Featured contributor

Steph Goralnick

When Steph’s not riding a tuktuk through Sri Lanka, she “makes stuff” — amazing stuff.

When I was compiling the Phoot Camp website a few months ago, I asked Steph (one of my star participants) for some tidbits to include in her bio. I’d spotted a fair few impressive publications and gigs (MOMA this, Adbusters that) on her resume, but nothing that expressed her real sparkle and talent. And even putting our heads together, we couldn’t come up with much. There are a couple of reasons for this.

For one, some of Steph’s projects are confidential. Not in the usual sense of “Oh, well it’s not launching for a while and the CEO wants it under wraps” or “Her company has really strict PR rules.” Nope. I can’t even tell you why it’s confidential, but I can tell you that it’s really cool, and speaks to the fact that she takes on projects for the sheer joy of creating.

Which gets me to the second reason: She’s the ultimate team player. Not only can she photograph, design, event plan, and write with equal skill and gusto, she also has a track record of being the behind-the-scenes “wow” factor for other people’s projects (including mine — she outdid herself with the guest design for the inaugural Pictory showcase, and designed the awesome Phoot Camp t-shirts). And her passion has often landed her on movie sets and into recording studios.

So don’t worry about Steph getting her dues. She’s just already figured out that doing work that will make her happy is more important than doing work that will get her noticed. And if they happen to coincide, so be it. More from Steph:

What are your favorite things to photograph?

I love to travel, so documenting adventures in faraway places is my favorite. Other than that I enjoy making portraits, especially of people who allow me to convince them to do something slightly weird. The trust and support that my friends and family offer when I am shooting them is indispensable.

Steph knelt in the ocean to shoot a professional fire enthusiast William as he warmed the chilly Atlantic Ocean at dawn during a beach party.

What’s the best story you don’t have a photograph for?

Argh! I used to work at this design agency in midtown, which was in the same building as New York offices for the BBC. One day I stepped out for ice cream without my camera (which I rarely ever do!), and upon returning spied Johnny Rotten leaning up against a lightpost outside the building. I’m not much of a paparazzi, but he happened to be wearing a knitted Sex Pistols sweater! It was just too perfect..

What do you do for a living?

As time goes on, that question gets delightfully more difficult to answer. The short answer: I make stuff. The long answer: I went to school for graphic design, and fell into photography because I wanted to be able to use my own creations in my designs rather than stock images. Since leaving my full-time design job last year, I have since been working for myself and making my living through a satisfying hybrid of design, photography, writing, event concepting/organizing, and just thinking of crazy ideas in general. With respect to all those areas, my favorite clients are the ones willing to put forth a certain degree of trust for the sake of developing something truly unique and innovative; and my favorite projects are those that are rooted in concept rather than merely in style.

Off the top of my head, four interesting things you’ve been a part of. Tell us a little about each.

PS1 Sting Operation •

Artist Leandro Erlich currently has a visually bewildering two-floor interactive installation at the PS1 Contemporary Art Center in Queens where vistors are presented with the baffling spectacle of clothed people below, who are seemingly wandering around underwater. The exhibit is a favorite photo opportunity for museum-goers, many who snap photos of their friends pretending to “swim” in the surreal space below the surface of the water. I decided that naturally, this should be taken a step further with subjects in actual swimwear.

Blessed with fearlessly adventurous friends, I had no problem assembling a team for this mission. However, with the Department of Homeland Security running a wildly successful campaign convincing citizens to assume that photography is nefarious, I often operate on the “ask for forgiveness rather than permission” method. Photography was permitted (or at least tolerated) in this particular exhibit, and while we didn’t plan to hurt anyone, harm the installation, or shoot commercially; we knew we’d have to act fast. The shoot was planned for a weekday afternoon for minimum crowd interference. Entering the museum in bikinis would surely arouse suspicion, so over-clothing outfits were prepared for minimum strip-and-redress time. On the off chance that our shoot went unnoticed, a few bunny costumes and santa suits were stuffed into backpacks for extra shots with maximum silliness.

To all of our surprise, the exercise went over without a hitch (other than a few plainclothes visitors seeing us and excitedly wanting to join in), and resulted in some really fun shots that would have only otherwise been possible with a team of synchronized swimmers and a lot of expensive underwater photography equipment.

