Emily Shur’s singular style connects her diverse portfolio, mixing vibrant color and personality with strong conceptual storytelling. Whether shooting portraits of well-known celebrities and athletes, everyday newsmakers, or fashion spreads for top designers, Emily’s work celebrates unique characters and their memorable charms. Emily’s home base is a 105-year-old house in Los Angeles, shared with her husband and their dog, The Baroness.
Beyond the high quality of her photos, there’s a vibrancy to all of her images, a kinetic energy that radiates from the image itself. And it’s that energy that livens up her subjects, that can bring a sense of whimsy, a feeling of strength, or a radiant stillness, depending on what she’s after.
This interview has been edited for clarity and content.
Those shoots are not my normal shoots, and they’re frankly expensive for me to do. So I’ve just done what I’ve wanted to do. It doesn’t really make sense for me to do fashion work that’s boring or not interesting to me or doing it for the sake of doing it. It’s very time-consuming to do those stories, it’s not cheap, and requires a lot of people also working hard, not just me. So I’ve just tried to do something, go in a direction that I’ve always been interested in going. I figure if you’re going to step out of your box a little bit, you might as well step out.
I’ve always had a bit of a little bit of hesitation in my mind. Is it bad to do something that is completely different then how people know you, does it confuse people, does it excite people? I don’t really know the answer to that. Fuck it, I just want to do something that’s fun. A lot of times the work we get paid to do is great, but you definitely feel like, as a photographer, you kind of have to focus your…the work that you are putting out in the world and how people perceive you, you kind of have to focus that for the world a little bit, like “I need somebody who shoots celebrities”, kind of light-hearted, kind of dry. And I find that, over time, it just gets narrower and narrower. It’s fine to be known for or thought of for something. It’s nice to do something a little different sometimes. It really just has to be fun. It can’t be done really with any other intent or motive other than that. Shooting it is not always fun, the fashion stuff, cause it can be hard.
The ones I’ve done personally haven’t had a lot of resources, so it’s a lot of favors, a lot of cheap ways to do things. That means a lot of sweat, a lot of work. We’re all working hard for no money just to make something that we would be excited to show someone. It’s not a cushy shoot with lots of money.
I totally enjoy doing, I’d say, 80% of the work that I do. I’m not quite at the point where I’m turning down any shoot that’s not interesting or doesn’t do it for me, I need to work. I don’t, it’s all good, all work is good work, some shoots are more fun than others. It doesn’t make me cringe if I’m doing something similar to something I’ve done before. To me that’s establishing a vision. I think that if you just did one thing and did it formulaically…? I don’t know if that’s a word.
(Ed. note: TOTALLY A WORD, EMILY!)
If it was just like “this light goes here, this light goes here, the subject is like this”, if that was every shoot, that would be boring and kind of soul-crushing. But I don’t do that. I don’t feel like, there’s a person inside trying to get out. A frustrated person.
He…doesn’t come up at all.
I’m an open book.
Again, the Japan stuff and all of that personal work is just really what I like shooting. Not to say that I don’t enjoy shooting celebrity portraiture, cause I do, but I would feel constricted if that was the only thing I did. Because I’ve always taken pictures like my Japan pictures, I’ve always taken pictures like that. When I say always I mean since I was 14, you know? For a really long time I didn’t show it, and I definitely didn’t show it on my site. I definitely didn’t show it as something I would show to clients or potential clients, it was really just something I did.
And then I had a couple really bad years professionally when I moved here. I had a Lot of free time. I started looking through work that made me happy, like looking through pictures I took or work that I’ve made trying to think about times in photography when I was really content and really enjoying photography. I just kept coming back to “This is how I like to photograph”, and I was just feeling so down about my work. Nobody wanted to hire me, and it’s so slow. It was just such a crappy moment for me, and I wound up just going back to all my negatives and looking through them and going “Oh, this is what makes me happy.” I started pulling together edits of that work and getting a little bit more serious about trying to do something with that work, or show it to people as another facet of what I do. I think, I don’t know, that was probably 8 or 9 years ago at this point, and I don’t know if it did anything?
Yes, professionally. I’m happier knowing that it’s a part of how I present myself now. That makes me feel better about work.
