Our favorite photographers: A conversation with Sony Artisan, Vivienne Gucwa: Part II

by Dave Etchells

posted Friday, January 30, 2015 at 3:51 PM EST


We had the chance recently to sit down with Sony Artisan Vivienne Gucwa, a fine art travel photographer and devotee of New York City. In that piece, we got to know a bit of Vivienne and her (inspiring) back-story. This is the second half of that interview, where we talk a bit about Vivienne’s current work, clientele, favorite photos and approach to photography, as well as a bit about the current kit she shoots with. Read on for more about this remarkable young woman and her work, and enjoy some of her ‘fantastical’ photography that she was kind enough to share with us.

If you haven’t seen it already, check out Part I of this interview, and if you like what you see in her photographs below, be sure to check out her recently-published book of her words and pictures about New York City. Vivienne’s photos are beautiful and often dreamlike, and her words bring so much more to the experience as well. If you like her photos below, you’ll love the book full of them. Check it out, but in the meantime, help yourself to Part II of our interview with her!


City lights flicker in the snow and the night unfurls into a fever-dream
cinematic sequence..
Times Square, Midtown Manhattan
Sony SLT-A55V | f/4 | 1/60th | ISO 200

Vivienne’s current work and clientele

Dave: What sort of work do you do these days? I get the impression it’s pretty diverse. You have a lot of New York City photography, and do travel a lot. Do you do some commercial work too? Or is it pretty much as you said, you’re a fine art travel photographer.

Vivienne: For my work, I started out doing New York City photography, and I do very fantastical cityscapes and landscapes. I’m lucky enough that most of the commercial work I do is from clients who find my work and then license it. So entities like Coach, I just did their winter campaign for them. They basically just license my work, or I get commissioned to do my exact style of work. So I’ve done that for The Guardian and other entities.

Dave: Oh great.

Vivienne: In terms of travel, my main client currently is France, so I do a lot of work with France in general, a lot of work with Paris. Again, it’s like them hiring me to do my own sort of very whimsical, fantastical photography. Then it gets used for various things. So it’ll get used for ad campaigns, tourism campaigns. Then the other element is, because I have such a big online audience, 2.5 million, when I do the travel work there’s also that in-the-moment element that I do, in addition to all the other commercial work. So I post quite a bit to social media when I’m there, photos in the moment. But yeah, I think that’s a good run-down.

Dave: Yeah. I’ve seen a lot of your travel stuff. It’s really cool. I think it’s sort of like everyone’s dream. You get to go and stay in these 5-start hotels, and then write about what it’s like, and the behind the scenes, and jumping on the bed, and that kind of thing. [Laughter]

Vivienne: Yeah.

Dave: It’s great, I expect a lot of people enjoy that. With France, is it a tourism board, or some other kind of government entity?

Vivienne: The French Government has their main tourism board. So the main tourism board has partners throughout France, and also in the US. I work directly with the US [people], so it’s basically marketing France and Paris, because Paris operates on its own, to the United States market.


A Tribeca street corner in Lower Manhattan.
Sony SLT-A55V | f/4.5 | 1/200th | ISO 200

Favorite photos, Vivienne’s approach to capturing ‘fantastical’ images

Dave: Are there a couple of favorite photos of yours that you could talk about how they came about, or what were you thinking and what your process was in making them? We’re kind of interested in your process in general. Do you set out on a photo walk with a mission to find something specific? Or is it more that walk and just let the muse dictate, kind of follow your emotion or thinking at the time?

Vivienne: I think that’s the case for my non-snow images – My snow images have sort of taken on a life of their own at this point; it’s become an ongoing project. My non-snow images tend to be … sometimes I’ll have an idea of what I want to capture, but most of the time it’s just still literally me walking around. [Laughter] Sort of like letting inspiration strike.

I am absolutely in love with New York City at night in the snow! I started doing a lot of snow images; I don’t remember the first year that it snowed. We had a super mild winter where it barely snowed, I think it was like two years ago. I just started going out every single snowstorm and trying to capture how I felt every time I walk around in the snowstorm. [The images] just sort of took off online. A lot of them went super viral. So now I’m super into that project. I really love it; I think that there’s this sort of really magical quality at night in New York City when it snows, that just can’t be replicated anywhere else.


