Elizabeth Renstrom X Caroline Tompkins

Published on 12/20/ 2020

Elizabeth Renstrom is a Brooklyn-based photographer, editor, and curator. As a photographer, she uses humor as a tool to investigate themes of feminism, the way we use images, and how we craft our identities in relation to pop culture. Her style is defined by its saturation and prop-driven arrangements in both editorial commissions and in her own projects. She has shot extensively for clients like The New Yorker, Refinery 29, TIME, Instagram, and Vice among others. No matter what, she isn’t afraid to make photography weird across commercial or fine art. As an editor and curator, Elizabeth has worked in the photo departments of Marie Claire, TIME, Vice, and, most recently, The New Yorker where, as Senior Photo Editor, she commissions original photography for the weekly magazine.

Originally from Cincinnati, Ohio, Caroline Tompkins received a BFA in Photography from the School of Visual Arts in New York City. She has exhibited nationally and internationally, with her work featured on the BBC, Vogue, and The New York Times among many others. Caroline worked as a photo editor at Bloomberg Businessweek for 5 years before leaving to pursue her own practice in 2019. She is currently a professor at the School of Visual Arts and a freelance photographer for editorial and commercial clients. Caroline's photographs explore issues of female sexuality, localism, and the sincerity within them. She lives in Queens, NY.

Elizabeth Renstrom: I’ll start with how I got here. I graduated from Parsons in 2012. The first photo department I worked in was at Time. I interned there for about a year and did a lot of still-life shooting in-house for them. I worked under Natalie Matutschovsky in the Culture Department, so I did a lot of photo research and production on smaller shoots. At that point, I didn't have any experience with production but learned really quickly there. I feel like I got to be there during a golden age for the Time photo department. It was a super amazing experience. When my internship ended, I went on to do just under two years at Marie Claire magazine. That was one of my first full-time photo editing jobs, and I worked on a lot of the front-of-book stuff, so not the major fashion stories but producing the smaller pagers at the beginning of the book and the more photojournalism focused women's stories. I quit to go freelance, and then picked back up photo editing when I got the offer from Vice because it was my dream job. It's crazy to think that I've been photo editing for eight years! I’m currently a senior photo editor at The New Yorker. At Vice, I was the Senior Visuals Editor, but I was the only photo editor at the magazine and the website. So I've always been doing photo production and photo editing, but I have also been an editorial and fine art photographer working on my own practice while at those publications, and I think that's been really helpful in terms of my photo editing work.

Caroline Tompkins: I graduated in 2014 from SVA and by the end of that summer after graduating, Alis Atwell (then photo editor at Bloomberg Businessweek) and I had worked together because I was doing some photo assisting. During the shoot, Alis had mentioned that she didn't know anyone who wanted to be a photo editor anymore, and I was like, "I do!" So a few months after I graduated, I emailed her saying, "I don't know if you have an internship program or  any assistant positions?" She responded, “Yeah, come on in!” It just was sort of a fluke. Businessweek didn't offer that position anymore after I had been there. I think it was really something that Alis made happen. They didn't even have interns after that, so it really was just the right place at the right time. And then another photo editor had left by the spring of the next year, and I filled that position and became an actual photo editor. Before that, it was sort of like a glorified internship, and It wasn't really enough money to live on, so I would work there in the mornings and then I would work at SVA in their photography cage at night. So I was working from 9 am to 1 am every single day, and it was so dumb.

Vice commission. Photo by Carolyn Drake/Magnum.
Businessweek commission. Photo by Valerie Chiang.

ER: It's not that I think people don't want to be photo editors. I don't know if people know what to ask for when they're describing the position. It is so insular to our industry, and I don't think that they discuss it enough in photo programs. It's such an important role if you want to be an editorial photographer, but when I was in school I didn't understand the path to become one.

CR: I feel like the people that were teaching at SVA had a different understanding of photo editing. And I think photo editing has changed a lot in the last 10 years, even. Their understanding of it was different.

