The Photographic Journal

Lauren Withrow

Interview 034 • Sep 24th 2015

Foreword

Lauren's work begs investigation. The rich impressions of action, of drama implied, we've been fans of her work for quite awhile, and eagerly jumped at the opportunity to find out more about her work, her process, the hows and whys behind her exquisite photos.

Interview

First off, what kind of effect has New York had on your work?

The biggest effect it’s had is maybe adjusting to locations. I don’t have the grand open sky that I do have in Texas, or other places similar. And I find that I focus even more so than I used to on the personality of the individual I’m shooting. It’s much more focus on them, I would say. Even though my work always focuses on them, in general.

Do you feel like there’s been a difference in mood because of New York versus Texas?

Yes it has changed the mood. My work seems to be getting much more darker in content. My overall attitude in New York is much more fast-paced, much more…how do I answer that? Because it has changed.

Interview 034: Lauren Withrow for The Photographic Journal

Interview 034: Lauren Withrow for The Photographic Journal

There are no wrong answers…I mean, there are. There are so many wrong answers.

So many wrong answers! Hmm how has the mood changed…

Have you felt the mood change in your photos?

I don’t think so, actually. I don’t think it’s changed, at least not drastically. The most that’s changed, in general, has to do with the previous question, in the sense that in the atmosphere of the location has really changed. The person is still the same person. There might be more energy coming from that person, since they’re not interacting necessarily with the landscape, or a beautiful sunset in the valley, or whatever. It’s just, I would say it has become more emotional, because that’s what I have to focus on versus the scenery.

Are you enjoying that change?

I find it very fascinating, yes, because it’s exploring other avenues in my work and how I connect with my subjects.

Do you still find there is a heavy cinematic element to your work?

100%, I don’t think that will ever change either. Since movies have such an impact on my work, in general, that’s how I see my life, even when I just walk the streets, or when I’m riding on the subway. It’s always glimpses of movies that either I’ve seen or that I’m making up in my head. So I don’t think that will ever change, regardless of where I’m located, it will always have that cinematic element to it.

Do you have a narrative in mind when you shoot? A story you want to allude to in the photo?

Yes and no, a lot of the times it happens on the shoot. It’s not always pre-planned, unless I have the location already in mind, or if I simply already have it scheduled. I don’t plan to have the narrative to be a certain thing all the time, because I like for it to be improvised between myself and the subject, and let us determine how I want it to go. Because sometimes if you plan this narrative and it’s all great in your head, but your model or subject just can’t bring that across and you have to find a way to switch that up, so I find it better not to have too much already in mind and just let it happen naturally.

Do you still want to make films, as well as take pictures?

Yes, of course. That’s my ultimate goal, to make films.

Interview 034: Lauren Withrow for The Photographic Journal

Interview 034: Lauren Withrow for The Photographic Journal

What kind of films do you want to make?

I don’t know if there’s a specific type of movie that I would want to make, because there’s so many different genres that I can relate to and that I can find inspiration in. There’s not one specific…like I don’t want to make just horror movies, or make just dramas. I could make any kind, I guess, with my work. I don’t know if that makes sense…

Yes, yes it does.

Interviews are terrifying to me, honestly.

Why’s that?

Sometimes I don’t like people too much in my head. Yeah, I guess I like to have a little bit of mystery there.

Like, mystery for the people looking at the photos?

Yeah, because I think, you know, when people look at a photo, they like to make their own assumptions about it, and yes I have my own intentions and my own story that I’m trying to get across, but if that’s not what they get from it, it’s fine. There’s not a right answer, when you look at an image. I want people to be able to make their own assumptions about it, and their own stories, and how to relate to them in some way.

You’re trying to leave space for the audience to interact.

Yes, yes.

What kind of movies are you drawn to right now?