A little bit, yeah, I do. I think that paying more attention to it and Honoring it a little bit made me come out of that crappiness, where I was more “you know what, I’m good at what I do,” and that’s so much of what we do, it’s so our means for survival, is based on other people’s opinions of our work. We don’t work if no one wants to hire us. That can be so…I’ve been doing this long enough to where I have a fairly thick skin. The rejection is just a part of the job, it comes with it and you learn to accept that. To say it doesn’t hurt or that I feel nothing every time and brush it off, no, I think that anyone would be lying if they said that. It does get easier over time, but to have some work that you’re making just for yourself, that doesn’t live or die off of other peoples opinions, I think that’s important to do, and just makes you feel good, you’re like “I like this!” Something I actually like, versus, “everything I do suuuucks.” That’s not a good feeling.
No. I mean, I’m never really one hundred percent satisfied. I’m not dissatisfied, but I’m not, like, “done, good.”
No. I don’t know if I ever will, or that I’d ever want to, really. I think that’s a personal preference type of thing, some people work better under a little bit of…the dissatisfaction drives them, and then some people just want to enjoy their life and that’s understandable, too. I don’t feel…horrible about it. I feel okay! I feel like there’s a lot more to do, a lot farther to go, but I feel okay.
Yeah, for sure. One thing I’ve been thinking about lately is the psychology behind photographing people, and I’d like to work on going a bit deeper with people. Because doing celebrity stuff…you don’t have a lot of time with people, there’s a lot of other people on set looking overseeing everything…it’s not the most intimate of portrait processes. I haven’t been so concerned about the moment between us, it’s been more about getting it done, just more about getting the shot.
Just getting it done, getting something that I’m not embarrassed about and that I feel okay putting my name behind. To me, that’s a victory for photographing a celebrity. Because there are a lot of elements, it’s not just showing up and taking a picture, and there are a lot of hurdles to jump over before you…leaving with a home-run picture means so many things had to go right, and it doesn’t always happen, and when it does it’s awesome. And sometimes you don’t have to work too hard to get deep with a person, because they’re a seasoned performer and they understand that they photoshoot is a time where they’re required to act a little bit or do a character a little bit.
But sometimes I feel like obviously not everyone is like that, and sometimes as a photographer you have to work a little harder. I would like to work on my ability to work harder on that, I would like to get better at asking for things, and maybe being less concerned with everything being perfect. Trying to dig a little deeper. That’s something I’ve been thinking about, who knows if it will happen or not. And then, I’d like to do more creative stuff, more stuff like the fashion stories, and always would like to do more with my personal work, but it always falls behind a little bit because it’s not my means of living, I would like to pay the bills. I would like to have a little more artistry in the work I do and maybe slightly less…I don’t know what the word is.
Slightly less commercialism, or polish, or… none of those are the right words, though…I don’t want to phone it in! I really would like to be…I don’t expect every shoot to be the best shoot ever, but I would like to be doing shoots where there’s thought and good creative and good ideas, and it’s not just “Alright, cool, you look great, let’s go.” Those are easy days, but not as…
Totally. Not quite as satisfying.
It varies. I don’t feel super-conceptual with it, to me a lot of emotion comes from visual cues. I don’t love writing about my work, I don’t love having to write a page long explanation, it’s not what I do. What I like about photography is how light and color and composition and line and all those things that are kind of very aesthetic things can come together and elicit a reaction from a viewer. That might not be my reaction, it might be your reaction, and that’s okay. You don’t have to have my reaction. I think seeing light coming through a tree a certain way is going to bring up something for you, it’s gonna bring up something for me, and just the fact that it brings up something is enough. I don’t need to sit there and talk about the tree that I want you to see, it’s whatever the light through the tree is for you. I think that emotion is different from concept, obviously. With my portraiture, there are definitely shoots where the client wants me to come up with ideas and lists of concepts. It happens often, so I do a lot research, and send them a bunch of different stuff. It could be really simple or more highly conceptualized and requires some explaining or reference images. Just see what the person responds to.