Good sports Grammar, William, and Kat stripped down to swimwear at the PS1 museum.

• Annual Halloween Extravaganzas •

New York City loves Halloween, and New Yorkers love throwing Halloween parties. With so much going on, it’s impossible to decide which (if any) of the many parties and events to attend. Putting all your eggs in one party’s basket can be risky, and paying separate cover charges to enter several events can be a blow to the wallet. Some friends came up with the idea to rent a limo-like “party bus” which would serve as a mobile dance party for fun times in between short stops at many different events. Deals with promoters and hosts for group entry rates meant that the cost of the bus per person was about equal to that of an evening of drinks and cover charge and cab rides to and from a single party. For me, a group of 40 friends dressed to the nines and ready for adventure inside a bus covered with mirrors and disco lights is the perfect formula for the kinds of photos I love to take.

A costume theme is selected, which gives the group maximum visual impact upon entry to a gathering (as well as maximum ease of finding each other upon exit). This year’s was “Blinded by Science” with a requirement to incorporate a lab coat in any way desired. I dressed as a lab rat who performed tests on humans, and used the opportunity to design a set of vintage medicine bottle labels for my experimental “elixirs”.

A mirrored limousine bus with laser lights made this group shot of Steph’s fellow Halloween revelers possible.

• Phoot Camp •

Phoot Camp (full disclosure: it was run by the same mastermind behind Pictory) was a magical weekend in the woods of northern California with 18 other photographers from around the world and around the Internet. Even as someone who works on creative projects for a living, it can be easy to fall into ruts or forget to find time to make art for art’s sake. So a camping trip with a bunch of strangers from various walks of life, united by a common interest in photography was the perfect chance to enter into some experimental collaborations and learn new tips and tricks. Plus, who doesn’t love s’mores!?

It is really inspiring to see (and even be a part of!) the process of other photographers’ work, especially for those who put together elaborate multi-person frames like Ryan Schude, produce imaginative time lapses like Kevin Meredith or Nate Bolt, or create dreamy photo-illustration compositions like Paul Octavious Cribb. Not to mention being in the company of tireless like-minded folk while you endlessly test out lighting and compositional strategies. The worst part was that it was only a weekend long! On the ride to the airport alone we thought of several more weekend-long project ideas.

On the last day of Phoot Camp, Steph composed fellow campers on a favorite tree.

• Photojojo Photo Safaris •

My friend Amit Gupta at Photojojo took me out for coffee one afternoon to see if I might have any ideas for the web newsletter’s foray out of the inbox and into the 3-dimensional world of events. After spouting off everything off of the top of my head from secret supper clubs to scavenger hunts to circus freaks, he declared that the upcoming series of New York events would be placed under my authority. It wasn’t something that I had really done before, but it seemed like great fun and not outside of the realm of possibility. Attempting to break free from the paradigm of mere group “photo walks” I recruited friends with talents in wildly varying areas to help pull off a scavenger hunt complete with surprise performances by stilt-walking monsters, aerial acrobats falling from trees, bunnies on motorcycles, neon-spandex warriors and a troupe of dancing bandits. The following month a friend who holds a supper club out of his loft apartment agreed to host a food photography extravaganza with delicious demonstrations from a barman who makes his own vermouth and blocks of ice, food science experiments with “meat glues”, pie makers, a father-daughter team executing a family pastry recipe, a sushi chef, and a professional food stylists. We also got special permission to take an exceptionally large group into the Neon Boneyard Museum in Las Vegas for a gorgeous golden hour shoot.

Steph proves that having friends in the circus pays off.

You recently emailed me suggesting that we get a group together and rent a plane somewhere and/or learn to do underwater photography in the Caribbean. What’s your next adventure?

An annual (decidedly unadventurous) trip to a farmhouse upstate to escape the over-hyped madness of New Years’ in New York City. For some reason fuzzy slippers and flannel pajamas and homecooked dinners by the fireside with good friends seems more appealing than the parties that are never fun. However, I plan to escape some of the winter weather by going to Southeast Asia later in the year.

Bare feet in snow makes for the perfect facial expressions of a New Year.

Close out this interview with an image for us to remember you by.

This masked maniac is not responsible for the writing on the wall (although he is an architect), so we will never know what his parents said.

Check out more of Steph’s work.


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