Lucy Schaeffer has done it all.
Once a Photo Editor for Time Inc.'s widely-circulated Food & Wine, the photographer understands what it takes to capture that perfect shot.
From kids, to lifestyle, to interiors, to food and travel, Lucy's portfolio spans a variety of mediums and reveals a talent that's seasoned with years of experience. Harboring an innate understanding of her subjects, and perhaps a female's intuition, her work draws the viewer in through playful scenarios and vibrant colors, while simultaneously exuding an air of sophistication and ingenuity.
Now approaching her 50th cookbook shoot, with a repetoire of advertising and editorial work to boot, Lucy, as an artist, is ever-evolving, and as a mother, is ever-influenced by her two children.
Taking a few minutes out of her busy schedule, Lucy sits down with JMI to talk creativity, motherhood, self-discovery...and her life as it envelops all three.
JMI REPS: I noticed you majored in Printmaking at Yale University in CT. Did you also study photography in college?
Lucy Schaeffer: For some reason, when I was in college, it never occurred to me that I could be a photographer. When I was a kid, I used to dream about being a National Geographic photographer (doesn’t everybody?), but it took me a while to get back to that idea as an adult. In college, I was more interested in painting, drawing and printmaking…mediums where I could really create my composition. After college, I taught art in Italy, and then moved to NYC and tried to force myself into a graphic design track. I’m glad for the design skills I learned during that period, but graphic design never felt fun and natural to me the way drawing and photography do.
JMI: Did your upbringing influence your creativity at all?
LS: I grew up just outside of Cooperstown, NY, in a rural, small-town environment. It was a big influence! I think it made me resourceful and gave the sense that anything was possible, but you had to do it yourself. I also feel very connected to the natural world. Coming from a small town, I was naturally curious about the world and interested in seeing and recording everything.
JMI: Prior to stepping behind the camera, you worked as a photo editor for Food & Wine. How did that experience influence your work? Do you think it offers you any creative advantages, as a photographer, having seen the "other side" of the industry?
LS: Yes, I was a Photo Editor before I was a photographer, and that definitely influenced my work. Once I did pick up a camera, I was shooting to tell a story and I was editing what I shot to be sure I told the story I wanted. Photography is at least 50% good editing, I think, so, honing those skills early-on have been immensely valuable to me. Knowing the “other side” is another definite advantage. I think, in a lot of cases, it gives me a thicker skin, as I know more about what can go on during the assignment stage.
JMI: You currently have two young daughters. Do they inspire your work at all?
LS: Yes! One thing they help me with is disengaging from work when I’m with them...I have no choice! But I think stepping away from work makes you more engaged when you step back to it, and of course, I love shooting them when they are lost in their kid worlds. Sometimes, I have to choose to either live in the moment with them, or shoot it. Once I start shooting, it means I’m no longer really “living it”… often, ironically, later I’m working with a whole team to try to recreate that “living it” feeling, which is possible, but not easy! Photographs can definitely tell a lie…but that lie can be based on a beautiful truth. I’m ok with that.
JMI: Does having children change your approach to photographing them?
LS: I’m always really good at shooting kids at the exact same age as my own kids... I know what jokes or slapstick they will find funny. Even before I had my own kids, however, I always liked talking to kids and relating to them. I like how kids keep my shots honest…you have to work to get a natural expression or moment. You have to gently guide them where you want to go, but be prepared to go in a completely different direction if they start taking you someplace else, as it will most likely be better than you planned. I find that’s true with lots of things, actually.
JMI: How would you say you’ve evolved as a photographer? Does being a mom shape your perspective at all?
LS: I think at this point, I’m very self-confident in any situation, and that allows me to go into a shoot feeling open and calm. I know that I can solve whatever lighting puzzle a new location might present, and I am confident in my ability to relate and chat with any type of client or subject. Photography is pretty fun in that way... you are never “stuck” with a problematic co-worker, as each shoot has a different cast of characters, and I enjoy getting to know new people. Every shoot is a collaboration of talented stylists, clients and subjects. I love how it comes together in a different combination each time...keeps life interesting! I’m not sure if being a mom shapes this aspect but I do think over the years I’ve enjoyed tapping deeper into the collaborative aspects of photography by doing tests with stylists or models.
JMI: You shoot everything from interiors, to food, to kids, to lifestyle and travel… Do you gravitate toward one area of focus over the others?
LS: I actually love mixing it up. I completely get into the zone of each different way of shooting during the time of the shoot, but feel that if I only did one I would miss the others (and possibly get bored of the one)! My absolute favorite type of story to shoot is one that pulls on more than one area.
