How To Be a Photo Editor: A Conversation with Elizabeth Renstrom

How To Be a Photo Editor: A Conversation with Elizabeth Renstrom

How To Be a Photo Editor: A Conversation with Elizabeth Renstrom

by The Luupe

The influential photography producer discusses her favorite commissions, her decision to leave The New Yorker for freelance, and what's driving image culture right now.

Elizabeth Renstrom recently left The New Yorker to focus on freelance work.
We caught up to learn more about her impressive career, tips for photographers on collaborating with publications and brands, and her exciting outlook on the future of commercial and editorial image-making.
Renstrom also shares helpful and honest tips for photographers looking to get their work seen, commissioned and published. We've illustrated this conversation with some of Renstrom's favorite New Yorker stories over the past few years.
Elizabeth Renstrom behind ther scenes
The Luupe: From TIME to VICE to New Yorker, you've played a remarkable and influential role shaping visual culture and the careers of some of today's top photographers. What have been some of your biggest learnings?

Elizabeth Renstrom: I feel endlessly lucky that I’ve been able to work at a majority of places that prioritize artist’s unique voices. I learned so much, but a few tips/things I’ve considered across all publications:
  • Mentorship is so important, if you can find a mentor, hold on to them
  • Have a clear voice about your practice: What creative territories are you currently exploring? What are you passionate about in your creative practice?
  • Think about how can you can examine stories from multiple angles
    look to your own life and experiences for series ideas
  • Find your community
  • Know your worth as an artist and negotiate your needs up front
    read those contracts!
Photo by Illona Szwarc for The New Yorker

"I was thinking of Ilona Szwarc's images about American Girl Dolls and their owners, and also this amazing commission she did for Topic. I wanted her to create a similar domestic/child-like space for the Pen15 creators."

The Luupe: That’s so helpful! What do you see really working for photographers over the past few years? What are you most excited about in the photo editing world?

Renstrom: I see people being way more intentional with commissioning in general since I started working in magazines departments in 2012. There is a deeper understanding of how a photographer’s perspective and artistic practice fits into the shoots they are chosen for vs. just pulling from the same roster of people who have a certain level of experience.
The Luupe: What are 3 things photographers should know when pitching their work?
  • Have an understanding of how/where your work can live within the publication/brand/venue your pitching to ahead of time.
  • Have some dream commissions in the back of your head so if you're prompted to talk about what you want to shoot for X publication, you can speak to what your focus is ‘I primarily have a studio portraiture practice, and it would be a dream to collaborate with authors’ (plug in whatever your strengths are/what a fun commission could be for you!)
  • Don’t be scared to show works in progress/work you're developing in addition to your greater portfolio.
Photo illustration By Arvida Byström For The New Yorker

"I think Arvida was able to take a very tricky commission and execute our shared visual culture around Britney while also showing the ways we’ve failed her as a society"

The Luupe: And what are 3 common mistakes photographers should avoid?

Renstrom: Honestly I haven’t encountered a ton of ‘NO NO’s over the years, but I would say these are some things that could always be improved:
  • A concise portfolio update/intro email. Make it short and sweet, say why you’re emailing and make it easy for me to look at your work in the email (attach a PDF, hyperlink your site, etc.)
  • Know your audience when you’re emailing different editors.
  • Have a website that’s easy to navigate/plays to your focus as a photographer.
The Luupe: What was your favorite shoot to produce in 2021/22 (or during your entire time at NY'er!)?

Renstrom: This is impossible!
The Luupe: Hahaha! Ok - How about three standouts?
Renstrom: The fiction section at The New Yorker was an absolute joy to commission photography around. I think it really allows photographers to experiment and play to the strengths of their own work, while being in direct conversation with another artist’s words.
It’s such a special section because it’s so broad in the ways it can be interpreted pending on the tone of the story. I’ve commissioned conceptual still life, portraiture, landscape, you name it, for this section. Some highlights over the years:
Bedtime Story fiction piece photographed nby Janna Ireland for The New Yorker.

"I love how Janna captures the oddities in domestic situations, and she interpreted this piece of fiction perfectly"

Photograph by Chase Middleton for The New Yorker story "Flashlight."
Photograph by Sophie Gabrielle for The New Yorker

"Sophie Gabrielle photographed 3 stories for the 2021 fiction issue expertly. Her personal photography is so atmospheric, and she tied 3 separate authors work together through her strong sense of style."

The Luupe: Love! After comissioning so many compelling stories, what compelled you to go freelance and why now?

Renstrom: I think like many people, the pandemic shifted my perspective on work and the type of work I’d like to focus on. I had the urge to dedicate more time to my shooting practice for a while, but this finally felt like the right moment to take the leap and give myself a bigger chance. I knew to do that I would need a more flexible schedule.
Wet Leg © Elizabeth Renstrom for The New Yorker
The Luupe: Your recent photoshoot for the New Yorker with Wet Leg is so good. Can you talk a bit about the process + concept behind it?