ER: I agree. It has changed so much, even in the past five years that I've been editing since I got to Vice. I feel like it has become a whole different role. 

CT: It feels like there are more opportunities for a lot more people. Do you feel that way?

ER: Oh, definitely. When I started, most of the news organizations I was working for would hire the same couple of people and have photographers on retainer. Now that's not even a thing. Now people are really eager to bring new talent into magazines because magazines are held to a way higher standard. The audience has a lot to weigh in on and a lot of say in the kind of talent that they should be hiring, so it's super exciting. I think editors have obviously taken note, and, regardless of whether it's trendy, I see magazines changing and hiring new people. I actually like thinking about this in terms of who would have photographed President Obama if he were in office today. There would be a lot better photography of him, and the types of photographers commissioned now would be more diverse than the same three white, cis studio photographers that come up. That's a really good example. That's part of the reason I didn't want to go back to photo editing unless it was something like Vice because I knew I wanted to work with a more diverse range of artists. 

CR: Totally. I definitely felt that at Businessweek. There was a certain point where I felt established enough at that job to be like, "We have to mix it up." It was really important to me that we make a more valiant effort. We put certain things in place to track who we were hiring and to hold ourselves to a standard. It felt good to know, especially since June, that Businessweek was already a place that had a lot of different people working for it. It was already a very inclusive place. Even though I haven't worked there for a year, it felt great to not see Businessweek be one of the many magazines that were like, "Oh shit!" It felt good to know that they had had a history of being diverse in their hiring. 

ER: I think it's kind of crazy that up until June, a lot of magazines hadn’t had that reckoning, and editors still weren't considering how important it is to hire different perspectives depending on the assignment.

Caroline Tompkins, shot for Businessweek

CT: A lot of photo editors don't come from photo backgrounds, which is maybe something people don't know. I think you do have to have a knowledge of photography and of how people see stories and see themselves in photos. It’s really important, and it's a lot of influence. For me, that was so much of what photo school was about– thinking about the context of images, about who's photographing what, and why that matters. I feel like photo editors would often be like, I just want to hire the best person for the job, whatever that means. The people who are good are good because they've had the experience. It trickles down. 

I was at Bloomberg for five years. I’ve tried to be strategic in my path. I knew I wanted to do something that was a regular job because I had student debt and also wanted to have an umbrella of time to become a better photographer. I saw Businessweek as that. At a certain point, I kind of knew that eventually, hopefully, I would be getting enough requests for work that I could leave and feel like I had the ball rolling. Certainly, it wasn't as clean and perfect as I'm making it sound. 


ER: I think it's really important to mention because it's important for people to know that it's really hard to be a full-time, freelance, working photographer. I think you assessed the risk when you graduated, and, as you said, you made some decisions that would make it easier for when you fully committed to your practice. I think a lot of people just go full force into it after school, and, especially if you have student debt, it can be a very intense thing.

It's good to mention all of those financial decisions you had to make to lay the groundwork and to have a nest egg to do what you needed to do. And I'm so proud that you were able to do that. It's so scary to leave full-time work, especially now. Once you have made a certain salary or you have consistency, it's hard to break that consistency and go into something a little uncertain.

CT: How do you think being a photo editor affects your practice?


ER: I thought working with artists and constantly viewing work would affect my own in– not in a negative way– but I worried that I would be comparing myself to everybody's practice. And it's been many years now, and I think it truly does reinforce what I want my own practice to say. It helps me figure out what I want to focus on and say, in my own work, that's different from what other artists are doing.  I'm so inspired by all the artists that I get to work with. It’s so cool seeing their process and how they get from point A to point B in a commission. And, I don't know if you feel the same way, but the way certain people develop their assignments and seeing how people work on set- I think it's only been helpful. It's how I organize myself in my work. I've worked with artists that I worshipped, and I've seen how they shoot. And it's been humbling because we're all in the same boat. Sometimes that's nice to see— what a major artist’s lighting setup is or how they run a set. It's cool to see that and compare it to your own.


