Lauren Withrow is 20 years old and lives in a small suburban town in Texas. Currently she is enrolled in Collin County Community College, working towards completing her AA in Liberal Arts.
Her work has been featured in countless magazines such as Grand Central Publishing, Ballad of Magazine, Nylon, We the Urban Magazine, Living Magazine, SYN Magazine, Apricot Magazine and many many more.
As well as that her work has also been shown in exhibitions in Brighton England, Dallas Texas, and in New York.
Lauren also has two upcoming exhibitions! If you’re in New York, New York you can see her work in October of 2013 in “Creatives Rising” which is a group show. It will be shown in “See | Exhibition Space”.
If you’re in London you can see her work as part of a group show called “Renaissance” in November of 2013. It will be shown in the “Chalk House Gallery”.
In this extended interview on Phlearn.com with Lauren Withrow, she shares with us the amazing story of how she got into photography, she gives us tips on how to prepare ourselves for shoots just in case something goes wrong, and she share’s with us her greatest and worst experiences while on set and/or shooting editorials. Lauren describes her style as dark, emotional, and usually pretty honest and raw but in subtle ways.
Lauren Withrow is an incredibly young photographer with a huge amount of ambition. She continues to constantly create jaw dropping photographs with a cinematic feel to them. Please join us in this interview with the lovely Lauren, you’d be surprised what you might learn!
How did you become interested in photography?
It had originally started with this complete obsession with film. I remember watching Edward Scissorhands for the first time and it was like I was being infected with this intense desire to make movies. I started watching countless amounts of films whenever I could. I’d watch behind the scenes videos, read trivia, look up cinematographers and their works. I had truly decided I wanted to be a filmmaker. But we didn’t have a video camera, just a DSLR that my dad bought to take sports photos of my brother, and I had absolutely no money. So instead, to sort of satisfy this urge, I would spend hours huddled in books and I’d sketch out how I would imagine the scenes to look and feel and I’d walk around in my room, pretending I was in the scene. I was basically making little films without the camera and in my head. This cycle went on for several months until I stumbled onto Flickr and began exploring different photographer’s streams and I came across a 365 project that was filled with elaborate images that looked like entirely different worlds. I thought, “if I can’t make movies now, I can at least make pictures.” That’s when I stole my dad’s digital camera and started Day 1 of 365.
What inspires you?
Locations, people, weather, emotions, music…films especially. I’ve been having horror film marathons lately and there are some I haven’t seen in a while and I forgot how absolutely beautiful and hopeless they can be. I’m also inspired by subtlety of human emotions/interactions, and the little nuances that people have. It’s like discovering little secrets that we try to hide. It’s oddly addicting trying to figure out who the person is and why they act or do the things they do.
What’s on your gear list?
Canon 5d Mark II, 50mm 1.4, 85mm 1.8, 28mm 1.8, and Photoshop CS5
What are you currently working on?
I have two new self portrait series in the works, a series of short films that I am collaborating on with a friend, and some really exciting editorial shoots coming up. I’m sort of going back to my roots while also stepping forward in a more focused direction with my work. I’m really excited about everything right now.
How would you describe your style?
Dark, emotional, usually pretty honest and raw, but in subtle ways. It’s often very sad too, so I usually get a few messages when I post a self-portrait asking if I am okay. My fashion work is a little more polished though, and not always as gloomy.
What is your favourite photo that you’ve ever taken?
There is one photo I took of my grandfather while we were at my cousin’s wedding. It was the first time in probably a few years that we were all together again, as people grow up they go on with their own lives. But all of my cousins and I were on the dance floor dancing and my grandfather is out there, dancing with us, looking the happiest he had looked in so long and I’m just taking pictures the whole time. And at one point he pulls out his white handkerchief, places it on the top of his cane, and raises it in surrender, and there was just the biggest grin on his face the whole time. It was probably one of his happiest moments in a long time.
My grandfather passed away back in May and they were gathering photos from family members to use for the slideshow that they would play during the viewing. I gave them everything I had, every little photo I took during the moments I spent with my grandfather. But throughout that day, I would have guests come to me and say that the photo of Buck dancing was how they had always pictured him, blissfully happy and free, surrounded by the people that mattered the most to him and that loved him unconditionally. It’s was overwhelming that one of the photos I cherish the most was able to be a comfort to my family and those that knew him.
Do you have any formal training in photography, or are you self-taught for the most part?
