With thoughtful luminescence, Elizabeth Messina offers an intimate study of the female portrait
The Southern California-based photographer’s quiet, compelling images reveal women as they are: Mothers, dreamers, and, simply, themselves.
Southern California-based photographer Elizabeth Messina is something of a legend. With her beloved Contax 645 and Fujifilm GFX100s, she has photographed for the likes of Tori Spelling, Claire Pettibone, and Brooke Shields—and that’s just to name a few. But no matter who or what is in front of her camera—public figures, high fashion, or not—there is a simple beauty in Messina’s work that bathes every subject in a delicate, thoughtful luminescence.
While she manages a wedding business, print shop, and workshop series, her signature body of work is an intimate study of the female portrait: As mothers, as dreamers, and, simply, as themselves.
“I think being a woman is complicated and incredible,” Messina writes to PopPhoto. “In my experience, women are often not aware of their beauty and power. I am drawn to the stillness of a moment when another woman looks into my camera and is present and vulnerable.”
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On motherhood & the female portrait
Messina has a certain gift for portraiture. The simplicity, the quiet, and, I might even say, the calmness of her compositions create an ethereal beauty. It’s not about the props or the clothes, no matter how grand those may be. Messina somehow allows the subject to take the stage. It’s the smile, the gesture of a hand, or the eyes that do all the talking. Though she’s photographed women in some capacity her entire career (she began at age 12, photographing her girlfriends), becoming a mother added a whole new dimension and sweetness.
“Capturing motherhood and showing other women how beautiful they are is one of my greatest joys as a photographer,” she shares. “I think when I became a mother, it opened up a part of me both personally and in my work. I became so drawn to capturing the feeling of love that I had with my own children. Motherhood is fleeting and intense. Each stage seems so overwhelming and yet is gone just as you get your bearings.”
A look through Messina’s images showcases her distinct style, full of soft light and ultra-feminine. As photographers, we often hear it preached that we need to “find our style and commit”—but for Messina, that ah-ha moment never came. Her style is simply a reflection of how she experiences the world.
“My photographs and thus my ‘style’ is an extension of how I see,” she explains. “I didn’t decide to have a certain style but rather was drawn to some inner vision that I could not put words to. As my career and work evolved, I found myself drawn to making images that were evocative. I am still pulled to capturing images that feel intimate. I hope people stop and feel my work, and perhaps see a bit of themselves there too.”
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When posing women, trust is paramount
“I strive to capture my subjects in a way that feels artful and composed, yet natural and effortless,” Messina says. “The dynamic and interaction before I even pick up my camera helps set the tone and create a feeling of trust. I do my best to meet people where they are emotionally.”
This means that she never approaches subjects in the same way; there is no cookie-cutter formula to her process—far from it. Forget a posing guide, for Messina, they’re only starting points. And she modifies her approach based on her subject, reading their demeanor. Some need more direction. Others feel more at ease when unposed, or looking away from her camera. Above all, though, one thing that remains constant is the gentleness of her approach.
“Sometimes it takes a tremendous amount of work to create an image that feels effortless,” she reveals. “One thing I often say to my subjects is ‘breathe.’ When people are nervous, they will often hold their breath, the simple act of exhaling can relax them and in turn be more flattering in a photograph.”
Trust is key, Messina isn’t afraid to treat subjects like friends and get to know who they are before the work begins. If the appointment is in her home studio, she views them as a guest and often will offer food and tea.
“I think photographs of people are incredibly intimate,” she says. “My best work is a reflection of actual trust and comfort between myself and my subject. I want anyone coming into my space to feel welcome first and foremost. Then as I begin to make photographs, I think of it as a relationship. There must be a bit of giving and receiving, kindness and gratitude.”
Let kids be kids
Any family photographer will tell you that child wrangling during a photoshoot might just be one of the hardest tasks. Sometimes, no amount of coaxing, pleading, and outright bribery will do the job. And for Messina, that’s okay. It’s even expected. But, there are a few ways you can bond with kids before the camera comes out that’ll help win their trust.
“I approach children in the same way I approach adults, by trying to meet them where they are,” she shares. “I usually do not have any cameras visible when a child enters my space. I try to hang out with them a bit first.” Something that’s worked best over the years is allowing the child to play with her (digital) camera or have them assist with film loading. “Most children are curious and more open when they are included in the process,” Messina continues. “The most helpful thing is if parents do not try and fuss over their child or direct them. Children are imperfect little humans, they do not need to be perfect in front of my camera.”
Messina’s own children will sometimes appear in front of her camera, and putting them in front of the lens has allowed two of her cherished worlds to intersect.
“Photographing my children has been one of the biggest blessings in my life,” she finishes. “Blending my passion for photography and my love of my children is wonderful. The real magic is capturing a child where they are, no need for a forced smile or even a perfect outfit. Children are interesting and beautiful to capture, even when they are not compliant. It is often the in-between moments that are the most impactful.”