CT: Yeah, I think it makes you appreciate how hard this job can be and that everyone is struggling with it. And sometimes it's just luck that things come out. It's so many factors. And I think that's really helped me being a freelancer on my own when things don't necessarily work out. It's helpful for me to think, If I were a photo editor receiving this, how would I feel? And just to know what I need to tell the photo editor about what the situation was. I know what to communicate and what not to communicate.


ER: I think we're really lucky, as photographers who have also worked as photo editors, to have that kind of insight and experience because I think a lot of up-and-coming photographers don't necessarily have the same tools or knowledge to communicate what they need ahead of the shoot. I'm more sensitive to that, and I love to tell photographers before or after, hey, I think these are the things that you should feel comfortable asking me moving forward. Or if you didn't feel like that worked out the way you wanted to let's talk about it and figure out, when you get your next commission, how you can approach it differently. 

Elizabeth Renstrom’s project Basenote Bitch, where she reviews fragrances.

ER: Did you make a very conscious decision to stop working as a photo editor? Or did it naturally progress that way as you got more assignments? How do you make sure to get your personal work in?

CT: I think I almost felt scared to be a photo editor that used to take pictures. I totally get it, you go to photography school, you get this really nice job. It sort of provides everything you need in life, and then you're like, I don't want to be like lugging around all this equipment and dealing with all these bullshit problems all the time. I just want to have kids and be happy in this job. I totally understand, but I had a lot of anxiety about that reality becoming mine. Every vacation I took was to make personal work, and every day off was usually in pursuit of my own practice. I think that I just always knew that I wanted to make that transition. Also, all of my friends are photographers, It wasn't a surprise what that quality of life was going to be. I definitely was very aware of the ups and downs of being freelance and the emotional rollercoaster. If anything, I feel better equipped to be like, oh, if that photo editor uses a period instead of an exclamation point, it's okay. They literally didn't think about it. If they didn't say, “Great images!” it's okay. They literally are just busy sometimes. But making personal work— I think it's harder now, in some ways. When I had a full-time job, I was like, I have my 14 PTO days. I'm going to make personal work. And now I don't have that sort of time. It's really easy for me to want to continue to accept work if it's coming, of course. And if it's not coming, there are other things I'm working on like trying to email people and trying to put PDFs together and catch up on invoicing. There's the other part of this job— being a business owner— that is not discussed as much. I'm still learning how to carve out that time. I don't think I have it figured out yet, but I want to, and I think that matters.

Caroline Tompkins

From her project Fantasy Bond

ER: And, you will. I feel that same struggle because I still feel so much like a photographer, and I don't think I have to choose. As a photo editor, you're there to serve other artists, and not always your own work, and people really project that onto you, especially if you're working for a major publication. I definitely have that identity crisis all the time. I think the way that I combat it is similar to you. I just throw myself into my work every chance I can get. And I think that's what you need to do if you're going to do both, to be honest. Because I have the same fear of not having the desire to make work anymore.

CT: I feel like now I'm in a position where I would love to go back to photo editing. I wish there was something that was six issues a year or something like that that I could do because I do miss that relationship to photography where you are thinking about it in a very different way than being an image-maker.

ER: I think work is going to change a lot. And it's going to have to, obviously, because of everything that's happened this year. I think there will be more opportunities to have those things that you listed or I just think that publications will maybe open themselves to different perspectives in photo editing. It would be awesome, if certain publications gave away issues to different editors, just to see what that looks like and also open up the small job pool that is photo editing. And I'm happy. I love working with artists and collaborating, and I love the experience of photo editing.

