How to be a Photo Art Director: A Conversation With Netflix's Emily Shornick

How to be a Photo Art Director: A Conversation With Netflix's Emily Shornick

How to be a Photo Art Director: A Conversation With Netflix's Emily Shornick

by The Luupe

The multitalented photography director gives a personal look into her career, taking chances, and staying ahead of the creative curve.

Editorial, commercial, and art photography don’t always live in distinct bubbles. Brands often hire photographers for commercial jobs based on their personal or editorial work – a portfolio showing off their style and vision.
And for many photo editors and content producers today, the ability to be a creative chameleon is key to keeping a career interesting.
Emily Shornick is a perfect example of a photo editor and art director who has built a career straddling genres helping photographers and making sure visual storytelling continues to evolve.
After attending Bard College where she studied photography and art history, Shornick thought she’d work in the art world. She had a brief stint working at a gallery and shortly after, landed a photo internship at Spin Magazine.
Within two years, she was photo editing for Lucky Magazine, New York Magazine's The Cut, and later Refinery 29 where she built her brand as a compassionate editor with a sharp and discerning eye.
Fast forward a decade – today she’s directing commercial content for Netflix.
We spoke with Shornick to learn more about her extensive career and advice for photographers – and photo editors – in an always-shifting industry.
© Kathy Lo for NY Mag/ The Cut
The Luupe: You studied photo at Bard College and, while still making your own work, dove right into photo editing and working with other people’s images. Can you tell us a bit about your journey?
Emily Shornick: I fell in love with photography quite young. I was privileged to attend a summer camp and then a public high school with darkrooms (save arts education!)
I majored in photography at a liberal arts college, where it became clear to me that I was much more interested in the meaning and curation of photographs than the physical process of making them. I had no patience for developing technical skills. I would overshoot, then spend hours pouring over my edits.
I unofficially double-majored in art history and first thought I’d go the academic route. I got a job at an art gallery and planned to work there for a few years, teach myself German (Berlin was THE art scene at the time), get a PhD, and teach or curate.
But the art scene disheartened me. I was so idealistic about art, and it crushed me to see the ins and outs of its commodification. It broke my heart to see firsthand how much important work is hidden away in storage. The parties were great, though.
▲ Asics by Cesar Love Alexandre for Refinery 29
The Luupe: Was there a defining moment in your change of direction?
Shornick: It’s funny, an issue of O, The Oprah Magazine was a significant factor in my career path. They used a Todd Hido photograph to illustrate a story, and that was my “aha moment,” if you will. I was intrigued by the idea that fine art photography could be applied to commercial storytelling and reach a wider audience.
I liked the idea of a role that enabled me to generate photography and support artists without actually having to worry about light meter readings and whether I plugged the strobe in safely. Additionally, I get to work across a number of visual styles and aesthetics, rather than developing a signature look.
Women Face Their Swimsuit Fears © Tiffany Dawn Nicholson for,
The Luupe: One thing that feels so interesting about much of the branded content you've been producing over the past few years is how you often work with photographers who use natural light and shoot film. What draws you to this aesthetic?
Shornick: It’s so funny to hear that because for all my years at The Cut I was known for harsh handheld flash, high contrast, and deep saturation. I was working a lot with people like Landon Nordeman, Dina Litovsky, Eric T. White, and Amy Lombard.
Jody Quon’s team and staff photographer Bobby Doherty had a very clear vision for the New York Magazine brand, and I was working within that visual language. Instagram was also just taking off, and I was very conscious of how content would be consumed in a tiny phone square. Bright colors and graphic treatments were the move!
Doggies and Tiaras © Amy Lombard for New York Magazine's The Cut
© Synchrodogs for The Cut
▲ La Perla © Dina Litovsky for New York Fashion Week
The Luupe: Ha! And then things shifted a bit…
Shornick: When I moved over to Refinery29’s branded content team several years/jobs later, I was working within their visual language. By then photography trends had changed. Reacting against the glossy flash photography that was so hot c 2015, I think brands started moving to film and natural light because it felt more authentic to consumers.
But yes, I’m a sucker for natural light and film. Who isn’t? It’s so romantic. It was honestly a small part of my decision to move to LA. I just wanted to be shooting outside.
Film also changes the way you work on set. It slows the photographer down because they have to be more decisive about when they trip the shutter. And since there’s no hovering over the digitech’s monitor, I think it relaxes talent.
They’re more focused on their connection with the photographer than how their hair looks. I love to work with it when it fits the project.
▲ © Kanya Iwana for Refinery 29
The Luupe: Thinking about this shift, much of your career was working for magazines, but in recent years, you've moved over to brands. Did anything prompt this, or was it more of an organic progression?
Shornick: After I’d been at The Cut for nearly 4 years, I was approached by Urban Outfitters for a photo art director role. It was a pretty serious interview process. I put together a significant creative brief, came down to Philly, and even met with a realtor while I was there.
I was ultimately (and correctly!) told that my portfolio was too arty, that I needed a year of commercial work under my belt and then they’d love to talk.
I hadn’t been actively looking to leave editorial before then, but I was starting to feel like I would outgrow that side of the industry.
© Heather Hazzan for Refinery29
The Luupe: And the industry was quickly changing, right?
Shornick: Across publishing, photo departments and their budgets were shrinking. Magazines were folding. Roles were transitioning to jack-of-all-trades “visual editor” positions.
I was seeing fewer opportunities for growth. Everyone had to jump to a new publication every two years or so to avoid layoffs, and I felt like I was working with the same editors over and over.
I was turning thirty and freshly moving in with an academic I was seriously dating at the time, and I needed to make more money.
The strongest creatives were moving to California for tech jobs with bigger budgets and an openness to innovation. My conversations with Urban inspired me to broaden my horizons, so I made a strategic decision to go after photo art director roles and worked at Tory Burch for a year.
Plus-Size Lingerie © Molly Matalon for InStyle
The Luupe: Wow - did you notice any difference in the new role, trends, especially in commercial photography's relationship to editorial?
Shornick: Commercial photography trends will always follow editorial photography trends. It’s just the nature of the way the industry is set up. Photographers take a lower rate for editorial work in exchange for more creative freedom.
That work becomes the proof of concept that can be pitched to commercial clients, where there are more levels of signoff required and more money on the line.
Editorial work is essentially a photographer’s advertising for their capabilities and vision.
© Elizabeth Weinberg for Facebook Portal
The Luupe: How did your work and process shift in developing commercial stories?
Shornick: There is definitely more energy that goes into a pitch for commercial work. In editorial, you’re working on a scrappy team with a singular visual approach. A pitch is at most a mood board and a quick, “What about that cool emerging photographer we met with last month?” conversation.
On the commercial side, you spend a lot of time making elaborate 40-slide presentations with shot lists, strategy points, and detailed creative direction for hair, makeup, wardrobe, and lighting.

