Interview with Leah Muse, Austin Wedding Photographer
Something I love about Leah, and which comes through in her photography, is how open she is, and how she has a consistent practice of processing and sharing her life as it happens through writing. Not only does she get at the heart of things in-person and through her writing on Instagram, but she always finds the humor as well. Her honesty is engaging, and for me it encourages a greater sense of self-acceptance.
As wedding photographers, trust is a big part of our work, as a wedding is such a deeply personal experience. I told Leah that I bet that a lot of clients are drawn to her for her honesty: a building block of trust.
While I haven’t yet been on the other side of the lens at my own wedding, I know the vulnerable feeling of being photographed, and how much it helps to have direction and reassurance from the photographer. Leah’s wonderful in that regard, always communicating exactly where she stands and what she’s thinking. When I’m making portraits of my own clients, I try to remember this, because as a more introverted, quiet person, sharing my thoughts in the moment (instead of mulling them over first) is something I have to consciously do.
I met up with Leah in late May for this interview. Spritely flowers and herbs were growing along her sidewalk. She had arranged picnic blankets for us in the front yard and a chilled bottle of Rose just for me (I felt very special and cared for). I took a chance and brought Leah some Sour Straws (knowing her appreciation for Takis and Red Bull) and hit a home run. We talked at length about our experiences as wedding photographers during the pandemic shutdown, changes in our business structures, and our styles as photographers.
Her wife Karen joined us at the end for a drink and a few photos, adding that “Leah is just as charming in real life as she is on Instagram. She is saying everything she feels and she experiences, always… I think Leah practices what she preaches.”
(I read a version of the above introduction to Leah, and then asked her my first question: How do you develop your relationship with clients over time?)
I just feel complimented so I’m taking that all in… I’ll just try to answer your question and see what happens. I think, as I’ve told you since our first hangout in my car, that I try to be as open as possible about who I am, and that I reap the benefits of that with my clients. Which, you know, after 12 years or whatever of being in the business, it’s hard to continually get re-motivated about what you do or try to do anything differently, or to open up a new layer of vulnerability to clients. But I will say that when I let my guard down and don’t do the bare minimum, it shows.
If a client asks me, do you want to meet in person?, I don’t always want to because I want to be with my family. Being outside of my comfort zone doesn’t come easy to me. So I have to really convince myself and open myself up to meeting clients in person ahead of time and not putting a time limit on it and sharing my views on marriage in a real way. When I started doing that, I could tell my clients were a lot more excited for me to be there on their wedding day because I felt like a legit friend and I was more excited to do my job. I don’t become friends with every client I have, but I can really tell the difference if I let my guard down before the wedding what a difference it makes on the wedding day. And I can tell the difference afterward. It all pays off but it’s just so much more work.
I think that wedding photography is weird because clients expect their photographer to be available 24/7. They expect you to want to know everything about them and sometimes it’s so one-sided, and that feels insincere to me. So when I was able to also be like, this is me, it felt more like a two-sided relationship instead of “I’m paying you to be here from 6-9, here’s your check, goodbye.”
Something we share is that we both had wedding photography business partners for a long time, and then shifted to working solo again. That’s something we bonded over when we first started hanging out. You’ve been solo now for how many years? How have things shifted for you? Has your style changed? Your business practices? Do you have any other advice for other photographers who are going through a similar shift?
I think that the number one difference that makes me feel more successful or feel more at ease in my business practices is that I don’t have anybody else to lean on. At first that was so scary because I didn’t have the confidence from doing things that way. It’s like being pushed out and having to sink or swim. Turns out swimming on my own was the most rewarding, validating thing ever. So it’s much less about the other person and what they did and more about what I’m capable of. That’s a badass lesson. Same thing with divorce, too, any relationship. Knowing that on the other side that you can be better off because of yourself is crazy!
Everything has been freeing and I work harder. I don’t know if that’s just the stage of life that I’m in but just being in charge of myself makes me a much harder worker because I don’t have anybody else’s expectations on me besides my own.
If I’ve set an expectation for myself, it’s always easier to get to the root of that and figure it out with myself than with a business partner. And I love being able to make my own decisions with clients.
I just celebrated my four-year business anniversary. It felt really good to believe in myself and not wait for somebody else to believe in me.
My advice is to really check yourself on what makes you feel motivated and feel happy, content. What makes you feel creative. And turn off the outside noise of competitors and the internet. You know. Everything. And if you’re going to take the chance on yourself, then it’s beneficial to actually believe in yourself. Which is such a fucking hard lesson!
So hard. I’m always working on that. On personal style, I love your use of shadows. I also see so much energy in your photos. What are your goals when you think about making portraits? And what are you looking for in a location?
I’ve got a great answer: one I thought of not too recently in January when I was compiling my best of the year, one from every session I’d shot. I was like, holy shit every one of these pictures has people having feelings in it.
