Interview with Gillian Milberg

by Cassandra Bristow

Gillian Milberg is an up and coming photographer with a clear bold voice and attitude. I caught her as she moved from one apartment in Bushwick to another, between her projects that keep her busy. We discuss authenticity, social media, behind the scenes work and figuring out what you want to do next. 

Let’s start with you telling MIM about yourself and the work you do. 


I do a little bit of anything and everything. [laughs] I’ve been in the Fashion Industry for a while but I don’t really know that I do want to focus on one specific thing because I get antsy and bored and start to think of other ideas or other roles I want to move into. As of right now, I’m a casting assistant to the casting director of Office Magazine. We do work on commercial stuff as well as a few shows. We’re waiting for women’s fashion week to come, and are anxious to see what shows we’ll be casting in September. Before that, I was doing freelance photography. Photography is definitely my main thing but I feel unhappy when I’m hired for jobs but I can’t really do what I want artistically. I’m thinking I’m going to keep photography as a hobby instead of making money off of it.


What else?


[Pauses]. I went to FIT, and I studied advertising and marketing because that’s what you do when you don’t know what you want to do [Laughs]. I worked a lot in restaurants and I actually met a lot of people through that! Most artists tend to work at restaurants, so people I’d become friends with through my jobs would end up being my collaborators on many projects. The last thing I did was with my friend Juan [Alvear], who is an amazing nail artist. I worked with him on a music video [for Kim Petras]. I helped him do nails. A lot of people hire me for doing behind the scenes stuff, actually. I don’t know why.


Do you like doing Behind The Scenes work?


I do! I don’t like being in front of the camera, so I think I gravitate more towards behind the scenes work. I also like seeing things come together and the feeling of accomplishment that follows. There’s something cooler about being on a set and capturing the moments in between the primped and polished imagery that’s coming out of [the shoot]. You end up with photos of moments that were missed in the editing phase or moments of intimate or even cute stuff that wouldn’t be shown to the world.


Right. It seems like your photography style is oriented around depictions of behind the scene moments or what’s regular, the everyday objects.


Yes. I like that. I like taking pictures of things that haven’t really been manipulated a lot...if I’m taking pictures of people, I’ll tell them to pretend I’m not there so they can just be who they want to be. Last weekend I did a photo shoot for my boyfriend’s company, which is millennial wedding rings that you can buy and make online. We did the casting together because [the company] is a startup that doesn’t have much money, but we pulled it together with 8 couples that would represent inclusivity; couples of different sizes, colors, [etc]. It was so nice. I was just like, ‘Act like yourselves in your relationship and I’m going to capture it’ and that’s exactly what happened. 


Is authenticity the reason you try to the capture behind the scenes?


When I’m shooting something more editorial, I don’t want it to be a far-out, extravagant concept. I want it to be something that could’ve happened in the street, someone in a high fashion dress in a bodega type of thing, even though that’s already been done a million times [Laughs]. 


How do you find locations that look more familiar and mundane in New York?


If I see a place I like, I write it down in the Notes app on my phone. Yesterday I went through Industry City [in Brooklyn] with my boyfriend, which is where all these warehouses are. One was filled with Halal and pretzel carts, and I thought, “It would be so good to shoot in there.” It’s very New York, but places like that always come in handy. 


What does a good fashion photograph look like to you? 


I’ve been thinking about that a lot. I think people from this generation are over the extravagant. Our parents and grandparents were dazzled so easily by that type of photography, but since our generation is bombarded with things it’s harder to capture someone’s attention. This is part of why I’ve been moving towards [fashion] video[s]. I’ve done a few for brands but I’m trying to be a better videographer before I really put myself out there. It is easier to capture people’s emotions on video because it’s more alive. 


Do you want to do more videography than photography? 


Well I’ve got a lot of [video] projects I can’t really talk about, which gets frustrating when I want to post about it on social media, but I also really don’t care about social media at all. I actually hate it, and if I didn’t have to use it for work I don’t think I would use it at all. I only like using it to put funny stuff on my Instagram story [laughs]. It’s probably not very professional of me. The worst part of working on these projects is when I can’t promote them, or when it’s a closed set and I can’t capture those little behind the scenes moments. 


But isn’t Instagram a platform for photography? What makes it so unendurable then?


It could be used for good, but it gives some people a platform that don’t deserve it. There are people who use their platform for good, for example, @newyorknico [Nicolas Heller] on Instagram, who goes around taking pictures of funny stuff happening on the street but also the people we see every day, like the pigeon guy in Washington Square Park. He puts the name to the face and gives the guy a place to speak and be himself. People like him have the best stories, the funniest content, but they don’t have a platform. [Heller] gives them the platform, and even helped another person in New York, by posting his image and giving him the chance to receive donations for his wife to get a kidney. However, social media can be a model picking up a Contax, the camera I have, and calling herself a photographer. Then, someone who is actually a photographer and wants to buy that camera might not be able to because it now costs triple the price. Situations like that really piss me off, which is why I try not to get so wrapped up in social media: it’s toxic. 


What does being non-toxic and true to yourself on social media look like for you?


It starts by showing the unedited, which I love. The armpit hair, the acne, that sort of thing. I have had situations on set where after I take a behind the scenes photo, and the talent agent will say “Can you run that by me before you post it?” which really defeats the purpose because I’m not here to make anyone uncomfortable. I’ve even had a bodyguard come up to me and say “If she’s [a model] in that photo, delete it.” I like taking behind the scenes photos so to capture moments, ones someone I guess might want deleted because they’re not perfect. 


You’re a very visual artist. Do you write at all? 

I used to write a lot. It’s actually kind of this cycle, where I’m so anxious I’m not writing, but then I go to write and I get so anxious I won’t like what it becomes. I’ve been wrestling with that for a while. There’s this notebook I’ve had since I moved to New York, and I write down snippets of my life in there. I haven’t been doing that as much lately, probably because it makes me really nervous, but I’m trying to. Once I move to a bigger space, I want to scan my writing and put it with photos.  


What’s been the biggest surprise for you career-wise yet?


I look back and even though I’ve done a lot of stuff, in my mind, it’s that I’m not doing enough. That’s just the New York bubble of thinking you’re a Grandma at 25 though. [laughs] The biggest surprise is casting, I never thought I would do casting, but I love it. I love that I can shape what we see every day, that I can put a girl like me, a curvier, thicker girl, in advertising. When I grew up, I only saw skinny girls. The fact that at this time I can decide with a client to use a bigger model or a model from another race is so empowering to me, I love it so much. 


What is next for you?


I want to start a new agency where we basically do everything. An agency where everyone can do each other’s roles. Maybe someone is better suited to be the photographer, but if their aesthetic didn’t work for a client, someone else could take over their role. It’s important in the world of fashion to be versatile. It’s also important to establish a connection. People want to work with good people, and it’s important to have a good team behind you. Preferably mostly women [laughs]. 


Last question! What’s been your favorite shoot so far?

[pauses]. The most recent one. With all the significant others around, everyone just felt loved. It was so sweet and tender, everyone was just so happy to be around each other. I also got to work with my boyfriend and an amazing videographer friend of mine [Tyler Haft]. Collaborating with your friends gives you the best work. When you’re having a good time and you’re with friends it shines through, and you can tell. Everything is just better.

Cassandra Bristow

Conducted the interview