Certainly self-taught. I’ve always been the type that doesn’t like to conform to a specific way of doing something. I like to learn on my own time I suppose, and not be forced to learn something.
Can you tell us about your experience of completing a 365 days project?
There were certainly a lot of tears! But looking back at it, it feels very much like an out-of-body experience. You know, I started it with that idea that it was just going to be creating interesting photos, but it quickly changed into a way of putting the thoughts and emotions from my head into tangible form. I have always found it difficult to speak what is in my mind because it never comes out right and it frustrates me. Even responding to some of these questions I worry about not getting what is in my head down properly. But the day I completed that project, I was happy and satisfied. And in the end, completing the project didn’t just serve as a way to grow in photography, but also as a way for me to prove that I can do anything I set my mind to.
What key elements were crucial to the development of your photography?
For one, I craved photography. It was, quite literally, an unhealthy obsession at one point. But certainly the fact that I would use every ounce of my energy on photography is what helped me develop and grow. I think being honest with myself helped and having a sort of childlike mentality. I see it as a lot like bravery (or sometimes recklessness) but you find yourself reaching for something as hard as you can and you’re not afraid of failing. Fear of failure can restrict you.
Who are some of your favourite photographers and/or artists?
Todd Hido, Sarah Moon, Paolo Roversi, Chen Wei, Josef Koudelka, Ryan McGinley, and Amy Troost.
What is your proudest moment as a photographer?
It was Christmas of 2010 and I had one present left to open. On the box it said “From: CMF”. And I was so clueless. But I unwrapped it, and inside was an advanced copy of the very first book cover I was published on. And inside the book, the author had signed and written me the absolute kindest message ever. And you can bet I cried. I cried so hard because that was the first time that I was physically holding onto my work and feeling like this wasn’t’ just some stupid hobby. Later my dad told me that he had found the author on Facebook, and simply inquired on if he could somehow purchase a book and have her sign it since my image was going to be on the cover. Instead of doing that, she went out of her way to overnight the advanced copy of the book with the message and everything inside, even had her husband send it so I wouldn’t recognize the name on the package, all so I could open it on Christmas Day. It was so surreal and I’m pretty sure my dad kept that tape.
How important is editing & Photoshop to your work? Would we be able to see a before and after of some of your works?
Photoshop is very important, though I don’t usually manipulate my images nearly as much as I did in my 365 days. These days it’s more about using it to enhance the mood I wanted to capture and I try to get everything how I want it in camera for the most part.
On average how long does it take you to complete an image? So that would be conceptualizing, shooting, and editing.
My self-portraits usually take a total of 4-6 hours. Sometimes it’s more, sometimes it’s less, but I take my time on them because of how personal they can be and I’m really trying to focus on getting everything just right in camera. For the editorials I shoot, it involves a few days (or weeks) of pulling together a team, discussing ideas and concepts, then shooting and editing. Those usually take the longest because we all have such crazy schedules. I’ve been planning one fashion editorial for about two months now.
What was the most difficult photo you’ve ever taken? (due to weather, models, unforeseen circumstances) And what did you do to overcome this obstacle?
I could list many photos and editorial shoots that were extremely difficult, and always for different reasons. Though just a few months ago, I was shooting an editorial in Austin and I was sitting down in some tall grass and I wasn’t paying attention and had hundreds of fire ants attack me. And so I was jumping around, flinging these bugs off of me, and I threw my camera at my assistant and I sprinted down to a creek and just sat there for a good ten minutes and there were quite a few families staring at this point. The worst part, I still had 5 more looks to shoot so we were out there for another 4 hours and I started getting dizzy and then it poured down rain at one point. So always be prepared for weather and carry about 2 or 3 of those cheap plastic ponchos in your camera bag because it saved us that day. And don’t sit in fire ants.
There was also this other time where my camera broke in the middle of a big shoot. It was my first editorial that I was shooting in NYC last summer and it decided to just give up. Luckily I had brought my old camera with me as a back up and used that. That was a very stressful moment, and I honestly don’t know what I would have done if I wasn’t lucky enough to have a back up camera. Maybe used my phone? But currently I only have my one camera and I always make sure that I have a friend on speed dial when I have a big shoot coming up, or I see if I can borrow/rent one for that day because I don’t want to worry about the possibility that my camera could break.
How did you begin to get into editorial work?