Central Park, Manhattan
Sony SLT-A55V | f/4 | 1/200th | ISO 200

So with that I’m definitely on a mission. There are certain themes that I try to capture that are iconic for me in my memory. So one photo that I did was a direct homage to Woody Allen’s poster for Manhattan. It’s like, we were watching Woody Allen films, and I know he’s a problematic character now, but his films and his fantastical representation of New York City had a huge impact on my own imagination. So I’m really interested in stuff like that. Also in super iconic parts of the city. Sometimes I’m definitely going for certain sorts of image motifs with my snow photos. And they’re very difficult to get, which I think is what’s made it a lot more fun as well.


Vivienne's homage to the poster for Woody Allen's Manhatten.
Sutton Place, Midtown Manhattan
Sony SLT-A55V | f/2.8 | 1/80th | ISO 4000

Vivienne: The Woody Allen homage is snowstorm image of the 59th Street Bridge. It was shot from Sutton Place, which is a super iconic place where he shot, where that poster image was shot. So I knew immediately exactly what I wanted. It was actually a really bad snowstorm; really, really, really bad. Like, the snow drifts were up to my knee.

Dave: Oh wow.

Vivienne: Which was unusual for New York. I mean, most of our blizzards sort of dump a lot of snow, but that one was like super-fast. But I knew that that’s what I wanted to do that night. So I went out for that, and then I walked all the way back to the Lower East Side from there, just sort of getting other image motifs that I wanted.

Dave: Yeah, that’s one thing I feel, is that with a lot of amateurs, the difference a lot of times between the great shot and the snapshot is that someone really .. they decided they were going to get a great shot, and they were willing to get up at 4:00 am, or go out in the blizzard, or do whatever. Sometimes it just takes that little bit of extra determination, or putting yourself out there, that’s what it takes to get the shot. What’s another favorite picture that we could tell people about?

Vivienne: My all-time favorite photo that I’ve ever taken is a shot of two people huddled under an umbrella on 5th Avenue, again in another snowstorm.

Dave: Oh, I see. It’s in the book, called Midtown Manhattan.

Vivienne: Yeah.

Dave: I think, there’s two people under an umbrella on the left, and there’s, some taxis and you can see their tail lights on the right. Or is that not the one?

Vivienne: Yeah, that’s the one, with both the red, there’s a lot of red stoplights.

Dave: Yeah.


This is Vivienne's favorite photo, with the figures huddled against the storm, yet pausing for a moment to take it all in. If you want great shots like this, though, you've got to get out in the weather. Vivienne describes below what it was like capturing this one.
(Hint: This isn't snow falling like a gentle blanket...)

Midtown Manhattan
Sony SLT-A99V | f/4 | 1/125th | ISO 4000

Vivienne: Everything. That was a really – it wasn’t that there was a lot of snow on the ground because there wasn’t, but the wind gusts were really crazy, and I had turned away. When I shoot in snow with my camera, I have this whole setup. So my cameras tend to be weatherproof. The lenses aren’t always weatherproof, so I do the little – I don’t know if you guys know the bag trick? Where you cut out a piece, a quarter from a bag, and sort of stretch it over.

So I do that. I kind of like that better than the dedicated rain hoods that they have for cameras, only because I can then have the plastic bag over and it sort of looks like I’m doing some old-fashioned, large format shooting or something. [Laughter] So I have that, I have the lens hood on to kind of secure that in place, and I usually have my camera turned on because I have it on manual setting. The reason why I have the lens hood is so that when the snow blows towards me and the camera, the lens hood kind of stops it from hitting the lens.

I have it pointed down most of the time. In that instance, I had turned around, so where the couple was, I sort of had my back to them, because the wind was so bad that I had to turn around for a split second and kind of compose myself. After I had done that, I turned around. I don’t know why, like I had some kind of feeling or something. I turned around, and this couple just sort of stood there on the corner and huddled together for like, maybe only five seconds. It was so beautiful. I mean, it looks – I couldn’t have posed them better if I had tried.