Yes, that is what I always wanted to do. But when I went to school, there was no focus on lighting or making a living, or any of that. It was way more fine art based, the program I went to, I went to NYU. I had friends going to SVA at the very same time and that was So geared towards making a living, and working, and I had friends who were working in college, doing record covers, real jobs, and I was like “what am I doing here? This is such a waste of time, I need to be working!” Who knows what would have been the better program for me, but I did always see myself as doing this, I really wanted to be doing editorial work, I really wanted to be doing celebrity work. I really wanted to be making the kinds of pictures I grew up with and tore out of magazines and hung on my wall, that was my goal in life.
Yes. For sure.
Not so much images…definitely photographers that I idolized growing up. I idolized Irving Penn, I thought he was, I still think that he’s the man.
Yeah he recently passed away. He was the man to me, at the time. Avedon, for sure. Loved some Annie Leibovitz, worshiped her.
Yeah! Just me and her. We’re the only two.
Yeah, she was like “fuck you guys.” I still think she is an amazing photographer. She has done what, unfortunately, so few women have been able to do. I do know that she has produced some pretty amazing images. I think my favorite thing she ever did was her “A Photographer’s Life” book she published a few years ago. I saw that show…I cried. This IS what it’s like, that mixture of assignment work and personal pictures, pictures from Vanity Fair and then a picture of her children, and then her parents passing away, and then Susan Sontag. Every picture, a very well edited group of images, for me it was such a beautiful collection of pictures showing what it is like seeing with the camera as your device, your instrument It was special, I thought it was really nice.
I really wanted to be her. I loved Irving Penn because I loved how he traversed so many genres of photography and did it all so beautifully. I would never say that I’m doing what he did, but I would like to think that I’m hopefully not just a one note photographer, and I love that he was not. Still life, portraiture, celebrity, fashion… he did everything so well. So well. I loved him, one picture that really blew my mind as a kid, which is weird because it’s a still life, his picture of the frozen food, it’s a still life of cubes of frozen peas, frozen berries, basically a color block, geometric composition, but it’s frozen food. I remember seeing it as a kid and being like “Whoa! This is blowing my mind, this is art”, just elevating something that you see every day, and to me that picture was, like, “YES.” It has nothing to do with my work right now, but that is a special picture. And there are definitely celebrity portraits I saw and love. That was my highest aspiration was to do magazine work and shoot performers.
And be an old man. There’s still hope.
I feel like my chances are improving.
Oh all the time, yeah. There’s an interesting school/division of people who look at other people’s work, and I know a lot of photographers who don’t at all.
He’s amazing, I love him, he’s great. But yeah he doesn’t look at other people’s work, we’ve had a conversation about that.
He’s just not…he, I think feels, I don’t want to put words in his mouth, he feels like it might be distracting.
For me, I definitely don’t disagree with that because I do find myself sometimes overly concerned with other people’s work. I also really enjoy looking at pictures. I feel like it’s…I just want to know, I want to know what people are doing. I look at my friend’s sites, and lots of blogs, and agency websites. I feel like I look at a lot of stuff. When I lived in New York, it was more about going to the newsstand and looking at magazines. Here it’s a little bit different.
Yeah! That was kind of the way I would do it there, where my photographer friends and I would just go to the newsstand and look at stuff.
“Read all about it!” It was, you know, the late ’90s. Way back when. But I do look at work, and I really enjoy looking at work. I look at work of people whose level I aspire to be on, and the work of much younger people, and get interested and excited to see what…
I do not know anyone who does this for a living who isn’t super competitive. You have to be, you have to have that drive. You can be a photographer and not feel competitive.
You have to. There’s no…not everyone has that desire to win or to be the best, some people just want to make work and enjoy that. That’s lovely, that would be lovely. It’s the competition that makes it a little bit less enjoyable. But it’s such a fiery strong impulse. And it’s with love that I want to, you know, pulverize people. It’s because they’re so good.
I look at friends and I’m just like “goddammit, she’s so good.” That’s good that they’re good, it’s great, and it makes me work a little harder, and hopefully we all make each other work a little harder. But you have to be competitive. You cannot Not be competitive. If I’m playing Scrabble, I’m serious, “alright, it’s on”, in my head I’m like, “I got this!” Everything…I don’t know if that’s good, I don’t know if that’s bad.
