Inside the Sparkly, Maximalist World of Elizabeth Renstrom’s Photography

Posted inDesigner Interviews

Until recently, it’d be fair to say popular aesthetics have gone through an extended period of blandness. After the 2008 recession, design fell into a black hole of neutral hues, white walls, and nondescript packaging. For the better part of a decade, there’s been a visible dearth of personality in the arts, fashion, and décor.

Fortunately, maximalism is on the rise again, and if photography has felt especially fun as of late, put Elizabeth Renstrom on your list of people to thank. For over a decade, the New York photographer has added a welcome dose of color, humanity, and boatloads of charisma to editorial and product still-lifes. She contrasts the austere, often soulless aesthetics of minimalism with vibrant sets that often read like loving shrines for fictional characters. She’s set herself apart from her peers with her youthful aesthetic, obsession with tracking down unique props, and immediately discernible fascination with her subjects.

The best example of this lies within Renstrom’s personal project Basenote Bitch, a growing database where she designs a set around a perfume based on who she imagines would wear it. Her funny, engaging copy sets the scene for a variety of imaginary people over the course of several decades, like New York party girls in the ‘80s and ‘90s, starry-eyed Tiger Beat readers, and aspiring Mary Tyler Moores. But Renstrom is careful not to smear too much Vaseline over her nostalgia, and much of her photography comes with incisive cultural critique and sordid true stories behind the periods we too often glamorize. The smart, empathetic gaze and clear passion she puts into her website and Instagram creates the feeling of a safe space to reflect on the past, examine the effects of nostalgia, and play with identity.

Once you recognize Renstrom’s aesthetic, you’ll start to notice her everywhere. She’s quickly become the go-to photographer for a host of urban it-girls, like viral handbag designer Susan Alexandra, cult indie perfumer Marissa Zappas, and Zoë Ligon of the non-binary sex shop Spectrum Boutique. She’s snapped a growing list of huge names for celebrity profiles, including Debbie Harry, Marina Abramović, and Laurie Anderson, just to name a few. Even with all this experience under her belt, she’s just getting started. After cutting her teeth at an impressive roster of publications including Time, VICE, and The New Yorker, Renstrom is breaking out on her own as a full-time freelancer. Below, we celebrate her ongoing rise with a discussion about the irresistible lure of nostalgia, how she found her voice, and the importance of having fun with her work.

(This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.)

You do a fantastic job of conveying the personality of objects. How did you get to what you’re doing, and what’s your process of world building?

I feel like my work has always been a way to condense a lot of ideas into a single image. Some of my earliest projects have been about nostalgia, and about telling the story of how especially young people use the spaces that they have to personalize and express themselves and sort of build their identity around.

So I feel like that mode of working started when I was working on my thesis in undergrad. I did these series called Waxy Chunks and Lisa Frank Blues, which was kind of following Tumblr trends at the time, which were repopularizing a lot of phenomena from when I grew up, like Face from Nick Jr., or slime, or that S symbol. And I wanted to make really ridiculous, overwrought tributes to them to then republish on Tumblr, because I knew that they were having a moment. That was in 2011, and now it’s just crazy to see this resurgence of Y2K-obsessive Gen Zers really engaging and connecting with pop culture from that time, because that was so much of what my project was about when I was in school.

From “Waxy Chunks”

I feel like I’ve always loved photography, but I mostly use it as a tool to present a lot of different pop culture in kind of over-packed spaces, like still lifes. I try and bring that propping into a lot of my editorial work as well, because I’ve always had the same sort of lighting style. I like to really throw a lot of light into the frame, and I use a lot of strobe lights, but it’s really just so the image flattens, and it’s kind of like a map of everything in the frame for you to pay attention to. What I feel like I had to distinguish myself with was a lot of research and propping in my work.

Was there any specific moment where things started to feel solid?

When I was graduating, I was working on those two projects, and I didn’t really know how to translate that kind of fine arts, conceptual work into a career in photography. But I got the opportunity through a teacher that I worked as an assistant for in Parsons. He knew an editor at Time, and they were starting a new addition to their magazine called Style and Design. It was sort of a luxury advertising platform, a new editorial space for them to do more fancy, hoity toity fashion and architecture coverage. So they needed an intern who was able to shoot a lot of product for the magazine, and I had studio lighting experience. So that was my first experience understanding the process of photo editing, and what that means, in terms of interacting with photographers, and telling writers’ stories through imagery.

