ILYSM ZINE: No. 10
Interview by Jenna Elizabeth all artwork courtesy of Lia Clay Miller
“I love Lia’s portraits, the work is a love letter to her community. She connects with her subjects on an intimate level making photographs that resonate. She shows us representation with grace, elegance and vulnerability.” - ILYSM4Artists Judge, Ryan McGinley
♡: Hi Lia, congratulations! Stoked to start this interview and get more insights about your process.
LCM: me too! and thank you. I’m really honored to have been chosen
♡: I read that your grandmother gave you an Olympus camera as a kid, but that it was almost like a dare for you to figure out? What were some of your earliest images like?
LCM: that’s entirely what happened. my grandmother was very forthright with her opinions ... up until the day she died. which I loved. I was 8 and she said something along the lines of “you’ll never figure it out.” so, I aimed to prove her wrong. even when I became a professional photographer, she would tell me when she thought a photographer was bad, and she was generally correct.
my grandmother loved landscapes and photographed her road trips out west with my grandfather, that was my first reference
♡: I love the honesty!
What was it like to have that sense of encouragement as a kid, sometimes I feel like my biggest advocates were the ones that pushed me the hardest because they see your potential, and know what you’re capable of versus soft glove approach.
LCM: I don’t have anything that far back — but I do have this image I took in highschool. it was my first attempts at fashion photography
it gave me a constant intention to better myself. I still have that. I still see all of the mistakes in my work ... it’s impossible hahaha but it’s what keeps me going
♡: Something I loved while researching more about your work was this quote, “I think a good photographer is never quite done figuring it out.” I found that really refreshing, can you expand on that?
LCM: I also have a notion that it takes me a year to really love a photograph. it’s hard with commercial photography because the turn around is so quick. sometimes, it’s a year later after revisiting something that I’m like OH, this is what this photograph is supposed
I think if you’re done figuring it out, you’re simply done. it’s something I loved about leibovitz at an early age — her work is this moving body of images that isn’t necessarily this clear, perfected image. it’s weird to grow up and start to notice other professional photographers mistakes — but I love that about photography. it changes. if it doesn’t, it gets redundant.
♡:Yesss! That reminds me of this quote I saved in college from alber elbaz
LCM: can you imagine leibovitz reading this and being like, “mistakes ... BITCH WHERE.” hahahaha
♡: He said, “Perfection scares me because after perfection nothing is left.”
So he left the edges seams raw to remind people of that
Edges of seams*
LCM: the edges always have to be raw! I love that
perfectionism isn’t a reality in photography. or, if it is, it’s something you are always trying to reach but never get to. it’s like what do you do after that ?
it’s this funny notion because I feel like really good photographers try to figure it out until they die. I mean Lindbergh was photographing all the way up until his death.
I will say that it does come with a weight though, because you get to a certain point and you have to be as good as you were the last time. there’s portraits Ive taken that I wish a million times over than I can go back and take again
♡:That’s interesting. Sometimes i think it’s hard to stop tweaking at something, myself included. I’ll revisit old work and want to make adjustments. But there’s a beauty to honoring what you saw at that moment. Then conversely I’m like well it could be super interesting to revisit old work and and have a take on a same theme or subject 10 years later etc
LCM: I do it all the time. I’ve been honest about my work been a working example of me figuring it out publicly. I think all younger photographers are experiencing that. but then again, there’s photographs I took 3 years ago that I look at and i’m like ... why did my work change to what it is now ? what was I doing then that works for me now?
it’s like I’ve been shooting with a 50mm lens for the past ... 2 years and now I’m looking at work I took a few years ago with a different lens and I’m like ... maybe I should go back to that and experiment
♡: I think the experimenting is so key, leaving room for evolution
Something I find interesting with all the artists I’ve been speaking with was this idea of having confidence, confidence to not only find your voice in your artistry, but also the courage to pursue the arts professionally - when did you decide to want to pursue photography as a career?
LCM: it’s an ongoing battle, really. there are days where I don’t want to — or at least, not professionally. but it’s the chance of great opportunities that push you forward. it’s the idea that keeps you up at night for hours. I’ll want to photograph something or someone and it will drive me CRAZY. a year ago, I really wanted to photograph tracy chapman. I had this image in my head and it was something that just stuck in my mind. I didn’t get the chance, and it’s still there — but it’s that kind of thing that keeps me in it.
confidence is tricky. because you’re behind the lens — you see everything. and it’s hard because you’re transcribing something that’s in your mind into a physical format using other people, and trying to communicate that ...
♡: Did you find art school helpful?
