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Get to Know The Photographer Behind Our #MilkLoves Project

Behind the scenes of the inaugural #MilkLoves project was one photographer with a visionary eye: James Emmerman. Over the course of a single day, Emmerman photographed all 10 on our roster of ones to watch, creating a space that was both personal and prolific for each of his subjects. The product of such dedicated production? Dozens of medium format portraits and photos that brought the narrative of 10 rising stars to life.

Photography is Emmerman’s day job, but not in the way you might think—he actually spends most of his week as Vanity Fair’s Assistant Photo Editor. And his work has lived on quite the laundry list of publications: Paper, Vice, Billboard, Interview, Them, and Pitchfork all boast his byline, for starters.

If it wasn’t already obvious, Emmerman is on the cusp of something great—and we’re stoked to be able to collaborate with the photographer to launch our #MilkLoves series. Read our Q&A with Emmerman below, and don’t forget to check out the full hand-picked roster of #MilkLoves creatives as well.

How did you first get started as a photographer?

I’ve taken photos since I can remember, but I began in a professional way by shooting queer nightlife in New York. I did a photo series for Slate (where I was working at the time) in 2014 titled “The True Spirit of Pride”; my idea was to document the wildest alternative Pride events (aka not the parade) that I could find.

This project led me into a few years of focusing on nightlife. And it’s not hard to be inspired by the looks and insane creativity of the NYC queer scene. I found that when I did it right, I could capture moments that looked like a fully realized/produced shoot, but were really taken at 5am in some Ridgewood warehouse (this is mainly thanks to the extremely talented subjects I was shooting). It also led me to experience parties in a completely different way—like, in hardly any other context would I go out alone or approach so many strangers. I wasn’t really a studio photographer at that point, and I think this was definitely a time of self-realization. I met so many people out shooting these events, so what I started doing was bringing the people I met at parties into the studio for a more formal shoot.

Are there any photographers that you draw inspiration from? Where/from what do you find inspiration?

Oh for sure—I enjoy looking at images as much as I do creating them. Jean Cocteau and George Platt Lynes are major early influences, Irving Penn and Herb Ritts as well. Peter Hujar is another. Tim Walker is my biggest contemporary influence; I can look at his images for eternity. My latest photographer-crush is Nadine Ijewere. I can also talk about this for eternity so I’m just going to stop there.

Inspiration for my own work primarily comes from my subject. It’s integral to my process that there is some sort of collaborative representation. If I’m shooting something candid, usually I just know when I see it. But if it’s a studio shoot, I definitely come to set filled with ideas to bounce off my subject and see what they’re into…

Inspiration can come to me from fabric or an illustration or some random dive bar I stumbled upon or a bizarre look I see in ~the club~ or literal trash from the street. You can probably guess I’m a low-key hoarder (I drunkenly brought home a miniature glitter Christmas tree the other day, not one of my better finds…)

What is the creative process like for you? Is it different for every project, or do you follow a similar set of steps every time?

I have this kind of mental arsenal of inspiration I start with. I’m constantly adding to it—different techniques I want to try, props, lenses and cameras, lighting styles. For example right now I’m really into incorporating paintings in the background of my work. If I know the subject already, I think, what is their energy? What am I currently obsessed with that will go with their persona? If I don’t know them, I usually bring it all so once I get their vibe a little bit we have options and can come up with something fitting.

For the #MilkLoves photo project, what was your initial vision for the photoshoots?

#MilkLoves was tricky because there were so many subjects, with truly varying styles. I wanted the images to show each subject’s unique self while keeping a consistent visual identity throughout. My vision was to keep it as simple as possible, while using a wide-angle lens and sparse props to abstract things a bit and tie all the images together.

What was it like to work with all the artists and subjects of the shoots?

Incredible! I think photographing artists of all kinds is the best because I can usually connect with them better, and they’re more willing to play around and try things. It’s really important to me that the energy and vibe on a photoshoot is positive, and this was an extremely fun and collaborative shoot.

What are your photography goals for 2018? Any exciting projects you can tell me about?

For sure! I’m currently curating a one night only group photo exhibition featuring 15 different photographers that I’m going to show in my studio mid-February. I’m hoping to create an atmosphere that feels more like a stoner living room salon event than a gallery. I’ll also be showing select images from my series, Liminal Space, in a larger group show (details are TBD), and continuing my ongoing studio practice.

BTS images courtesy of Ky Naylor; featured image courtesy of Devin Blaskovich

Stay tuned to Milk for more from behind the scenes of our favorite projects.

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