In Conversation with Michele Romero
An Interview by Space For Arts
What motivates you to attend events and be open with your knowledge and experience?
Well, I have a personal credo that it is important to give back to society in general. I think if I had a motto I’d be “think globally, act locally.”
It just so happens my skill set is photography. It is a medium I’ve been working in for 30 years so I can refer to myself as competent.
Working with people is a collaborative effort. When I started I had cool mentors from whom I learned a lot, and I think it’s our responsibility to give back by mentoring the next generation – to start a conversation, advise them on how to get to the next level, let them go out into the universe and hopefully they will pass on that same spirit of giving back. In ye olden times, we had the idea of apprenticeships and learning from experience, knowledgeable people.
EW shoots lots of conceptual imagery that require a fairly deep knowledge of photography and I have learned how to be a better researcher from colleagues and former bosses. George Pitts, a photo editor legend (who I sat next too), was surrounded by young colleagues, he became director of photography but he also became a teacher at Parsons.
I would love to teach! I love to sit with young photographers, old photographers and talk about photography and its evolution. How to start, how to get better, how to figure out who you are as a photographer. Part of that is just my job but a lot of it is voluntarily…and it is joyful.
What is the best advice you’ve ever received?
The coolest moment was during a transition of learning - it wasn’t so much advice but a key moment where things changed for me. I was working for a photographer and I didn’t know what I was doing. I was 7 months into the photography world after going from one industry to another. Philip Jones Griffith worked in the same building and he came down to borrow milk or something. So we’re in the kitchen and he asks what I am doing and I’m editing slides and I was projecting onto the wall.
He comes up and started cropping the images like a director would. In a few moves he had shown me composition and how to make a better, tighter image, a more compelling image.
There’s a lot of people I respect so much and they show me how to do stuff another way. With Art, if we don’t know how to do something then we will figure out how to get it done anyway. It’s joyful to figure out how to solve the problem…how to take a great idea and finish it.
The best advice I think I got was bizarrely, “just be useful.” I am not sure where it comes from, but be useful to the photographer and respect everyone on set. If I am being useful then everything is in flow…like a conductor making sure the horns are playing and the drums come in at the right time.
Everyone on set is important, if everyone is at the top of their game then you have a great production and great photo shoot. Everyone is valuable and worth saying hello to. And you know who taught me that? David Bowie. David Bowie came in on time and thanked everyone from the assistants to the caterers.
It’s not just about being humble but also being grateful. A movie set has a million people working on it, each doing a specific job and they all need to be appreciated because if they’re not doing their job… the productions is fucked. If you’re not thanking the guy plugging stuff in, the project is not going to come out well. Everyone is important and no one can do it alone.
Where is your favorite place to research for a shoot or your favorite place to get immersed in your sketchbook?
The first thing I advise photographers to do is to look at a lot of imagery, not just your own work because some photographers only look at their own work. I think everything can be interesting. I actually have a quote written down from Tom Ford, “be inspired everywhere.” Even the colors of coffee, the shades of brown on the white lid can be inspiring.
Otherwise I am a deep nerd and I appreciate people like Dan Winters, who is also a deep nerd and I just have a deep love of deep nerds.
A lot of films inspire me - I watch films slowly, I frame things off of movies, of work I like, of just going outside and seeing the graffiti on the streets and how people are dressed.
I am also an advocate of history and should mention that Art has a huge labeled archive of images that is astounding. My previous boss, Lisa Berman, would really dive into historic images, but at the same time I don’t like copying historic images…but rather jumping off pre-existing images and creating my own idea.
TV, books, lots of old photography, the lives of people, architecture - anything is inspiring. Bugs Bunny could give you ideas! Working with people helps, from the group comes better ideas especially from working with the artistic collaboraters on set.
When working on a project, like the “Walking Dead” cover shoot, it’s important for me to know the subject. I deeply research it, the talent, the backstory, whatever. It’s like how you would study in school.
How early do you start preparing for a shoot?
I love you think that we might have advance time! For a cover what’s manageable is three days before. We rarely get a greater luxury than 2 weeks. EW is a weekly so turn around time is fast to begin with, and some stuff is just impossible to get done, given the time constraints we work with.
When we did a Stephen Colbert cover shoot, we interviewed Peter Jackson who directed the “Lord of the Rings” films because Stephen is a huge nerd about them and we wanted him to dress up “Lord of the Rings” style.
I wanted to read all of the books to do my research but even on tape that would have taken me like 17 years. So I watched the movies instead, which was still a good two days - but I have to know and understand the content because it ‘s professional and it is my job to know this stuff.
When we were shooting “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” I got through two seasons. I don’t want to show up on set and not know a project. You can’t make good work if you don’t have an understanding of what the creators of projects are working on.
How do you go from creative mode to production mode?
