PROfile is a series of interviews with artists and creative souls who have built businesses around their craft and passion. We’ll dig deeper to try and find out everything you could want to know from seasoned pros who have experienced the full gamut of highs and lows that come with running a creative business.
I’ve loved ALL the artists I’ve interviewed for PROfile, but this week’s interview makes me feel a little bit giddy inside. If you’re a photographer, you will no doubt recognise the name of Elizabeth Messina. She is a true master of her craft, and her work has been published in all of the glossiest and classiest publications out there. I am beyond humbled that she wanted to take part in the PROfile series. She is the author of The Luminous Portrait, and co-author of The Silver Lining and Adornments, plus she has just opened a new boutique called The ARTE Department. There’s not a lot that this lady can’t do, and everything she touches is filled with grace and beauty. Enjoy these words of wisdom and Elizabeth’s stunning work!
What was your first ‘proper’ job and how did you land it? Was it what you intended to do as a career?
When I was 14, I started working in a beautiful little boutique. I steamed clothes in the back for hours. I worked there for four years. I learned from an early age the working hard was valuable. I think that work ethic has stayed with me.
Has art always been in your blood?
Yes, it truly has. My mother says that when I was very young that I was always drawing and painting and making things. Apparently, I was quite a creative dresser too, often wearing a melange of layers, pants with a skirt and then a dress and maybe a sweater or two (all at once). Today, art is air for me. Life is full & sometimes hectic with three children, two dogs and lots of emails awaiting my attention. Art provides a bit of grace amongst the mundane demands of day to day life. I put a lot of effort into running my business and being present for my family, but underneath it all, I am always an artist in my heart.
What’s your main creative discipline and how did you get started in it?
Photography is my main passion. My journey with photography began at the tender age of twelve when my mother gave me a camera. Throughout the trials and tribulations and joys of my life, photography has been the one constant. Photography has given me a voice when my introverted self might remain silent. I also have loved the opportunity to share love through photographs bathed in natural light. Beauty has a place, has meaning in our complicated lives. Art matters.
Do you see yourself as introverted or extroverted, and does being either affect the way you work?
Introvert – I am unspeakably shy by nature. As an adult I have learned how to manage my tendency to be an introvert. I think this in some ways has helped me be a tenacious observer. I understand when people feel uncomfortable being photographed and that has afforded me a calm patience while capturing those around me. Other times it is an obstacle, and I have to muster up the courage to walk into new and unfamiliar settings. I think sometimes our greatest challenges are also our greatest gifts.
What is your favourite kind of commission, and why?
Anywhere with beautiful natural light & with people that are kind & open & trust my creative process. I adore photographing people in love, beautiful spaces, love, longing sadness, the sky, stillness, life…
How did you know you were ready to have your own business?
I don’t think I ever made a conscious decision to ‘start my business'. I had graduated from art school (the San Francisco Art Institute) & was working as a waitress. The introvert in me was too scared to be a ‘photographer' – I simply saved my tips to buy film & shoot whenever I could, for myself. In my twenties, I was blessed with a beautiful baby girl. When she was a month old I photographed the wedding of a close friend – that changed my life. For the first time, my passion offered a means of supporting myself & my child. Becoming a mother made me brave & determined to succeed.
How did you go about starting your own business?
After that first wedding, I printed several of my favourite photos & started to build a portfolio. Those images helped me get other jobs & soon after I began to send my photos to magazines, along with a handwritten note. It took time & perseverance but I began to get noticed & my business grew mostly through word of mouth & by some of the magazines publishing my work. It was very grass roots – I did not even have a website for the first few years of my career.
How did you secure your first clients?
My very first as I mentioned were friends, after that, it was slow & mostly through word of mouth. I think to this day the most powerful referral is a sincere one from someone who has worked with you.
What is your typical daily routine like?
There is no ‘typical' day. That is I suppose the beauty of being self-employed. Certainly, there will be coffee and children moving in different directions before school. Some days I may be shooting in my studio, other days quietly editing and returning emails, some days on the road heading to a shoot location, other days at The ARTE Department running the shop and sometimes taking my dogs to the beach. All days include coffee, my kids, photographs and a few kisses with my husband.
What traits do artists have that help with running a business?
I think being a creative person is a great asset in business. Being an artist is not just about making pretty pictures but using your creativity to solve a problem and explore options. I also think most artists are also perfectionists, working on something until it is the best it can be. This can be a blessing and a burden at times.
How does being an introvert (or an extrovert) help or hinder you when it comes to business?
