The Soul of a Space: Leslie Williamson’s Interior Portraits

By Jamie Brisick

Photographer Leslie Williamson is fascinated with creative people and the spaces they inhabit, and in her book, Interior Portraits: At Home with Cultural Pioneers and Creative Mavericks, she manages to synthesize the two, make them almost one and the same. Hailing from the Bay area, attuned to a particular brand of Californiana, Leslie has garnered big accolades for her unique and personal approach to photographing interiors, seeing beyond the clutter of the everyday into the soul of a space. Along with her photographs, she writes about her subjects. Her books spur wanderlust, geographically but also internally. They inspire us to rearrange, make things our own. Below are highlights of a recent conversation we had, along with a selection of her work, captioned by Leslie herself.

You are known for your interiors photography but your approach is rather unique. Talk to me about this.

I see homes as a portrait of the person who lives there. So that is how I approach photographing interiors—as a portrait. It is a way of shooting that I have developed over the past ten years, since I began shooting interiors for a personal project, which became my first book, Handcrafted Modern. But I started my photography career 10 years before that photographing people, so undoubtedly it was born out of that in some way too. Many of the decisions I made when I first started shooting Handcrafted Modern, were a conscious decision to not shoot interiors in the way I had been taught in school, which was a more technical, old-school approach. Not that there is anything wrong with that way of shooting, it is just really not my thing. I have always been an emotional, intuitive photographer, so I honor that.

When I shoot, I let myself be led to the parts of homes that make be curious. I love to see the whole room and how it looks overall, but I also want to see the most intimate details of the life that is being lived within its walls. I remember when I was photographing Walter Gropius’ home—only the second home I ever shot—his desk was so full of wonderful objects and I was drawn in by how each object held its own story and wondering what they were. How did those stories reveal who Walter Gropius, the man, really was? When I think back, Walter Gropius’ home was pivotal for me. My approach has grown and developed from there, through both Handcrafted Modern and my second book, Modern Originals. With my latest book, Interior Portraits: At Home with Cultural Pioneers and Creative Mavericks, A California Design Pilgrimage, I feel like I am fully rooted in this way of shooting. It has become my life’s work.

Does it start with the person or the home?

It always starts with the person. More specifically, it is the person’s life and work that draws me to them. There are some rare cases where I will find people in other ways but generally that is how it works. My first two books concentrated on mid-twentieth century design greats, so it was kind of a given their homes would be beautiful and well designed. With Interior Portraits, it was more of a challenge. I was looking for the type of creative mavericks that inspired me when I was growing up in California. It is about a way of living into the essence of who you are and what you believe, so if they did not live up to those criteria, it didn’t matter how great their home was. Luckily, California is filled with these types of people, both in present day and historically—artist Alma Allen, poet Robinson Jeffers, fiber artist Kay Sekimachi, chef Alice Waters—they all inhabit their own particular version of the California Dream in their own unique way.

When you look at your body of work do you see a through line in the people/spaces you photograph?

I am naturally drawn to creative types, so artists, designers, and architects are very well represented in my body of work. But I think the most important through line is that all the spaces I have photographed are a visual personification of the people themselves. The great design of their home is undeniable but it goes beyond that. It is about manifesting personality through space and objects.

Has your work inspired your own living space?

I’ve been a nomad for over two years, so I don’t have a traditional living space of my own at the moment. But I do subscribe to the philosophy of the types of homes I photograph, in that everything I own has a memory attached to it and somehow tells the story of my own life. I am a very sentimental, nostalgic person.


4. Artists Evan Shively and Madeleine Fitzpatrick's unconventional home in Marshall centers around a kitchen/greenhouse that was built to bridge their two living spaces (originally two warehouse buildings) together to ingenious effect.


6. Every time I look at Alma Allen's living room in Joshua Tree, I always think of it as a landscape — an Alma Allen interior landscape — because it is speaking his own unique visual language. There really is no one else this living room could belong to.


5. Every surface of Fiber artist Kay Sekimachi's Berkeley home is carefully arranged with a mix of her own work as well as work by friends and contemporaries alike. The two pieces hanging on the wall here are Kay's homage to Agnes Martin, surrounded by some of her small twine pieces an all sitting on a Japanese Tensu cabinet — she has quite a collection of those, too.


7. This image of architect Charles Moore's Sea Ranch Condo at sunset somehow got edited out of the final version of his chapter in Interior Portraits. I had shot this room at every possible time of day and to my frustration, the sunset images just did not work in the book. It is such a shame. What is more Californian than a seaside sunset?

How did the writing element come in?

The writing was actually not my original plan when I began making my first book. I had no intention of writing Handcrafted Modern when I started out. But financially it ended up being the smartest thing to do, since my entire budget went to photography and travel expenses. But there is some magic bullet for me in the combination of photographing these spaces and then being able to share these people’s stories and why I love them and their home in my own words. Photography is like breathing to me. Writing is a challenge. But the marrying of the two in my books has been a revelation. I am so grateful that I get to do both.

What does a typical year in your life look like?

Last year I was on the road for at least half the year. Every few weeks I am traveling somewhere—generally for photo shoots either for clients or for my books. When I am working on writing one of my books, I go away to write in solitude in a cabin on the coast, so I am away for that too. So I travel. A lot. After all, houses can’t come to you.


8. Artist Roy McMakin's outdoor veranda off his tiny bungalow in San Diego is his preferred spot to begin his day by answering emails en plein air. As I was shooting the exteriors of his home, I kept noticing the reflection on the exterior window that became layer upon layer of trees. I just love the image it creates. It makes me want to climb in.