Amy Lombard Interview: Flashy Portraits of Unordinary People

Amy Lombard

“I don’t believe in giving up. That’s not in my DNA,” New York photographer Amy Lombard told me when I asked if she’s ever felt unsure about her work. “I’ve had gallery owners tell me no one would hang my photos on their walls because they weren’t ‘pretty’. I’ve had professors and peers make me feel like my work wasn’t commercially, or editorially viable. I know it’s partially delusional, but I’ve always felt it’s all a matter of the right timing. You can’t force things.”

Yet Lombard could have easily given up. Before finding her voice, she hated her photography, thought her eye was horrible. She was convinced that she was no good. She decided, however, to give herself more time and enrolled in a class at the Tyler School of Art. There, she learned the importance of telling stories and committed to building her life around photography. At 16, she even made a list of places she wanted to work for, things she wanted to accomplish. Seven years later, having worked with New York Magazine, TIME, and many more, Lombard, at 23, says that she has now checked every single item off that list.

In this interview, Lombard talks about how she persisted with photography, explains why she’s attracted to shooting the unordinary, and reveals why she loves using flash.

New York Magazine

I like how observant and incisive your work is. How did you get your start? How would you describe your work?

I think it’s just an extension of who I am. I’ve always been extremely observational, even as a child. Mainly because I was extremely shy and painfully introverted growing up. It lead to a lot of watching others while growing into my own. I’m just fascinated by people, truthfully,­­ whether it’s their style, specific interests, or just generally why they do the things they do. I would describe my work as observant, vivid, and upfront. My journey into photography, like most things in life, mainly happened by chance. As a teenager a close friend of mine enrolled in a summer photo class at Moore College of Art and Design in Philadelphia ­­specifically “Urban Photography”­­and it seemed like a fun way to spend my summer instead of working all day everyday. It’s sort of funny because I hated it at first. My photographs were absolutely horrible. Seriously, like photographs of flowers and parking meters­ type of horrible. Everything was out of focus and overexposed ­­I was convinced I was done with trying photography and I’d spend my efforts working on fashion. I’m really not sure why, but I decided to enroll in another photo class a few months later at Tyler School of Art. That class changed my life. It was here I learned the importance of telling stories through images.

Urban Photography

I then quickly became fascinated with documentary photography. I would roam around Philadelphia alone and photograph strangers on most weekends. At the age of 16, I decided I was going to build my life around photography. I ended up moving to New York in 2008 for college. It felt like the perfect time to be studying photography because the communities online were just sort of starting out­­ or maybe just my awareness of them. I was reading photo blogs all day every day. Google Reader was my best friend (RIP), specifically on the fine art side of things. It helped take my work out of a strictly traditional documentary side. Anyways, I graduated from school, worked as an editor for a little while, and now I am a full­-time freelance photographer. I’m big on lists­­. So when I decided that I’d be a photographer at 16, I made a list of places I wanted to work for and things I wanted to accomplish with my work. At 23, this week I will have checked off all the items on that list.

strictly traditional documentary side

What was your first – very first – childhood memory? Do you think this first visual memory and its emotional pull might have influenced your work?

That’s an excellent question, and if I’m answering truthfully, I have a terrible response for it. My first childhood memory was my first day at preschool. I didn’t know what to do or who to talk to, so I went up to the first girl I saw and asked, “Will you be my friend?” She was my best friend for years. I know, I know, this is not a poetic moment, or extremely visual, so it’s hard to say it influenced my work in any way. I will say this. I can be pretty fearless and approach almost anyone when I’m photographing even if it makes me uncomfortable. Maybe this moment was me developing that skill? Haha, but that’s certainly a stretch.

childhood memory

Were you ever unsure of your talents? Was there ever a moment when you felt like giving up?

I don’t believe in giving up. That’s not in my DNA. If I say I am going to do something, I’m going to do it. I’ve had gallery owners tell me no one would hang my photos on their walls because they weren’t “pretty.” I’ve had professors and peers make me feel like my work wasn’t commercially, or editorially viable. I could go on and on. Instances like these never changed the way I photographed the world around me. I’ve always trusted my vision. I know it’s partially delusional, but I’ve always felt, both in terms of personal projects and clients, it’s all a matter of the right timing. You can’t force things. Trust me, there are plenty of moments on a daily basis where I think, “What the hell am I doing?” Even when I’m having these moments, I still know that I’m on the right path. Believe in yourself and what you’re doing, and success will follow.

partially delusional

Your flash – just like your eye – is unflinching. Like Diane Arbus, you seem attracted to capturing the disconcerting in the ordinary, or bringing forth the surreal from the fringes. What would you say about this? What are you looking for with your work?

