Since Ryan McGinley and Tim Barber shaped VICE Magazine's photographic vision in the early 2000's, the magazine has had a consistent reputation for showing exciting new photography. Its relentlessly defiant content, ranging from controversial editorial stories to the often coveted annual Photo Issue, has carved out a recognizable, heavily copied aesthetic, trickling into mainstream fashion, lifestyle and advertising campaigns. Aside from their proclaimed hard-edged journalism, it's likely that this vision helped make VICE the media giant it is today. In 2013, before things could get stale, Matthew Lefheit took the reins for a brief but impactful stint. Under his tenure, Leifheit opened VICE's scope to photographers like Michael Bühler Rose, Erin O' Keefe, Lucas Blalock, and Rachel Stern, who are as equally engaged with photography's academic history as they are in keeping it current.
As Leifheit recently headed to Yale to pursue his MFA, Elizabeth Renstrom has taken over, promising to keep VICE's photographic spirit courageous. Renstrom, a former Parsons' student of George Pitts is an accomplished photographer and photo producer, and regularly shoots for clients like Refinery 29, TIME, Nylon and Bloomberg Business Week while still somehow managing to find the time to make her own work, including a hilariously poignant ongoing series about her early adolescence in the 1990's. Just as her first issue came out of production, we caught up with Renstrom to hear more about her plans for VICE, her own work, and what's changing in photography today.
Day in the life of VICE photo editor -- what's it look like?
A lot of variety! What is stellar about the position is the agency it gives me to work with artists I respect and want to collaborate with. That's the best part. I love setting photographers up with interesting stories I know they would like to make something for with or without a prompt. Essentially, it is a lot of fan-girling over image making and then applying that and working with editors and writers to make it all come together cohesively. When I'm not assigning or picking up content for the magazine I'm also looking for great bodies of work and relevant material to post on vice.com. If a shoot happens to be local I love going and checking in. Jaimie Warren was up to something awesome the other week & whenever I can offer a helping hand it's so much fun to see someone's process (especially hers, re: fake blood & guts).
I love Jamie's work. We actually included one of her earlier photos in Humble's first 31 Women in Art Photography show back in 2008. Who else are you looking at right now?
There are so many people I'm into right now! Jaimie has a special place in my heart because her work is collaborative and meant for enjoyment while including a billion zany pop culture references. It is serious, intelligent work but stripped of the things I really despise about gallery culture here (exclusivity, preciousness, etc.). In terms of people I always look to for inspiration it's kind of a blend of old and new school. I love Sue De Beer, Charlie White's 'Girl' Series & artists working in a pseudo-investigative ways combining many types of media. In terms of straight up photo I've really been feeling Kent Andreasen and Izumi Miyazaki.
Over the past couple years Matthew Leifheit took VICE's reputation for showing legit, forward thinking photography even further, giving it a new kind of relevancy in the art world and beyond. What do you hope to do in your role as photo editor?
I want to continue VICE's legacy of being able to bring in established artists alongside newer, up and coming names. I think that is really the unique thing about this publication. The content is so interesting and we have a platform to really do and print things other magazines wouldn't. After working for other commercial publications, I can already say with confidence that the approval process just isn't as belabored. There is a freedom that I really think is necessary for cool shit to happen. I think Matthew did an amazing job bringing the focus back to a more academic approach in collaborations and really stressed the artistry in photography by assigning more less-editorially focused image makers. This is something that means a lot to me and I would like to carry on that baton as it goes.
Tell me more about your outside projects.
I work on an annual artist journal/zine called Tag Tag Tag with my good friend & collaborator, Alex Thebez. We printed our first issue last year on George Pitts and are currently starting the open submission process for our 3rd issue (2nd to be printed) and building the website to include more content and artist interviews. I love keeping that going on the side because it's really informed and sort of built out my relationships with photographers over the years. I love giving people an opportunity to share work that means something to them and it's really been a hub to celebrate how people inform each other. When not doing that, I'm still plugging away with my own personal work.
How does your own photography play into your role at VICE?
Before VICE I took a hiatus from photo editing (besides TagTagTag) to work full time as an editorial photographer for several months and I think it really informed my approach to the job now. I had always taken shooting gigs at my other staff positions and I think it's given me a certain amount of empathy being on both sides of an assignment. I know what it is to produce and give someone an opportunity, but I also know what I need as a photographer from a photo editor to make something amazing. It's kind of like being a photo coach in a bizarre fun way. I also like assigning myself when I know I can offer up a cool perspective (involving slime).
What excites you most about photography right now?
I love the commitment to excellence in independent publishing despite the fact everyone knows the industry is changing. I think it's amazing to see people dedicated to putting out beautiful printed material and still being obsessed with ye ol' physical copy of something. That will always excite me. I also really like curated blogs of old early 00's personal photography...so that's kind of cheating/not the greatest answer to this question about contemporary image making.
What are some of your favorite zines/ independent publications?
Ponytale Magazine (rad), Everything Ooga Booga puts out all the time & Slow Culture. Also Boo Horray's lovely projects, OOMK, Too Much Magazine. There's so many wonderful things going on, and I'm getting GEARED UP for the New York Art Book Fair this weekend.
Ok, what are you tired of seeing?
Oh man. I think I'm just sad/not excited for how slick personal photography is and how aware everyone has become of their 'just so' Instagrams. I'm endlessly bored of lifestyle photography for this reason. The genre of so-called 'good Instagram photography' that offers people millions of followers and an "influencer" status just makes me snooze. Matthew wrote about it once as being 'boring still life photography'. Sometimes things get zeitgeist-y really quickly and us creepy image editors are the first to notice because we look at 1000's of photos a day. I guess all I ask is maybe a little less pineapple and more weird. Be weird & raw, people!
What's the most exciting project you've produced so far for VICE?
For the October issue I'm collaborating with an activist collective that I'm really passionate about, stay tuned!
What advice to you have for photographers interested in shooting for VICE?
I know it's riddled in cliché, but I am truly most interested in how people approach their own personal photography and artistry. That is what I look for to align photographers with stories I think they'd bring their unique perspective to. That's when photo magic starts to happen, and I think that's why VICE has been such an authority in visuals. There's not a lot of hand holding and I want to know going in you have an off-kilter way of looking at the world around you.