Los Angeles-based photographer Lauren Pisano brings a quiet intimacy to her images, whether she’s photographing wearable electronics for Fast Company, or shooting landscapes or self-portraits for herself. Since it began in 2015, Pisano has been photographing for Girls at Library, an online journal that features literary interviews and book recommendations from interesting and notable women who are passionate about reading. Recent subjects include bag designer and retailer Clare Vivier (favorite book over the last two years: The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt); Saehee Cho, a writer, artist, cook and founder of SOO N (recommendation: Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson, because it “will melt your brain”); and Molly Young, who writes Help Desk, a self-help book column for The New York Times Book Review, (current favorite: London Fields by Martin Amis). In an edited email interview, Pisano tells PDN about bringing her own voice to the project.
PDN: How did you first get connected with Girls at Library? What sort of direction did they give you for the shoots?
Lauren Pisano: The Co-founder of GAL, Payton Turner, is a good friend of mine from New York. She connected me with Eliza [Wexelman], who lives here in LA, and we quickly became friends and started collaborating on different projects. When they came up with GAL and asked me to do some of the West Coast shoots, I couldn’t wait to start. We did a few tests to fine tune the aesthetic and then it quickly got into motion. Eliza weighs in on interesting aspects of each location, but she is hands-off during the shoot. I have a lot of creative control to embrace my vision of how I see the subject in their space.
PDN: The images can feel quite intimate. How do you connect with your subjects?
LP: Even though it’s a totally different milieu, I approach my portrait subjects in the same way I do my self-portraits. I try to find a balance between their environment and the level of intensity they are putting forward. I am very quiet when shooting, and while I think it can be a little unnerving at first—especially with subjects that are used to being photographed in another style, ultimately people become relaxed and hopefully forget what is happening. With GAL, the women are truly excited about their collection of books, and because the act of reading and handling a book is so natural to them, there is an ease to the photos.
PDN: How do you approach the challenge of working with a similar set of subjects—apartment, woman, book—and making different-looking images? Are there technical challenges you overcame in this series? Are your subjects involved in coming up with ideas for poses and shots? How do you prepare for these shoots?
LP: I’ve been really lucky in that all of the subjects for GAL have been so creative in their own unique way. Also, GAL is interested in bringing in different aspects of the subject’s interests and how it relates to their favorite books. We did a shoot with Saehee Cho of Soo-N Food, where she made a cake from her favorite cookbook. It was a great way to keep with the book theme, and show a bit of Saehee and her aesthetic through the dish. When they asked me to be interviewed, they wanted me to shoot myself in the same style of my other self-portraits. It was interesting to get into the same headspace as I do with my other work, while adding a playful aspect to it. It has a totally different look than the other GAL shoots, but they keep a nice balance between the brand with each GAL personality.
It is a challenge to get a variation of looks from each subject, especially when their space is smaller or there isn’t a lot of available light. I always bring a backup light, but it’s important to me that I stay consistent with the series and shoot with natural light. I try to get as much information as I can beforehand so that I can take full advantage of the sun. My goal is to get a few great portraits, but also keep a bit of a documentary feel. Many of the GALs aren’t used to being photographed, so it’s important to let them know beforehand that we will be shooting a few different setups, not just trying to get one great shot. It’s easier when they know what to expect, and don’t feel like they have to put too much weight or energy into one look. The subject isn’t too involved in coming up with specific poses or setups, but I will ask if they have a favorite place to read and spend time, and that is usually where we start.