Select a category
The Commercial Success of a Street Photographer
The Commercial Success of a Street Photographer
by The Luupe
The Luupe speaks with renowned photographer Michelle Groskopf about street photography, her path to success, mentorship, and women supporting women.
From "suburban street photographer" to shooting for today's biggest brands and magazines, Michelle Groskopf brings inspiring, honest energy to all her work.
Michelle Groskopf is a street photographer at heart. Based in Los Angeles, she often wanders the city, catching strangers off guard with her shadow-blasting flash. While her images are spontaneous, angular, and honest, they lack judgment. They are a tool, she says, that helps her interact with the world when she feels uncomfortable in her own skin.
A few years ago, Groskopf's unique approach grabbed the attention of curators and blog editors. Soon enough, photo directors at major publications like Wired, The New York Times, GQ, and New York Magazine were clamoring to work with her and tell their stories with her refined eye. Big brands followed and today, Groskopf is one of the most sought after photographers. One job leads to another, and she continues to craft a stylized and impressive career.
The Luupe speaks with Groskopf about street photography, her path to success, the importance of mentorship, and women supporting women.
Personal work by © Michelle Groskopf
The Luupe in conversation with Michelle Groskopf
The Luupe: Your career trajectory is incredibly inspiring. You work with some of today's biggest brands and publications, but your roots are in street photography. Our understanding is that much if not all of your commercial work came from brands and publications being drawn to the fire of your personal work, right?
Michelle Groskopf: I’m very grateful that my career has been able to take shape in a very organic way. Slowly over time but definitely organically. When I first started really dedicating my free time to experiment with flash and street photography I had no idea I’d end up here. I just knew it made me extremely happy and was a way for me to reintroduce my heart to my inner self again. I had become a bit lost in the world and lacked purpose. Going out every day and using the street as a studio was lifesaving to me. The end goal at first wasn’t a career, it was simply getting out of bed with a purpose.
Once I started to share those experiments, things kicked into place. Blogs started to pick up on what I was doing, some work started to come in, and eventually a few solo shows. A couple of generous editors took a shine to my work. Editors like Toby Kaufmann and Anna Alexander. By that time I was prepared. I had done years of work on my personal vision and I had something to say, so when they showed up, I was ready. One job led to the next and to the next etc. Here I am, very grateful, and still learning. Still open.
Meet Michelle Groskopf. Photographed by Maggie Shannon
The Luupe: What was the first commercial shoot you did and how did it come about?
Groskopf: Apple was my first brand but I can’t go into details due to an NDA agreement. I’ve done some fun work for them for sure. One of my fav brand collaborations was with a Korean jewelry company called Monday Edition. Julien Beaupre Ste-Marie managing director at the creative agency MMBP Group brought me on to the project. I was sent a box of jewelry and I took it around LA and photographed it on people I thought were interesting. It was so much fun and such a great use of my natural way of working.
The photos were then turned into a big show in Seoul. It was really cool. I also loved the project I did with Square. They sent me to Far Rockaway Beach in NY to hang out and photograph a group of women-owned businesses. Square gave me the creative freedom to shoot it how I wanted, mixing street with a more journalistic approach. I had a great time and the photos turned out wonderfully. Strong women and lots of sun. Can’t lose!
The founders of the Cameo app. © Michelle Groskopf for Wired Magazine UK
© Michelle Groskopf for fashion brand everybody.world's Ariel Shorts campaign
The Luupe: Has your commercial and editorial work influenced or reimagine your personal work?
Groskopf: When it comes to brands I tend to live in the world of advertorial which suits me very well. I love telling stories and have a ton of editorial experience. So when those kinds of jobs come up I feel very comfortable with them and excited by them – I get to bring my authentic approach to telling stories and it never feels too on the nose. I work really well in that world. Street photography teaches you to be very creative with the elements in front of you and to be flexible and to think fast on your feet. All of these tools are great to have on a branded shoot.
I’m still trying to parcel out how my professional work has impacted my personal work outside of just a stronger understanding of audience and storytelling. I don’t separate my personal work from my professional projects very much, I still try and bring my whole self to everything I do. Otherwise, it feels like a waste of my time. I’m definitely growing in all the ways.