CT: I really miss working on a team too. There's something really beautiful and nice about photo editing in that it’s not so individual and solo. Not just the relationship between you and the photographer, but the relationship between you and writers, editors, illustrators, and designers. That was what was most special to me at Businessweek- that team mentality. This isn't Caroline Tompkins photography business. This is a whole other entity that I'm a cog in in a way that I really love. I love that collaboration. It feels distanced in a way that my whole self-esteem doesn't go down if an issue or shoot didn't come out the way intended.

ER: It's nice to be creative within a network of people where you're working towards something. And it's such a different feeling than, as you said, putting out a book of your own photos or sharing something that you've worked on for a long time, that you're the face of.

CT: Vice verses The New Yorker, what parts of you are touched on through these two different publications? 

ER: At Vice, because I was the only photo editor, I felt like I was the representative of photography for that publication, and it was super exciting. But also, at times, I felt really overwhelmed and under-qualified, and scared. I often have feelings of imposter syndrome in my work as an editor and a photographer, but I learned so much through that job, and I got to meet and work with so many amazing people. At The New Yorker, I'm working within a whole team of amazing people, and I feel like I have so much support. At The New Yorker, because it's such a literary magazine, I get to work in the same way with more fine art focused photographers and people at different ends of their practice. So my commissioning style hasn’t changed that much. It feels just as experimental and fun. 

CT: Can the New Yorker take the same risks that you took at Vice? 

New work by Elizabeth Renstrom
Elizabeth Renstrom

ER: Yeah, I think it can. I think a big difference is obviously that The New Yorker will always have illustrated covers, and, at Vice, what people saw was the cover of Vice, who made the cover of Vice, who got their photo on the cover. That was always such an important decision for me, and, in many ways, I can take more risks because there's not that same sort of pressure that comes from a cover.

CT: Just the commission's I've seen that you've posted, especially the fiction stuff, it does seem like it really reflects you having actual time to work on something. Whereas at Vice, I thought, I have no idea how you would have that job— it just seems so crazy, like so much to do.

ER: Yeah, haha. At Vice, because of the singular photo role, I was pulled in a lot of different directions. Whereas at The New Yorker, my role as Senior Photo Editor is on the print side with contributions to Photobooth. Currently, I work a lot on the fiction section, which lends itself to so much experimentation in terms of the photographers. It allows photographers to really work within their own style because that's how I make my commission choices for the stories. I'll read a story, and the story will guide me on what kind of work I feel aligns with it and what photographers I think will really bring something aligned with the tone of the story. I think fiction is such a great space for photography. It’s really endless inspiration for me, and I think photographers getting to think outside of how they tell their stories and to interpret somebody else's is always really fun.

But I want to know, and I can answer this too, but what are your current personal projects? I've just been seeing your amazing commissions and I'm a superfan. I just think you're so versatile. Obviously, I know what a Caroline Tompkins photo looks like but I feel like I could throw you into any situation and I know you'd come out with a really unique perspective. I feel like a lot of your art is in commissions right now, so I'm curious what personal projects are inspiring you in that space?

Caroline Tompkins from Fantasy Bond

ER: I've never done an audit on my work in that way, where I go back through the years and re-edit work into current work. I've wanted to do that. It's not often that you have time to recontextualize your work and make sense of it and see that you've been working within these themes for a while. I'm sure you're sitting on so many images that are ready to be edited into a book.

CT: I feel like I’m nearing the end of something which is a new feeling for me. I've always been like, I'm just making pics. I don't know what they mean. And at the beginning of this year, I really spent a few weeks putting everything I've been making into proper folders and grouping images by certain ideas. 

ER: I'm gonna do that someday. 

CT: What about you? Do you consider the Carnal Knowledge book to be personal work or is that commission?

