The Fanciful Photography of Elise Mesner

By Charles Purdy

Los Angeles–based cross-media artist Elise Mesner is focused on photography these days, but she’s also a painter, an illustrator, a costume designer, a set designer, and a creative director—whose latest projects involve video. Taking inspiration from nature (with a special fondness for fruit), she creates bright, whimsical images with a very California vibe.

“I’m just naturally drawn to certain colors, the bright blue sky, flowers, and fruits,” says Mesner. “That’s the aesthetic I like.”

And it was, in large part, that California aesthetic that drew this Detroit native to Los Angeles in the first place. “It’s funny because when I lived in Detroit, people who looked at my work often thought I was from the West Coast,” Mesner says, “because everything looked like summer—it was colorful and bright. But no, I was deep in snow, and it was two degrees outside. It’s funny how that works.”


Mesner started her creative life as a painter—her father was a painter, and she credits him for passing on his “creative genes.” Primarily self-taught, she was showing her paintings in Detroit, Chicago, and New York not long after she finished high school. After two years of college, she left school to teach painting, offering private lessons (while also working part-time doing accounting and underwriting work).

It was a need to photograph concept paintings for her teaching website that led Mesner to buy a camera. She says, “Once I picked up the camera, I just never put it down. I started taking pictures of everything, and the painting went a little bit on the back burner.”

Because she was living in Detroit, many of her first clients were musicians who hired her to take photographs for album art and promotional material. Then Mesner got into food photography, and eventually she set her sights on California.

Mesner makes her photographs available as a premium contributor to Adobe Stock. She says, “Once I’d joined Adobe Stock, I was able to upload a lot of images I already had. Now when I’m doing shoots, I always think of Stock—and try to gather images. It’s a great way to get clients and allow people in different parts of the world to see your work.” 

“There’s just a lot of things to photograph out here,” she says. “It’s been great for my career, being out here and having all the other creatives around. And obviously the weather is phenomenal…. California drew me in like a magnet. It was like it was meant to be.”


Asked to describe her work, Mesner answers, “That’s a loaded question. Right now, I would say my work is pretty heavy on the photography end; however, I’m still painting, and I love making costumes and doing set design and things like that. I manage to keep my fingers in all of it.”

And all of these disciplines come together in her photography, where you can frequently see a very fine-art style: well-balanced images with thoughtful color palettes.

Mesner’s inspirations have remained constant, and although she acknowledges that she has become more seasoned as a photographer, she says she sees a definite through line in her creative style.

She explains, “People have always said they could tell my work…. And of course my work has progressed and changed as I’ve grown, but the style has really remained the same. My interests and inspirations are the same: fruit and nature and people, and bending the normal and coming up with unique ways of photographing everyday materials. I really enjoy coming up with something that people haven’t seen before…. It’s like I’m creating my own little world of whimsy—but for other people. I’ve heard lately that some of my images look very sexy, and I’m like, ‘Really?! It’s just an orange, I promise.’”


Mesner’s work these days is fairly evenly balanced between commissioned and personal work, but she says that there’s a lot of overlap between the two; she looks for client work that will allow her to infuse her own aesthetic and point of view. She also keeps notebooks to jot down ideas as they come to her—by her bed, in her car, and so on—and often goes back to these notebooks when beginning work on a project.

Mesner cites a recent shoot for National Geographic as a favorite. “National Geographic hired me to do a piece based on Dora Maar, an artist and a muse of Pablo Picasso. I didn’t know too much about her going into the project, which was interesting because I had a five-day deadline to come up with a series inspired by her work…. I thought, ‘OK I’m going to get a bunch of friends, go to the beach, and see what happens.’ I kept the shoot very loose—coming up with things on the spot is where I thrive. It was a fun one!” 

“A lot of times, personal work turns into client work,” she says. “For example, I just got hired by a friend to do an album cover, and after I’d listened to the tracks, I thought of an idea I’d written down, and it really fit the mood and the sound of the music… Brands will often reach out because they want a new visual look, and I can plug in my own aesthetic and turn it into a personal project. I tend to work that way most often—leading with the creative direction, versus a client coming to me with specific ideas.”

Although there are exceptions, Mesner does not do a lot of postproduction work on her photographs, preferring to take advantage of natural lighting, which she says can “do a lot of the work for you.”

In the future, Mesner says a dream project would be to parlay her editorial fashion photography experience into an opportunity to photograph runway shows and behind-the-scenes action at New York Fashion Week. 

Mesner still paints—among her new projects is a series of fabric prints that combine painting and photography, using Adobe Photoshop

She’s also doing more and more video work—as more clients are asking for video assets—as well working on fabric designs and a coffee table book of her work. And it’ll all be created in her signature style.

“David Bowie said it perfectly when he said, ‘Don’t play to the gallery,’” says Mesner. “And what that means is that you have to create art for yourself. That’s why people come to me. It’s almost a disservice to them if I don’t infuse a project with what I feel and what I think would look best….  I try to stick to that—because at the end of the day, it’s not about the money; it’s about the project and the outcome and what goes out there in the world.”

See more of Elise Mesner’s work on her portfolio site.  

May 1, 2019