Allison Michael Orenstein is a New York City-based photographer who has been shooting full time for more than
a decade for clients such as Vanity Fair, New York, Vogue
and The Wall Street Journal. Her shoot with director John
Waters for WSJ’s Weekend Confidential led to a Grand
Prize win in PDN’s Faces competition in 2016. Here, we
catch up with her with a few questions about the shoot.
PDN: How would you describe your approach to editorial portraiture?
Allison Michael Orenstein: My hope is to capture an
authentic moment between the subject and myself, so
being open and spontaneous during the shoot is essential. If I’m lucky I get to create an iconic image.
PDN: Walk us through the shoot with Mr. Waters.
AMO: I shot at John Waters’ Manhattan apartment, which
was a great location filled with books and cool art. He
asked [my team] to take care with where we walked, as
there was incredible art literally on the floor: a ceramic
mouse trap in the corner, poops made out of felt, various
curiosities. I had made a special John Waters playlist, but
he had music on already so I rolled with that. The lighting
setup was mainly one di;used umbrella, although for one
shot in his bedroom I used daylight. We had 30 minutes
to do three setups. I asked him to sit in the chair by a blue
chi;on toilet paper art piece. I asked if he would hold the
white taxidermy dog on his lap, and if it was his dog. He
said: “I don’t have pets; I’m not a lonely person.” He declined to hold it, so I placed it next to him under the table.
PDN: Anything you had to problem-solve?
AMO: It was a very fast and smooth shoot. John Waters is
an ideal subject, as he is used to being photographed and
is comfortable in front of the camera and open to collaborating. It was truly a privilege and an honor—especially
in this current political climate. Featuring an artist who
discusses the marginalized, the obscene and the bizarre
is what the world needs now more than ever.
PDN: How long have you been photographing full time,
and what’s your background in photography?
AMO: I had great mentorship through assisting some of
the most talented portrait photographers, and I went out
on my own in 2005 and started shooting for magazines
in 2009. BlackBook gave me my start, photographing
comedian David Cross. This lead to shooting for Esquire,
Vanity Fair and People. I shoot [artists] whose work I love
and admire, and the portraits are a way to get to know
PDN: What are some rules you live by in terms of creative approach?
AMO: Being in the moment and keeping it simple. My
best creativity emerges when I shut o; my critical mind
and let the intuitive process take over.
Check out the full gallery from last year’s Faces
competition at facesphotocontest.com. The next
submission period will open in June.
ADVERTISEMENT P H
A Half-Hour with
Allison Michael Orenstein discusses her
award-winning portrait of the iconic
director. INTERVIEW BY JACQUI PALUMBO