Interview with photographer Elizabeth Messina – my work is a reflection of my inner visions
Some people from our community really go the extra mile in shaping their craft and exploring their artistic vision. Elizabeth Messina is such an example. Named "one of the most influential photographers of our decade", her approach is unique due to how she captures fragility. Often, her photos look like paintings that can fill the walls of an art museum anywhere around the world.
Based in Southern California, Elizabeth Messina's relationship with photography started young in a very odd way. She took her first photos at a family funeral, and years later, she refers to photography as a language of memories — the only thing that encouraged her to show up.
In this conversation, Elizabeth shares more about her intimate relationship with this craft, how her work reflects her inner visions, and what makes her keen to honor women at all stages of life. This is one of the most profound dialogues with an award-winning photographer who dares to explore all her interests and turn them into a powerful voice.
What’s one thing that not many people know about you?
I love incense. I light it everyday, sometimes several times throughout the day. First thing in the morning I light it while the house is quiet and I make my coffee. The smell clears the air and makes me feel happy and grounded. It’s like private little blessing before the world wakes up.
When you reach such a high reputation within the industry, does anything change in the way you run your business or create your photos?
The journey as a photographer in business is a balance between evolving creatively, while nurturing consistency. Personally, as an artist I am in pursuit of capturing the nuances of love, truth, longing and such. This internal creative drive is a constant companion and not always in alignment with the demands of maintaining a business. Over time, I have learned to access my creative spirit on demand. This is a necessary skill to learn, so that you can walk in to any job and meet your clients expectations.
The longer you create photographs, the more you understand light, posing, composition, your equipment and everything that goes into making an image that you are proud of. This is where your consistency comes from, hard work & your artistic point of view. The business side of things, I think changes even more as your career grows. There are more day to day activities that demand your time, that are not always interesting to creatives. I love connecting with people but still struggle to keep up with my emails. I am at heart an introvert, so sometimes constant communication isn't natural for me.
Early in my career, this wasn’t much of an issue, because I wasn’t getting a lot of emails. As my career blossomed, I was more and more inundated. Success revealed a weakness of mine and now I need to thoughtfully make an effort to do something that didn't come naturally to me. It’s different for everyone. That’s the beauty of being a self employed creative person. No two people are alike and no two professional photographers run their business exactly the same way. I think it’s helpful to pause sometimes and reflect on what is working for you and what might need some more attention.
The most obvious costs are airfare and hotels. These expenditures are typically covered by clients. There are many other expense that can creep up on you. When traveling I am often prepping anywhere from a day to a week before a big trip, this means I don't have a lot of bandwidth for other jobs. Travel days are also days that I am unable to do other work. The opportunity cost of missed work isn't something I was aware of until I was traveling a lot for photography jobs.
There is also lots of little things. When you are traveling you are eating almost all of your meals in restaurants. You’ll also need to pay for your phone to work internationally. I also travel with more film, batteries and gear than I might take to a local job. The are also additionally costs in post production. I like to print images for my clients. It’s considerably more expensive to ship internationally than it is locally.
These are just some of the things you need to consider. It’s important that you have an idea of how much traveling for work will impact you financially, so that you can make informed decisions about your fees and communicate clearly with your clients.
You once mentioned that photography is a language of memories. What’s one memory that highly shaped you as a creative?
I deeply believe that photography is a universal language. It holds memories quietly. For me, photography gave me a voice at a young age, when I was otherwise not very comfortable in my skin. One of the most poignant memories I have that shaped me as a creative is when my grandmother passed away. I was in my early 20s. My father asked me a couple of days before her burial if I would photograph the funeral. Initially I was scared, I had no idea how to photograph my family while they were grieving. My father had just lost his mother, so I could not say no. It ended up being such a gift to me.
Having my camera in hand gave me a sense of purpose. Yes I was sad, but when I lifted my camera to my eye, my thoughts were focused on light and composition. I quietly moved through the church capturing various members of my family in a vulnerable sad state, and I saw beauty there. I felt it. The most impactful moment for me was when everyone left the church. My grandmother was in an open casket on the alter. My grandfather walked up and knelt by her side. He kissed her, he cried and said goodbye. He raised his hands up and asked God “why”. I knew I was witnessing the most intimate moment of love and loss. I captured all of this and felt so touched to be there.
Later when I gave prints to my father, he cried and hugged me. I have never shared these images publicly, but the effect they had on me was profound. Photography allowed me to be part of something truly special. This experience opened my heart to understand that photographing weddings, pregnancies, humans in various stages of life is incredibly meaningful. I feel lucky to make art of the people I capture, for my photographs to become part of the fabric of their memories.
How did you find and cultivate your style to capture such calm and serene photos?