The ones that do that, that leave room for the viewer to create their own ending, in a sense. There’s always a specific ending that happens in the movie, but there’s always a little bit of room to question it, question what actually happened. I’m trying to remember examples of movies that were good at that…the only one I can think of right now is when Gravity came out, and there was a huge controversy on the ending, the whole realism based upon the movie. People were saying, “oh, she didn’t survive, there’s no possible way that she could have.” The fact that the ending reminded me so much of this sort of paradise…what people sort of picture when they think of a heaven or the afterlife, that she could have actually gone to that point. Or she could have actually survived and landed on earth, so we don’t know. And there’s so much symbolism there, so I like movies that really make you think about what actually happened and make their own assumptions, and applying it to their life, in a sense.

You said you do have an intention for particular shots, is there something you’re always trying to get across with a particular shot?

Not always. Certain series more than others. There are some images that simply come from me shooting with my friends and it’s a really cool moment so I wanted to capture that. Whereas others, I do have that intention to get some sort of meaning across, but it’s not always very evident. I don’t like to make things so in your face that it’s like, “oh whoa this is what this person was trying to say.” I want people to look at it and go, “what is she actually meaning by that image?” Versus being overwhelmed by the story of it.

Do you go back and look at your work and try to see where you want to improve, or what you want to change?

I do look back at my old work, very often actually, because I like to see where I have personally succeeded in creating the story, or getting across my vision, because I think it’s very important to how I shoot. I like to be able to have myself challenged and always growing. I don’t want to ever stand still.

Interview 034: Lauren Withrow for The Photographic Journal

Interview 034: Lauren Withrow for The Photographic Journal

You’re not being redundant. I’ve seen a lot of your…I’ve noticed that your early work is kind of mostly gone from Flickr?

Oh yeah.

But! There was an interview someone did with you, back in 2010, that had a lot of your early work. It feels like there was a shift in your work where it became incredibly sophisticated.

It is on private, I do still have the record.

That’s good.

I didn’t delete it, I just removed it from public view. Because it doesn’t relate to my work now.

I totally appreciate that. So being able to see all of that, do you know when that shift occurred for you? Was it gradual? Or was there something you can point to and say, “oh, this is when I started to really lock into that Lauren Withrow Style.”

For me, I feel like it was pretty recent, because I can definitely see when I switched to that point, and…2013 was probably when I had the first glimpses of me really going for that cinematic style with much greater intention than I did before. I think I held back on doing that because I felt like it wasn’t marketable when I had this mindset of, “oh I have to BE marketable so I can make money in this industry.” Otherwise I’ll just be that classic starving artist that everybody warns you against. But there’s definitely…towards the end of 2013 and the beginning of 2014 was when I let everything that everybody said in the past just escape my mind, and I just let it all go and really focused on exactly what I wanted to do. That’s when my style, I feel, really came into itself and developed into what it is now. Since then, it’s just been constant going on that same route and not changing it for anybody.

Was there an event that made you put all that other advice away?

I would definitely credit two events. One of those was meeting Lauryn Holmquist and shooting with her for the first time. It was back in 2013, we met in New York, and she’s from Texas, too, so it’s funny that we didn’t end up meeting until New York. When we were shooting, we were just shooting on the streets, we had no preconceived thought processes, we were just like, “let’s grab some clothes and shoot on the streets.” And we were just doing what felt right in the images, we never let anyone say, “oh you can’t shoot all over the streets of New York; that’s so cliche, that’s so overdone.” We didn’t care, we just really wanted to create some cool images. And that had a huge switch on how I physically shoot and direct my models and my subjects.

But then the second event was when my grandfather passed away, and when anybody passes away that’s close to you, you start to think about death more just naturally, because you only have this certain amount of time left on this planet in this life. I didn’t want to sit here and waste what I could do. I wanted to be happy, and create the type of images that I wanted to, regardless of whether I ever make any money or not. I, at that point, had no intentions of making money off of my images, and I valued my happiness so much more than that. Even if I was back in Texas, living with my parents until I am 40, I would have been perfectly happy if I was still making the images I was making.

What did you think you were going to be doing professionally, then?

Whatever else I felt like doing. Back in Texas I was doing styling, assisting to make money, and I was perfectly fine doing that while taking off time here and there to travel and have these experiences with my friends. I could have probably kept doing that for the rest of my life, if it meant that I was happy.

