Forbes’ Up magazine interviews Liz Von Hoene about conjuring “The Liz Magic”

For the cover of its new issue, upscale Romania-based lifestyle magazine Up by Forbes profiled Liz Von Hoene, asking her how she developed her artistic vision, what it’s like working with vastly different clients, which of her assignments is her favorite (hint: It ended in lunch with Christian Louboutin), and how she works that “Liz Magic.” Here’s the English version of the interview, which was conducted by editor Diana-Florina Cosmin

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When did you know for sure that your destiny was to become a photographer and a director?
My father gave me my first camera when I was 14 years old. He had a background in photography, so he taught me the basics of f-stops, shutter speed, and how to use a light meter. I fell in love with this new toy and spent the next four years of high school photographing my sisters and best friend at every given opportunity. My passion for photographing women was born.

Where did you grow up, and how did every place in the world in which you had the chance to live and work influence your art and your way of seeing life? 
I grew up in a northern suburb of Chicago called Evanston. After attending Ohio University and receiving my BFA in photography, I moved to Atlanta, Georgia, where I still live today with my family. Although my agents and almost all of my commercial photography takes place in New York, my start really began in Atlanta.  Atlanta was a smaller market and in the early 1990s was a thriving fashion catalogue market. I began photographing models for the modeling agencies a year after moving there from school. It was the perfect setting to build a large body of personal work, as I was taking models’ pictures daily. I also had a unique experience from shooting this frequently—it fostered my own style of lighting, which was self-taught. I never assisted or mimicked other photographers’ way of lighting. I just found what worked for me. From this consistency of shooting and exploration, I developed the foundation of the look and style of my work. Starting in this small market not only allowed me to work on my book, but it was also financially affordable to rent a studio space. From here, life came on quickly, and by the mid-1990s I had a good amount of local commercial work, as well as three small children. It was the perfect setting for me to build a body of work, start a commercial photography business, and grow a family.

Apart from the technical skills and the talent for beautifully framing a story through the camera lens, what would be, in your view, the three main characteristics that make a difference between a brilliant photographer and an average/correct one?  
First, consistency of vision. The ability to “see” things unique to one’s self. Secondly, how a photographer directs the talent to move. And last, the way the photographer uses light and how they interpret space or balance of line compositionally.

What about the ones between a great director and an average one?  
My answer would be the same as above, but I would add the notion of the sequence of movements needed to tell a story in motion.

Your photos are very whimsical, and your style is very easy to distinguish. Did you grow into it, or was this playfulness your artistic trait from the very beginning?  
My work from the beginning was not whimsical at all, really. It was quite quiet and poetic. I have always loved the “line” of the body and the “line” of light. My early work consisted of graceful linear body positioning of my models combined with the use of lighting from a single source that was soft and directional. Photo District News described my work from that early period as having a “simplistic elegance.” I was known for this early style of work up through the late 1990s, when I began working regularly with Neiman Marcus, shooting for The Book. It was from this collaboration that the ingredient of “whimsy” would be added to my work. A certain charm, a wink…a cleverness of concept—all things that I found newly exciting and inspiring  Neiman’s was the perfect canvas for adding this thread of freshness to my work. I have always loved models who had a similar look to them, girls with smaller heart-shaped lips and large doe-like eyes. Having a heavy hand in the role of casting for Neiman’s, I was able to be consistent with the look of the models we cast. I wanted the makeup, hair, and styling to also have a bit of a wink or uniqueness in direction and found an amazing team of artists to help maintain a constancy of vision throughout the projects. Location choices and set design also played an important role in creating this new element of charm/whimsy. I worked closely with my art director and prop makers to have special one-of-a-kind items created to playfully be used throughout many of the stories: an ice cream cone or pool cue ball sporting the Chanel logo, a custom-made headpiece of a giant white orchid flower, or a miniature crafted boat worn as a dress. We created so many lovely things to ensure each of our stories possessed a cleverness, elegance, wit, and charm. Through this exploration with Neiman Marcus, a new era of my work was born. Important style characteristics of my early work were and are still very evident, but I had just discovered a new wonderful ingredient to add to my style: the body lines being elegant and balanced, my lighting approach being simple and softly directional, and using the environment as a graphic playground, each composition feeling graceful and balanced.