They’re both fun, just different! You have to be a little more proscriptive when directing commercial work, but the art is in hiring the right people for the job who share your vision for the creative.
▲ Brittany Bardwell as Sophia in episode 101 of Boo, Bitch. Production still © Erik Voake/Netflix
The Luupe: Moving on to your current role…for many, working within the photo studio at Netflix might seem mysterious. So what does your day-to-day generally look like?
Shornick: I am so lucky that I have a job that feels different every day. Sometimes I’m in meetings with cross-functional partners or showrunners, sometimes I’m at my desk working through my creative strategy for a title, and sometimes I’m on set.
I’ve been traveling quite a bit now that things are opening up again. I just got back from Europe, where I was visiting a production and directing an editorial shoot. I also spend a lot of time drinking free iced coffee in the office. One of the top Netflix perks is the extensive beverage selection.
▲ Story on Uber © Miranda Barnes for Refinery 29
The Luupe: Hahaha, amazing.
Shornick: Our team spearheads on-set still photography, telling the many-layered stories of our series and films through impactful photography. That capture can include unit photography, behind-the-scenes capture, out-of-character editorial portraits, in-character gallery, and beyond.
The imagery our team leads is utilized widely across our campaigns. Our creative is deeply rooted in strategy, and every title is different!
Hair that Comes Out for You © Sacha Perlstein for InStyle
The Luupe: Can you talk about a project or two that you worked on over the past couple of years that really blew you away?
Shornick: I’ve been working on something really special over the last six months, but you’ll just have to wait til 2023 to see the rollout! That’s another key distinction from editorial, where there’s immediate gratification. You shoot and those photos are published within weeks or even hours. Working in commercial photography is like having a really good secret all the time.
▲ William Carson as Billy in episode 101 of Lost Ollie. Production still © Diyah Pera/ Netflix
The Luupe: Backing up ever so slightly, you started working at Netflix just as the pandemic hit. How did this impact or influence your work and role?
Shornick: Feb 2020 was definitely a weird time to move across the country and learn a new side of the business! Like everyone, we had to adapt quickly to ever-changing health guidance. We were inventing processes for remote shoots as we went along. It really brought out my inner nerd.
▲ Jonathan Daviss as Pope, Rudy Pankow as JJ, Madison Bailey as Kiara, Chase Stokes as John B and Madelin Cline as Sarah Cameron in episode 206 of Outer Banks. Production still © Jackson Lee Davis/ Netflix.
The Luupe: And a few months later, brands, platforms, and media were directly confronted with the overdue reality that representation needed to change...immediately. Netflix was already making moves around these issues but we imagine that accelerated.
Shornick: Inclusivity and diversity have always been top of mind for me, and Netflix’s ongoing commitment to that area was a big part of my decision to join the company. We have a saying at Netflix that feedback is a gift. It was editor Lindsay Peoples Wagner whom I credit with a major shift in my thinking.
Early in my career, I almost exclusively focused on a photographer’s style when making booking decisions. On some level, I still believed in the myth of objectivity, and would often prioritize an outsider’s perspective, as if it would bring out some higher truth.
I was increasingly working on sensitive women’s interest feature stories, and I started thinking more critically about how a photographer’s identity and presence in a room might impact the subject.
But it was Lindsay who really opened my eyes. I was producing a shoot about the Black community and pitching all these white photographers, and Lindsay – a brave junior fashion editor at the time – spoke to me about how important it was to have a Black photographer in that environment.
I have never forgotten that conversation. There’s a reason she has risen in the industry so quickly – she is brilliant and never afraid to have a difficult conversation. I’m a better creative for knowing her.
▲ Melissa Barrera as Liv in episode 102 of Keep Breathing. Production still © Ricardo Hubbs/Netflix
▲ The Gap branded content for Refinery29 © Emma Trim
The Luupe: It’s a conversation that needs to continue…
Shornick: I’m excited about the cultural conversations happening around D&I. I spent a lot of time in 2020 examining my own fragility, privileges, and biases. I read books, listened to new voices, and was in constant dialogue with friends, colleagues, and my therapist. I had this false idea that I was a “good liberal” because I’m Jewish, queer, and was raised by a Black caretaker.
While all of those pieces of my identity have shaped me and made me maybe a little more aware of injustice than the average white kid from suburban Connecticut, I definitely had major work to do. I was guilty of a lot of performativity, of burdening people of color with educating me, and of white saviorism.
It’s something I will be examining for the rest of my life. It was a hard year, but I’ve learned so much and am filled with gratitude. I don’t always get it right, but I try to lead with humility.
▲ Alisha Wainwright as Nicole Warren, Ja'Siah Young as Dion Warren in episode 206 of Raising Dion. Production still © Kyle Kaplan/Netflix
The Luupe: How has this played out in your work as a photo editor and visual storyteller?
Shornick: Storytelling is always a delicate dance. At the end of the day I’m always asking myself, “Who is the right person for this project?” and there are so many factors that go into those decisions.
There’s the importance of proven ability, and then there’s also the responsibility of seeking out new voices and opening doors. There’s lived experience, and there’s also personality and aesthetics. We have to keep asking the question and examining the choices.
The Tough Women of New York City's Boxing Clubs © Brittany Carmichael For New York Mag/ The Cut
The Luupe: Going back to the beginning of this conversation – Bard College, where you got your BA in photography, has a heavy focus on visual literacy, grounded largely in art photography. How do you think this shaped how you think about images as a photo producer?
Shornick: I vividly remember my very first crit freshman year, led by Tim Davis. I’d been making photographs for a few years before college, and I went in expecting to be lauded for my stylish portraits of my hipster friends. Tim said – and I will never forget this – “These are like really good high school yearbook photos.”
▲ Asics branded content © Cesar Love Alexandre for Refinery 29
The Luupe: Burn!

