Emily Thorpe is a Los Angeles based artist who specializes in photography. She studied all types of studio art and art history at the University of California, Davis, has worked for two years at The J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, and is currently focusing on her photography and building a studio of her own.
Tell us a little about yourself and your photography.
I am currently living in Los Angeles, where I grew up and where I began to fall in love with photography. My first experience with photography was in a high school photography class, I thought that the images that I took were amazing and just completely earth shatteringly profound; but looking back on them now, the images are rather embarrassingly simple.
It wasn’t until my freshmen year of college that I began to create work worth looking at. I studied drawing, painting, sculpture, photography, printmaking and various forms of art history. My exposure to the different mediums and other student artists helped shape me into the artist I am today; although, I hope to always be changing and improving.
Why do you love photographing people?
People are extremely complicated beings with the ability to show or hide everything about them. It’s exciting to see how people will respond when you direct them to look a certain way. Every person shows emotions differently, and I think that brings out a lot of someone’s personality and character. A few flexed muscles in your face can completely change your expression, therefor completely changing the attitude of any situation. I usually don’t want my subjects to smile because that’s most people’s initial reaction when being photographed.
We are constantly taking photos of other people and ourselves these days, but these photos always show us in happy situations and at our absolute bests. I want to capture what people aren’t necessarily willing to show the world.
You do some casual and intimate shots of real people. What is your secret when photographing models?
I would have to admit that I have been lucky to have very willing friends. Most of my subjects are people I know extremely well and we trust each other.
When photographing people you’ve just met, I think it’s vital to try to get to know them, build some relationship and trust before you start shooting. It definitely depends on what you’re shooting, but if you can, explain to the model what your goal is for the shots and ask their opinion. If you collaborate with them, they tend to get more excited and become a better participant. If they know what your idea is for the shot, you usually allow them to move around in a way that is natural to them, so you’re able to give less guidance. The most important thing is making sure everyone’s having a good time, if the subject is stressed out, you’re going to see it in the photos.
How do you bring forward the character of a person?
You cannot expect people to do exactly what you want. Everyone moves in their own way and reacts to things differently. You have to let them be themselves and figure out what you can get from them. If you’re photographing a wrestler you’ll be hard pressed to get them to move like a ballerina!
When you make people feel comfortable and give time a little guidance, they will reveal themselves to you. I always try to be very positive. If you tell someone they’re being awkward and that they’re doing things wrong, they’ll close up and become uncomfortable and you’ve lost any chance of getting a natural shot. Instead, if something isn’t working change directions, let them sit down or dance; find out what inspires them. If someone is an amazing skateboarder, let them bring a skateboard, allowing people to interact with objects will distract them and allow them to forget for a moment that they are being photographed in an unnatural situation and in that moment, you might just find your shot.
What are some other photographic projects you enjoy working on?
I love landscapes and just light in general. When out, I’m always taking strange little photos of light going through a glass, reflecting on the table. I have always been a day dreamer and live in my own world. I tend to see things other people don’t. I’ll catch myself pointing out the shadows cast by the clouds on the hillside, or the way a log looks like a hippopotamus. It’s what I’m always looking for.
I think to be a good artist and photographer, you have to find a way to see things differently than other people. Anyone can go to the ocean and take a picture and it will look great, but with everyone taking photos constantly these days, great photography will come from being able to connect with people in a way others can’t or being able to gain access to places that others can’t. I have some amazing photographs of men rowing in the Port of Sacramento in the early morning because I was a coxswain in college for the crew team.
Sometimes you have to be the person who wakes up at 4:00 AM to catch the perfect light as the sun raises, or the person who will stay up all night capturing the moon moving across the sky. Photos that have flat and boring lighting are never interesting.
What kind of a camera and lenses do you primarily use and how do you select your equipment?
I only have two cameras, a digital and an analog, and my tripod. My digital camera is a Cannon 60D and I have a normal lens and a telephoto lens. My analog camera is a Nikon F6 and I have one lens for it! I don’t believe that you need extremely fancy tools to take amazing photographs. What you need is an idea, a good eye for composition, and awareness of the lighting. I rarely end up using my telephoto lens – mostly because I don’t tend to carry it with me.
About 90% of the time I use my digital camera because I currently do not have access to a lab for film, but when I do shoot with film I always shoot in black and white. There’s something so lovely about shots taken in black and white instead of photo shopped to look like they were.
If you don’t need to move too much, always use a tripod. It’s so sad when you think you’ve taken an amazing image and you find out it is blurry.
The thing I really would like to have one day is a medium format camera. The amount of detail you gain is amazing and you can make gigantic gorgeous prints!
Can you name some tips for those who want to start taking portraits?
Start with people you know who are adventurous and put them in weird situations. We are so used to being photographed, getting someone to stop posing and act naturally puts them outside their comfort zone.
I adore working with water and that has been such a great tool for me. I’ve taken photos of friends in gowns walking into the ocean, dealing with the waves crashing in on them. Another project involved pouring water over friends’ heads and catching their reactions, while I was yelling at them to keep their eyes open which goes against human nature.
Another trick is to not let the subject know that you’re taking pictures of them at that exact moment. You can have a group of people just hang out in a room and you can set your camera up and say, “oh don’t mind me, I’m just going to take a few photos.” When they relax and fall back into a natural cadence you might be lucky enough to get some very intimate shots. In this situation it’s important to not move too much. If you are able to reach an intimate situation treat it delicately.
Thanks a lot Emily for giving us a glimpse of your photography!
Please check out her work at her website: