Industry News

The Harrowing Path to a Wedding and Portrait Photographer’s Dream Studio

December 1, 2017

By Libby Peterson

All Photos © Elizabeth Messina

Elizabeth Messina may have photographed weddings and stylized shoots all over the globe, but the heart and soul of her business is situated between the walls of her home studio. Here, she tells us how she transformed tragic damage into a dream workspace, ultimately revitalizing her vision as an artist and her personal life at home.

Built-in library shelves frame the entrance to the studio bathroom.

You just completed a new workspace, but we understand the circumstances of its conception were harrowing—can you tell us about what happened?

Elizabeth Messina: In the early morning hours of May 24, 2015, the studio in my Southern California home, which was built in the 1920s, was destroyed in a fire. I was on location shooting at the time at a wedding on the East Coast, but my husband and three children were sleeping as an electrical fire began inside the walls of our detached garage. When my husband awoke to the sound of an alarm, he was a bit disoriented and thought someone was breaking into my studio, so he went outside with a baseball bat in hand. As he opened the door to my studio, he was hit with a black plume of smoke. When he closed the door and took a step back, he saw flames shooting out of the roof. He began spraying water from the garden hose and yelled to the kids to call 911. A dozen or so firemen descended upon my home within minutes, and my husband told them to do anything they could to save my negatives. Fortunately, they were able to save my life’s work.

Messina’s eclectic office is full of Elsie Green antiques and mementos from her travels.

How did you tackle your loss with the idea of a new space?

EM: Initially, I felt incredible grief, both at the loss I saw before my eyes and at the loss that could have been. Everything after that moved in slow motion. The garage was condemned and sat charred and in disarray for more than six months. We had to carefully photograph and catalog all of the damage. Our home was considered historic, so no changes could be made without the approval of both city planning and the historical department. Luckily, we had both personal and business insurance, and our entire loss was covered.

Once I realized we would be able to rebuild, I began to see the light at the end of the tunnel and started working with an architect. I began to sketch ideas and gather inspiration both from magazines and online. I had an extensive secret Pinterest board with all my design dreams. This new space had to be extremely functional so that I could produce photo shoots and work on post-production, as well as be cozy and accessible for our day-to-day life. I think the aesthetics of a space affect the way you feel: I wanted to feel happy and peaceful.

A claw foot tub serves as a perfect spot for commercial shoots.

What were the planning stages like?

EM: I was honestly consumed by the planning and design. First, we had to have a “legal” two-car garage to be compliant with city guidelines, with oversized carriage doors, 10-foot ceilings and gray plaster, which would also need to function as my main shooting space.

The rest of the space had to be carefully planned out, and the entire structure could not be more than 1,000 square feet. The garage/studio took up 400 square feet, and the remaining 600 square feet would include a library and sitting room, a bathroom, a meeting space, an office, a laundry room and a storage room. I had to be very creative in my design layout to get all of these spaces to flow and be functional within such a small footprint. I quickly realized I needed to think about the final space, furniture and all, while I made design decisions about the structure. There was no room for error—every inch had to be thoughtfully planned. I consulted with my friend and amazing stylist Anne Sage.

A Cisco Home sofa and matching ottoman serve as a hang out spot for clients.

What were some of the things that were especially important to have?

EM: I knew I wanted a clean, modern space with high ceilings—high ceilings help a small space feel larger, and that was crucial. I also needed as many windows as possible. As a natural-light lover, I wanted to be able to make photographs throughout my studio.

I have always had a great love of vintage antique lighting and spent a lot of time considering how I would create a modern workspace with antique accents to add the warmth of home and history. I wanted a claw-foot tub, both to relax in after a long shoot and to use during my own shoots. The bathroom is probably the most used shoot space and personal room in the entire rebuild.

An antique French feast table (often stacked high with photos) and chairs from Elsie Green are the heart of the studio.

The center of my home studio has a long, French feast table with a collection of wonderful antique French chairs from Elsie Green. Under the window sits a Layla Grayce sideboard that complements the French antiques and hides a collection of dishes and styling props for my photo shoots. This meeting area also functions as a space for special family dinners. There is also an antique French wrought-iron bed in the main shoot space. The bed has the most luxurious velvet blankets and bedding by Bella Notte Linens. I use it all the time for family and boudoir shoots, and it is a perfect guest bed for the occasional out-of-town visitor.

A Layla Grayce bench sits at the base of vintage bed piled with bedding from Bella Notte Linens in the main shoot space.

The bed is perfect for family portraits and couples in love, like these newlyweds.

The library and sitting room has a beautifully handmade, custom linen couch by Cisco Home with a matching ottoman, and it’s nestled beneath a bay window. I had custom roman shades made by Claudia Clobes Yudis, the lead designer at Urban Loft, with the same Cisco Home linen that covered the sofa covering the bay window. Adjacent to the sofa is a large, floor-to-ceiling, built-in library. The shelves are filled with treasures from our family’s travels and life. It’s a functional sanctuary and also a place where models and clients can relax, as well as a place where I can snuggle with my children in the evenings. There is a TV as well, but it is perfectly hidden behind artwork.

A laundry room is hidden behind doors.

Hidden behind two doors is a custom laundry room with quartz counters and a brass pot filler, perfect for filling flower pots or hosting an art class. And across from the laundry is a pair of pocket doors that lead into my computer workspace. My husband and I share a desk beneath a large historic map of Paris. An antique apothecary cabinet hides all my snacks, tape, paper and other materials. A simple round jute rug is the perfect spot for our dogs or kids to hang out while we are trying to get work done.

A collection of props, a record player and a velvet gray bench from Layla Grayce.

Throughout the space you’ll notice all the doors have antique hardware and mortise locks—they all function with skeleton keys. Whenever I couldn’t find the correct antique piece, I found the House of Antique Hardware to be an incredible resource. I also collected antique chandeliers over the course of a year that I put to use as well. I loved being able to consider every detail, both in design and function. Each was truly a labor of love.

An Aidan Gray wood chandelier resides above lush greenery created by floral designer Kim of Art with Nature.

What carried over from your old space?

EM: My old space was functional but not ideal in many ways. The ceiling had only been 7 1/2 feet high before the fire. All my prop and business storage was on my property, and I’ve since relocated all of my negatives to an off-site storage facility. This gives me more functional space and more peace of mind.

As a working mother, having a home/work space is important to me. I love being able to photograph or edit all day and still be there when my children get home from school. My children will run in during an editorial shoot and hang out while I make art. Or sometimes I will be editing a job while they lay on the floor doing homework next to me. I love this blending of work and life.

A father and son share an embrace in front of the gray wall.

Any obstacles along the way?

EM: There were so many obstacles. Remember my husband and the firemen had saved my negatives, but they had been exposed to soot and moisture in the process. We painstakingly spent months re-sleeving every single negative before carefully cataloging and refining them.

The entire process of rebuilding the studio took nearly two years and unimaginable patience. It took some time for my architect to complete the design of the structure while keeping all of my notes and needs in mind. The insurance process was slow and difficult, and we could not start to rebuild without coming to some agreement with them. The permit process was slow as well, but now I can honestly say it was all worth it. The garage and studio are now nicer than our home!

Messina often pulls from her personal prop collection, like this vintage mirror and Twigs & Honey headpiece.

How’s business in the new space?

EM: Pouring so much energy and thought into this space has been very rewarding. I am shooting more and more in my new studio—including several engagement shoots, pregnancy, boudoir and family shoots. I have also done a couple of ad campaigns and editorial shoots in it. It feels wonderful to work in a space I designed myself and that functions the way I need it to. Having this space literally at my fingertips allows me to be more thoughtful about when and how much I travel. Many of my clients want to come to my space now. There is nothing quite as special as being creative and shooting in my space and then wandering a few steps into my house to have dinner with my family. It is literally the best of both worlds.

Small Budget, Big Ideas

There are so many things you can do on a small budget to turn a space into a dream studio. Here are some ideas to help you get going.

Start A Mood Board

I suggest beginning a file or secret Pinterest board to organize your ideas. I found that incredibly helpful in honing my design and vision for the space.

Add A Fresh Coat Of Paint

Before I was lucky enough to have the gray plaster walls of my dreams, I would photograph in my son’s room in my house because it had a big beautiful window and gray-green walls. I took many portraits in there—you’d never know it was a child’s room.

Keep Only What You Love

I used to have way too much stuff in my studio, and now I am very thoughtful about what I bring into my space. The simpler, the better.

I am a collector of beautiful objects so the shelves in my library and sitting room act as a perfect spot to showcase some of my favorites, but I try to keep much of the rest of my space completely uncluttered.

A Good Chair Or Stool Can Do Wonders

You could pick one up at a flea market and recover it without spending a lot of money. Having a good aesthetic comes from within, not from your pocketbook.

Related: Three Photographers, Three Portable Studios