Photograph by Lily Seibert
You might know the work of Elena Seibert, but not realize it. She recently photographed writer Jhumpa Lahiri ’89 and Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor for the jackets of their latest books; she shot the portrait of Nora Ephron pulling a turtleneck over her face for her 2006 book of essays I Feel Bad About my Neck, and the image of neurologist and writer Oliver Sacks in headphones for the cover of his 2007 book Musicophilia.
The Ephron and Sacks photos are so recognizable, they could be said to verge on iconic. Seibert has been photographing authors and celebrities of every stripe for more than 20 years, and has developed a reputation for her especially gentle touch with high-profile subjects who are camera-shy. (Seibert also shot this issue’s cover portrait of Dorothy Urman Denburg ’70.)
One of Seibert’s regular clients is publisher Alfred A. Knopf, whose vice president and director of marketing, Nicholas Latimer, calls Seibert his secret weapon. “Lots of people take beautiful photos, but much of what I see out there is sort of the same,” Latimer says. “You can never say that of her photos. It’s always interesting, always different.”
Latimer’s favorite example of why he loves working with Seibert involves the time he sent her to shoot Ephron for her 2006 book. Latimer wanted Ephron shot in black and white, wearing a turtleneck to cover up the aforementioned neck. But Ephron was begging Latimer to skip the photo altogether and just use an illustration of her. “Nora was what I would call an unwilling participant. I promised her it would be quick and painless,” Latimer says. “Still Nora said, ‘I’ll give her 20 minutes, tops!’”
Ephron and Seibert met, spent two hours having a great time, and Seibert came away with a set of gorgeous portraits that Ephron loved. Latimer recalls, “She didn’t like just one, she liked about 30. By then they were best buds. That’s just one of many reasons why Elena is my number-one go-to person.”
Nora Ephron thought so much of Seibert that when her sister, the writer Delia Ephron ’66, needed a photo five years later for the publication of her new book, Nora sent her straight to Seibert. “Nora said, ‘Oh, you have to use Elena,’” Delia Ephron recalls. “And it’s true. If you don’t like to be photographed, she’s really perfect, because you just feel happy all the time you’re with her. She really becomes like a girlfriend. She’s very patient, helpful, generous, and so easy to be with. And then when you look at the photos, it’s like looking at yourself— but a good version of yourself. The best version.”
Seibert calls these evaluations incredibly flattering and says she takes great pains to approach every subject as an individual and to put him or her at ease in front of the camera. “At Barnard I studied ideas and language and humanity, and those are the tools I use in my work,” she says. More specifically, she credits her first English teacher at Barnard with fostering the love of literature that helps her connect with author subjects. “I became an English major because I didn’t know what else to do. I wasn’t the same kind of academic that I felt most of the other students were. So I’m this kid from the suburbs sitting in class, and this woman barrels in, Catharine Stimpson. She was tall, she had frizzy hair, she was clearly braless, she wore flip-flops and baggy jeans.
“I was just floored. I had never experienced such boldness, such brashness; she had such conviction in everything she said,” Seibert says. “I remember sitting [in class] thinking, wow, this is college. I took every class she ever taught for the rest of my [years] there. It really was a major turning point in my life.”
Seibert also spent a year in Paris in a Columbia program, falling in love with the city and awakening her visual sense. Still, she didn’t become a photographer right after college. She worked in TV and considered documentary filmmaking for a few years before her husband, Alan Goodman CC ’74, encouraged her to move toward photography. Starting at age 28, she gave it her full attention, attending the International Center of Photography and spending a year apprenticing with freelance New York photographer Jill Krementz. Then came years photographing for Newsday and The Los Angeles Times. Seibert only left the 24/7 on-call life of a photojournalist for portraiture when her son, Perry, was born in 1994. Perry has just graduated from high school, daughter Lily is 16, and Seibert is at the top of her field, with a whole host of celebrities out there who aren’t interested in ever working with anyone else but Elena Seibert again.