Known for her bright and vivid portraits, Elizabeth McQuern is the go-to photographer in Chicago’s live-lit community. McQuern effortlessly captures the effervescent energy emanating from some of Chicago’s renowned storytellers. Alicia Swiz, Samantha Irby, and Lily Be are just a few live-lit luminaries who have had their portraits taken by McQuern. In this exclusive interview, McQuern opens up about what drew her into photography, her influences, and more. Be sure to check out McQuern’s online portfolio here.
What drew you to photography and filmmaking?
I’ve always been interested in photography and filmmaking, since I was a kid. I could show you some teen-era self-portraits and homemade movies that would make you laugh and make me want to hide under the couch. I was the photographer for my high school newspaper, which meant lots of time in the darkroom (where I hid during a pep rally or two). I loved everything about the process. After high school I hardly touched a camera for years and years.
But when I moved to Chicago, comedy drew me into photography and filmmaking again – I produced the stand-up showcase Chicago Underground Comedy (still Tuesday nights for $5 at 9:30 at the Beat Kitchen!) and that got me behind the camera again. Also, I did photography from the front row for my husband Bryan Bowden’s production company’s show “Impress These Apes” for 8 seasons. Then people started asking me to do headshots, and I discovered editing, and I loved it all. I started making short comedy films when Cameron Esposito asked me to do one, realized I could compose music, and from there it kind of snowballed.
Who are your artistic influences and how do they inspire you?
I wish I had a specific photographer I could point to as an idol or inspiration, but, as a self-taught person, I constantly read through tons of photography blogs to constantly learn techniques and give myself creative challenges with the camera, lighting, posing, editing, etc.
As far as filmmaking, I can definitely point to one person whose style I admire and enjoy tremendously – Christopher Guest. I’ve mostly cast comedians in my short films, so while I have a general outline I’m working from, and some scripted lines, I leave lots of room for improvisation. That’s where the gold is.
Even when I was still living in Indiana and before I knew I was going to become a filmmaker, I had watched Waiting for Guffman and Best in Show dozens and dozens of times. Christopher Guest is just awesome.
Making art is hard enough, but it’s become even harder under the Trump administration, who or what inspires you to keep creating?
Honestly, survival might propel me the most – supporting my family in very uncertain times – but also, in political times like this, there’s so much impetus to creatively protest all the corruption and injustice that’s all around us. As they say, social and political upheaval creates powerful and beautiful art.
I do have a few ideas for some politically-tinged photo projects, and I’m always open to amplifying other peoples’ voices and opinions – making short films based on other peoples’ ideas. The older my son gets (he’s three now), the more free time I have, and I definitely want to get back into filmmaking. I’d like to make short films that are comedy but also make a point. Making people laugh with cheap jokes is easy, but I want my work to be meaningful, too.
You’ve photographed numerous live-lit luminaries including Lily Be (The Stoop), Alicia Swiz (Feminist Happy Hour), and Samantha Irby (MEATY, Guts & Glory), what does Chicago’s live-lit community mean to you?
I think it’s so great. I was kind of there as a sideline cheerleader when a lot of the early shows began – with Keith Ecker as he and Alyson Lyon began Essay Fiesta, for example – there’s quite a bit of overlap in the stand-up and storytelling worlds. I would film/photograph shows, etc., and of course, tag along whenever my husband performed as well.
I think it’s important for voices that traditionally are marginalized to be heard – more women, more people of color, more LGBTQ folks – America’s story is not just white people with white people perspectives. I like that storytelling has the capacity to challenge people’s thinking about long-held beliefs, and gives people a chance to see things through the eyes of others. And in general, storytelling is an ancient art – perhaps the oldest. Oral tradition used to be the only way lessons and knowledge and wisdom were passed down to younger generations. So there’s something very natural about it.
What is your favorite book and why?
I suppose the best answer to this is Ray Bradbury’s Rocket Summer (even though I’ve learned some disappointing things about him since then), which I read when I was about 8 or 9, because it led me into the galaxy of science fiction, where my imagination’s been living ever since. My older brothers had a lot of sci-fi, and I just started digging in. The more hard science involved, the better.
