While some portrait photographers insist on structuring the setting and controlling the composition, Amy Lombard’s approach embraces the unpredictable moments that inevitably happen on a shoot. “I like it messy and lived in,” she says. So do the New York Times, New York Magazine, Vice, and Time, among others, who regularly send her to photograph the people and phenomena making an impact on American culture.
The portraits you’ve shot range from Anna Wintour and Roger Stone to the people who flock to the Miss Crustacean Beauty Contest. Do you prepare for Anna the same way you’d prepare for a shoot with hermit-crab fanatics?
I always do the research — I’ll read interviews with the subject, look at their Instagram, you know, try to sense what’s important to them, what might make them comfortable—but the truth is, you never know what situation you're walking into. You have no idea what you’re in for. And for me, that’s half the fun, honestly: You know, trying to figure it out on the fly.
Have you walked into any surprising situations lately?
A few months back, I shot politician Newt Gingrich for The Atlantic. He’s a big animal lover—growing up, he wanted to be a zoologist—and his camp suggested doing the shoot at the zoo. I liked the idea and it started off very pleasant: There were some sweet moments and we were bonding over petting the rhinos. But midway through the shoot, something clicked in his head and he decided he hated me. We were walking to the tortoise room, and he said to the reporter—and I was right there—“Amy has no sense of dignity. All she wants is her shot,” and he started bad-mouthing me. This continued for the rest of the shoot. I was shocked; I think my eyes bulged out of my head. But it was not like I can leave, so I laughed and kind of rolled with it. You never know what someone is going to say or do, and at this point, I feel like I can deal with anyone.
At the start of a shoot, in those first seconds, what are you looking for?
I immediately try to get a sense of whether the person wants to be there or if it feels like a situation where they have to do it. So the first moments are really about me making the person feel comfortable and establishing some sort of connection. I know very few people who actually enjoy being photographed, so if they don't want to be there, then it’s about finessing the situation, saying to them, "I get it, I don’t like being photographed, either." Sometimes it’s about acknowledging the uncomfortableness rather than pretending it isn’t there, hopefully sharing a laugh about that. It’s about quickly establishing some kind of common ground.
Obviously, being able to read a room quickly is key. Is there a way for newer photographers to build those skills before they’re actually in the room?
Go up and talk to strangers, put yourself in situations that make you feel uncomfortable.
You don’t typically shoot in a studio. What’s your preparation like when it comes to the shooting environment?
The time you’re given for portrait shoots is getting shorter and shorter. Sometimes I’ll go to the place the day before and pick out particular spots. For any portrait shoot, as much planning as you can do is helpful—but so is giving yourself room for spontaneity: Have a road map, but allow yourself room for things to go in a completely different direction because sometimes that’s where the best moments are.
Hotel rooms are particularly common for celebrity shoots so…
Yes, ultimately, nobody wants to see the hotel room. Even if it's decorated in a super interesting way. So I try to look for little situations—patterns, colored walls, flamboyant details— that can create a narrative or an interesting perspective that make you feel that it's somewhere different. It’s the same with a really sad-looking office that a corporate executive will want you to shoot in, with the sad plant, the grey walls, the horrible lighting. You can’t map everything out; there are moments when you have to go with it and then try to find the diamond in the rough.
In your portraits, there’s often the sense of the unexpected entering the picture. It’s a bit of a street-photography feel.
Before I was doing any of this, my interest was in street photography and that’s sort of how I found myself as a photographer. A lot of the portrait work I've been doing in the last few years is being a fly on the wall and just letting someone be themselves and then catching these little moments that maybe wouldn't be photographed otherwise.
How does a foundation of street photography affect your sense of composition?
I’m not so concerned about composition, about things being perfect. I like it messy and lived in.
The use of flash is one your signatures. What does flash deliver to a portrait?
Flash has a way of elevating everyday moments. It puts a spotlight on things, on the details, and that helps you see these moments in a heightened way, which I’m drawn to.
Is there a single photo that captures your style, with the flash and the street-photography vibe?
When I was 18 or 19 and trying figuring out who I was as a photographer, I took a picture of a pot leaf necklace on a woman who had enormous boobs. It was one of the first photos I took with flash, and when I was scanning the film, I was like, “Yeah, this is it. That’s who I am”. To this day, I think it sums up my style as a whole.
It’s not a traditional portrait: You’ve cropped-out the woman’s head.
I’ve always loved cropping people’s heads out of photos. I've been doing that ever since I picked up a camera, when I was, like, 15. Without the head, one little detail can become the focal point of the image—and through this detail, you can create a whole narrative about who this person is. I’m interested in capturing American cultural phenomenon that are telling of the way that we live in a specific moment of time. To me, this photo does that.
Is there specific portrait where you learned something on the shoot?
When I began to freelance, I shot actress Sydney Leathers who was involved in an online scandal with politician Anthony Weiner. I photographed her for Vice and it was a weeklong shoot, so I really got to know her. She told me that the way many of the media outlets covered her had kind of ruined her life. The whole situation was complicated, honestly. I mean, she was a person, not a character in some cheesy drama. I wanted to do the opposite of how the other media outlets had portrayed her. Often, when you're shooting, you sort of forget the kind of power you have, and there was a moment during this shoot when I realized that as a photographer I really can show people a different side of someone, one they haven't seen before in other coverage.
How much of you is in your pictures?
As a photographer, we see certain things in a certain way and our job is to literally put someone in a box, in a frame, so in that sense, you know, I'm in there, too.
What makes a portrait memorable?
I want to see the unexpected. I want to see someone in a different way.
Is there a portrait you’ve seen by another photographer that you really, really wish you’d made?
I very rarely have photo-envy in that kind of way. One picture that comes to mind is by Lauren Greenfield. Years ago, she photographed a young Kim Kardashian, and I just think it's so fantastic— both photographically and in a pop-culture history kind of way.
Whose work have you learned from?
Looking at the details of Barbara Crane's work. How it really focuses on one cropped-in view of a person is something I think about often. And Nina Leen, the LIFE photographer. She documented everyday American life but her pictures often felt just a little bit bizarre. She shot a squirrel dressed up in costumes and a Young Women’s Republican Smokers Club. Her work has been pretty key to my development as a photographer. She worked in every genre but it all felt very visually her own, no matter what she was shooting. That’s obviously best-case scenario for a photographer: You shine through no matter the subject or genre.
How do you know that you’ve nailed a portrait?
There’s just a sense of knowing when you’ve got it. I remember back in school (Lombard graduated from the Fashion Institute of Technology in 2012) they taught you "Even when you think you have it, just keep going ». I'm very against that. In a portrait shoot, there’s always a moment, whether you’re shooting a celebrity or a normal person, when the subject is, like "I’m over this," and more often than not, that’s when I call it. At a certain point, you're not going to get anything beyond that.
What does that moment look like?
Oh, it’s a look in their eyes. They're like, "Is this done yet?" When I see that, I’m like, “Okay, we got it. It looks fantastic.” And then I pack it up and go.
Interview by Bill Shapiro
Bill Shapiro is the former Editor-in-Chief of LIFE magazine and the author of the new book, What We Keep.
More information on Amy Lombard here.