Leslie Jordan flanked by two muscle boys in a Los Angeles Park. © Michelle Groskopf for The New York Times
Thundercat. Photographed by Michelle Groskopf for Society Magazine just before the quarantine
The Luupe: In an early interview with street photography blog In-Public, you described being called a "suburban street photographer." Do you think this still applies today?
Groskopf: I think a lot of things have changed since that interview. I’ve matured a lot. At that time I didn’t feel like I fit in very many places – I was ready to throw myself into a box and turn the key. I was born and raised in the suburbs so it will always have a say in how I see the world but my worldview and the things that excite me have grown. I played the drums for most of my life. When I first started my drum kit would control me. My own limitations with drumming formed my style of play and how I physically made my way around the kit. As I practiced and got better that style grew outwards to incorporate a wider understanding of potential and technique.
The same can easily be related to me and photography. The stronger I become the more I’m willing to tackle and the more I have to say. There will never be a point when I'm not me. My work screams Michelle but my idea of the sort of work I should or can make has really expanded since then. The more skill and knowledge I’ve accrued the more open I’ve become. Which is rad and powerful!
Vanity Fair Oscar Party. Los Angeles, California. 2/10/20. © Michelle Groskopf for The New York Times
© Michelle Groskopf in collaboration with Korean jewelry brand Monday Edition
The Luupe: What have been some of your biggest challenges working commercially and how have they helped you grow as a photographer?
Groskopf: The business side has been the biggest learning curve for me. Knowing my worth. Negotiating a contract. Knowing what I can ask for from a production company and how much I can bill and expense. I don’t have an agent so that was hard-fought knowledge. I looked to my fellow peers and mentors to guide me and they set me straight. I’m much more comfortable with that side of the job now but would love to be able to lean on an agent for that stuff. But I believe all photographers should know their way around a contract and a negotiation regardless.
The Kids Who Love ‘Frozen’ and the Parents Who Love Them. 11/17/2019. © Michelle Groskopf for The New York Times
The Luupe: Were there any photographers along the way who acted as mentors to your career?
Groskopf: I've always taken great comfort in my photography community but the folks who have really advised me and guided me were editors and creative directors. Folks like Toby Kauffman, Julien Beaupre Ste-Marie, Anna Alexander, Sam Cooper, Jackie Bates, Cat Jimenez, Eve Lyons, Gemma Fletcher, and Meredith Marley. These are people who have, at different points in my career, made me feel seen and very cared for. They've each had a hand in where I am today and I'm so grateful. Also, my partner and fellow photographer Sasha Tivetsky who has literally stood by me through thick and thin and has made so much of my career possible through her support and love.
These folks have all supported my vision in various ways and helped bolster my self-confidence. No one can make it in this industry alone, so I’m extremely grateful and try and spend a good amount of my energy giving back to photographers looking to get a start or need some advice or mentorship.
Hype House/ TikTok Kids in Los Angeles, California © Michelle Groskopf for The New York Times
© Michelle Groskopf from New York Magazine's October 2019 story on Stockton, CA’s program to give residents $500/ month.
The Luupe: What was the most inspiring, eye-opening, etc piece of advice you've received?
Groskopf: I think it mostly comes down to standing by my vision. Trusting how I see the world, even when it hasn’t been on-trend. Being true to myself as an artist. So many photographers are out there chasing trends to stay relevant but that’s not what it’s all about. Also getting advice on negotiating. I’ve been told time and time again that men never accept the first offer but women will. If you are a female-identifying photographer learn your worth and how to ask for more.
Tony Hale and Julia Louis Dreyfus behind the scenes at the 2019 VEEP finale. © Michelle Groskopf for New York Magazine
The Luupe: As you continue to grow and excel in your awesomeness, have aspiring photographers connected with you for advice or guidance?
Groskopf: Yes all the time. I generally love it and feel honored, except when photographers ask me boring things like what camera I use or what lights I use. I use Sony cameras and Profoto lights but that has little to do with it. If that’s what you're asking me then you have a long way to go before you're ready to enter into this business. I love disciplined photographers that come to the table having done their research and their own experiments.
