Kristen Wrzesniewski (pronounced rez-nes-ski) is a fine art portrait photographer living in Austin, TX.
She is available for commissioned projects.
I’ve loved Kristen’s work for ages, there’s an elegance to her portraits, to her manipulation of light and its shapes, that I’m continuously in awe of. The air of both comfort and control, of a soft touch but an exacting beauty...getting to talk to her about her work, her goals, was a real pleasure.
This interview has been edited for clarity and content.
Well, I think I told you briefly that I’m trying to create scenarios in my head, and having people sort of act them out, but kind of loosely based. I’ve been reading a lot lately, and I don’t know if you’ve ever read J.D. Salinger?
Okay yeah, it’s not for everyone! The thing I really like about him is that, if you explain his stories to people, it’s pretty boring out of context, like one story is simply in a car ride after a wedding, and the interactions between the people in the car, and it’s all dialogue and seems, out of context, incredibly boring, but the thing I really like about it is that he makes ordinary situations seem really interesting. So I’m thinking if I could do something like that with my photography, that would be really awesome.
Yeah. Or just like…creating a whole world within a small situation. I don’t know if I’ve accomplished that yet, or if I’m even close to it, but that’s just kind of where I’m trying to go with that.
That’s a good question. I’ve just been coming up with…it’s hard to describe. Potentially interesting and/or…well, I’ve been starting off with more dramatic-type scenarios to give people, and give them some dialogue before-hand and have a discussion about how they would feel if they were in a particular situation. And then once they kind of get in the mood and start talking to me about this, then I start taking photos. I think that doing video would probably make it a little more…real, and more like what I’m trying to aim for.
Yeah. I’ve done a little bit, but I don’t know. It’s daunting.
Yeah, a little bit. You know, there’s a lot of technical things that I should probably learn, like I don’t know much about Photoshop. So I was thinking about taking a Photoshop class. Other than that, I’ve learned a lot from the internet, on Lynda.com and I work for a studio and my boss used to teach at Brooks for 12 years, so he’s taught me a lot.
No, I do. It’s just kind of every now and then, whenever they need help filling in, or when they have big shoots and stuff.
Yeah, absolutely. I did it all of last year, somehow. I did a whole year of it, and right now I’m in the position where I need to buy a bunch of gear and save a bunch of money, so that’s why I’m waiting tables again.
It sucks! (laughter) It’s okay though. It could be worse, it’s super easy.
Awesome. I feel like I got a lot better in a year.
Well, I got really inspired. I feel like in that whole year, I grew just as much as I had over the previous five years.
Yeah, that’s how I feel. I feel I’ve progressed at least enough to make myself feel like I did something. I also had a lot of great time to do a lot more things, and go on adventures. I went out to a bunch of different secret swimming holes, and trespassed a lot, and just spent time with some really good friends and good photos came out of that.
Yeah, absolutely. I’m fortunate that most of my friends are really gorgeous girls. But, yeah I really like…I’ve been thinking about it differently, lately. Instead of focusing an event around a photo shoot, I would just do something that I think is fun or interesting with a friend that I like, and then if I happen to take really good photos during that, then that’s even better.
It’s more genuine. Definitely more genuine. And it’s kind of the road I’ve been trying to go down, even though I just talked about making up scenarios, but I don’t know. It’s hard to describe. I just think showing people…recently I shot a wedding, and I wasn’t really excited about it or anything, but after I was done with it, I I thought, “that was really amazing!” Because those people are all super-fucking-happy and everyone’s having a really good time and it’s super-easy to shoot people who are genuinely happy. I thought, “I should do more work like that,” because it makes me happy to be around people who are actually enjoying themselves, and I think that’s a part of shooting with your friends and going out to swimming holes and exploring new places. I was having the time of my life, my friends were too, and I think that’s what came out in the photos, just very natural.
Oh yeah, so I’ve only done two weddings, but I did the first one absolutely by myself in November.
A little bit. I think it’s definitely still my style. I mean, the girl who hired me was an ex-coworker and a friend, and she’s loved my photos for years. So she was just like, “I know you’re gonna do a good job.” So she hired me and then I ended up getting her exactly what she wanted. I think…it’s slightly different than my normal style, but you can definitely still tell that I took the photos.
I was thinking, at least my favorite ones are really tiny, super-quick, intimate moments. And not even necessarily big picture stuff, but I really like close up details. So…the groom and the bride, how his hand is on her shoulder, or something like that. Capturing really small, quick moments of these people being super-happy, having the best day of their whole life.
Hell no. No. It’s very different. They just ignored me for the most part, it was just really easy. I just realized that shooting people who are really genuinely enjoying what is going on is really beautiful and easy to do. You don’t have to try. Sometimes when you’re shooting with a model, you might not vibe, or there might just be a weird tension in the air, and I can tell immediately that it won’t work, I’m sure that you understand.
You can just tell and it’s like “okay well, the rest of this shoot is a formality cause I’m not feeling it.” But when you’re just kind of there as the observer, and everyone is having the best time of their life, it’s just super-easy to get in there. They just have to ignore you to capture all these quick moments that are really beautiful.
