Ones to Watch: Griffin Lipson
With a sparkle in his eye to match his new golden anklets (he just got back from an email-less vacation in Ibiza,) Griffin Lipson immediately puts you at ease. Behind the camera, at just 25-years-old, he’s shot some of the most influential people of our time: from Glenn Close to Al Gore, and from Timothée Chalamet to Grace Jones. Whether he’s chatting about the latest season of HBO’s Euphoria, his favorite jerk chicken spot in Manhattan, or what it’s like to be directing Meryl Streep, he speaks with the same, high level of excitement. “There is nothing that excites me more than meeting someone that I find intriguing,” he explains.
At 22, the Philidelphia native serendipitously landed a job at The New York Times where his career as a photographer began. Since then, he’s continuously made the case proving why he’s here to stay. We spoke to Lipson about his shooting style, the importance of making eye contact, and got the details on his high school Facebook photo shoots.
How would you describe your personal look and style? How do you cultivate it?
For me, I’m really focusing now on portraiture, and kind of nailing down and building upon a specific aesthetic. The challenges I face are objective and subjective to the person that I’m shooting. Cultivate is an interesting question, I do think the most important thing for me is that as soon as the subject and I meet, I try to make eye contact. I think, for me, the eye contact puts people at ease…sometimes haha. The way I am in my personal life, and the way I am on set are the exact same. I’m using the skills I’ve developed in my social life and I’m bringing it to my portraiture.
How long do your shoots usually last?
It really depends. 30 minutes, 15 minutes, or an hour. It is really all depending on time and their schedules. When I was working at The New York Times, the shoots were quicker — so finding that balance as soon as I got to the shoot was so important to me. I knew I only had a few frames.
How do you get that content so quickly?
I’m not sure If I can accurately describe how I’m able to communicate with the subjects. I really really love to do my research on the subjects. So when I go to shoot, I feel as though I step into their world and just get to capture them how I see it.
And then you’re able to capture the right emotion.
I think capturing any emotion is a success. The Big Little Lies shoot was the highest stakes shoot in terms of time and talent, but I wasn’t necessarily looking for the “right emotion”. I just capture a few key moments in that photographer-subject bubble until it feels right on both ends.
What was that process like?
So I had worked with HBO last summer on a smaller project when they came out with Sharp Objects. I think early 2019 my friend Adam, who works at HBO, started coming up with these ideas. Those ideas developed into bigger conversations and then the ball started rolling. I was extremely fortunate to work with amazing collaborators at HBO like Adam Weiss and the rest of the digital team.
And, Meryl – one word.
Yeah, exactly. I mean I still dream about it. I look at the pictures still, and I can’t believe that that happened. To be very honest, in the very early stages of planning, I didn’t know if I was capable of taking on something this large because I’ve never done it before. When Meryl came on set we locked eyes, she sat down and was very sweet. She is an angel. Then she said, “What do you want me to do?” And in that moment I was like, “Holy fucking shit…I’m about to direct Meryl Streep,” you know?
She’s literally three feet away from me. And she’s…I mean, I don’t have to say anything else.
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I didn’t want to get emotional but this was quite literally too much for my brain to process, and now I’m crying. Meryl Streep by me @hbo @biglittlelies. A BIG THANK YOU TO @adam___weiss my sister and the rest of the @hbo team. 💖🖤 in @oscardelarenta #BLL2 #biglittlelies #merylstreep
So what did you tell her to do?
I was like, “This is happening!!!! She’s literally looking into my soul.” I told her to look towards the light; she was wearing these crazy earrings. They look like the Titanic blue hearts necklace. I really wanted to accentuate those, and she was wearing these glasses. It was incredible. When she walked off set, I was just like, this will probably never, ever, ever happen again in my life.
How long do you typically research a subject before shooting them – have you ever had to pull something together last minute?
Funny story, because someone called me and they were like, “Do you have time today at 4:00 PM to shoot portraits of Tilda Swinton?” It was around 11:00 AM. Usually, I have a little more than 3 hours to prepare. Luckily, I’m a Tilda fan, so I didn’t have to do that much additional research.
Researching is one of the best parts of this type of work. It’s why I love to interview people.
I’m interested in interviewing people too. The whole reason why I’m doing all of this is; I’m so fascinated by people. There is nothing that excites me more than meeting someone that I find intriguing.
And a lot of it just comes from relying on your personal instinct, especially in the beginning.
