Leif Stark: Social Butterfly, Total Wallflower, and Faerie from NYC
I feel quite privileged right now. I’ve had many different passions in my 28 years of life; I have had many hobbies. And with each hobby, as you know, comes people that you admire; that you feel, do it better than you. You look up to them. You wish you had their talent. In fact, without them, you may not have half of the skill you do. Because indirectly, they challenged you to be better. Now imagine these people in your mind. Would you freak out if you were able to speak to them? I know that me as a musician, I would probably pass out if I ever got the chance to interview some of my musician idols. I once sat directly across from Chino Moreno (lead singer of the Deftones) at a Las Vegas airport. I literally stared at him for over a half an hour, completely frozen. The high school version of me was screaming inside wanting to ask for his autograph, although my now more mature self (or so I like to tell myself), ignored the screams inside and said nothing to him. When I look back at that moment, I wish I had spoken to him. I wish that I could have interviewed him and asked him about the craft that he has perfected so well. I suppose hindsight is always 20/20.
Now that I have picked up photography and put down my guitar & microphone, I have an all-new set of people that I admire most. And I thank God that I have Juxt. Because Juxt has afforded me the opportunity to speak with, and get to know some of these new people I look up to so much. I do feel lucky, privileged, blessed; whatever word you want to use, I’m very happy with my position here at Juxt.
With all of that being said, I bring you, Leif Stark (@leifography). I’ve looked up to Leif and her artwork for a long time now. Leif was one of the very first people that I found on Instagram after downloading it in February of last year. I know that without the work she has produced, I wouldn’t have stretched myself for as many shots as I’ve taken. More than that though, because of her, I never would have figured out the whole “double exposure” thing. Man o’ man did that feel complicated when I first attempted it! But Leif has perfected her craft. She may not know it, but she has a very unique style. I believe strongly that it is her editing process that makes her stand so far apart from all of the other NYC street photographers. But on top of that, she finds the beauty in the every day walks in life. You and I might walk briskly down a rainy street amongst the crowds of people with our heads down, cursing for cover. While Leif keeps her head up and finds the pure beauty in seeing a woman hold tightly to her broken umbrella. As Leif notated in her image, “It must be umbrella love if she couldn’t abandon it.” Perfect. Simply perfect. Leif has challenged me to find the beauty that is all around me. Which is the reason I’m so happy I was given the opportunity to interview her. With someone that has influenced me so much, I wasn’t about to pull another “Chino Moreno” and not ask some questions. And as you’ll see, I had quite a few.
R: Ryan L: Leif
R: Tell me a little about yourself, who is @leifography?
L: Hmm… which one? I am both a social butterfly and a total wallflower at the same time; so I never know who will show up to the party. And I’m a faerie. I love all things flighted, except maybe mosquitoes.. so birds, butterflies, dragons, I mean dragonflies, gargoyles, Pegasus… wait, what? Sorry getting off track there, haha. I love the fantasy world, obviously. I love nature and wildlife. I love to travel, see the world and experience different cultures. I like adventures and trying new things.
R: Tell me about your venture into iPhoneography.
L: I started seeing cool Hipstamatic photos being posted on Facebook and it made me want to get an iPhone just for that reason. I held off getting one for a long time because I didn’t want to be like everyone else glued to their smart phones. I finally caved and got the iPhone 4 end of 2010, but didn’t really get into iPhoneography until I joined Instagram. And of course after discovering Instagram and making friends from that, I did become like everyone else who can’t seem to live without their phones. And I hardly ever use Hipstamatic at all now.
R: How did you come about finding Instagram? How long have you been an IGer?
L: January 22nd was my 1 year IGversary. I’ve heard a few mentions of Instagram being a must-get app so I downloaded it, but then it sat there for about a month because I didn’t understand the purpose of it. Once I figured out it was like twitter, except with photos, I wasn’t sure how I felt about strangers being able to see my pics. It wasn’t until a friend told me how she started getting more into photography because she was inspired by mine and told me to join Instagram… and so I did finally, but then she quit. However, I didn’t realize it would be such an amazing source of inspiration and a wonderful creative outlet for me so I’m glad to be a part of it.
R: You were one of the very first people I found on Instagram. Back then I think you had around 12,000 followers. Since then you have skyrocketed, now passing the 75,000 mark. What is your take on that? Did you ever think you would have so many people that loved your work?
L: Not at all! I remember I was so happy just getting to 100 followers! I used to think that was a big deal… I’m still surprised this many people want to follow me when I see so many others just as or even more deserving. I’m definitely appreciative of everyone who enjoys looking at my work and I’m very flattered by the sweet comments people write or say to me. It’s also actually quite overwhelming as I’m no longer able to keep up with everyone.
R: Did you have any experience with photography before you found Instagram?