In the beginning, I was actually very anti-fashion. I didn’t like it. It felt too forced and over the top, too perfect. Plus I roamed around in basketball shorts and a t-shirt most of the time. But about a year after my 365, my best friend in high school, who had been signed by a local modelling agency, convinced me to try it just once. I did and I ended up enjoying it. It was new, fresh, and it meant I didn’t have to take photos of just myself anymore. I was then introduced to a photographer down in Austin that served as a bit of a mentor to me and he showed me a different side of fashion. Then it just snowballed from there and I was shooting for the local agencies and getting magazine work. It was crazy how quickly things shifted towards going a fashion route.
What is a day of shooting an editorial like?
We all arrive at the location, the hair and make up team starts to work on the models, the stylist begins steaming out the clothes and we talk about where we want to start. As a group, we go over any last minute details on the story or mood that I’m aiming to convey to make sure we are all on the same page. Then the models are dressed in their first look and we start shooting. Usually there is anywhere from 4-6 looks for smaller editorials, but for larger ones there can be 8+.
What’s the most interesting editorial you’ve ever worked on?
“The Lost Sisters” editorial I shot a couple years ago will always stick out in my mind. It was hot, we were all sweaty and gross. We had skulls and creepy baby dolls everywhere and smoke bombs that nearly caught the grass on fire. The younger model, Brianna, was actually an aspiring actress (I didn’t know this before casting her). So at one point she starts talking to me, telling me these stories about how she has a collection of dolls, each one missing a body part or two, and how she enjoys horror films and I think she was only 10 years old at this time. I thought she was being serious because she was just so convincing, but it turns out she was just playing the character I told her to play and she did it perfectly.
What does the word “beauty” mean to you?
I’ve always seen beauty where there is emotion. Whether that be sadness, vulnerability, strength, power, complete bliss, or whatever. There’s honesty there and I think beauty is most evident where we can be the most honest. I think that’s why I like to portray emotions in my photos.
What do you do in your free time when you’re not editing or behind the camera?
I go exploring a lot, usually driving around and getting lost in the countryside. I watch quite a bit of movies too. And sometimes I do my school work.
Recently, you published a series of self-portraits, and part of the caption was:
“Throughout my photography, I’ve included cinematic elements and I’ve always aimed to capture the moment in between moments that felt the most emotional and most honest. But as of late, I am pushing towards an even more film-like quality to my photography, one that I will begin to merge with my fashion work heavily…”
Would you mind talking about this a bit?
For the past year or two, I have felt like I wasn’t being exactly true to myself within my work. It wasn’t where I wanted it to be and I think I got a little caught up in the details. Always making sure the dress looked good in the shot, or that you could see the model’s face clearly enough (which is still important of course). But I focused too much on making someone else happy and not myself. I compromised and it developed into a routine of pretty girl, pretty clothes, and a usually dark and whimsical setting. It was a route that I didn’t want to take, where everything was done sort of mindlessly, like it was thrown together at the last minute (even though sometimes those are the best). Some of my more personal work really touches upon where I want to go within my fashion work, but it’s just not all there yet. I don’t want every single photo to be just a pretty girl in pretty clothes. I want there to actually be someone present in the photo or there to be a story or emotion. Maybe it’s just that I’m set on creating short films and that I want to make my images look like they could be in one.
You have exhibited your work many times in the past in galleries and art shows, and you have two exhibitions coming up in the near future. First off, congratulations! Secondly, how important do you feel it is for photographers and artists to physically show and exhibit their work? I know we can all sometimes get into the bad habit of only showing our work online.
Thank you very much! I am always really honoured when I am invited to take part in shows, especially having been hung next to some artists that I truly admire.
I’ve always seen gallery shows sort of equal to concerts. The musician or song writer labours over this creation, whether it be out of love or another reason. And then you get this opportunity to perform alone, in front of a crowd of people, the thing you’re probably most proud of and it makes you feel happy. While physically exhibiting your work can help show credibility or professionalism, it’s not just about that. It’s empowering for an artist to get the opportunity to show people their creations in a physical sense and I think you should try to exhibit your work whenever you can.
What do you hope people take from your photography?
Whatever they need to.
How has photography changed your life?
It’s helped me be a happier person, more confident in myself. I mean I would’ve never imagined I’d be where I’m at right now, and there are countless things that have happened in just the few years I’ve been shooting. Sometimes it’s hard to believe that it could keep getting better! And I could sit here and write a whole novel about the ways photography has changed my life. But it all started with that 365 project. In fact, I would probably be playing college softball right now, had I never started taking pictures.
Any advice to offer us fellow photographers?
Do what feels right to you and don’t give up. Ever.