Diane Arbus was actually my favorite photographer when I started taking photography seriously. I’m interested in photographing situations, communities, and subcultures that are overlooked or underreported. Before I went full-­time with my photography, I worked at LIFE for a few years. LIFE is known for iconic war photography, but while I was there I became fascinated with the offbeat stories that didn’t get the same level of recognition. (For instance, a story on a seeing eye cat, a Republican Woman’s party, etc., etc.) The way these photographs told stories and showed the world things they’ve never seen before has been a major inspiration to me with my work.

photographing situations

You also like photographing people in their in­-between moments, the ones they have no control over. The flash helps you capture these very small instances. What are the consequences of shooting with a hard light most of the time? How does it affect your approach to composition and direction?

I want to photograph situations that feel authentic. I’m not particularly interested in taking extremely posed pictures or being in situations where the person is too self aware to let their guard down. I used to be extremely sensitive to natural light, so flash was a game­-changer for me when I first started using it. I was taking the same kind of pictures, but suddenly the world came alive in a new way. With flash, you’re able to catch the little moments­­, some which you don’t even see while looking through the viewfinder. You then see them in a completely transformative way. Because of this, I love the surprise element that the flash brings. You never really know what you’re going to get, and it always accentuates the small details. That said, what I love about the flash can also work against me. Sometimes flash just isn’t right for the situation even when I want it to be. Plus, you know, people don’t exactly love being blinded by my flash. (Surprising, right?) My flash isn’t easy on their eyes, it’s extremely powerful.

extremely powerful

It’s almost voyeuristic in a way, capturing people in their in-­between moments. Happy Inside has many these captivating moments. This one is my favorite. How did this project come about? What was your first step in pre­production, exactly?

Making Happy Inside was a trip. When I think back to that time, I’m not sure how I got away with it or how I stayed sane while spending so much time in the manufactured spaces of IKEA. This project started when I was in college and it was mainly a response/rejection to the work my professors were trying to get us to do. I have tremendous respect for masters like Philip Lorca di Corcia, Jeff Wall, and Gregory Crewdson, but I have zero interest in emulating their work or artistic process. I felt like for awhile this was all they would show us in our courses. Instead of creating a staged reality, I took someone else’s by photographing inside of IKEA. I went into it thinking I would just photograph the rooms, but when I was reviewing my first roll of film in one of the photos I accidentally shot a couple in a bedroom who appeared to be fighting. It was absolutely perfect. I only know how to be obsessive with projects, so I spent the next year and half traveling to various IKEA locations photographing customers unknowingly achieving similar results. There was no pre-­production at all. I just did my thing. It’s worth mentioning I would never go into a project like this ever again. The thing about this work is that the photographs do not function well on their own. Alone, it’s hard to distinguish that they are taken in IKEA,and although that’s the strength of the project, it’s also very confusing. The book, designed and published by Daniel Pianetti of no­plans, is where the work shines.

Daniel Pianetti

What are your greatest artistic influences? And I apologize for this one, but what has been the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen?

It’s hard to pin it to one specific thing. I’m truly influenced by the entire world that surrounds me­­ everything from reality TV, the Internet, to my favorite artists. There are a few artists, however, who have helped shape how I see the world. For one: Cindy Sherman. Cindy Sherman is my hero. She is number one. She is my Beyonce. Her work has always left me in awe. It’s the perfect blend of humor intertwined with bold cultural statements. Among others, I love photographers like Nina Leen, Barbara Crane, and Mark Cohen. Even before I was aware of Crane and Cohen’s work I would constantly crop faces or other body parts out of my pictures. I love this extreme attention to detail and how the flash accentuates that. In regards to the most beautiful thing, I’m struggling with what that means to me. I don’t think I’ve seen it yet.

cultural statements

Be sure to check out all of Amy’s work on her website!