Shornick: It crushed me at the time, but from that moment I became much more conscious of how aesthetic choices interact with a subject to inform meaning.
I was lucky to take several classes with Lucy Sante, who has done really beautiful work examining the art historical importance of vernacular photography, and to learn from Laurie Dahlberg about the history of how a mechanical victorian parlor trick earned its place in the art world, and from Stephen Shore about the poetry of framing.
I was in college at the height of the postmodernism conversation, and all of my professors pushed me to question ideas around truth, perspective, and how history can fold over itself. I learned to think about a photograph outside of itself as an objective document.
That emphasis on cultural context and art history informs every picture I produce and consume, and has developed my interest in editing. I think a lot about where photographs will live, who will see them and in which order. I am deeply indebted to my Bard education.
▲ Tina Charles and Epiphanny Prince © Stephanie Noritz for New York Magazine's The Cut
The Luupe: That’s a wonderful anecdote. Thanks so much for your insights so far - it’s really lifting the veil and mystery about what goes into photo production. At The Cut, you had a strong reputation for being very open and accessible to photographer pitches. Now that you're at Netflix, what's the best way for photographers to get their work in front of you?
Shornick: Email is my preferred method of contact. I like a quick intro that includes your location, with a handful of images that I don’t have to download and a link to see more. I always appreciate an in-person meeting when schedules allow, and I’m more apt to meet with someone who is visiting from out of town.