So I just … I mean despite the snow blowing at me, I just got that shot, and it’s just one my favorite shots I’ve ever taken. I think it encompasses all the feelings I have about snow at night in New York City, how it’s so beautiful. It can be so rough, but even though the snow was blowing right at their faces, because that was the direction [it was coming from], they were just like, ‘We just need to stand here for five seconds and take it in.’ It was just such a beautiful moment.

Dave: That’s really cool. It’s funny, I guess;, I mean on that one you could maybe tell the snow is blowing because it’s just a lot of activity in the air. But you look at these snow pictures, and you think, ‘Oh, how peaceful. You know, it’s just snow drifting down.’ And instead you’re standing out in a howling blizzard, trying to shoot through a plastic bag.

Vivienne: Yeah. [laughter]


Vivienne has made a particular specialty of shooting New York in the snow. The shot above is from the most recent winter storm Juno, which blew through earlier this week. We particularly like this haunting photo of a lone figure trudging up a deserted street. (New York never looks like this!) You can read Vivienne's post about the storm and see a lot more photos of it here.

Lots of love for Sony

Dave: It looks like most of your photographs in the book were shot with the Sony A99, but I see some in there with the A55 and others. What do you shoot with now?

Vivienne: Right now my primary camera is – Well okay, it was the A7R. I just got the A7II. The A7II, I’m pretty much thinking is going to become my, hopefully if it ever snows, my snow camera for this year because of the image stabilization.

Dave: Oh right, right. I wasn’t thinking about that aspect.

Vivienne: I really rely on that because, you know, you’re dealing with heavy winds, all these crazy things happening, snow blowing at the camera. So when I do capture the really candid straight moments, I need to have everything perfect.

I still shoot in manual primarily, making sure that I can capture something that only happens for a second is like, super crucial. So I’m looking forward to actually trying this camera out for this winter, but unfortunately it’s super mild. [Laughter]

Dave: That’s interesting. I was thinking the A7S would be a great camera because it’s so unbelievable in low light, but the stabilization on the A7II is phenomenal.

Vivienne: Yeah.


Madison Square Park, Midtown Manhattan
Sony SLT-A99V | f/4 | 1/30th | ISO 4000

Dave: It really works very well. Are you generally doing more mirrorless these days?

Vivienne: Oh yeah. I’ve shot, I would say that this year most of my photography has been mirrorless. The book only really … the time stamp sort of stopped at the beginning of the year because that’s when I started compiling the book.

Dave: Oh right, so not a lot of your photos at that point could have been mirrorless…

Vivienne: But for all my travel photography this year, it was all mirrorless. So mostly the A7R, I shot – Oh, also the A6000. I took the A6000 with me to a couple of my travel shots, which was interesting. I had taken it with me primarily as like, my fun camera, and I really love that camera a lot, a lot, lot. [Laughter]

The focusing is just beautiful.

Dave: It’s neat that you were a Sony fan first, then they came along and asked you to be one of their Artisans. There’s no question that you’re using Sony because you love the products :-)

Wow, this has been really great, learning about how you shoot, but also some of your back-story. It’s an inspiring journey, kudos to you for coming through it all, and ending up where you are today. I feel like you’re a modern-day version of the classic American success story: Hard work and perseverance, making the most of some opportunities that came your way, and then ultimate success. It’s really inspirational, and I love your photos! I’ve gotten into them so much more as a result of doing this piece; I find some of them (particularly the snow scenes) haunting my memories now. Props to you, thanks for your time!

Vivienne: Thanks!


Support Vivienne, buy her book!

Many thanks to Vivienne for spending so much time with us, and letting us share so many of her wonderful photos with you! If you haven’t already, check out Part I of this feature-length interview, where we hear the (amazing) story of how she went from never having owned a camera to an internationally-recognized photographer in just five years, and by all means, buy her book if you love her photography as much as we do. You’ll not only get a beautifully-produced coffee-table book full of wonderful photos, but will help support Vivienne in her work. (All the Amazon links in this article contain Vivienne’s own affiliate code, so using them will give that much more support :-)

Thanks again to Vivienne, and our warm best wishes for her ongoing career/journey!