JMI: As of late, you’ve been shooting a lot more lifestyle work. Are you thinking of shooting any lifestyle tests in the near future?
LS: I would like to for sure! There are some very talented stylists that I like to collaborate with when time allows. I have a long list of projects to tackle, and plan to start sketching out some new ideas soon. I think testing is so important to keeping your own vision strong and for keeping it fun...don’t want to give anything away, so that’s all I’ll say!
JMI: Another area of your portfolio that’s expanded recently has been your work in video. What inspires your motion work? How do you approach your videos – is your creative process strategic and planned, or are you more go-with-the-flow?
LS: To be honest, at first, I started shooting motion on my own as more of a calculated survival instinct. The still and motion worlds seem to be blurring together in some ways, and I didn’t want to get left behind as someone who could only shoot stills. Once I started in, however, I realized how fun that world was, and what a different brain you have to turn on to make it happen. I am more go-with-the-flow when I shoot stills, but with motion I make a much more elaborate plan in advance, often with storyboards and script. Then again sometimes I also try going-with-the-flow with motion and decide what story to tell in the edit.
JMI: Your last advertising job was a fun shoot that incorporated a social media element: shooting stop-motion to create Vines. How was that experience?
LS: I loved that shoot. It was a couple days of very satisfying still food photography and then a couple days of figuring out a new stop-motion puzzle. The concept of the vines was to show beautifully-finished food, and then “rewind” to show that food had started out frozen and packaged. We shot the action “forward”…from frozen to microwave to plate, but had to keep checking how it would appear when it ran “backwards” later. We used stop-motion techniques to animate little playful actions. It was fun to puzzle over things like “if we want the milk to chase the fork, then we need to shoot the fork chasing the milk, so when it runs backwards…or is it cuter if the fork chases the knife?” Moments like that on-set are when I realize I’m so lucky to do what I do.
JMI: You’re quickly approaching your 50th (!!) cookbook. What an accomplishment! You must be proud. If you had to choose, which cookbook shoot would you say was your favorite?
LS: I love all my children equally! (laughs) That is true, but there are some books that do stand out. Often whatever book I just shot is my new favorite. I can’t wait for a book I shot with the talented Katie Lee that will be out this April! It was so fun to shoot, as we photographed her delicious food and also Katie playing around with friends on the beach and cooking at her amazing home in the Hamptons. I also loved Melia Marden and Anita Lo’s books for the same reason: they were both a mix of food and lifestyle photography, and each really stayed true to the chef. They are very different individuals (and of course all three are fabulous chefs and strong women). I think we did a great job of showcasing that in both cases, and I was happy with the way the publishers designed the books.
JMI: Moving forward, are there any un-pursued areas of photography that you’d like to explore? Do you have any “New Year’s Resolutions” with respect to your work?
LS: It’s not a New Year’s Resolution, but one area I haven’t pursued before and would like to is kids’ fashion photography. I’m not interested in shooting adult fashion, but kids’ fashion appeals, especially for brands I admire such as Mini Boden. I think I could bring a lot to the table, and think it’s an area that would be a natural extension for my work. By the way, I explained "New Year’s Resolutions" to my 5-year-old, and asked her if she wanted to make one. She said yes: "to eat candy every day." Maybe I’ll do that too.
JMI: You always create these really fun and playful promos. Do you have anything up your sleeve on the promotional front?
LS: Thank you! I wanted to try something fun for Valentine’s Day, but that’s really soon… [I'll] see if I can get it done in time! If not, then the next holiday. I love Easter eggs as well…
JMI: Lastly, (and this one’s just for fun): If you could offer your “just starting out in the business” self one piece of advice, what would it be?
LS: Everyone says it but it’s true: shoot a ton of photos, and don’t be afraid to experiment in all areas to find out what feels most right to you - but then learn how to edit those photos way down before you put them up on a professional site. Also, don’t turn down any work in the beginning, as you will learn something useful from any assignment at the start (then later, don’t be afraid to say no to things that aren’t right). Oops, I guess that’s more than one thing! That’s ok.
Asking other photographers questions would be another piece of advice. I asked tons of questions when I was starting out. As a Photo Editor, I knew many photographers, and a couple, in particular, were very helpful and generous with their advice, so I try to be that way, as well. That’s actually one thing I miss about being a Photo Editor – talking to so many photographers! It’s funny how once you’re in the business, you don’t interact with other photographers as much…too bad, as we’re a fun bunch.