And I do think it’s an important trait for this specific facet of photography. Working assignment-based or commercial. Where ever that is where you’re…you get work based on what the client wants and who is most visible and whose work is the strongest to them and who is putting themselves out there, obviously it’s not just taking pictures. You have to have such a good business sense, and all the other things that have to be in place in order for someone to be a successful photographer…the pictures are important, but there are other things that are also very important. Drive and persistence are huge on that list for sure.
I’ve never thought, “oh, that person is trying to do ‘me’ “, I’ve never thought that. I would not presume to think that, no.
(second most-infectious laugh we at TPJ have ever heard, and we wish we could reproduce it for you) I don’t ever see myself in that way. I don’t see my work as something that someone else is setting out to make work like.
I think that I am not the only one who does the type of work that I do. I do think there are people who are interested in shooting in a certain style, and my work may be included in that style, but I don’t presume to say that someone is, like, “I’m gonna make an Emily Shur picture.”
It would be. That would be kind of cool!
What do you mean?”
I feel comfortable in that this is what I’m doing. I have never don’t worry, I have never once in the 14-15 years I’ve been a professional photographer, I have never once felt relaxed or content or that I can just sit back and the works gonna come, I don’t feel that way. I feel comfortable in the fact that this is what I’m supposed to be doing with my life, and that I’m good at what I do, and that I’m doing what I’m meant to be doing, but I don’t feel like work is just gonna come regardless. I don’t feel that way.
There are so many photographers in the world, so many good photographers. I’m not at the point where I’m just consistently busy all the time. I think that perception is very different from reality, a lot of the time. We’re all very…part of what we do, as photographers, is self promotion, we all feel a pressure to have it be very positive, for us to just really put out into the world how we’re feeling on any given day…and I’ve talked with a lot of photographers about this, you can’t be honest on your blog! You can’t be, like, “just waiting for someone to hire me, anyone out there…” You can’t ever say that!
Yeah, totally! “Questioned everything I’ve ever known in my life again this morning…”
Ha right! “Just, no reason!”
“Definitely didn’t wash my hair. Why would I?” All that kind of stuff you just can’t put out there. So everyone is putting out stuff like, “killin’ it!” I definitely have slow times, those are not necessarily bad things. I don’t think that it’s a bad thing to get your ass kicked every now and then. It’s not a bad thing to feel humble, it’s an amazingly underrated thing to be humble.
I hear good things! It’s pretty cool. I think being humbled is very important.
(most infectious laugh we at TPJ have ever heard)
Well I wouldn’t be very humble, then! “I’m the most humble person you will ever meet, man, totally.” I don’t ever feel like I’m just going to kick back and chill. I constantly feel like I need to push, because there are plenty of people out there pushing. But definitely after some time, as time goes on, you do get to feel more and more confident in your ability and your place. You question a little bit less and a little bit less and a little bit less. Kind of, “am I good? Do I suck?” I don’t really have those thoughts so much anymore, it’s more like “what do I need to do? What do I need to change? What is working, what is not working?” It’s not so much a big, “am I good enough???” Yeah, I’m good enough, I just need to position myself in a better way, or I need to put my work in front of different people, I need to edit, just, what do I need to do? Those are more the questions nowadays.
I enjoy the image-making and sharing aspect, I don’t enjoy the calculation of it. I don’t enjoy the obligation and the whole… If I want to post a picture of my dog, I do, but I know some photographers wouldn’t, “I would never post a picture of my dog because I’m building a brand!” I can’t think too hard about it, because if I think too much about it, it will never get done or I will never post anything. But I think it’s fun, I think Instagram is super fun, it’s great looking at other people’s pictures, discovering pictures, keeping in touch with people via picture is awesome, but I don’t love the obligation of, like “you have to have a blog, you have to have an Instagram”, you have to do all these things, and if you don’t do one of eight thousand things, you’re not doing quite enough. My generation is interesting to me, because when I was in college, there was no internet. There was like, A computer, in the department. There was no digital photography. So I mean, my transition from when I first started shooting, which is not that long ago, I graduated college in ’98, I guess there was the internet, I had a pager in college. It was just very different.