I especially love the sub-genre of alternate history – like Harry Turtledove’s books about if the South had won the Civil War, and Philip K. Dick’s Man in the High Castle. I’m still a huge Star Trek and Star Wars fan – I wore a Star Trek comm badge as the brooch on my wedding dress, and instead of “you may kiss the bride,” our wedding officiant said “make it so.”
How old were you when you took the photograph that made you want to be a photographer?
When my oldest niece and nephew were little (I would have been about 14 or 15), I took a lot of photos of them, and I remember the wonderful feeling of the reaction I’d get from family members when they saw them. And I didn’t really know anything about photography at the time – I just had an old Olympus point-and-shoot my mom got for me at a garage sale.
But I loved capturing special moments, and the meaning they held for others, though I never thought of it as a career possibility until I came to Chicago. For a long time I was a freelance writer, but once my son was born, I just couldn’t concentrate enough on writing to continue, and that’s when I decided to make a go of it with photography and filmmaking.
Who is your favorite filmmaker and cinematographer? What makes them unique to you?
I have a lot of respect for Stanley Kubrick, who was also self-taught and was a photographer before he became a filmmaker. He also skipped school to go to the movies a lot, which I am also guilty of (don’t tell my mom). I can’t say I have encyclopedic knowledge of his work, because I’m a scaredy cat and some of his films are a little intense for me, but I know he was a genius with an incredible eye. And I love the rumors from conspiracy theorists that he’s the filmmaker who helped NASA fake the moon landing.
Your photographs are beautifully high-resolution and perfectly saturated, where did you learn your technique?
Thank you! I’m completely self-taught, and I keep teaching myself so my style will become more refined and my capabilities will become broader and broader. I love that it’s a constant pursuit – there’s always more to learn. To be honest, I’m a little insecure because I never had formal training, but that’s what propels me to constantly improve my skills.
I make time for professional development (I recently switched photo and film editing software, for example, so I had to spend time getting fluent with those). It’s a exciting thing to be a polymath in the era of the Internet – there’s a tutorial online for everything you want learn – and I’m not above thumbing through a “Photoshop for Dummies” book, either.
What would you say is your signature touch to your photographs and when did you start using that signature?
I definitely love to play with color – it’s the thing people seem to comment on the most, too, but I try not to go crazy with it. Sometimes people will meet my son for the first time and say “wow, his hair really is that red!” So colorful but natural is the overall goal – and capturing a person’s personality. I’ve learned how important it is to make a person comfortable and confident in front of the camera.
Personally, I hate being photographed, so I’m very sensitive to any nervousness or insecurities my subject might have. And I have a well-honed list of silly faces for people to make during photoshoots, which make us both laugh and relax – hence, more natural photos, capturing people’s sparkle.
Do you have a favorite aperture? If so, which one and why?
When I got my first 50mm lens (it was the cheapo $100 version), I went nuts with the the lower end of the aperture – 1.4 would make for the most beautiful bokeh backgrounds, but then I realized how hard it was to keep both of my subjects’ eyes in focus, if they turned their head the littlest bit. So generally, for a portrait or headshots, I set it at 5.0. Plus, since then I’ve learned to add bokeh while editing, if needed.
If you could photograph anyone in the world who would you choose and why?
This might sound corny, but I wish I could photograph my namesake Grandmother Elizabeth, who passed away before I was born. She was like me in many ways – including being very camera shy. Literally half the photos we have of her are of her hiding in the bathroom during parties whenever a camera came out. Her graduation portrait from IU is beautiful, and one of my favorite photos of all time.
Mostly, I just wish I could have known her, because from what I’m told, I inherited a lot from her. She had a ripping good sense of humor, got an English B.A. in the 1930’s, and loved science fiction. Can you imagine? A woman raised by people who themselves had been raised Amish (but left the Order), was fascinated by the possibility of life on other planets.