And how well that worked out!

Hahaha, now I’m in New York.

Interview 034: Lauren Withrow for The Photographic Journal

Interview 034: Lauren Withrow for The Photographic Journal

Interview 034: Lauren Withrow for The Photographic Journal

How are you enjoying New York right now? Other than the cold? The life-killing cold.

I like it, it’s definitely been an adjustment coming from Texas to New York, just the different mindset of the people here, the energy of the city is obviously much more different, much more fast-paced. But I feed off of that energy, so I think it’s really good for me.

And I like the opportunities. I’m not always inspired by the city, necessarily, the landscape of it. It’s not what I’m drawn to, artistically. I’m much more drawn to nature.

Yeah.

As pretty evident in my photos. But, I like the attitude of the people; they are trying to fight for the same thing I’m fighting for, even if it’s not the same career, but all of them are fighting for something, fighting for that one internship, that one job, that one whatever it is. It’s that energy and those opportunities here that I really really admire and like about New York.

Yeah. Do you feel like that’s a long-term home for you?

No, not right now, I don’t see it as a long term. But then again, it could change in a few years, it could end up being long-term.

Is there like another place you want to visit?

Oh, I want to go everywhere. I actually want to go everywhere that I can and just see as much as I can; I don’t want to be bound by New York, because New York can sometimes become a trap, just like anywhere can become a trap. Texas could have been a trap for me. But New York could definitely be a trap because you can become comfortable here. The rent can suck up all of your money, and I don’t want to be trapped here.

Do you ever want to settle down in a place, or do you like that idea of constantly being on the move?

I wouldn’t mind having a place that I can go back to, wherever that might be. Whether it’s in New York, or if that’s in Texas. But I would like to still be traveling as much as I can. So I guess, yeah, I would like to have a place I could theoretically call “home”, like an apartment or whatever that is that I could come back to and detox and just relax…I’d spend a few days there, but I couldn’t see myself staying somewhere for 10 years and never leaving it.

Gotcha.

I would have to be able to see other places and go other places and not be stuck in my “home”, I guess.

Interview 034: Lauren Withrow for The Photographic Journal

Interview 034: Lauren Withrow for The Photographic Journal

Right. So, I actually want to return, for a moment, back to that shoot with Lauryn Holmquist…when you got back home, did you recognize that, “ah, this is exactly what I should be doing”?

Not at first, no. I actually hated that shoot, I didn’t like the photos. I thought they were too different from what I normally did. Because I had several shoots up in New York, after that one, that were similar to what I was attempting at that time with the fashion and editorial work, and those shoots are what I thought I was doing right. It wasn’t until a few days later that I decided to sit down and look at the photos and really examine them for what they were, that I thought, “wait, these are kind of cool.” And then I remembered how it felt to be on that shoot and how it was so inspiring to be shooting that way, because there wasn’t this pressure of you having to create a certain type of image, it was just coming from, literally, your mind and your heart in that moment. And it definitely took me a couple days, if not a few weeks, to realize that. But after I realized that, I started to make the switch into how I shoot now.

Are you able to articulate what it is you noticed in those shots that you were so keyed into?

The emotion was the biggest factor, for me, and I had seen that in previous work, in mainly self portraits, because I was able to get across what I wanted to say in those images, and I had it in my mind that I couldn’t get that out of models, or other subjects, and that shoot with Lauryn really showed me that I could get that if I was able to connect with the model on the right wave lengths, and really get that person to trust me.

That makes a lot of sense.

Okay, did that answer the question fully enough?

It did!

I’m trying to remember, ugh. This is why I have to write everything down, this is truly why I have to write everything down.

There’s a lot going on in your head, man.

Yeah, there’s too much, and sometimes I’m like don’t talk to me, anybody, no, just no. There’s a reason why I don’t talk to anybody on the subway, that’s why nobody talks to anybody on the subway.

Yeah, I don’t think anybody talks on the subway, I don’t…I really dislike the very essence of the subway.