I don’t want to be a wedding photographer!
Absolutely. Yeah, I like that a lot. I’ve been really sneaky and trying to photograph my husband, who hates being photographed, he really really hates it. But the few times I have, turned out really awesome.
I got really, I think in 2010, I started shooting models and I got more into it and started slowly getting what I wanted. It’s frustrating at first because it’s a really awkward thing, you know? You’re like immediately intimate with someone. But I started getting better at it and better and kind of branching out a little bit. Honestly, it was my husband and my mom both said, ”you just need to fucking do this. You have talents, just do it.” And they’ve both just pushed me and offered me money to support me with it.
That’s a good question. I went to school for English, and I considered going overseas and teaching, but I just had no idea. I had no idea. And I started doing photography when I was 14, so I always loved it, but I never really thought of it being my real career. I think once I got the job at the studio, which was about two years ago, which is when I was just kind of like, “okay, I can start transitioning to doing this full time.”
Let me think about that.
Right, that’s easy.
Yeah, I’m just trying to think about it in the long term, I feel like I’m pretty patient.
Yeah, and then I still have a lot of developing to do.
Not really. I don’t know. I guess I do have some pictures in my head that I want to make, that I haven’t made. I don’t know which direction my style is going to go. It’s stayed fairly consistent for at least the last six months or a year or so. I think that there’s some continuity there. My goal two years ago was to have such a solid style that if you saw a photo you would say, “oh yeah, that’s Kristen” or “maybe that’s her’s.”
Yeah, I think that I’ve gotten there, but I just don’t know where it’s gonna go.
Well first of all, I decided that I definitely don’t want to watermark my stuff, ever. And so instead I thought, “okay, I gotta have a concrete style.” At least to where people can think that it might be my photos. I was all over the place for a long time, and I see that, and I just made a point of being as consistent as possible. I still give myself room to be flexible, because there is different kind of stuff that pops up every now and then. I just set that as the goal for myself a couple years ago.
You know, I’ve thought about this a lot. That’s actually a really hard question.
It is, right? I thought for a long time my dream would be, “I wanna be a fashion photographer and be in Vogue and blah blah blah” and now, that’s kind of out the window for me. I would totally do it, but I feel like my actual dream would be to, well number one: travel, I think everyone says that, but also to be given the responsibility to document something that is important and that people should see. Be part of the delivery of an important message to people.
In a way, yes. But I don’t want to go to a war zone or anything like that. Delivering stories that everyone can relate to, that’s going to make people feel good in some way. Or delivering an important message…I shot with this model a couple weeks ago, she is incredibly gorgeous. She has a company called “The Ocean Lifeline”, and she and some people created an artificial reef in Costa Rica. I would be interested in working with companies like that. Honestly, underwater photography has been one of my biggest goals for a long time, and I finally started doing it last year with models, but I’ve always been interested in the ocean, so somewhere in there. I don’t know, it’s kind of vague, right?
It’s vast. There’s a lot of shit down there.
I love what I’ve been doing, thought and I love working with models. Especially really emotive models. And most of the models that I have the best photos with, I have the best chemistry with. Models that I work with the most are some of my closest friends.
It’s true. They know who they are.
Thank you, thank you, good.
Basically, the coolest thing about shooting underwater is, number one it’s really hard. It’s actually incredibly hard because you can’t see what the hell you’re doing, but also it’s the closest thing to weightlessness that a human is ever going to experience unless they go up into space, which I’m not.
I have no interest in going up there. I’ll go into the ocean, but I won’t go up there.
It’s difficult for a model to be graceful underwater, but whenever you do nail it, it’s truly amazing, you can’t replicate that on land. You can’t replicate that here in the normal world, breathing oxygen.
Absolutely. It’s just super-organic. Unless you’re in a swimming pool. Underwater fashion photos are funny to me. You know, when a model’s wearing heels.
Yeah! It’s totally organic, and it’s just very interesting. When you’re working with the elements, you don’t really have that much control under there for the most part, at least where I’ve been shooting. My mom is building a pool though, so I’m considering getting really crazy out there at her house this summer.
That’s a good question.
That’s a really really good question. Up until two years ago, I was completely just shooting outside, I never had a studio, never shot with studio lights, hardly EVER shot inside, so it was just leaving it up to the elements. And hoping that I had a good day, or that we’d get some cool shadows or something. But when I started working at the studio, and I’m really grateful for my boss who gave me a job, because I had no experience whatsoever with studio work at all. He totally just gave me a chance and taught me everything I know, so that was really awesome. So once I did that, I started getting really addicted to having all that control and experimenting. Right now I’m trying to find a happy medium. I think that a lot of my work over the past year and a half has been studio work, and that’s really fun cause you can get super-experimental and I did. But now I’m thinking, “okay, well I don’t know what else to do.” So now most of the time I’ll do a little bit of both. I really like going outside, and the weather has been really nice here lately. I am an outside kind of person. If I had a preference? If the weather is nice, I would rather shoot outside, but if I have a very specific idea in mind, which does happen, then we’ll shoot in the studio, too.