There are no easy answers and the photographers that recognize that always steal my heart. These are the ones I'm happy to share my knowledge and experience with. The ones who are open to hard work and practice. They always teach me something in return. I’ve also done a fair bit of teaching. I’ve taught at the graduate level down to pre-teens. I love it. You learn a lot about yourself teaching.
Jennelle Eliana © Michelle Groskopf for Refinery29
Judy Sugden with her Toygers at home. © Michelle Groskopf for The New York Times
The Luupe: Do you have any advice for up and coming photographers that you wish you'd received early on?
Groskopf: Patience and perseverance. Nothing happens quickly and no one is rooting for you in the way that you can for yourself. Self-love all the way. And discipline. Practice, practice, practice. Challenge yourself regardless of whether someone is paying you or assigning you. 'Cos there will be busy periods and slow periods and in those slow periods, you will be required to dig deep to keep motivated and to stay curious. Lastly, find your voice. We all have something original to say. What are you trying to say with your work? What are you adding to the conversation? Don’t look back or ahead, ignore the folks flanking you, just look in. All the answers are there.
Fortnite fans at the inaugural Fortnite Celebrity Pro-Am tournament at the Banc of California Stadium in Los Angeles on June 12, 2018. © Michelle Groskopf for New York Magazine
Los Angeles,California - 5/15/20, Gemma © Michelle Groskopf for the New York Times
The Luupe: You and fellow Luupe photographer Kate Warren recently collaborated with Diversify Photo on a list of Black photographers brands and publications should hire. How did this come about and what have its successes/ response been so far?
Groskopf: It's been very important to the 5 women who made the list including myself that the attention remains on the photographers within the list as opposed to on us. So I’ll be brief. Simply put we all believe that there needs to be diverse voices in the room. That journalism and editorial work can not evolve without reflecting and embracing the world it inhabits. Diversity makes everything better. Opinions and viewpoints clearer. Experiences richer. Art more challenging and more deeply felt.
I think we all wanted to see some real change happen. Waiting around for editors to do this work sadly wasn’t cutting it. I have to say though that it’s amazing what only a few passionate women can do when they put their minds and energy to a task. I will never think something is impossible again. We handed the list over to the capable hands of Diversify Photo. It lives with them now. I hope editors use it day in and day out.
The Luupe: We know very well that women photographers continue to face challenges - which is one of Keren Sachs' reasons for starting The Luupe. As culture and the photo, publishing, and advertising industry is gradually becoming more conscious towards changing these problems- are you seeing a positive shift in assignments and your relationships with brands?
Groskopf: All my favorite working editorial photographers and editors right now are women. I think we're learning that if we want our voices heard we need to lift each other up, stand on each other's shoulders. Create our own "girls club" culture in the way that men do. Learn from each other, support each other, and hire each other. We have a ways to go before equality is the norm sadly but we are making space for it every day. I have so much love for all of the women who fought for equality before me and all of those pushing now.
GenZ influencers quarantined in Los Angeles - photographed in May, 2020 by Michelle Groskopf for The New York Times.
The Luupe: As a platform, we've spent some considerable time analyzing our own blindspots, specifically around race and white privilege. Does this play out in how you think about your own practice as a (white) working photographer?
Groskopf: Definitely. I think about the space I take up quite a bit. It’s obvious to me, white people are standing in the way of Black greatness. We’re slowing it down, tripping it up and worse yet robbing from it, and that’s putting it nicely.
I can’t be out there complaining about how the patriarchy is standing in the way of women’s greatness and not see the hypocrisy in my own white privilege. I'm here to listen, learn, and support in all of the ways. Helping to make that list made clear to me how important taking action is to making space. Tangible work towards tangible change. Anything less is unacceptable at this late point.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
The Luupe is a one-stop production platform designed to help brands collaborate with underrepresented photographers across the globe, providing resources and opportunities that boost creator’s impact and income, while streamlining traditional workflows to create high quality, diverse content, at scale. Our brand purpose is to help underrepresented photographers and creators further their career and generate income with the goal of improving diversity in front of and behind the lens in the commercial photography industry.