I am an introvert by nature but am also a fully formed adult that has learned how to interact with the world around me. For me acknowledging to myself that I am by nature shy and a little withdrawn, helps me to navigate the world with less anxiety. I think being unsure sometimes is human and my shyness helps me feel connected to those around me. I know that sounds like an oxymoron but it’s true. I am sensitive to the world and other people which I think helps me as an artist. I can be a bit quiet at social functions which may not be the best as a business person, but I feel a sense of success just being there. I think accepting ourselves whether we are introverts, extroverts or somewhere in between is the best any of us can hope for.
Do you have a favourite medium or technique?
Film photography is my favourite. My favourite camera is the Contax 645 (a medium format film camera). I adore using film in natural light. Sometimes I’ll use a reflector to enhance or control the amount of light in an image. I have a collection of film cameras. I try & experiment with them whenever I can, but the Contax 645 is my main camera. My favourite lens is the 80mm Zeiss lens on my Contax 645. It is wonderful glass and handles light beautifully. The focal length is similar to a 50mm lens on a 35mm camera. I like being close to my subjects, to feel intimate and connected in the moment.
What’s been the most beneficial business decision you’ve made?
I am not sure if it was a decision per se, but I think making mistakes & lots of them has been a great gift in my business and art pursuits. There is nothing like learning hands-on what not to do. I resisted switching to digital when most every photographer was. At the time everyone around me said it was a BIG mistake and that I would never succeed. Nobody truly knows what is best for you, except you. I still make lots of mistakes today. That is how I continue to learn and grow as a woman and as an artist in business.
Artists and writers often describe the compulsion to work – do you experience an overwhelming desire to create something new?
Yes, yes always. I have several personal projects I am working on now. I have also really begun other mediums to incorporate with my photographs. I have been writing on my photos, using encaustics, printing on wood etc… my art gallery & boutique has given me an outlet to help nurture and explore some more mixed media creations.
Do you ever feel alone in your work?
All the time. Sometimes that is a good thing & I can get lost in my photographs and ideas. Other times I need to connect and I’ll make an effort to call a friend or spend time with my husband. I can get consumed by my thoughts and dreams.
How do you relax?
These days I have been taking a lot of baths in my newly rebuilt studio (it was destroyed in a fire last year). I also love to take my dogs Luna & Margaux to the park or beach.
Where do you find inspiration?
Personally, my children… there is nothing more humbling than motherhood… it keeps me grounded & always on my toes. I love the way my children see & interpret the world, they are a source of constant inspiration to me. As a photographer, I am very inspired by Sally Mann, Sarah Moon, Tim Walker, Paolo Roversi, Deborah Turbeville. I also love to thumb through design magazines and read books, I am currently reading Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert.
What advice would you give to your 21-year-old self?
That everything is going to be ok. Pay attention and soak in every moment, every obstacle. You are enough.
What would you like to be remembered for?
Being a loving mother and an authentic woman and an inspiring artist.
What’s been the best moment of your career so far?
There are so many wonderful moments along the way, most recently being named one of the best photographers by Harper's Bazaar and the same week having my photos featured in Vogue was a pretty wonderful moment in time.
What is the most rewarding part of your job?
I think freedom. Not being committed to a more traditional nine to five job allows me to be present at most of my children’s school performances etc. It has also been so rewarding to be respected for my artistic vision, that is absolutely the best.
What have been the biggest challenges or obstacles you’ve faced in your business and how did you overcome them?
Rejection. I have lost so many jobs, so many opportunities along the way. It always stings a bit to not be chosen. I think rejection also helps keep me grateful. I am deeply invested in those companies or people that do choose me, because I know there are so many talented people out there, and to be ‘chosen'” is a great honour and responsibility.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
‘Follow your heart.' & ‘Keep your overheads low.'
‘Follow your heart' is the simplest and yet most complex advice there is – do what you love, trust yourself and so on. This is easy in some ways because the most beneficial thing you can do in life & business is to be your authentic self – for me that has meant creating intimate images, that is what I am most drawn to. It also means film and most often natural light. ‘Follow your heart' is also hard to do because you will encounter so much conflicting advice and ways to approach what you do along the way. I think it means to listen to & trust your voice before bending to the voices and suggestions of others – it is easy & more beneficial to be yourself than to try and mold yourself into someone else’s truth. You must be both brave & kind with yourself
‘Keep your overheads low' is a bit more practical – simply be aware that if you have a fancy studio and lots of expenses to maintain, you put a lot of pressure on yourself and your business. If your overhead is low, especially when you first start your business, you give yourself much more freedom.
If you could have dinner with any inspiring person (past or present), who would you choose?
My children, my family… there are so many people past & present I would love to meet & share a meal with – but at the end of the day nothing matters more to me than my family.
Want more? Head this way for more PROfile interviews.