So I interned at Time and did a little bit of junior photo editing, but also a lot of still life in their studio for this new vertical. A lot of me running around terrified that I was taking really bad shots, but ultimately doing okay! In that time, I had a really supportive editor who I’m still friends with, Natalie Matutschovsky. She gave me my first big editorial commission to shoot a survey on summer ice cream, so I had to figure out how to make a still life about that. And oh my god, I was so honored—I remember going to Time’s studio on the weekend to shoot it. It was my first real shoot, and I didn’t have an assistant or anything. I just wanted it to be perfect, and ice cream is such a hard material to work with. Like, just imagine me sobbing with a bajillion ice cream cones, like, Ahhh! But I got it done!

Ice cream still-life for Time‘s ‘The Culture’

All this is to say, Time kind of was the bootcamp for me to understand how to take certain aspects of my fine art practice and figure out how to translate those aspects into commissioned photography. I feel like that’s something every artist has to figure out how to do. How do you collaborate with editors, while still applying the essence of your work? And in my case, how do you get across my lighting, and my sense of color, and my sense of humor in an editorial commission? Time was really the first opportunity that I got to do that, and also understand the process of photo editing, which is something I’ve always saddled with my practice as a photographer. That was in 2012. Since then, I’ve only been freelance for a short period between 2012 to 2022. I’ve worked in house at many magazines as a photo editor, but while shooting and maintaining my practice as an artist.

How did you know you were ready to go freelance?

I felt like that came after my time at VICE, where I worked for five years as the Photo Editor. That established my voice a lot, but it also allowed me to take on different projects. I couldn’t work under contract at the kind of glossies I was working at before, like at Time and Marie Claire. At VICE, it was sort of like, “If you have the time, do whatever you want.” A lot of free labor went into that, but it’s also where I was able to really hunker down and focus, because I didn’t have that much time, since I was the only Photo Editor. I really picked and chose what projects I would be doing outside of my work as an editor there, and I feel like that allowed me to carve a path for the kind of commissions that I would want to get moving forward.

Yeah, I feel like the creators who’ve ended up in the best shape after the ‘10s media wave were people who really established their voice and picked a thing they liked. I’ve definitely noticed that you have a very fun, feminine voice, and you’ve managed to build a reputation for yourself through that.

Yeah, and I can see that looking at my work now, and my career the past decade, and be excited about what’s to come. But I didn’t realize the pattern until probably the past couple years, that I kept getting commissioned for a lot more feminist-leaning publications, and sex-positive work, things like that. Only now am I feeling like I really carved out this space for myself to shoot within, and it’s what I’d wanted to focus on.

What would you describe as your aesthetic? What separates your photography from anyone else’s?

I think a lot of what separates my work is the conceptual aspect of it, and the research, and time I put into it. I do all of my own set design and propping 95% of the time, and I think it shows sometimes in the more DIY sides— especially Basenote Bitch. That’s just all me and my eBay scouring and research. But I think propping and a sense of humor have been the consistent theme in a lot of my work for a long time.

Yeah! Your work is very sparkly, youthful, and fun. So much photography is really dry and free of a personality, especially because the last decade washed everything in minimalism— like, “Don’t be too loud, don’t scare anybody off, don’t be too much of a personality.” I love how your work seems to respond to that— like, “No! Have fun!”

Yeah, I’m a complete maximalist, and the trends of advertising in that really big boom from like, 2010 to now have this seamless color wash, like you said. I know that’s really trendy, and I can turn that side of my work on if need be, but I feel like what I need to do to set myself apart from that sort of ubiquitous colorlessness is truly just not being afraid of maximalism.

Editorial photo from a recent New York Times article

Nostalgia obviously plays a huge role in your work, so I wanted to know about your formative influences.

I mean, it’s funny— they always tell you, especially in art school, that nostalgia is such a cheap tool. And that has never sat well with me, so I always found myself railing against it, especially with that thesis work I talked about, and at some point, I just kind of leaned in. People can see it as a cheap tool, but it’s really an immediate entry point into my work, and it allows me to engage with people who get excited about seeing certain objects and symbols in the work.

Was there any work in particular that made you want to do what you’re doing? Are there specific references that you think of often when you’re working?

It was kind of a shift, because I was making really different work up until 2011 that had nothing to do with the kind of things I care most about now. I was really obsessed with a particular series by this artist, Charlie White, when I was in school. He did a whole deep dive into the lives of teen girls, and I was really obsessed with it, and engaged with different parts of the project. He made a whole fake, Braceface-esque series of animated shorts dealing with really cliche teen issues, and I just found myself really inspired by it.