Yeah, it’s like, literally tunnel vision.

Yeah. That’s one of the thousand reasons why I love LA, because if you want to go somewhere, you get in your own little bubble, and you can travel there without having to touch or talk to anyone.

Yeah, I definitely miss the car situation, but I was so stressed when I drove a car. I hate Texas drivers, I mean, I know you have LA drivers you have to deal with, so I getcha, but man, I would get such bad road rage. I mean, I was angry. Like, ANGRY. I wanted to kill everybody.

Wow, it requires a level of…

Yeah, my stress level has gone down since moving here, actually.

Interview 034: Lauren Withrow for The Photographic Journal

Interview 034: Lauren Withrow for The Photographic Journal

It requires a level of patience to drive in a heavy traffic city.

Yeah, and I’m glad I’m missing out on it right now because it’s dealing with all of that ice and stuff right now in Dallas? Ohhh, people can’t drive on ice in Dallas, it’s the apocalypse!

That’s what happens when it rains here. When it rains here, everyone is just spinning out. Like, no one can handle the rain in Los Angeles.

Idiots.

(laughter)

Truly. Like, can nobody slow down? That’s all that it takes is people slowing down.

It’s so rare, they don’t know, they don’t understand how tires work, how the ground works.

True, true. And I betcha the roads are actually probably different, too, just in the sense of not being able to handle weather.

Yeah, they’re not as, they’re not built to handle more than a certain amount of water at any particular time. But, enough about roads! I wanted to ask, how was your art school experience?

I did not go to art school!

You didn’t get an AA? It said in some interview you were going for an AA…

Associates of Liberal Arts. So I took maybe one art class.

Oh really? Oh wow…

Yeah, I didn’t take any…I had maybe one photo class? But I didn’t do art school, so I don’t know if that question still applies…

Interview 034: Lauren Withrow for The Photographic Journal

Oh, don’t worry, I’m an experienced interviewer. I will make lemonade from these lemons.

Oh god.

Do you…because you do want to keep growing and keep learning, do you have any desire to go to school to study it more formally?

I’ve definitely thought about it, but I think, for me, it’s much more useful to not go to school? I, in past experiences in school, in general, I found it very restricting, and so much has to do with the professor themselves, and how they view art, and I think I struggle with being limited in that sense. Because if the professor simply doesn’t like your style, then you can fail, and that determines your success as an artist, and if you fail a class, almost in a sense…not really, not in the real world, I guess, is what I’m trying to say. I don’t think I would find any benefit in going back to school.

Was school a good experience for you?

High school or college?

Uhhhhhhhh, both. Two part question: high school first, then college.

High school first…how do I not sound like a jerk…

You can…you know. Say it like an jerk, and if you don’t like how it sounds, you can try again.

Okay. High school was a mess…okay, let me rewind…

018

That was a good one, that was solid.

The high school I went to was very conservative in their mindsets, and I have respect for people that think that way, and I understood that it doesn’t align with how I view things. But so, for me, it was very difficult for me going to high school, because a lot of people didn’t understand why I was taking photos, and, at the time, I was very much discovering myself as a person, and understanding the way I thought just about everyday life. So high school was very difficult because of that disconnect with my peers. It was not a good experience for me.

Was it a religious school?

Yeah…it was…like, how I said, not to be…

It’s a religious school in Texas.

But yeah, but I respect people that have their own opinions about things, like if that’s their way of life, great, you know? It just didn’t align with what I was trying to do, so I can’t hate them too much.

Yes you can.

I’ve moved past that, I guess. It wasn’t the most memorable experience. It wasn’t great, but it taught me a lot about understanding different viewpoints and learning how to not be offended by it, in a way, because there’s always going to be people that aren’t going to agree with you, or aren’t going to like your work, and a lot of people don’t know how to handle that. They always get praise from people, like all the great comments on Flickr or Instagram, where people are just like, “this is great! This is great! This is great!” And then the minute somebody says, “oh I wish you had exposed it a little bit brighter, I think it would have made it look more interesting” – people can’t take that little bit of criticism, they freak out. And so going to the high school I did gave me have thick skin, in that sense, so I could take criticism and not always take it to heart.