I totally fall onto the creative side of the project and let other people handle the left brain side. There’s order from chaos and I am not troubled by a certain kind of mess. But I do arrange my sketches and research pictures before I show them to the talent and get them approved so that the shoot is organized and professional.
In terms of managing a shoot like “Buffy the Vampire,” you have over a 100 people on set and so I create an Excel spreadsheet and color code it. My version is not going to be the most pleasant to look at, but I have learned from colleagues how to put create a document that lays out the day’s schedule and all the information is there. You are managing a ton of information and people. It’s my least favorite part of the job but it’s a big part of a magazine job. I run a tight ship and like my schedule to work. Plus when things go quickly, I know the talent appreciates it.
What’s your collaborative style with photographers? Is it the same for every photographer?
I am a huge bully, just kidding. I am definitely direct. If I want to get to something and know that we it’s possible, I will steer the ship until we get to it. It’s my job as senior photo editor or whatever my job title is.
We need to get the image that the magazine wants to get. Sometimes a photographer may waver and want another, in which case we get both. Photographers generally like collaborating with me, but collaboration actually means I am the boss and have to bring back an image that belongs to EW.
I have decent consistency, but it’s thanks to a lot of people helping me get it. I don’t take the photo, I am not the talent and I don’t dress them. Ideas may be generated through my process and come to fruition, but sometimes talent also has ideas and you have to let it all go through.
We hire photographers like Art and Dan Winters because they do certain things and we let them do their thing - in fact I am never going to direct Dan Winters because he does beautiful work. But I will work hard to get him access to things. But you hire someone because of their look and aesthetic and to get the job done.
What was your favorite shoot with Art?
There’s been a lot of shoots that were fun but I have to say my favorite was “The Walking Dead” 100th Episode birthday cake shoot. We were going to shoot outside but there was a huge, Armageddon rain storm in Georgia and it is honestly the least fun place to be outside. It’s 100 degrees, we’re in the middle of the woods and there’s ticks and tiger bugs and snakes. Then the producer on set mentions the wolf spider and how they can run and jump.
And subconsciously you’re afraid of zombies because of watching so much “Walking Dead.” And somehow Art isn’t sweating in his white shirt…I don’t trust him. So, we’re inside. Despite setbacks I tell him “Oh I think you can do it” and challenged him to figure out how to get the shot. And you can’t tell looking at the final image that we photographed the talent inside.
Angie Hayes, Art’s retoucher, does seamless work and it is just so gratifying. Because I wasn’t really sure if we could pull it off but I also knew we probably could because I know all of the parts. But getting thing to a final, that was so joyful. Especially because we are getting assets for the fans and they’re turning the image into every kind of Fan Art imaginable! They loved it so much and that is such a reward.
Do you prefer shooting on set with a cast or an off-set post production shoot?
It is really super fun to be on the set of a movie. Motion picture set and production designers make the coolest things. I mean being on the “Guardians of the Galaxy” set and getting to sit in the ship where Rocket and Baby Groot and Starlord were? The fact that I get to do that is amazing.
Being in someone else’s work place where they make stuff is awesome. Being on the set of the “Walking Dead” is obviously awesome. Working with someone who does improv like Stephen Colbert and getting the “Lord of the Rings” wardrobe shipped from New Zealand, that’s awesome.
I have experienced such an amazing level of craft and have been on their sets and in their worlds, and as a fan of the work, it’s awesome. I wore the “Lord of the Rings” ring on my finger. It rendered me invisible, just kidding.
I’ve been backstage with bands - backstage at Madison Square Garden with KISS and when I was younger, went go-kart racing with Green Day in Oakland.
How does studio space affect your work?
You want to work with a studio where your needs will be met. We were at a pretty big studio in New York in August and the AC didn’t work. That sucks. You want a space that has electricity and a decent location and you want the people who run it to be professional.
If there’s a new start up without the basic necessities, you are going to default to where your production needs get met. We don’t do too many small gigs but if we are using a new, smaller studio space, it actually has to be full service. They have to have a competent crew in there and if I can’t plug something in then the whole day is screwed.
What is your favorite type of space to shoot in?
In New York I loved random studios in Williamsburg and Bushwick like 1886. It’s awesome because there is so much to the location and so many spots to choose from that all look like a lot of different things. It is a lot of bang for your buck, especially if you don’t need to build a set.
If I have to build a set, I like raw industrial spaces. Major talent will need more room for practical matters and we are often beholden to specific spaces because of talent. A smaller studio space needs charm, and light. Great light is essential.
If you had to plan a photoshoot for Art and yourself, what would you do?
On a magazine cover? I would take us skydiving. He would be strapped to me for sure. And there’s only one parachute because there has to be a problem to solve. Art, then me, then a giant elephant on my back, parachuting.
Cover Photo ©Art Streiber