As a teen, I was obsessed with Welcome to the Dollhouse, and The Virgin Suicides, and all those blends of ‘70s into ‘90s propping and directing. I feel like that work made me realize I wanted to investigate the personal, private spaces of tweens— especially how I developed my voice and expressed myself in those spaces when I was growing up— and to see what it looks like to reinvent them and recreate them now.

Editorial for Ordinary Magazine Issue #10

When I was growing up, I was always drawn to the design of bedrooms in something like a Disney Channel original movie. I just remember collecting shots of every teen bedroom of every teen movie, just to get inspiration for what I wanted my space to be. All that triggered something in me, and I really didn’t know how to translate that into photography or work until those initial projects.

You represent so many different personalities with work like Basenote Bitch, and I’m interested in the minutiae of how you set a scene, especially with a multi-sensory object like perfume. First you see the bottle, and that conveys one image, but then you smell what’s inside of it, and maybe that conveys another image. How do you build off of those things and think, Here’s where I am, who I am, and what I’m doing?

I feel like the project started with wanting to make a photo about Victoria’s Secret Love Spell, and then the kind of person who I think would wear something like Love Spell. What would their dresser look like? What would they have around them, based off of the smell? It’s a really beautiful, peachy, fruity bomb that’s sticky and amazing, but also, in my mind, was the signature hot-girl-out-of-the-gym scent. That was the first image I made for the series.

So in the image, I wanted to talk about what it meant to be a hot girl in 2002, and what would be on her dresser. I wanted to allude to some of the toxic diet culture at the time: let’s put a South Beach Diet book in there. I want to talk about the kind of people that this person would maybe want to date: let’s put an Abercrombie & Fitch bag in there. But then I want to give her some humanity so, let’s put a diary in there.

“Love Spell” by Basenote Bitch

So I feel like a lot of times, I just use the scent itself and my memories of it, in terms of the people who wore it, and I just build out their home space. But for the fragrances that I hadn’t smelled, or didn’t necessarily grow up with, like Youth Dew by Estée Lauder—when that came out, what kind of woman would’ve worn it? I’ll research the year it came out, and then sort of prop accordingly.

When you become perfume obsessive, you want to learn everything about a fragrance. This was something I did a lot during quarantine, and it was really fun to dedicate that time and space to research, and just figuring out what teen or woman, or what age, would have what in their corner with this fragrance as they’re wearing it. That’s my thinking before I start to figure out what I would like to pull for the image, and what I already have in my collection, because I have a very big prop closet at this point. So what can I repurpose? Do I want to incorporate media from the time, like teen magazines?

And it makes sense that it was a quarantine project, because we couldn’t go out anymore, and the fun of dressing up went out the window. It sounds like you found a really good way to maintain that fun feeling of, Who am I going to be today?

Yeah, because I started it in February 2020!

Oh, wow. So it’s like you knew!

Yeah. And I started out the project with maybe ten fragrances. I shot them all in the span of a couple days in studio, and then I just kind of put it up. And then I just saw what feedback I got, and asked people what fragrances they also want to see, what memories they have. And it just kind of kept growing, and it was just a really fun mind space to be in while working really stressful hours at my day job in the pandemic. The healing powers of nostalgia and perfume!

“Youth Dew” by Basenote Bitch

It’s hard not to feel tempted by nostalgia right now, because there’s not necessarily a lot of fun, new things going on. Perfume is kind of a form of time travel, and Basenote Bitch covers a lot of popular scents from the late ‘90s and early 2000s. I can definitely understand the impulse to sink into the memory of that time, especially since we entered our 30s at such a weird time. It’s tempting to put on something like L’Eau d’Issey and daydream about what it would’ve been like to be an adult during a time that, from this vantage point, seems like it was easier and more fun.

And I do feel like, as we reflect on those memories, an important thing that I’m trying to do a little more of now is engaging with the nostalgia, but also reminding you that not everything was so dewy and amazing.

Oh yeah! You want to make sure that there’s that South Beach Diet book in there. It’s interesting to get older and notice this growing intrigue with the time when we grew up, both with us reflecting on it and younger generations being attracted to its aesthetics. The 2000s were terrible in my memory, and I’m sadly noticing more fashion that flirts with the eating disorder chic that was so insidious back then. The cycles of nostalgia are intoxicating, because it feels good sometimes, but then it’s really terrible and dangerous other times.