Make sure you do your homework, too. Only reach out to people who are relevant for your work. Sometimes a sports photographer will reach out to me, and there’s really nothing I can do for them. And please, no more LinkedIn invitations from people I’ve never met! That is not helping you.
Out of the Box © JUCO for New York Magazine's the Cut at the Greenbrier Hotel in West Virgina.
The Luupe: What areas are you focusing on most right now?
Shornick: I’m mostly working on entertainment portraiture and union unit photography right now; I’m still open to pitches, but they need to be based more in the creative approach than in content.
As much as I’d love to hear about your project on, say, the dying art of cobblers, I don’t really have a place to put that. But if you want to show me your cool new lighting technique, I’m all ears!
I also love to know a photographer’s personal interest areas. If a photographer is interested in gender identity, the Latinx experience, or surfing, I’ll keep them in mind for a project down the line that explores related themes.
▲ Target Branded Content © Heather Hazzan for Refinery 29
The Luupe: On the flip side, do you have any advice for the "decision-makers" or gatekeepers on how to better engage with photographers/ "talent"?
Shornick: When I meet with a new photographer, I like to ask them what their dream commission is. It’s so easy for creatives to get pigeonholed into a specific niche if they do that one thing very well.
I like to find out what they’re passionate about, or what someone hasn’t given them an opportunity to try yet. Everyone makes their best work when they’re invested in what they’re doing.
Also, don’t gatekeep information. Someone who is green now won’t always be, and it benefits everyone if you let them know what they need to do to get hired.
▲ Christian Convery as Gus in episode 107 of Sweet Tooth.
Production still © Kristy Griffin/ Netflix
The Luupe: Thank you! In closing, 15+ years working in photography, what's keeping you going, keeping things fresh, keeping you inspired?
Shornick: I made the leap from editorial to entertainment two and a half years ago, and I’m still learning something new every day. That’s what’s so great about working at a streaming service – we’re always innovating and trying new things. I’m also fortunate that I get to work on a wide range of series, so I’m learning from new showrunners and trying different visual storytelling approaches from title to title.
I’ve grown so much in the last two and a half years, and I’m as inspired and filled with curiosity as I was on day one.
The Luupe: Ok, one more thing before we head out: your IG caption: "low-res, high fiber" - what's this about?
Shornick: Ha! It’s not that deep. I’m an internet person who loves fresh produce and wordplay.
The Luupe
The Luupe is a one-stop production company that is raising the bar for professional brand imagery on a global scale. With a highly curated and diverse network of professional women and non-binary photo and video creators across 80+ countries around the world, we are reinventing how brands produce original, local, and authentic visual stories that connect with a global audience. Our mission is to champion and amplify diverse perspectives from around the world — in front of and behind the lens.
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