Was there a lot of criticism in high school?

Yeah, a lot of my self-portraits, at the time, were very dark because I’m actually more drawn to darker subjects, movies that I watched were not the typical Lifetime movie, Christian channel, thing. And they weren’t bad movies, they were just…like Tim Burton movies, I would always watch Tim Burton, or things of that more darker nature that were more fairy tale based. And so I would bring across those sorts of elements in my work, and they didn’t like that. They assumed that photography should always be happy.

[fig]

Interview 034: Lauren Withrow for The Photographic Journal

Interview 034: Lauren Withrow for The Photographic Journal

And what about your time in college?

College, in a way, felt like an extension of high school, not necessarily as restrictive, but I was taking basic classes, like, nothing stood out. I didn’t have these great experiences, I didn’t go off to college like in another university, I went to community college, so I stayed at home, and I worked mostly full time while going to college. It was just another two years of growing, as a person, and maturing and becoming more of an adult, you know, typical “college.”

Late teens, early twenties time.

Yeah, you know, you’re growing up, you’re maturing as a person, you’re understanding different view points of other individuals around the community, and the best part out of college, my first year of college, was when I met my best friend Cameron, so we’ve been best friends since. And we bonded on the fact that we both did photography.

Does Cameron still live back in Texas?

Yeah, Cameron is still in college, he’s finishing up his degree at University of Texas…at North Texas, he was doing like fashion merchandising or something, he’s got two years left.

And then you’re going to lure him to New York?

Yeah, then he’s going to move to New York, I won’t give him a choice, he’s coming. Actually, he’s coming here in 15 days, I’m so excited!

You should take his picture!

Yeah, no I think I’m done taking his picture. I’m just kidding, I’m always going to take pictures, he’s too beautiful not to. I mean, his cheekbones, nobody can touch that. He’s got GREAT cheekbones.

Interview 034: Lauren Withrow for The Photographic Journal

Interview 034: Lauren Withrow for The Photographic Journal

Literally, he doesn’t allow anyone to touch his face.

And I think the final question, In what direction do you want to go in the next few years? Is there a specific thing you want to work on? Improve on?

People always ask me this question, and I never know how to answer it. The thing is, I don’t really think of it that way, I don’t think of it in such a long term sense? Like, I don’t have dream jobs, I don’t have dream goals, I guess? I don’t like to put an “end” to my career, my life. So I just, I sort of let it take me where it goes. I don’t put too much focus on the “end.” I don’t think of it as, “if I make this one film, I’m good, I’m solid, I’m done. I can do whatever else I want at that point.” I don’t see it that way. There’s so much I want to do and there’s so much I want to improve on, in general. I mean, I obviously want to make stronger images, more powerful images, images that can truly impact people. I want to explore more documentary work.

Where would you like to improve in your own work?

The thing is, I know I need to improve, but I can’t pinpoint what exactly it is.

Okay.

So there’s not a tangible, it’s not necessarily like I want to make them sharper or that I want to make them more professional looking, necessarily. I want to have more substance to it, in the sense that, versus taking pictures of my friends in pretty locations and all this, I want it to be more observant of everyday life, and people that are not in fashion, or like, I want to go to Texas for like a month, and do like a documentary series on the town I grew up in, I want to do stuff like that.

Okay.

You know? How do I put that in words?

That is, you just did!

Yeah, yeah, but like…more eloquently?

You want to document everyday people.

Yeah. I want there to be more substance in a documentary sense, and highlighting everyday life, and events that are happening in people’s backyards.

Rather than just beauty.

Rather than just beauty. Yeah, I think that’s right.

I don’t know, yes. Yes it is. If it’s right for you, then it’s right.

Yeah, because I want to have that more value to my images, within the modern public. Wait, within the everyday public. I don’t want to be JUST a fashion photographer.

Interview 034: Lauren Withrow for The Photographic Journal