L: Yes… I spent a summer in Guam when I was 12 working at my uncle’s 1 hr photo shop where I learned the process of developing film. Then when I graduated college, I went back to Guam and helped my parents with their photo studio business for 6 months; this was all before digital cameras came around. I watched my dad work in the darkroom and observed my parents taking studio portraits of models, couples and families and working with light, etc. To be honest, I had no interest in photography growing up so I never paid much attention to any of that. It wasn’t until my husband and I went to Antarctica for our honeymoon in January 2006. It was the most beautiful and inspiring place we’ve ever been when every picture we took (or anyone else took) looked like a postcard. It was hands-down our most favourite trip and where we both fell in love with photography!
R: Do you remember the first picture you ever took?
L: No, but I remember taking photos of family members as a kid and always cutting their heads off, hahaha. Not on purpose, of course.. I blame my height!
R: Now, it seems as though you specialize in the street photography in NYC just snapping pictures of people as you walk by them. And one of my favorite pictures you did one was the one with the “Lady in Red” who melted your iPhone’s heart as she stared right back into your lens. The thing that intrigued me was you actually caught her on three separate occasions. You said that you hadn’t even noticed that you got her picture until you were scrolling through your pictures later that day. Which leads me to believe that you have a covert way of snapping pictures of people. What is your operation of taking people’s pictures without them knowing? Has there ever been a time where someone has called you out on it that noticed you took a picture of them?
L: Well, I’m near-sighted so I actually can’t see things in the distance that well without my glasses on… and I only wear glasses in the car or at a show… so someone I know could be waving at me and I’d be like “who’s that person waving at?” This happens enough times that people think I’m ignoring them, but it’s really because I can’t see who it is until they’re basically close enough to me… oops. Which is why I didn’t know I caught the “Lady in Red” on several occasions until I looked through my camera roll. I should start wearing glasses, huh?! I wonder if that will make a difference in my photography…
Anyway, I walk pretty fast so when something catches my eye (usually colour or a a person’s style), I just snap and move on. There’s only a couple of seconds to capture an image in street photography, so I don’t think about framing, composition, lighting or anything else one is supposed to think about. I either get it or I don’t and I move on. I usually don’t have the time or patience to sit/stand in one spot and wait for people to come into frame, unless I’m in no rush to get somewhere.. so I wouldn’t say I specialize in street photography, haha. For the most part I take pics as I’m walking to work or during my lunch break; holding the iPhone in one hand at about waist or chest level so it looks like I’m just holding the phone or looking at something on my phone as I walk. And I don’t know if I’m actually all that discreet when it comes to taking people’s pictures. I used to try really hard not to be noticed and if they do I’m already half way down the block. Plus, I’m sure it doesn’t help that I have a brightly coloured iPhone case that stands out, but I do get some eye contact that way. So far no one has confronted me, but people who seem to notice will either duck, walk around me, walk in a different direction, turn their faces away, make some kind of facial reaction or smile. There were times when I looked up and saw someone with their phones or camera pointing at me and I’d always make a face and think “did that person just take a pic of me!?”… so I’m sure other people must be thinking the same thing and not say anything because they’re just not sure.
R: What is it that attracts you to street photography?
L: I’ve never tried street photography before joining Instagram, so to me it was a challenge. Seeing all the amazing street photography on Instagram really inspired me to give it a shot. I love the candids people get and the emotions caught and freeze framed in an image; it always tells a story. I was a total mess though when I first attempted it. My heart would race and I’d get so nervous because all I could think about is what one might say or do to me if I got caught; it was thrilling and quite addictive at the same time.
R: What is it that you are trying to express through your pictures?
L: That there is beauty in every day simple things and there is beauty in every person. I don’t like having my picture taken by other people, yet I take pictures of other people. And no matter how many different facial expressions I get from strangers, I wish I could be more like the ones that are always wearing a smile. I am trying to change that about myself, but I’m so focused usually I’m not aware of my own expressions. Instead of annoyance when I see a camera pointing at me, I’d like to be smiling instead. But, that’s hardly my natural reaction though… which is why I prefer candids. There’s no time for one to think or react. People are being their natural selves and it isn’t anything forced or staged.
R: Where and how do you find inspiration for your photos?
L: Instagram is a big part of where I find inspiration. There are so many creative and talented people (both professional and amateur photographers) and I learn from them all. I also find inspiration in nature and wildlife, national geographic and nature channels.
R: I remember some time back that you and @xxxyxyz went on a photo walk together. Were you two friends before Instagram?
L: Nope, we met on Instagram. Hai (@xxxyxyz) was actually the very first IGer I met in person! I found out he was in the fashion industry like me and was only a few blocks from where I work; so we would have weekly photowalks. And he’s also the first person to show me how he shoots with his iPhone and helped me be more confident in street photography. Many thanks goes to him.
R: Have you met up with any other IGers for a photo walk?
L: Yes, several times. NYC has a fairly large IG group and I’ve met quite a few of them at Instameets and organized group photowalks. I’ve also done individual photowalks with @yummieecupcake, @brainstorms and @ines_in_hk.
R: I’ve noticed that you haven’t been posting as much lately… Do you ever get photographer’s block?