Hmm. Yeah. I definitely think that, first of all, digital is easier. And I’ve taken a different approach recently where I’ve been shooting a lot more, and then editing those photos down to find the ones that really speak to me, which is not what I used to do when I was shooting less.
With digital, yeah. What I typically like to do is, I would never start off a shoot shooting film. Because the first few minutes you gotta get warmed up, things are a little awkward…
And then once you’re in the groove of things, then that would be an ideal time to shoot some film. I still typically don’t…most of my best shots typically aren’t on film cause I don’t have that much money. If I could shoot ten rolls of film I would, but I can’t. So IJust kind of feel it out and go from there.
Digital allows you to be a lot more experimental. With film I’m worried, “I don’t know, this might not come out at all.”
Totally. I really love film, though. If I can get to a point in my career where people are paying me to shoot film? That would be amazing. I think everyone thinks that. Or someone could buy me a 100 boxes Polaroid film and say to me, “here I want you to shoot this for a magazine”, that would be amazing. That’s not gonna happen.
Not right now, no.
I have a Polaroid Land Camera. I think it’s the 240 model or something? It’s kind of a crappy one, honestly.But I’ve gotten a lot of good stuff out of it. That’s the land camera that I’ve been using, but they discontinued my favorite film, which is the Fuji FP3000?
Mmhmm. I’ve made so much good stuff with that. I haven’t shot Polaroids that much lately. I borrowed my friend’s Mamiya, and I shot some Polaroids of her recently, and that was really fun. But I’m just afraid of wasting money at this point. Some of my favorite shots have been on that crappy Polaroid camera, for sure.
I made the mistake of selling…I had a really nice scanner that I sold a year ago. So I was shooting all black and white and developing and scanning myself, because then you just pay for the film. But I got rid of the scanner because I wasn’t using it.
I don’t know, man. It’s the atmosphere it creates. It’s hard to describe. There’s something really old-timey and dreamy-feeling. Particularly that film reminds me of film noir, like a Hitchcock movie or something.
I don’t think I’m that popular.
That’s a good question. I think for a long time, when I was a teenager particularly, I was interested in photography for the wrong reasons, wanting to be popular.
I’ve gotten to a point where I don’t let it affect me in any way, and a lot of the time I don’t let what those people like influence my decisions on what I post and what I like. Typically my favorite photos are the ones that get the least amount of likes and comments.
And I’m fine with that. I know what I like, and I’m going to post my favorite stuff no matter what.
You called it.
Probably Instagram. I gave up on Flickr because I got flagged for some photo, and they wouldn’t reinstate my account so now it’s private. Flickr is dying. When I was 14 it was popular.
I know. It’s funny, too, I’ve stopped caring about quality as much because, “oh, this is just going to go on Instagram.”
So when it comes time to make prints of stuff, I realize, “oh, I have to go back through and find the full-sized versions of these.” I’m kind of disorganized.
No, I don’t think so. Maybe I’ll push my camera a little harder than I would before, knowing that people aren’t going to view them huge on a screen, they’re just going to see it on Instagram, so I’ll post something that’s a little bit more grainy than I would have liked in the past. At the same time, I feel like my style has changed to where I don’t really focus on quality that much anymore?
Yeah. I don’t really care if a photo is grainy, or out of focus. Whenever I go through my photos and look at them, I’m really just looking for something that speaks to me, that gives me some sort of feeling.
I know, right? I think about, and some of these people are even my friends, I think about current film photographers, and how most of them take photos that are out of focus, and have all of these, what we would have called in the eighties “mistakes”, huge mistakes. Photographers in the eighties would be yelling, “what the fuck are you doing?!” But now people love it. They love that shit. I try not to follow the rules too much. I don’t really care if a photo has flaws. As long as it gives it some sort of feeling, or has emotion to it.
It’s interesting. What I’ve actually been doing, and I actually really really like this: my least favorite part of photography is editing, I really don’t like that part. I don’t like sitting in front of my computer. Sometimes I’ll go a week without opening this laptop, which is crazy. I just don’t want to do it. So what I’ve been doing is, I have a camera that allows me to send photos directly to my phone, it has built in wi-fi in the camera, so I’ll go through, let the model do it with me because they always like the photos that I don’t like, so they can have them, then I’ll just write down selections, go through right after the shoot, and send them to my phone. Then mass edit them on my phone as “preview photos” and these are ready to go on Instagram right now.
I like that a lot. I like shortening that process. I’m also kind of crazy where I’m think, “oh, I have all this energy right now, I feel good about these I need to edit this pictures right now!” Instead of sitting on them and waiting to edit, so that’s what I’ve been doing. Some people don’t like that, but who gives a shit.
And I think now that I’ve been editing on my phone, it’s a collaboration between the camera and the phone.
Nooooo, ahhahahaha. Whatever. I feel like anything that can take a picture is a camera, it doesn’t matter.
And if I didn’t have a camera, I would shoot with only my iPhone. It would be tough, but I would do it.