Most of what I do comes from basic instinct and knowing how to read a situation. It was a huge learning curve for sure. I don’t think there’s a guidebook for shooting a President of the United States. Always relying on basic instinct and human respect are key.
To give some background – you randomly met an editor on a train going to the Hamptons. That was your real start to the career path you’re currently on. Can you tell us more about that encounter?
My parents always say you could leave me in a room with four walls, and I could have the conversation of a lifetime. I was on a really crowded train, and we sat next to each other. I was like, “Oh where are you going this weekend? What’s your plan?”
Obviously, this turns into her asking, “Oh, you just moved to New York. What are you doing?” I told her I was testing the waters. I told her I was into photo, and that I was trying to make it work. From there she was like “Well, why don’t you come in for tests next week and see what happens.”
How did that experience evolve?
The first shoot probably went fine… it was probably terrible looking back on it. I was probably shaking. I built awesome relationships with the people around me and was truly just so grateful to be in that position. Evolution in the work just came with time and experience.
Are there any particular shoots that stuck out?
There was a few month period of shoots that definitely stuck out. It was right around the Oscar 2018 season and within a few weeks, I had gotten to work with the cast from “Call Me By Your Name”, “Lady Bird”, “I, Tonya”, “The Shape of Water”.
Rewinding to young Griff – what was your first camera?
My first camera ever was this cute DSLR, I think Nikon D40, that my parents got me in 8th grade and it was my most prized possession; it was like, “Don’t touch it…don’t even look at it.” I always just shot my friends and it was literally strapped to me at all times. In 9th grade, I really only shot on film because I was learning the darkroom.
Did you have teenage Facebook photoshoots?
I’d have full-blown photoshoots with makeshift lights and everything. I have two younger sisters, Victoria and Amanda. They were the first subjects that I really fell in love with because I knew them intimately. We’re like three sisters; extremely close, and have always been. I would bring in lights and lamps that we had in my house, and I’d hang some sheets, and we would invite their friends over and shoot. I still have all of those photos, they’re very very special to me.
And so what was the progression like since then?
For so long it was a hobby, and then things started getting more serious. I’ve been in NY for three years and every year it gets progressively more intense but in a good way. It’s so exciting, I’m so excited every single day. I’m excited at the thought of being able to push myself and feel confident about it.
Do you see yourself staying in New York? What aspects do you enjoy about creating here?
I’m going to stay for the foreseeable future. There are so many things I like about New York. What I love most about is that the network that you create for yourself can be really useful not only for jobs but for your personal life, in all aspects.
In New York, it’s really easy to get sucked up into the madness. I think it’s really important to find the four or five key people that really have your best interests at heart. I’m super grateful and really lucky that I found incredible friends. I love New York so much, I wouldn’t have it any other way… at least for now.
In terms of your personal practice, what do you do to make sure you don’t get too wrapped up in that madness?
When I’m in the city, it’s music. My friends are always like, “Take your AirPods out.” I’m listening to music 24/7. It’s one of the easiest ways for me to stay calm and grounded. Music allows me to channel whatever I’m feeling. I have literally hundreds of playlists.
I travel back to Philadelphia, where I grew up, pretty often. I take my three dogs, whoever in my family is around, and just hike.
And as cliché as it sounds, pushing yourself out of your comfort zone is imperative in NY. It’s truly the only way to grow in my mind.
Sorry, that was a very convoluted answer but those are just certain things I do or keep in mind to stay grounded in NYC.
And going back to music – who are you listening to right now?
That hardest question. I’m always listening to different stuff but right now I’ve been listening to the new Banks album. Really into this new artist BENEE, think she’s incredible.
I read an interview that you said your top people to shoot would be Rihanna and Adele, is that still true?
Um, I mean I’d obviously love to shoot them, but Diane Keaton or Phoebe Waller-Bridge if you’re listening, I am here and I would love to photograph you.
Do you see your work moving more towards a moving image or do you think you’ll stick with stills?
I’m interested in moving image. It’s definitely something that I have to consider, it’s always something I’ve dabbled with, but the photos stuck. Realistically, I do have to consider moving into that. I’m ready.
Favorite Restaurant in NY: Miss Lily’s. If you haven’t gone you have to race there.
What shows are you watching? Euphoria, Big Little Lies
Have you seen Fleabag? Oh my god, it’s the best show I’ve seen in 10 years. You can put this on the fucking record – I LOVE PHOEBE WALLER-BRIDGE.
Images + Self Portraits courtesy of Griffin Lipson.
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