Emily Malan — a freelance photographer whose client list stretches from Vogue to Airbnb — believes her work is “more interesting than just a pretty girl and a pretty street.”
Malan’s grandparents were the first Chinese family to settle in Cupertino, the northern California city that now hosts Apple Inc.’s headquarters.
“My grandparents owned a flower farm so there were chrysanthemums and a flower stand that they sold them at — that whole area was just orchards” Malan said. A few generations later, the demographics shifted, the photographer’s high school was “70 percent Asian and 30 percent white.”
Raised in a creative household, Malan first picked up her mulit-media artist mother’s camera at the age of 12.
“Having a family with an artistic background is an advantage,” she said, but her mother warned she’d “rather have me not be an artist because she knows how hard it is.”
Malan looked challenge in the eye, though, enrolling in photography classes at a local community college as a high-schooler to “get a level up” in the field.
She went on to earn her BFA in photography from the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Calif. in 2010.
“I definitely didn’t have a lot of work when I was first starting out” she said. But after spending five years in LA after graduation building her professional network, Emily Malan is in demand. This season, her travel schedule buzzes with jobs in New York, Paris, Hong Kong, Tokyo and Southern California for the Coachella music festival. When I spoke to her, she had just returned from Couture Week in Paris — before that, she attended Men’s Week in Milan.
“You kind of turn into a local,” Malan continued, “immersed in culture, meeting people — you’re on your own most of the time.”
Over years of traveling, the photographer has grown comfortable with the “idea of being a city-dweller.” This notion shines through in her work; some of Malan’s most striking and vibrant photos are her “street style” shots. “I’m really influenced by cities,” she said, noting how some photographers “use the street as a background and the cool person wearing the cool clothing but there’s no story being told with it — I’m more interested in telling a kind-of narrative.”
At November’s Pitti Uomo men’s trade show in Florence, Malan was hired by Barney’s to shoot behind the scenes of the Tim Coppens runway show.
“They wanted to tell a story with it, the runway, the getting ready, the makeup and the hair,” she explained. “I was like: ‘okay I can do this pretty easy, pretty straightforward.’”
But once she arrived backstage, Malan couldn’t help but zoom in on the set’s solely-male atmosphere. “I was the only girl photographer backstage — literally the only one.” She recalled thinking, “‘Why am I the only girl here? What’s going on?’”
As a female who frequently finds herself in a crowd of male-dominated lenses, Malan’s gender has acted as the impetus for the minimization of her talent, work ethic and professionalism.
“One of the guys that shoots for GQ and Vogue, he definitely does not like girls around, backstage he would walk into my shots,” she said of her experience in Florence. Yet she mentioned that another male colleague put his opinion bluntly: “Girls should have a place in the field.”
“People have tried to take advantage of me because they think I’m just some girl,” Malan recounted. Undoubtedly, though, the photographer has earned her prominence as a strategic player behind the runway and in city streets. She’s professional, poised and confident in her capabilities, but despite her success, Malan remains eager to push her potential and refine her artistic eye. “Creativity is inherent but also you need to learn it by looking” she noted. “I try to always say yes to experiences, you never know what’s going to happen — small things do lead to good things.”
The good things keep coming for Malan: In just a week, the photographer will be heading to New York Fashion Week, and at the end of the month, she’ll shoot Paris Fashion Week. Even so, the artist’s impressive schedule doesn’t quench her thirst to look and learn. “I’m curious to know what else is out there,” she remarked. Malan accented the value of this curiosity in aspiring young artists — as well as the virtues of hard work and self worth.
“Don’t think that in order to get where you want to be that you need to sleep with a man,” she said, “and make sure you get your money.”