L: Oh, of course! Right before my trip to Ecuador I was having photographer’s block. And when I got there, it was all eye candy; inspiration was everywhere! I took hundreds of pics and was so happy with how they were turning out I couldn’t wait to share them with my friends on Instagram… and then my iPhone got stolen right out of my hand as I was taking a picture of the last church. I lost all those photos. It was also strange not having the iPhone in my hand, so my husband was really sweet in letting me use his until I got another phone. But from that moment, my whole take on iPhoneography changed. My previous fear of someone calling me out has now been replaced with fear of someone running off with the iPhone; so in the past 2 months I have been hesitant in taking photos and a lot more cautious. I am constantly telling myself “I want to be brave” and not let one incident take away something I really enjoyed. I’m trying to get back into it, but finding it a lot harder than I thought it would be.
R: What is the story on your #siamesethursday tag? And for those that don’t know how, how do you accomplish these shots?
L: I wish I could take credit for coming up with #siamesethursday, but all that goes to @sal_jimenez88. He started this wonderful hashtag and got @xxxyxyz involved who in turn got @manarmieee, @momma2maxh and me involved. So every week we would always looked forward to Thursdays, one of our favourite days. For me, my take on it is that because I’m a Gemini (the sign of the twins), it really spoke to me. I created 2 different personas of myself as I’ve always wished I was a twin or had a sister since I grew up with only brothers. And I decided to do a confessional type series with these girls as a way for people to learn a little bit more about me, for those interested that is and created #mylifeasafaerie. They were not all edited the same way.. some were taken and edited with iPhone only, some were taken with iPhone and edited with photoshop + iPhone apps and some were taken with my Panasonic Lumix GH1 and edited with photoshop + iPhone apps. Some apps I have used for these are Auto Shutter, Diptic, Juxtaposer and Blendcamp Lite. I also use Camera+ and picfx a lot.
R: Lately you seem to be taking more landscape/cityscape pictures; which are great by the way. Is there another style of photography that you wish to master? Or is street photography your thing?
L: Aww thanks, Ryan! I don’t think street photography is my thing. I’m still fairly new at it and have lots to learn still. Also, I get bored easily so I’m always changing it up and trying new things. I’ve always been more into nature and travel photography and would actually like to master wildlife photography. People who know me know I LOVE animals.
R: One of the things I’ve noticed that separates you from a lot of the other street photographers is your editing style. What is your approach to editing? What are some apps that you simply could not live without?
L: Most street photography I see out there are done in black and white, some in colour. And because I can never decide, why not combine the two? That pretty much ended the argument I had with myself if I couldn’t decide. Also, when I see someone I want to capture, my eyes and iPhone lens go straight to them. When that happens, everything around them either fades away or disappears. I basically edit how I saw the image which is why a lot of my street photography is colorsplashed to highlight the subject in color and have everything else either in black and white using Colorblast! or a faded background using Camera+ and Juxtaposer combined or a blurred background using Big Lens. Apps I could not live without are Camera+, Colorblast!, picfx, Juxtaposer and Filtermania. Other apps I like and sometimes use are pudding camera, ScratchCam, PS Express, Dynamic Light, Snapseed, PictureShow, Squaready, Touch Retouch and FX Photo Studio. There are about 30+ other apps I never use or look at, but I like to experiment and “app stack” when editing photos.
R: How would you describe your style of photography?
L: I’m still waiting for someone to tell me! I wasn’t even aware I had a style. I just capture what I see and I edit the image according to how I saw them or the feeling that they give me. A few people have tagged me on their edited pics and all have called it “the leifography style”… lol. so yea… I’m still not sure.
R: So for someone reading this interview that is just now entering into the world of iPhoneography, what would your advice be for them?
L: If you see something you like, take the shot! Because if you spend too much time composing images, you could miss the shot all together. I’d like to think I’m a natural and I just snap perfectly framed images, but in reality a lot of my shots are badly framed and composed or too dark. And since Instagram is a square format , this is where you can fix that by cropping the image and with apps to adjust brightness, sharpness, contrast, white balance, etc.
R: When you’re not taking pictures, where might we find you?
L: Oh, you’ll never find me! Ok seriously… on the sofa watching tv, playing dress up and running around the house with wings on or in another country if I’m on holiday. But, if this is your way of asking what other hobbies I have then I’d say hiking, creating art (drawing/painting, crafts, jewelry, knitting, etc), reading, writing, listening to music or hanging out with friends. And eating! I love food.
R: One thing I love to ask people is… If someone who has never heard of the amazing Leif Stark were to go cruising through your IG feed tonight; what soundtrack would you recommend to them to listen to while they are looking through your pictures?
L: Ha Ryan, you’re pretty amazing yourself! What soundtrack should I be listening to while I’m looking at your pictures? Funny you should ask since I started putting YouTube links to music videos on my IG profile of the song I was currently listening to or obsessing over. Right now I have Gotye’s “Out Here In The Cold” up and before that was “Juniper” by Noe Venable.
R: Instagram has changed quite a bit from when it first started. What are your thoughts on Instagram these days?
L: It’s becoming more of a marketing tool. I see a lot of advertising and self promotion, but I just try to keep with people who share the same interests as me.
R: Anything you want to add for our readers?
L: Just be yourself(ves) and have fun!