 2020. © Marsha Lebedev Bernstein

 

The Dead Sea © Marsha Lebedev Bernstein

The Luupe: Did you have any mentors to help guide you along the way?

Lebedev Bernstein: I haven’t had any professional mentors along the way but I will say that my dad is a great resource artistically. He has a great eye and I’ve sent him images to show my latest work and he’ll say, “Looks great but what if you cropped it *this* way” and he’s usually right. I do find that my earlier street images have a classic influence that I think comes from my dad’s work.

The Luupe: What was your greatest learning early on?

Lebedev Bernstein: The most important thing I learned early on (although it still feels early in a way, as it’s only been about five or so years) is to keep taking that next step and doing what you want to do even if you’re not sure where it’s taking you. It has often felt like screaming into a cave – who is seeing my work? What area should I be focusing on? Am I “good” at this? Will I be able to sustain this as a career? But you can drive yourself crazy that way. As long as I continued to want to shoot I just took the next step, trying new things, new styles, to figure out what was “me.”

Palmiers du Mal © Marsha Lebedev Bernstein

The Luupe: Did you have any early failures that helped make you stronger?

Lebedev Bernstein: I’d say my biggest failure earlier on has been not listening to my gut and ignoring red flags about a prospective client or project (but that’s true in life generally – listen to those instincts). Yet in a way those aren’t even failures – they just reconfirm your path or help you pivot as needed.

The Luupe: What draws you to shoot fashion?

Lebedev Bernstein: My fashion focus has been fashion reportage (i.e., backstage) and I think I’m drawn to it for a number of reasons. I love lifting the veil, so to speak, on any sort of process so showing what goes on before a show is just so interesting and fun for me. Also, walking around backstage with so many people and searching for those found moments – I enjoy it so much – it’s like street photography without worrying someone will catch you and tell you to stop taking their photo! It’s a visual feast and I’m just in my own head creating. And the clothes – it’s me as a kid looking at my mom’s magazines all over again.

© Marsha Lebedev Bernstein

 

© Marsha Lebedev Bernstein

The Luupe: I’m intrigued by your fashion collages, how do you come up with the concepts for them?

Lebedev Bernstein: I started doing fashion collages this past year as a way to just have fun and create for the sake of creating but in a tactile way with paper: cutting, tearing, pasting – it’s very satisfying. I use my own fashion images and mix in some paper ephemera or things I find in a magazine. The concepts either come from me looking at one of my own photos thinking I’d like to use it in a collage in some way or seeing some type of paper and deciding I’d like to incorporate it in a fashion collage.

I like to say it’s quick and dirty because I don’t like to put too much time into them as I want them to feel organic. I’ll print, play, move stuff around on paper, and then start pasting/gluing. It’s a very relaxing process for me.

Lenox Hill Hospital. April 2020. © Marsha Lebedev Bernstein

 

© Marsha Lebedev Bernstein

The Luupe: Your photographs of the 7 p.m. cheering for essential workers in NYC are so emotional and impactful, did you think they would have this effect when you were taking them?

Lebedev Bernstein: I had no plans or ideas regarding my photos of the 7:00 pm cheering for the essential workers of the city. It was the height of the pandemic in NYC, we had been indoors for the better part of a month and I was just going out to photograph because I missed it and was curious to see what was going on around hospitals at that time. I was honored to have it receive the attention it did and be featured by some news outlets, as well as have one of the images – the hugging nurses – be acquired by a few museums for future exhibits. I just wanted to bear witness to what was going on and share it with people.

The Luupe: Do you plan on continuing this type of work in the future?

Lebedev Bernstein: Yes! I would love to do more photojournalism (so if any editors read this, I’m available – my mask and camera are ready!). I am really still finding my way and have never marketed myself in any real, meaningful way but have used the last few months to prime myself to do that. Things seem very unstable now for obvious reasons, but I am hopeful!

Polina © Marsha Lebedev Bernstein

The Luupe: As a woman, did your experiences differ as a photographer and lawyer?

Lebedev Bernstein: That’s an interesting question. I think in many ways my experiences as a female lawyer and female photographer have been similar in terms of ultimately, it’s the quality of the work that matters, regardless of gender, yet there is still work to be done in terms of amplifying
female voices and breaking through the boys’ club, so to speak.

In some way, I feel like I’m too new to the professional photography world to answer that, but in terms of first impressions, I would say it holds true. At my last law firm, there was a Women’s Initiative Committee and here I am part of a collective of female photographers – so I think that says a lot in terms of communities formed whose mission is to elevate the work of women and help them seek out
new opportunities to advance their work and careers.

The Luupe: Do you have any advice for people considering switching to a career in photography?

Lebedev Bernstein: My advice for anyone considering switching to a career in photography would be to take a lot of photos and get them out into the world. Stay true to your style and distinct voice. Know who you are as an artist and don’t get swayed by what seems trendy – anything “of the moment” is just that: fleeting. Read and absorb all you can about the creative and business side of things. Be inspired. Hustle and then hustle some more.