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How difficult is it to adapt to different projects and different clients, while maintaining your personal signature and being true to your style?  
My clients are extremely diverse. My work ranges from beauty accounts for both hair and cosmetic products, fashion for shoes, clothing and fine jewelry to home goods—from bed linens to skylights to dishware to furniture and even shower faucets. I love it when we are asked to bid with a treatment for things that are outside of the “fashion” box. I am still constantly surprised at what I am called to creatively bid. When I receive a creative brief, I imagine how I will interpret their concept and bring that “Liz magic” to life within their project. I have two favorite parts to working toward each job being awarded. I love first having the creative call and hearing further explanation of the scope of the project. These calls are helpful to me to find out what they are looking for in the world of adding a bit of “Liz magic.” Some projects give me a lot of creative freedom and others less, but I love being involved in the creative process, big or small. I always say that my best work comes from creative collaboration between the agency, myself, and then the creative team of prop and wardrobe stylists and makeup and hair artists. And, of course, a great talent casting always helps! After our creative call, the fun begins with creating a thorough “treatment.” I address everything from concept interpretation, and lighting to ideas for casting, propping, location inspiration, and anything else that seems appropriate to share visually how I would interpret their concept.

How do you develop the idea of a shooting, from the brief that you receive from the client up to the final concept?  
In creating these treatments as explained above, we source most of the images from my own personal body of work but will use all sorts of Web research for propping and location inspiration. I really always aim to make sure I clearly cover all aspects of creative decision-making in my treatments. The treatments we create take a lot of time, and they show it. They are little masterpieces, both visually inspiring and written beautifully.
Do you have favorites—photo shoots that stayed dear to your heart, that represented a breakthrough or a watershed moment?
I have had quite a few amazing experiences through my work. Several years ago, I was shooting a Designer Profile for Neiman Marcus and had the lovely honor of photographing Christian Louboutin. The setting was his home in a small town outside Paris. Before photographing Mr. Louboutin himself, we did a series of still life images through out his incredible elegant villa. There was the most beautiful age to his home, as if a set stylist had painted each wall and floor to create a look of old-world romance and charm. Mr. Louboutin preferred to have his portrait taken in his gardens. The garden was simple, not overdone. After I found the perfect path and set up the shot, Mr. Louboutin arrived dressed simply chic and asked me and my art director which shoes we preferred. I was extremely charmed by this because one of the sets of shoes was a pair of very simple gardening goulashes. We unanimously liked those best. We placed a beautiful antique chair in the center of one of the garden paths and photographed him there. I used a vintage Graflex camera and shot a 4 x 5 Type 44 Polaroid so we could use the negative to achieve a vintage feeling. After his portrait and very much to our surprise, he invited us all to stay for an incredible meal.  Unbelievably, our entire photo crew joined Mr. Louboutin at an elegantly dressed round table. It was a rare moment in life that as you are experiencing it, you know that it will be an incredible magical memory.

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Every photographic task is different and it may require thinking on the spot and acting quickly. Do you still have the photographic equivalent of stage fright?
I can’t say that I have any moments of stage fright or butterflies. I have been through just about anything one could imagine as a tough situation. I have mastered shooting through sleet storms, wind storms, torrential downpours, extreme heat, and biting flies and other pesky bugs. Even a hurricane in Mexico and a blizzard in Iceland. Creatively speaking, I have always been able to shift things a bit if necessary to make the best of a concept. Not often at all, but occasionally things might need to be rethought a little, and so I will offer suggestions that I feel will be a creative solution. This is where I think on top of being an excellent photographer, having excellent social skills is a plus. It is important to me that the communication between me, my creatives, and their clients remain clear, kind, and on a good foot. I think anything can be solved if the energy and overall feeling of the shoot are positive, relaxed, and respectful. I like to treat my photo shoots the same way I treat guests at my home for dinner: Put on some good music, we have a good time, we do our jobs exceptionally well, and any bumps in the road can be solved because of this open, kind, and positive atmosphere.