Renstrom: That means a lot! It was so fun to put it together in one of my favorite cities. Portland is a haven for vintage clothing and tchotchkes in general. Whenever I’m there visiting, I always make sure to pick up items I know I can incorporate into my images.
Knowing that the shoot would be there while I was in town and they were on tour, I thought it would be fun to take advantage of the vintage and do something 60’s/70’s inspired.
In a lot of interviews the girls mentioned how their hometown of the Isle of Wight is a bit of a time capsule, so a throwback vibe felt right. I thought about the process of making their album together, and of them dreaming up/concepting the album on their bedroom floor. A lot of my work focuses on corners of domestic spaces, so I thought it would be a fun tie in to some of the themes I often shoot.
I knew the rug would act as the primary backdrop, and I needed it to feel unique and shaggy ;) There’s this incredible mid century furniture store called Vintage Pink, and one of the sellers always has an awesome collection of Rya rugs. He let me rent one from the store, and I just kind of built the photograph from there.
Clothing was all sourced and styled by the incredible Anna Knight. She has worked in vintage in Portland for years, and I knew she would be able to pull very time-specific pieces. Good crew, fun vintage, Voilà! It’s always fun collaborating with friends to make something cool.
© Elizabeth Renstrom for Vimeo
The Luupe: Like your Wet Leg shoot, we've been massive fans of your own photography and are excited to see you now working with brands. Your "NSFW" (new standards for work) collab with Paul DeSilva for Vimeo is a great example. Do you take a different approach to commercial work vs editorial work?

Renstrom: Honestly, I don’t approach the two that differently at all! The only thing that shifts with commercial jobs is the amount of resources at my disposal to execute my ideas, as well as the amount of people weighing in. Oftentimes for editorial shoots, I am doing all the elements myself ( propping, set, etc.)
© Elizabeth Renstrom for Vimeo
The Luupe: Is there a typical scenario for how you work on set?
Renstrom: When I shoot commercially I get to hire and work with different collaborators to bring a photo to life, which is so fun. I still try to bring the same weirdness/obsessiveness to my work in ads, as I would in my own work. It just has to fit within the world I’m trying to create for the client.

I have felt very grateful that the past few commercial clients I’ve worked with had me on their mood board, then hired me for the job. That doesn’t always happen. Sometimes people don’t know the artists they are pulling for mood boards, and then they go with someone completely different to execute.
© Elizabeth Renstrom

"In anticipation of 'Beanie Mania,' I need to share my own collection I scorched for this photograph titled 'Beanie Baby Deathz' for a project in 2013. It is sitting in a dear friend's basement in New Jersey as an "art object."

The Luupe: So much of your own photography is inspired by your childhood in the 90s, references to JNCOS, HotTopic, etc.... does this play into your work and vision as an editor/producer?

Renstrom: I try to separate my sensibility/themes in my own work while collaborating on commissions with other artists. I think the only way it bleeds in is basically my decision and preference on giving artists free reign to execute an assignment as they would their personal work. I love when people can get weird on a commission and have it fit within the realm of the work they're making in their own long term projects.
I have a soft spot for artists that discuss pop culture trends in a dynamic/conceptual way, and it’s exciting when that work can be utilized in an editorial. For example, everything Chris Maggio is doing right now!
Photograph by Paola Kudacki for The New Yorker

"Paola expertly handled this ‘break the internet’ profile with a subtle sense of humor."

The Luupe: What are you going to miss most about working at The New Yorker?

Renstrom: So many things! The people make The New Yorker a special place. Being able to collaborate and work with talented writers to bring their stories to life is what I’m going to miss the most. Working alongside writers whose work inspires my own imagery was something that always felt surreal.
Whether that was Rachel Syme’s writing on scent and pop culture, Kelefa Sanneh and Amanda Petrusich’s music criticism, or Jia Tolention’s musings on Britney Spears, it was always humbling to be in conversation with their words.
I also loved being a part of a team of photo editors, and in general, visual nerds to bounce ideas off of. The photo department is full of such wonderful talent, and just sharing projects in Photobooth meetings, or side chatting about who could work on x commission in x city, that will be greatly missed.
Photograph by Elle Perez for The New Yorker

"Elle Perez brought such a rawness/vulnerability to their portraits of Kristen, it was an honor to see how they apply their vision to celeb."

The Luupe: Lastly, any advice for others looking to make the leap from full time to freelance?
Renstrom: I think everyone comes to this type of work in their own timeline/way, but I can tell you some of what helped me:
  • Make a list of who/where you’d want to shoot for.
  • Make the kind of work you hope to be commissioned for on your nights and weekends.
  • Have a budget in mind for your monthly living expenses that feels realistic
    map out what kind of jobs you’d have to get to make that happen.
  • Think about passive income scenarios (uploading parts of your archive to licensing websites, etc.)
  • Start collaborating with other artists (set designers, prop stylists, etc)
    get advice on your portfolio/the navigation of your website, etc.
The Luupe: Thanks so much for your time and insights!
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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