LCM: yes and no. I don’t think it’s necessary to go to art school to be a good photographer. but for me, it was a way to get out of my surroundings. and it gave me a chance to learn practice. usually when I want to photograph something, I have hundreds of references in my head. it’s been a running joke with my assistants bc I’ll say something ... “oh! it’s that image of evangelista by meisel for vogue italia in the 90s.” or something like that
it can be little things where I’m like ... the contrast in this photo — I want to figure that out. or why does this photograph give me this emotion ? why do I feel this way about it ? how do I make work that makes me feel similar ?
art school gave me a working practice on how to reference
♡: Yeah I feel like it’s good for the tools but doesn’t guarantee the talent
LCM: not at all ! there are so many good photographers who never went to art school
LCM: but I do believe all good photographers should know their references ... you can see it in all contemporary photographers ... where they’re coming from — especially if you look
♡: It’s been interesting to hear what works for certain people - some people use art school as a mark of belonging in a click versus a time to nurture work or find a connection with a professor who might challenge you
Yes, agree references are so important for a multitude of reasons
Even thematic time capsules - interesting why certain things resurge or aesthetics. Nostalgia as a form of comfort.
A form of history
LCM: vince aletti was one of my professors and he said my work reminded him of a young irving penn and I should really be looking at penn’s work. HIGH PRAISE, really high praise, but I have — I know almost all of the images Penn took.
there’s also this book of chantal regnault’s work of the ballroom scene ... and it’s iconic !!! it’s something of that era that can never be redone. but it gives you hope that you can photograph something that’s as important for the present
♡: I think it’s also interesting when you stumble on a piece of art even when it’s not the same medium and you feel that instant connection of inspiration or ideology. There’s something quite comforting in aesthetics bc of that. The world is less alienating.
Throughout history, throughout everything we have art to connect
You grew up in the South, how has that influenced your perspective as an artist?
LCM: absolutely. art is nothing but humans trying to make sense of their reality — even when it’s fantastical — it’s a reflection on the perceived reality we all experience
♡: Love that
LCM: i am! i’m from north carolina. hahaha it gave me a mouth, for sure. but mostly it gave me the ability to do a lot with a little. my favorite shoots are when it’s just me and a model on the streets talking and making moments out of nowhere.
it also gives me a perspective of realizing that everyone comes from somewhere. when you remove that, people seem more intimidating than they are.
LCM: I can also talk to anybody ... I get that from my mother. it helps a lot with what I do
♡: I was really quite moved reading a quote of yours, “Visibility is always demanded, and hardly for the sake of the people who are constantly being asked to be visible [...] I’ve grown slightly passive about the conversation around my photographs. I want them to be just that — photographs. I’d rather the representation be less about myself, and more about who’s in them.” You said you’re often pitched the same stories of victimization, and that sometimes, “representation can be hurtful.” This struck a chord with me on so many levels, and is applicable to so many communities.
LCM: it’s so true, though. ya know, I think about my identity and my gender a lot less than I think about my work and the work I want to make. why should I (or anyone) be reduced to just that? and that’s what happens a lot of time. representation is necessary, but it’s just that — it’s the basement of what is actually possible. people are so much more interesting and complicated and capable of that.
I don’t photograph predominantly trans individuals solely because I’m trans. they’re my friends ! and I live for them! I photograph people I’m inspired by — who I think can make a photograph hold weight. it has very little to do with our gender identities. I just love a moment !
LCM: have you seen the girls ? they’re stunning ! LINDA WHO
♡: I think true equality you shouldn’t need to add quote marks, or parenthetical groupings, or made to feel different. And I think a lot of hurt is done without total awareness
Reading your quote reminded me of why intersectionality is so vital
Sometimes I feel like some people have reservations about standing up for other movements because it “didn’t happen to them” but it’s all relative, and is a false security. That sense of exclusion, or feeling like a novelty - a check mark of societal acceptance that ends up reading as being less than or other, is such a palpable feeling. Including something for a societal pat on the head versus, the work is great. It is a delicate balance, wanting to celebrate a person’s history, but doing it in a way without perpetually trying to classify them and make them feel “other.” There’s a balance, honoring someone’s history in a way of what makes that person unique, that’s not inadvertently excluding or being condescending in the process.
LCM: for those who need a reality that a trans girl can become. successful photographer, I am happy to be labeled “trans” all damn day long. for everyone else ... it’s not about you! it’s irrelevant. I’m a photographer, and I want to make the work.
constantly delivering the same headline with the same questions is the socially acceptable way of continuing to other us. when the headlines are along the lines of “revolutionary trans ____________ “ I always ask the question, are you calling them revolutionary because they’re trans or because of who they are and what they accomplished? it shouldn’t have to be revolutionary to be a human ... think of what you’re asking us to constantly live up to.
It’s frustrating and something I can empathize with- I come from Mexican heritage and while I would never compare my family’s struggles in respect to yours, I can relate in the sense of being reminded throughout media and the news how Mexicans are portrayed within a certain light.
Or even when someone is on paper trying to honor a community like “female filmmakers” it’s like a catch 22 of still separating...
LCM: absolutely! media has a responsibility to encourage the narrative to progress. and a lot of times, it doesn’t because tragedy is demanded of us because it gives a narrative of conflict which make people feel
something. but the reality of that is fucked ! I know this is a reach but it’s kind of like the hunger games where privileged society feeds off the trauma of our existence, and so it’s constantly demanded of us
♡: So thank you for that, it’s really refreshing to hear you talk about it
LCM: thank you! for understanding. even if our stories are different, it’s still how media defines what they categorize as “other”
and constantly labeling it as other is never going to solve what needs to happen
I’d like to talk to you about subjects- do you find it difficult or more challenging to shoot strangers or people you know well?