Yeah! We were all, like, “gotta find a pay phone!” Finding a pay phone was like finding water! I mean, so you know, going from film to “oh I have to make a website,” to everything not being just the portfolio, then it was the website and now you have to shoot digital. Now here’s another ten things you have to do, and I feel lucky that I know both worlds, that is not such a faint memory. I feel sort of lucky that I’m not much older than I am because I don’t know if I would have had trouble transitioning, I know some photographers, probably, I assume, had trouble transitioning into a whole different means of promoting oneself and being relevant. It’s an interesting time to be a photographer. I think it’s all amazing, what we can do with pictures and how we can share pictures and how many people can see our pictures now. I just don’t like the have-to’s of anything.
I don’t, I shoot digital. To be honest, I don’t miss it that much. It’s important for me to use it for my personal work, it’s all film. And it’s very important to me that it stays film, but I will be honest and say at this current moment, I feel like I am able to make “my” pictures using digital cameras, and I didn’t always feel that way. It took a while to get to that point.
Cameras are better than they were even 5-6 years ago, it’s a noticeable difference. I was predominantly a large format shooter, 4×5, that’s how I did most of my jobs, that’s how I shot most of my portraits, celebrity, everything. I had a system and a rhythm, and I was 100% comfortable with that. And to go from that to a Canon 5D, it was not a smooth transition for me. It was very awkward. It’s just taken time to figure out how to best use a digital camera in a way…so I started putting the camera on a tripod, just kind of shooting in the way I would shoot my 4×5. I still don’t love shooting 35mm digital. I definitely wind up cropping the image most of the time. And I shoot medium format when I can.
6×7. I used to shoot RZ all the time too. The Hasselblad for me is a great camera. That camera has kind of brought me to “okay, this picture looks good.” Also just coming to a better understanding of how to get the picture to look the way I want it to, how to give direction to my retoucher, to my digital tech, to make the color and the feeling more in tune with how I saw the picture in my head. Back when I was shooting film most of the time, there were fewer elements to control, it was more like, you pick your format and that’s one method of controlling the image, then color or black & white, and then, obviously if we’re lighting it, then the lighting is a means of controlling the picture, but, the contact sheet is…you say “a little warm” or “a little more contrast” But here are so many things with digital that you can mess around with. And it’s fun, it’s nerdy fun. And I like playing with Capture One and a lot of times I do my own processing at home. And I just sit there and play with stuff. But it wasn’t fun when I felt like I HAD to change and I didn’t want to change. But now I realize that needed to happen. I feel way more comfortable with it now.
That’s an interesting question.
Process-oriented or goal-oriented… that’s an interesting question for me, because my instinct would be to say goal-oriented, because the final product is a combination of not just the shoot, I do a lot of color work, I do some post on my portraits, so it’s not just about the actual shoot day, there’s other things afterwards that come together to produce a final product, which I guess would be the goal, for it to look the way I wanted it to look. But I also find myself thinking maybe it’s the other answer. Because a lot of my personal work, so much of it is about the taking of the pictures, the experience of being, for example, in Japan and wandering around taking pictures and being quiet and seeing things. I think that work is so meaningful to me because of the experience of shooting it, not necessarily about the end result, which I love and am excited about, but It’s really about the doing. And so it’s an interesting…
Right! “You WILL be graded on this answer.” So it’s an interesting question because I have portrait shoots where I’ve shown people shoots, for example, and I’ve said, “I dunno, what do you think of this shoot? I hate this shoot!” And they’ll ask, “why do you hate this shoot?” And I’ll say, “because it sucked, the day just sucked!” And they’ll respond, “well, why does that matter?” When looking at this edit of ten pictures, the viewer doesn’t know the day sucked. But for me, I have such a hard time separating the fact that I had such a shitty experience on that shoot, and, to me, I’ll always look at those pictures and know or think that I should have done eight other things that I didn’t do, and now this picture will always be imperfect to me because I’ll know that I should’ve moved this light, I should’ve asked them to do this, I should’ve fixed whatever was bothering me at the time but I didn’t want to take the five minutes…Just things that I know that should not really come into play when dealing with final images, but I can’t help but have that cycle of thought going through my head. So I don’t know. It’s hard for me to answer because I feel could say both things and still be completely honest. So just write both!
That could be an accurate statement!