Name: Leila Brewster
Work: Wedding Photographer
Resides in: Los Angeles/New York
Known for: Her organic, whimsical, photo-journalistic, non-traditional photography style
We at the Portraiteer (the “royal we” will be used on occasion, as deemed appropriate) are very excited to bring you the first portrait/interview in this new blog-project-series-thing, which was conceived of one late, dark, cold, stormy night. The inspiration behind this new blog-project-series-thing is actually quite simple, and it goes something like this:
I like coffee dates + I love picture-taking and portrait-making + I am endlessly inspired by creative folk + I am obsessed with blogs
So! Here we are then. (And in this grammatical instance, “we” refers to “you” and “me” and not the “royal we” which would signify just “me”, although, as mentioned earlier, I will be using the royal we.) Among the random assortment of bits and bobs of this blog, you can mostly expect to find portraits of bloggers, designers, artists, theater-makers, and all manner of creative types and little snippets of our chats.
Leila was one of the wedding photographers that I felt truly inspired by when I was first starting my business, Sorella Muse Photography, and scouring the internet for wedding photography inspiration. Her work is beautiful and romantic, and above all, captures the love between a couple in spontaneity and motion, rather than the stiff prom poses I expected of wedding photography. I bookmarked her blog back in February, so actually meeting her, after such considerable blog-stalking, was lovely. She didn’t know I had such a huge photography crush on her, so I had to reign in my excitement and refrain from asking her to autograph my stomach. It turns out that not only is she an incredible photographer (seriously, her work is amazing, pause now to peruse the loveliness) but she is somehow the most rare of creatures: a woman possessed of that ineffable New York City cool and edge with a native Angeleno’s laid-back calm, a calm that is likely enhanced by her daily bikram yoga practice.
Leila suggested we meet at Gjelina, a much-loved spot on Abbot Kinney in Venice. I’ve been wanting to check out Gjelina as it’s on most “best brunch spots in L.A.” lists, and brunch is my equivalent of going to church: a sacred Sunday ritual. As we met late in the afternoon on a Friday however, we both got a glass of wine, whilst staring with palpable envy at a plate of fries on the table to our right (our server informed us that we’d missed the lunch menu, so the fries were cruelly denied us). We started talking all things wedding photography, gushing over our favorite lenses and mutual joy in whimsical outdoor weddings, but what most resonated with me was this:
“Photography is a passion that turned into a job…only I don’t consider it a job, not at all.”
This of course makes it clear why after only 3 years at it she is as successful as she is, having shot 15 weddings in her first year, a number that quickly doubled in the following years, published in places like Style Me Pretty, and flying around the country (and the world! she was headed to Shanghai after we met) to photograph weddings. The secret, friends, is passion, and a rad confidence in her aesthetic vision. And probably it helps that she can pull of a green military jacket (I’ve tried, but I just can’t.)
Two of the things that immediately caught my interest when I first happened upon Leila’s website was that she worked between Los Angeles and New York, and she shot film. My curiosity was piqued by the unusual nature of both. In a digital world, it might seem like a risk to choose a Contax over the latest Canon, and it’s certainly a lot more expensive, but Leila is among a group of fine art wedding photographers choosing film for its unique and beautiful look, like Jose Villa, Jonathan Canlas, Emily Scannell and Elizabeth Messina, although she also brings a Nikon D700 with her for those moments in between film rolls and for once the light goes down. As for living between L.A. and N.Y., she has apartments in both places and she flies back and forth depending on where the work is. When I asked her how she managed to make this work, she replied,
“It’s what I wanted for myself, so I just did it. I’m very and truly blessed and thankful for it.”
Leila only uses prime lenses (a photographer after my own heart!) and her favorites are the Nikon 35 mm f/1.4 and the Nikon 85 mm f/1.2. On her film cameras, she loves the 80 mm f/2.0 (on the Contax 645) and the 80 mm f/2.8 (on the Hasselblad). She is entirely self-taught; she has never taken a photography class. She humbly assures me that she is not technically sound, although she clearly knows how to set an exposure. She was,
“that girl who always had a camera…I was always experimenting.”
How did you get started in wedding photography?
“I was playing soccer in Europe and I had lots of free time on my hands. I thought, what am I going to do when this ends? I put together a list of what I love and it was immediately: photography, travel, people. I have a business degree, but I didn’t want to go into corporate America. So I started photographing people there, building a portfolio in Denmark, second shooting for a few months. When I came back I did an engagement session with friends, I just asked if I could borrow them, and someone saw it and hired me for their wedding and it just went from there.”
How did you find your style?
“When you start, you look at other people’s stuff and you kind of lose sight of your own vision. You think, their work is so great and you start feeling down on your own work. I just sort of let that go, my eye is my eye, I see what I see, and people hire me for that.
When did you find confidence in your style?
“I’m a person who doesn’t care what other people think. What you see is what you get. But I started caring what other people thought, I started wanting my photos to be like someone else’s, and I never wanted that, I never wanted to be someone else. I was always the girl in a corner dancing in a tutu, dancing to my own drum. So one day I just stopped taking the photos that weren’t me. When I started doing what I wanted, I found a huge response to that.”
On the question of whether she takes more photos when shooting digital vs. film…
“Even with digital, I don’t pepper spray. I know the photo before I take it.”
On the fabulousness of Richard Photo Lab…
“The stuff that they do is ridiculous. I took 400 speed film and I shot it at 6400, that’s like unheard of, and I got perfect skin tones in low light. I sat there in front of my computer when I downloaded it, and I thought, shut up.”
Where do you look for inspiration?
“I love Free People’s lookbook. I look forward to that. Lots of whimsy, always outside, it’s beautiful.”
Go-to style on wedding days?
“Something lighter, so I’m my own reflector.”
Do you have any personal photography projects you work on?
“I teach my cousins about photography. They’re 13 and 9. They see my work and that I’m traveling and they want to be like me, which is so sweet. I just taught them how to use a light meter.”
If you had to pick: L.A. or N.Y.?
“I’d pick New York. Hands down. I love the city and the hustle and bustle, that if I want something at any time, I can get it. I love people, the different walks of life, I love the melting pot. I will just walk from the Upper West Side to Brooklyn, my friends think I’m crazy.”
If you weren’t a photographer, what would you be?
“A yoga teacher. I do bikram every day. It’s time for myself.”
What would you say to someone unsure of following their dreams?
“Just do it. If you want something badly enough, put all your effort into it and have fun with it, and it will come back to you tenfold.”