Yeah, and I recognize that part of myself that loves it, but it’s always good to reflect on how it was actually horrible. I hated myself and my body. And in Basenote, in certain write ups, I definitely deal with it more. It inspired a new series that I’m wanting to do more broadly, about that easy identity prescribed from teen magazines, and what they taught us in terms of shaping our identities, and how the ways they dealt with certain subjects reflects on millennial-aged women now. So I’m starting research on that project. But just like, again, the language around visualizing body image and stuff like that— I’m endlessly fascinated in those topics.

It’s sort of a continuation of my other projects, and talking about the main themes of the teen magazines that we grew up with in certain categories: like how they deal with diet culture, beauty, visualizing desire. And how can I kind of show that in different photography setups? So it involves a lot of culling eBay for old magazines, and figuring out how to kind of show some of the hypocrisy of these magazines, even though they’re beloved, and I loved getting information from them. I feel like right now we’re in this time of reconsidering a lot of different ways we talked about women, so it felt like time to explore the topic even more. As we’re having penance for how we treated pop stars, I want to look at how we treated normal people. It’s a lot to dig into, but I feel so ready!

Editorial photo from a recent New York Times article

Are there any aesthetic viewpoints you don’t see often that you’d like to see more? For example, I’m fascinated by how something like Twilight revealed a certain worldview I hadn’t considered, like the quiet Christian girls in the back of a classroom. It makes me wonder what other perspectives are right there, but we’re not necessarily seeing.

That’s such a good question. I feel like I need to do more of that in the project, because right now, I feel like I go back and forth between the subcategories that were prescribed to me, but leaning heavily on the femme fatale, like Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction. I feel like I go between that and the hot girl, the granola girl, the Christian girl, the girl next door, the goth, the emo. But, you know, going more niche, like you said, even though it’s not niche. Obviously, part of the success of Twilight is because that subcategory is not niche at all— it’s huge.

Oh my god, yeah, those girls are absolutely everywhere— and I’m interested in what they’re thinking! I think that the magic of art is being able to show different perspectives, and sit inside someone else’s worldview for an hour or two. It also made me wonder if there are any sets you’ve created and thought, Damn, I’d really like to hang out with this person!

For one of my earlier photos, I made a photo about this girl who worshiped aliens, and was trying to connect and do a seance in her closet, to bring to life this manifestation of her desire in an alien guy. I did a lot of research for that photo to make the shrine in her closet about aliens, and at the end of it, when I made a bedroom for the image, it was a huge set, and there was a lot of detail put into it. And when I was breaking it down, I was like, Oh my god, I’m going to miss her! This hot girl who can’t find what she’s looking for on this planet. That is a character.

From “Waxy Chunks”

There are a couple Basenote Bitch posts that fall into that Fatal Attraction subcategory, and the person I wrote for Dior Poison is definitely somebody I would hang out with. I’ve always liked a controversial girl.

Is there anything specific that inspires you now?

Oh my gosh, so much— I have a list in my project deck. I’ve been reflecting on a lot of the things that inspired me when I was making my first two series, so I’ve been going back and rewatching things like Thirteen, and revisiting that Charlie White project, OMG BFF LOL, and rewatching Braceface. There’s this artist Molly Soda— she made this series called Tween Dreams. I’ve been rereading No Logo by Naomi Klein. More contemporary things that are totally obvious would be PEN15. When I watch that show, I just get angry because it’s perfect, and there’s nothing better that could be made. That inspires me; reflecting on and sourcing these magazines from my youth inspires me.

From “Lisa Frank Blues”

I know that we’ve talked a little bit about it, but what’s this project of yours going to be? Will it be a website, a book? Do you know yet?

Yeah, I mean, TBD, but I feel like it’s a pretty expansive project. I think I’m going to start out with probably a series of photos and writing components from a collaborator and friend of mine, and then we’re just going to see where it takes us. I mean, a book would be amazing, but we’re going to kick it off and see what it’s like to take aspects from these magazines, put them into different environments, and go from there.

Cool! Do you have any advice for other photographers who are interested in having more fun with their work?

I always say this, but I think the most important thing you can do is to truly find your obsession, and what you nerd out over. I do feel like we live in a time of a lot of ubiquitous kinds of style and photography, and I feel like what will set you apart is your why, and your subject matter, and truly, your perspective. That is what I think should come first. So I think not being afraid of showing that is really important, and something that I’m only, again, really leaning into ten years into my career. I was told so many times, “You shouldn’t focus on this, you shouldn’t focus on that.” And now I’m like, I don’t care, I love it, I’m going to do it.