I tell my clients this all the time when they’re like, “where should we shoot for the engagement?” And while I think it’s fun to pick somewhere personal, the only thing that matters is whether you’re there ready to be yourselves in front of the camera. I know my work would be a lot more beautiful to strangers if I were only shooting in front of the Grand Canyon, the Eiffel Tower and landscapes, but most of the time I’m not. In some of my pictures the first time I saw them or delivered them I didn’t think they were the best photo I’ve ever taken. But I thought, “oh my god, I’ve gotten real feelings out of every client I have and I can see that.” And that’s literally the only goal. If you’re getting the people to look like themselves that’s the key to me.
I had one picture that won a Junebug Award when I was like, zero years old and the girl is leaning back in the guy’s arms. They’re not making eye contact, they’re both looking in different directions and they’re in front of a plane wearing bomber jackets. It means nothing in a personal way, it just looks cool because they had a private airfield to shoot in. But is that the picture they show their grandkids? I think it’s very easy to take perfect photos, but that doesn’t call out to me in any way.
My favorite picture of me and Karen on our wedding day is of us laughing our asses off. It’s not the cutest but it looks like us.
I’ve also noticed that in a lot of my favorites photos of yours, you get physically close to the couple to make the shot. This reminds me about a wedding I shot with you in March — it was the last wedding either of us shot before the Covid shutdown. The couple was requesting that no one (including us) make physical contact, and you mentioned aloud a couple of times how hard that was in terms of directing them. Can you talk about your thought process during that couple’s portraits? Or the use of physical touch for direction in general?
I have always known that I am physically affectionate with my loved ones but I didn’t know how much I liked to shake hands and hug a stranger. That really was the first day where I went to shake the groom’s hand and when I couldn’t it like, blew me back. Having to change everything about how I work naturally, it made me so much more in my head, which I don’t enjoy doing. Words come out of my mouth when I’m thinking them, I don’t do a lot of pre-thoughtfulness. I act whenever I act. it’s not super filtered. So having to completely change what I was doing in a natural way made me second guess myself the whole time… Also this is on-topic but it’s off-topic: I have found through my over-a-decade of shooting that groomsmen photos can be really difficult in that they don’t generally listen to a woman directing them, and so it is 95% easier for me to go and turn their shoulders how I need them to be. That is what works. Because literally words don’t work with so many groups of men. That’s a struggle to me to not be able to actually move somebody if they’re not listening to me. Of course I always ask somebody if I can touch them before I do, but it’s a really hard change. Because while I can write really easily and quickly what I’m thinking, it doesn’t come out as easily with my words. I get really frazzled easily and my words jumble. I don’t think I’m very clear-cut with what I want to say when I’m directing couples so being able to laugh at that and move them with my hands and laugh is my safety net, laugh. That is insanely hard.
Speaking of Covid, will you talk a little about what it’s been like waiting, especially during shelter-in-place?
I’m such a rule follower. I’m not trying to find out new ways to do something if I’m told to do nothing. I’m happy to listen to rules. And also during the time when everyone was doing front porch portraits, it was hard because I didn’t get into wedding photography to do front porch portraits. I don’t wake up every day thinking, “in what way can I wake up and express myself through photography in a new way?”
I was talking to my therapist about my “my angry week” and how I didn’t want to do front porch portraits and she observed, “not only are you not able to do your job, but your job is like your identity. Because you’ve been doing it for so long, it’s this life that you’ve built, it’s not a question anymore.” I’m just a wedding photographer and I assume that I will be until my arm breaks, forever and ever, amen.
It was this thing so solid being taken away from me, and the way I could support my family, and how I could feel creatively fulfilled, and how I could set goals for myself. My sense of self was taken away from me in addition to the paychecks. It’s the emotional aspect.
How did your experience of switching roles and being photographed at your own wedding influence the way you shoot?
Honestly, for a little while it made me shoot details better because as a wedding photographer whose goal is to capture the moments of real things happening, I struggle with spending a lot of time on details because they’re bought and they’re placed out and then they’re in the garbage. You know? I don’t know if that’s just me being lazy over the years, but it’s just very hard for me to spend time with inanimate objects because that’s very much not why I got into wedding photography and the business of taking pictures of people.
But on my wedding day, spending time with those inanimate objects, it made me check myself and give people more of what they spent time on, instead of just their love story.
Besides that, it hasn’t changed a lot but it’s made me double-down in the way that I do things. For example, I have always told couples that their timeline is completely up to them. I have suggestions, but if they only want to give me 10 minutes for portraits, I’m not going to push them because it’s their wedding day. On my wedding day when we were taking pictures, I was over it. They wanted to do more and just go walk around. After 5 minutes, I was like, I’m hot and I would rather be partying with my people and I want my photographers to respect that, so why wouldn’t I let my clients call all the shots about how much time they’re spending time away from their day?
I know so many photographers where it’s so much about the light and exactly what they need.
My job is about how to make my clients’ needs met, however they are, and not be pushy about it and do the best that I can with what they give me. Sometimes it’s not easy and it’s not ideal but it’s my job to make it work.