ER: Yeah, that's interesting. I definitely feel like the book and the images fit into my work and my style. I like to discuss those kinds of themes in my own personal projects. It does feel like a very long commission that is done, and I'm so excited that it's out. I do feel like I could go back and rework and edit some of those photos into the story of my work. And, like you, I feel like I'm sitting on a bunch of stuff that ties together, but I need to find the through-line. I've been doing some fun, more accessible, tabletop, silly stuff just to get me through quarantine- like a lot of the perfume stuff, which is so fun for me. In the past year, I’ve been so inspired to finish some ideas that I feel like I've been sitting on for a while which is great. When I was at Vice I felt like it was so much my baby that I was taking editorial commissions and those served as my outlet. I really didn't have time between Vice and editorial commissions to think about anything with strictly just my voice. Since I left, I've had a renewed enthusiasm and passion to do that.

CT: So great. I love that. Feel free to send me a big folder of pictures. I can tell you what I think they might be about.

ER: I will!

CT: Well, I want to make a book. I've always wanted to make a book…books. I always saw my photography career as one that involved bookmaking. Since I was in college, I've been thinking about the female relationship to sexuality and fear and how we, as women who desire men, have to hold these two truths at once. One hand is the romance, the desire, the sexual needs, and the other is the inherent fear and danger that men pose to women. I’m fascinated by how that tension changes the way we photograph and interact with men. I'm interested in the ways it’s become normalized in our society. How we tell a friend where our location is going to be during a date. The implication there is that we either have a great night or potentially die? It’s crazy. For a while I've been, whether I knew it or not, making pictures that exist on this line between scary and sexy. I really want to represent the good parts of it too. I don't want it to seem like a ‘men are trash’ kind of thing. I really want to represent both things equally. 

ER: I feel like you've also been speaking to that since the beginning of your work with the early catcall series, always on that line. Picturing sexuality is always such a fine line, and I am so curious, how do you represent the risk involved in being vulnerable in that way when dating? 

CT: I think going to that nudist festival was actually really helpful. I've been looking at that work. I’ve been looking at those pictures again, and I think some of those fit into the work as a whole. I was planning on going back this year. Obviously, it did not happen.

Elizabeth Renstrom

CT: And I think, going back to photo editing, the work I cared about seeing was people's personal work. I always tell people, the commission stuff is to build trust. You had 15 minutes with that person. You made a great photo, now I can trust that you can do something like that. But I don't really care about any of it. It’s not going to stay with me, but somebody who comes in and has never done a commission before but tells me about some insane personal project they're doing, I'm very stoked to hire them and remember them and think about them for future things, as opposed to someone who's like, here's my Nike shoot, here's my this shoot and my that shoot.

ER: I feel the exact same way.

CT: So now I can think about— personal stuff is the important thing not just for work but for general life fulfillment. 

ER: It's so true, and it's funny that we don't practice what we always say. I think it's like how people begin to re-contextualize you for commissions and drive you towards commissions that you really like doing when you're able to reassess and put out new work. It gives photo editors like myself more context and tools to figure out what you'd really want to shoot.

CT: Where do you get inspiration these days? Especially considering the current circumstances.

From Basenote Bitch
Duane Michaels by Caroline Tompkins

ER: I always get tons of inspiration from, honestly, reading fiction, and being a part of that section currently is amazing. I'm so inspired by authors' words, and that always helps me visualize my photos too. I have been reading tons of fiction during this time period. Books like Luster by Raven Leilani, You Will Never Be Forgotten, by Mary South, Housekeeping, by Marilynne Robinson, and then lots of books on perfume because of @Basenote_Bitch like Coming to my Senses by Alyssa Harad. It is hard to stay inspired. I feel like everybody's going through severe burnout right now and fatigue in a new way. I'm inspired by anything that isn't Zoom.

Making work in the pandemic, especially personal work has been really therapeutic for me. I feel like a lot of us are figuring out how to restructure our days. And because we've had to be in quarantine, I just feel like it has been nice to obsess over certain things. A lot of my work is about obsession. So that's been really great.