LCM: both — for separate reasons. people I know, I love photographing because they understand me and they aren’t intimidated by me photographing them. but it comes with the added challenge that you really want that image to be good because it’s someone you care about and have a relationship with. strangers are tricky because ultimately, I am photographing them as my idea of them or ... sometimes even an idea of myself portrayed by them. but it gives me freedom to invent a narrative that isn’t attached to them necessarily, and that can be really beautiful sometimes.
♡: Any personal favorite stories behind one of your photos, you’d be open to sharing?
LCM: I have two — both sort of comical but I love them
I photographed Hillary Clinton for Teen Vogue, and before she arrived, I was given a list of words I wasn’t allowed to say or use because I worked with the editors, and they knew me hahahaha
one of the editors said, “you can’t say major, and you can’t say baby”
“also don’t use the f word”
LCM: I also photographed fran lebowitz. I had 20 minutes with her, and I had the idea to photograph her with a small statue pigeon. she asked, “why the pigeon?” and I said something like “well everyone things of pigeons and fran lebowitz when they think of new york.” she laughed and said “you’re wrong - they think of me and rats.”
♡: Meanwhile I’d be like “but BABY, Hillary is MAJOR”
Fran! Ha so good love this
LCM: I did slip at the end and said “MAJOR” ... I saw one of the editors eyes grow in the corner hahahaha
♡: Haaa! I mean...
Are there any residencies or programs you’ve found helpful?
Or any general advice to people looking to submit work to magazines who might not have representation?
LCM: honey! i’m not even represented hahahaha (by an agency). I know it’s the answer everyone gives but my reality is that I stumbled into what I do every step of the way. it was the right time with the right people and the wrong time with the wrong people. mostly — just know that when you’re given the chance, really know what you’re trying to say. or at least know something you’re trying to say, and say it. because you’re only given the chance a few times. and then that builds and you get more chances. I’ve been doing this for 3 years, and I still am so far away from where I want to be, and that’s okay. it’s a process, it’s always going to be a process. don’t get discouraged because it doesn’t happen immediately. and have fun! you have to have fun. if you’re not, you’re not gonna to want to do this for the next ... rest of your life.
♡: That’s a great way of putting it, as you build, you get more chances.
Something I’ve found interesting talking to different artists, is COVID is really highlighting huge disparities already in place within the art community. What’s life been like for you in the age of quarantine?
LCM: It is ! It’s like realizing what the bare minimum should be and the fact that working as an artist — that minimum is rarely met.
my reality during Covid-19 is rough — it is for everyone. I’m not going to lie — it’s been hard to keep focus and keep going on as an artist. My work is reliant on other people. So, new work has almost come to a complete halt. I’m contemplating taking interesting portraits of my two cats — or maybe self portraits. but it’s hard to find the motivation, even, to get up and do that. it’s broken us, really.
the scary part is that it’s become the new normal. I don’t know what going back is going to feel like. if and when we do go back. I am straining every last brain cell to be able to work something creatively and having conversations with a close knit of friends of what that looks like
but it’s heartwarming to see the persistence in photographers — the imaged from The Cut of Chloe Sevigny over the internet are really wonderful. it takes a lot of imagination — and love for what you do.
but I mean, I lost 9 jobs in two weeks
that was the reality
♡: Appreciate your candor, it’s wild to see how quickly things are changing on a daily basis. I’ve been so hungry for high resolution imagery.
LCM: honey, it’s a stretch nowadays !
I have a few projects coming out from before quarantine but ... yah, it’s going to be a pixelated future hahaha ... appropriately
♡: Pixelated Life - good memoir title
LCM: oh god hahahahaha
I always joked it would be “tranny leibovitz”
♡: What are three things you would recommend to our audience at home to mix things up - something to read, watch, learn etc...
LCM: i would be remiss i’m not saying the amazing work of Ryan’s — I’ve gone back to his earlier work. A lot of those images are what provoked me into pursuing photography professionally. I’ve also been looking a lot at images from Mary Ellen Mark and Lee Miller (the irony that we wound up having similar names was a coincidence, but not lost on me). I’ve always watched interviews of photographers I’ve admired — Avedon’s are pretty enigmatic. Also — look at the people who are making images in the present. They’re so important. I really love Campbell Addy’s work — he’s brilliant. And Nadine Ijewere.
The Queen, documenting Flawless Mother Sabrina is legendary and such an inspiration.
Also, the 3rd season of West World has be on the FLOOR. So good.
my favorite book is jonathan livingston seagull. it’s always been something that has kept me up at night rereading it
♡: Lia, you’re a gem. Thank you for your thoughtful answers today. I’m looking forward to seeing more from you!!
LCM: absolutely! thank you so much for taking the time to talk. it’s been so nice to get to live in it again after the last two months
Lia Clay Miller is a trans artist working predominantly in fashion and portrait photography. She was recently featured in Luis Venegas upcoming book highlighting the covers of Candy Magazine. She also was awarded with a British Fashion Award in 2019 for New Emerging Talent.
For more of Lia's work follow her on Instagram @liaclay