If you were to recap the most important encounters that you’ve had throughout your career, what would those be?  
I have adored working with my art director from Neiman Marcus, Margo Weathers. Margo and I collaborated with Neiman’s for over 12 years. Our collaboration introduced that charm and magic into my work. Margo and I started our work together in the early 1990s, shooting catalogue for local Southern department store chain Rich’s, and that later expanded when she joined the creative team at Neiman Marcus. My dear friend Bryan Dow, who is now the creative director for DSW Shoes, has been a part of my career growth also since the early 1990s. When Bryan and I started working together, he was a fashion stylist for another Southern department store called Parisian. We would stay late after shooting a day of catalogue at my studio, and shoot personal work using vintage clothes from his grandmother until the wee, wee hours of the morning. We’ve continued to collaborate through all of his moves, including projects for DSW. I work with him on both print campaigns and correlating TV spots. And last but not least, my magical friends at Macy’s. I have had the honor of working with them for seven years, being a part of establishing an iconic look for Macy’s advertising. There is always a little “wink” in my work for them that I love creating! My favorite part of the story is that I met Helane Blumfield, who is SVP of Creative for Macy’s, in my early twenties, when I was trying to find a position as a photographer’s assistant in Atlanta. Needless to say, that job didn’t quite work out, but to my wonderful surprise Helane called me in 20 years later to show my work. Macy’s is one of my nearest and dearest clients, and I take a lot pride in the work I create for them. I have such a high respect for her and consider her not just an inspiration but also a cherished friend.

One of my favorite brands to be creative with is Target. I have created for years with many different agencies and clients under the Target umbrella. Target is known for its brilliant creative advertising campaigns, and they opened their door to me in early 2000. I received a call from one of my first studio managers, who over the years had gone on to become an art director for an agency called PMH. PMH at that time handled the majority of Target’s creative campaign work. I worked with my friend for the next couple of years with Target and to this day continue to create for them…14 years later.

And most importantly, nine years ago I joined the New York–based photography agency Stockland Martel. Bill Stockland and Maureen Martel took my work to an entirely new level. Before I joined with their agency, my work mostly consisted of lovely catalogue fashion work for department stores like Neiman Marcus, Saks Fith Avenue, and Nordstrom. Bill and Maureen saw something in my work that they felt would translate well to the advertising community. After a lot of portfolio reworking, they began presenting my work to their advertising clients. As a result, my client list today is extremely diverse. They have brought an unbelievable range of opportunity to my work. Stockland Martel has been a gift to me both professionally and personally. I adore them as much as I respect them—they’re amazing agents and people to both work with and call friends.

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Throughout your career, was there any specific moment when you absolutely knew that you had “made it”? A certain proposal, a certain job that made you realize you were entering the big league? Do you think it’s important to take account of such milestones?  
That is a funny question. I don’t feel one ever “makes it.” I just feel blessed that I keep being given the opportunity to be a part of agencies and clients’ creative vision. I love taking pictures. I love the entire creative process. I adore working with creative people and collaborating with other equally gifted spirits. I want each of my shoots to be the best, and I want my agency friends and clients to come back and shoot with me again.  I am always appreciative of every opportunity I am given and try and give each project 125 percent. You never know where people will go or how their careers will change. I treat and hold all of my team, whether it is my digital tech, stylist, or set designer, with ultimate kindness and respect.

Is there a certain brand that you are fond of and haven’t had the chance to shoot so far?  
It would be nice to shoot more on location in guaranteed nice weather. I think instead of a brand, I would say… Someone please send me to a gorgeous location without hurricanes or sleet! Maybe a nice travel job with a bit of downtime to see things. Seems like we are always in such a hurry to get in and out, and with four kids and the incredible amount of work I am lucky to have, I would love a relaxing Chardonnay on a beach after a sunny job!

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Special thanks to Up by Forbes art director Andrei Michailov.

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