CT: It’s been really inspiring for me to get to teach the last few semesters at SVA. You have to be confident in these things that you didn't realize you were confident in before. The class I teach is essentially an introduction to photography theory. It’s exciting to get to really research certain artists, their trajectories, and who's making work in conversation with them. I try to organize my lectures based on who did it first, who responded to them, and who is doing it now. I feel like that's really helpful in thinking about photography in a bigger way. Instagram, especially, makes you think of photography in this very small way, and it's so helpful to be like, there are histories here! I remember one of the first weeks of class someone was showing work, and I was like, "Oh, yeah, just like Sugimoto...you know?" Haha. I realized I didn’t have much more to say beyond that, so it’s made me prepare a lot more. I’m grateful to engage with photography in this context because I feel like every time I open Instagram, I just feel bad.

Eileen Myles by Caroline Tompkins

CT: Yeah, there are those Yale talks that Gregory Crewdson was doing. He did one with Wolfgang Tillmans, and he asked him, “Who's your imagined audience?” And he was like, “I just make work for my friends.” And I thought, I've never heard someone express the way I felt in that same way. I mostly care what my friends think about these pictures. I want to impress them. I’m in photo group chats with just photographers, and, even if we’re not even talking about photography, necessarily, it feels like those are the people, that's my audience. Those are the people that I care about how they'll receive something, and I trust them to tell me if something's not good. Criticism is really hard to find, I think, especially with Instagram. Getting less than 100 likes on an image might seem like criticism, which is so silly to say. Even through making this work and trying to make a book, I've reached out to people for criticism, and it's really difficult. It's been difficult to find someone to give me an honest critique because it takes time and real consideration, as opposed to just being like, Yeah, that's good, looks nice. So, I think community is your best hope for real feedback. 

ER: That is so true. It is like, investing in your friends is like investing in your community's success. And also, not being an asshole. Yeah, that's the takeaway of this article.

CT: Basically, just be nice, and you'll be fine.

Lead photo by Caroline Tompkins. 

ER: That must be really cathartic, too. I do feel like we are in an age of so much surface information. And we never know how much we're really absorbing, what we're consuming. So to have to slow down and be able to communicate ideas sounds inspirational. I'm happy that you are able to provide different contexts for your students. 

I feel like the biggest thing that we can do outside of our own practices is mentor and just provide any kind of knowledge to up and coming artists. I try and be as open as possible when younger artists ask me questions, and I think it's a really great way of giving back to the community. I think it's just, you know, mentors are few and far between, I think more people should take it on because there's not a lot of like, clear paths in creative industries. I don't know about you, but I would not be where I am without my mentors. 

CT: It's definitely a heartbreaking and humbling sort of roller coaster of its own. I feel so tied to the future of photography and aware that I'm a part of somebody else’s success. I think photo editing is so much about that, too. There’s a similar connection with teaching that you can help them push the river along or something. 

I've always wanted mentors, but I haven't really gotten them. I feel like my friends are my mentors.

ER: Out of school, with great intention, my friend Alex and I created a community and magazine to rally around, to share ideas with people. And I think, since that project with him, which was called TAGTAGTAG, it's really important for me to engage with my friends and other artists and talk about their practices and use each other as resources. Community is everything. Not only is it a resource for jobs and things like that, but, especially in times like these to talk about how other people are handling it and going about their work, it’s everything. 

CT: I was involved in magazines in college and was making zines beyond that all the time. I feel like that was my “experience” for photo editing and getting a job as a photo editor. I was working on a lot of different magazines in school to varying degrees. I always tell people to make their own if you want to be a photo editor. If it’s not working out you can make an online thing. You can find something. So much of photo editing is about taste and about thinking of the right person for the right thing. 

ER: I don't know if it's as much of an issue now because I'm so inspired by a lot of fresh graduates and how much momentum they have, and, not just momentum, but competence. It seems like they know what to do, and they're willing to start earlier in school, whereas I didn't give myself permission to start reaching out to editors or to even think of my work in that way until after I finished. But it's exactly what you said. If you want to do something, especially photo editing, it's important to show what perspective you have. And the easiest way to do that, without having professional experience, is to make your own experience.