Thank you for your kind words. Initially my “style” was innate. I am drawn to simple, monochromatic moments. I think I have always been searching, been longing for the calm and serene feelings I explore in my photographs. I am blessed in many ways and have serene moments from time to time. More often though, I am trying to keep stress at bay while I juggle, work, home, family, dogs, health and so on. Life is full of sadness and challenges, and also with beauty and love. Over time I really leaned into capturing stillness. I seek to bring more grace and calm into the world. It’s my little contribution amidst the chaos.
How do you manage to capture so much fragility and make your shots look like paintings?
Again, thank you so much. A photograph is a dance, an exchange, a relationship suspended in a moment in time between you and your subject. My work is a reflection of my inner visions, years of cultivating my point of view mixed simple compositions, flattering light and connection. I am involved in most aspects of my shoots, form styling and art direction to posing, light, composition, to the moment I touch my shutter. I often encourage my subject to take a breath and exhale.
Magic comes and goes, it can be brief. My purpose as an artist is to recognize it, cultivate it and hopefully capture it. The experience within each shoot is unique. There is not one thing I do or one way I approach creating artistic photographs. For me it’s more about being open and trying to truly connect with who's in front of me. The more someone feels comfortable with me, the more intimate the images can be. It’s truly a dance woven with art and light and yearning.
Your photos of women are a great reminder that beauty comes in many shapes and forms. What do you find the most inspiring about women?
The answer lies in the question. Women ARE beautiful and come in many shapes and forms. I am in awe of so many woman in my life. The mothers, healers, professionals, creators, and so on. Women are incredibly varied. Many of us navigate life with such grace. There are times we don’t know our worth, our value, our beauty, our purpose, and that can be overwhelming. Every woman has inherent value. We are all special and unique.
I hope to show the women I capture the beauty and grace I see in them, to reflect back something they might not see in themselves everyday. I think as we go through life, our experience of ourselves also changes. It’s touching to me that many women come to me to have something special documented. Sometimes it’s something you’d expect, like a wedding or pregnancy. Other times women hire me to honor themselves after a divorce, or loss of some kind. It’s truly an honor to be a woman capturing other women.
How do Pixieset tools impact the experience you offer to your clients?
My new Pixieset websites www.elizabethmessina.com & www.elizabethmessinaweddings.com are just wonderful. The designs are clean and sophisticated. The navigation is intuitive and the simple graphics compliment my photographs beautifully. I also love creating private galleries for my clients to view their images. It’s a lovely way to share their images.
My journey as an artist has been full of ups and downs. While I was at The San Francisco Art Institute it was thrilling to be surrounded by so many artists and like minded people. Sometimes I felt a bit lost too. There were a lot of talented photographers. When I saw someone else’s work that was powerful and very different from mine, I didn't know where I fit in.
For my senior project I created a series of self portraits with double exposures made by projecting images on my body. It was a vulnerable an intimate project. I blew the image up quite large (@ 4 feet by 6 feet). Our graduation class had an exhibition of all the students photography projects. My images won best in show. It was absolutely incredible for me to be recognized as an artist and really propelled me forward. It gave me the confidence to know I had an inherent vision that was unique to me and was worthy of being shared.
Do you think photography is the best medium to express yourself?
Yes. From a young age I was very interested in art. I like to draw and paint. In school I took live drawing classes, architectural drawing, painting and even ceramics. I love making things with my hands. I was however very aware of my limitations in those mediums. I felt constraining, unsatisfied, not good enough. When I discovered photography, it was the first time I could create something similar to what I envisioned. It was a wonderful feeling. I still get frustrated as an artist and always strive to be better. Even with those struggles, photography soothes my soul. I can share more with an image than I ever can with my words or any other art form.
What do you think is your most valuable legacy as a creative professional?
This is so hard to answer. I think, perhaps, that love matters, beauty matters, my vision as a woman, as an artist matters. I hope my images make people feel something. I hope I have contributed something to the world that touches other people, that makes them smile or long for an old lover. I want my photographs to elicit an emotional response, a celebration of love, fragility and longing.
If you could go back, what would you say to your younger self?
Deep breaths Elizabeth, it’s all going to be ok.
Many photographers take amazing shots, but only a few succeed in creating art. Elizabeth Messina can reach a level of poetry that stands the test of time and invites us to dream with eyes wide-open. Her impressive work creates a sense of infinity that's liberating and inspiring, reminding us of how beautiful we are in our differences.
Her journey shows there is no straight line in reaching your creative potential, but that's precisely what makes it so important. The unpredictable, the surprise, and the challenges genuinely shape and expand your horizon. As long as you reflect on your inner visions and act in alignment with them, good things will happen.
Make yourself a gift and go discover Elizabeth's outstanding photographs on her website or Instagram. You can also check her creative classes. Once you inhale all that serenity and calmness, you can read a few more interviews from our series. Discover how Adam Wells builds genuine relationship with his clients, why KT Merry believes every photography job is an audition for your next, and from Ashlie René about the need to let go of your ego.