Photographer Profile - Emily Shur: "I'm not a fan of beating people over the head with joke"

By David Schonauer   Tuesday July 12, 2016

All kinds of things are funny. Even things that aren’t supposed to be funny are funny when you look at them the right way, and thank goodness for that. Likewise, there are all kinds of humor. There is deadpan humor, dry humor, droll humor, and of course dark humor, each of which has its admirers. Other people prefer slapstick humor and screwball comedy. There is no right and wrong: The only mistake you can make with humor — and it’s easy to do — is telling a joke that thuds to earth.

Los Angeles-based photographer Emily Shur  knows what kind of humor she prefers. “I like smart humor,” she says. “I’m not a fan of beating people over the head with a joke.”

There is a dose of finespun funniness in most of Shur’s portraits of celebrities, the work she is best known for. Since moving from New York to LA a decade ago, Shur has created a dazzling archive of images shot for magazines and commercial clients including Elle, HBO, the  New Yorker, Marie Clair, the Hollywood Reporter, Outside, Time, Netflix, Esquire, Penguin Books, Fast Company and Universal Pictures. Her work has also been featured in Communication Arts and the 2016 PDN Photo Annual.

It stands out both for its technical proficiency and its attitude — qualities that the It’s Nice That  blog noticed in 2014. “Emily Shur is really good at capturing the stars of LA with a sheen that is at once humorous and also incredibly flattering,” wrote Liv Siddall.

Laurie Henzel, the creative director of Bust magazine, agrees. Henzel gave Shur one of her first assignments some 15 years ago, and they’ve been working together ever since. “Emily is great at capturing the essence of a person,” says Hensel, “She’s really good at putting people at ease in front of the camera, and she’s really great at lighting. A lot of people aren’t. They don't know how to do that these days. She knows what she’s doing.”

The humor in Shur’s pictures is often centered on situation — extraordinary people captured in strangely ordinary settings. For instance, Will Farrell leaning against a bar in a leather jacket whose fur collar looks like it’s about to swallow him. Or there’s her shot of actor Seth Rogan camouflaged among a sea of soccer balls, and her photo of boxing legend Sugar Ray Leonard facing off with a little dog wearing a red ribbon.

The hard but essential part about creating a humorous photograph, Shur says, is that whatever the joke is, it has to be read at a glance. “In doing that,” she says, “there can be a tendency to go big — big expressions, big actions, big comedy. I like to get there in a more subtle way.”

On Kevin Hart and Confidence

How she gets there varies. Her 2014 shot of comic Kevin Hart standing by a swimming pool wearing nothing but a swimming suit and pink bear-claw slippers resulted more from an evolving idea than a plan. Shot for Men’s Health magazine, it was selected for the American Photography 31 annual.

“There wasn’t really a shot list for that shoot — it was pretty loose, and that’s not always my favorite way to work, but I’m happy to deal with it,” Shur says. “I liked the location — it was a little busy, with sort of the right amount of colors and objects. We started with Kevin lying in a chaise lounge, then we sort of kept changing it up and seeing where it would take him.”

Hart was into the funny business. “He is one those people who you can do that with, because he is a giving subject,” she says. Sometimes, Shur notes, even the most skilled actors find it difficult to perform for a still photo. “They don’t have any lines, they aren’t moving — this is not the way they normally showcase their talent,” she says.

Shur says it took a long time to build up enough self-confidence to trust her instincts when it comes to creating a photograph. “You slowly begin to realize that people are hiring you to do your thing, not what you think they want,” she says. “You would think that would be obvious, but it wasn’t when I was starting out.”

Shur took her first photograph at age 14, in Houston. “At that point, I wasn’t interested in most things, but I stuck with it, and then later, at 16, I needed to really focus on something and I dove into photography," she says. "I was like, ‘This is it, this is what I want to do with the rest of my life.'”  After studying photography at New York University she did not take the time-honored route to professional success by assisting a big-name photographer. “I’m petite, so I suppose people didn't think I could carry gear. I didn’t get many job offers,” she says. Instead, she began working as an editor in the photo departments at a string of magazines, including Newsweek, Seventeen, Businessweek, and Rolling Stone.

“I really wanted to be a working, editorial photographer — my dream was to be Annie Leibovitz — but working for those magazines allowed me to see so many books and see how the hiring process and assigning of shoots worked,” she says. “Those were things I never learned in college, and I don’t know if I would have learned them anywhere else.”

On Los Angeles and Japan

Eventually the occasional photography job came her way, and later that turned into a full-time freelance business. She began shooting more and more assignments in LA and in 2005 decided to relocate there. “It was tough at first,” she says. “I thought that since I was busy in New York I’d be busy here. But any time you move, it’s difficult.” On top of that, the magazine industry was just beginning to sink under the weight of the internet.

“I realized I had to establish myself here and spread out my client base, because I was only shooting editorial, and that wasn't a viable way to make a living anymore,” Shur says.

For the past 10 years, she has also been traveling to Japan yearly to work on a long-term personal project. “I go at least once a year, basically for a photography re-boot. Luckily my husband loves Japan, too,” she says. Her work, which she has collected in a nearly-sold-out self-published book, is more or less the exact opposite of her commercial and editorial photography — quiet landscapes instead of movie stars, all recorded on film rather than pixels.

One of her images from the series, a shot of a hotel swimming pool in Ikeda, Japan, was also an American Photography 31 selection. “When I’m there, I’m jet-lagged, so I wake up early, and I’ll take a nice long walk with my camera. That’s when I shot the pool picture,” she says.

Shur sold her Japan book, called Playground, through her own website and a few Los Angeles bookstores. She says she wants to do another.

In the meantime, she’s on the trail of celebrities. “Some years are busier than others, and I have to focus on my commercial work,” she says. “This year has been one of those years. But I know it won’t always be that way, so I take as much work as I can, and when it slows down I’ll get back to my  personal projects.”