by Crystal Sands
Aliza Eliazarov is well known for her farm animal photography. She’s an award-winning photographer who has been published in major publications, such as Atlantic, Washington Post, and Modern Farmer. When I reviewed her book On the Farm for the Winter issue of Farmer-ish, I was mesmerized by her ability to capture the personality of a farm animal in photograph, her skill at conveying to the world something I thought only a certain kind of farmer might be able to see.
When I learned that Eliazarov’s work had been selected by the United States Postal Service for a series of postage stamps on heritage breed farm animals, I reached out for an interview. We began our conversation by focusing on the postage stamps. We ended our conversation with a focus on Eliazarov’s beautiful process as an animal photographer.
I asked Eliazarov how she found out about the postage stamps; she said she was actually sitting on the floor of the Nashville Convention Center, taking a break and catching her breath from a busy shoot week, when she saw she had a confidential email from the USPS. She thought, at first, there must have been some kind of issue with her mail, but when she opened the email, she discovered she was being asked to work on a stamp project. The USPS wanted to know if she was interested. She was.
Eliazarov said the process took about two years, start to finish, but she saw the stamps as a way to bring attention to heritage breed farm animals, something she’s passionate about. The stamps feature heritage breeds from the United States, such as the Wyandotte chicken, a breed of chicken developed in the 1870s in the Eastern United States and the American Cream Draft Horse, the only draft horse native to the United States. The stamps are beautiful and will be available to the public May 17, 2021.
When I study Eliazarov’s photographs for the stamps, for her book, and for her other publications, I am moved by the way she is somehow able to capture the emotions of the animals she photographs. When I tell people that I can see if my chickens are happy or worried or angry by their expressions, I am often met with skepticism, but Eliazarov’s photographs show the world the emotions of farm animals. I wanted to find out how she did this.
She says she begins her creative process by finding the right farmers–the ones with the stories. She also considers how docile the animals are, which is related to how frequently they are handled by people. Indoor shooting spaces are also a must. When she arrives on their farms, she listens to the farmers’ stories. She says the photo shoot is a collaboration between her, the animals, and the farmers. “My goal,” she says, “is to connect people with these animals, to help them see these animals in a way they maybe haven’t before.”
The process then turns to set-up. She needs to be able to control the lighting, so her team will work to build a set on location. This can take up to two hours, and, sometimes, she will get just a few seconds of photographs. The animals decide how long the photo shoot will last.
After the set is built and the animal, who the farmer thinks will do well with the process, is brought onto the set, it’s time for Eliazarov to sit. She brings treats, of course, but she sits with the animals for a while in the strange space the animals find themselves in. She sits quietly and observes. It is then, of course, that the animals observe her. Animals need to know your heart, and this time gives them an opportunity to know hers. But, during this time, Eliazarov also studies the beauty of the animal, deciding what shots she needs to take to capture that beauty. In our interview, she mentioned the curve of the eyelashes or the shine of the feathers, and I could hear the passion in her voice for the artistry that is that animal.
Eliazarov says there’s a moment when she knows she “got the shot,” and, later, when she processes her photographs, she’s always right. It’s a “visceral feeling,” she says. In my study of writers’ processes, I have heard similar phrasing when a writer speaks about writing something magnificent. I love that I get to interview creatives about their processes. The great creatives have moments of magic, and Eliazarov is no exception.
One of the sweetest stories she told me during the interview is that every shoot has a “surprise, breakout super model”–an animal who just decides to love the camera, and she says the farmers are almost always surprised by who it is.
“Every sentient being has a personality,” she says, and she captures that with her camera and shares it with the world.
This year, Farmer-ish is launching a Farmers Write Project to be celebrated in our Winter Solstice issue for 2021. Aliza Eliazarov’s stamps are a perfect fit for our project, as are a series of postcards featuring farm animals that will soon be available for purchase on her website. Follow our Facebook page for more details about an exciting giveaway featuring Aliza’s book, On the Farm, and her stamps.
photo credit: Steven Zeswitz