Below is a condensed and edited version of my conversation with Lisa Warninger, the blogger and photographer behind the popular Portland-based street style blog Urban Weeds. We spoke via Skype on 4/20/2012.
Brent: Let’s start with the real basic stuff: When and why did you start Urban Weeds?
Lisa: Urban Weeds started in 2009, [when] a girl named Chelsea Fuss, a professional blogger, who does Frolic Blog, approached me [about starting one]. We had worked together before on several projects, and she saw a need for a street style blog here in Portland. So, I said, “Yes,” and we started a day or two later. She came up with the name, and she got the blog off the ground, since she is a professional blogger. Then after a while, there didn’t really need to be both of us [working on it]. [Eventually] she moved to Sweden and passed the blog to me.
B: You describe Chelsea as a professional blogger. Would you consider yourself a professional blogger these days as well?
L: Since it’s not my main profession [or main source of income], I don’t. But I wouldn’t categorize myself as an amateur blogger [either].
B: Is the line between professional and amateur an easy one to even navigate these days?
L: I don’t think it is easy to tell [the difference] anymore. It seems like every day there are dozens and dozens of new blogs, and a lot [of them] are started with the sole purpose of generating money. [But] there are [also ones] generated just as personal blogs. Then, finally, there [are] blogs like my blog, [that weren’t started] to make money, [but nonetheless generate some income]. We started [this blog], because we love it. But since I spend so much time on it, it has to generate some income in order to make sense to continue it. So, it’s somewhere in the middle.
B: What sources of income do you have through the blog?
L: Well, it’s a great marketing tool. I do receive a lot of work from the people who find me through Urban Weeds.
B: You work as a commercial photographer?
L: Yeah. Street style is very popular right now, and pretty much every publication has [a] street style [section]. Since I’m the only one doing that here in Portland, any of those publications that want content from Portland hire me to create it for them.
B: You’re the Portland street style go-to person.
L: [That’s] right. Yeah.
B: Have you noticed other Portland street style blogs popping up every once in a while, or are you the only one out there who seems to be doing this?
L: They come and they go. About a year after Urban Weeds started, some of the local publications started sending their photographers out to do street style too. I don’t know if I inspired them to do that, or if street style’s just a popular thing to have on sites. But there are other sources of street style now here in Portland. They tend to come up and die out pretty quickly.
B: Yeah, I’ve noticed that with Philly too. If you type “Philadelphia street style blogger” it will come up with 5 or 6 sites, but almost none of them are still active.
L: How long have you been doing your blog?
B: This is three weeks now.
L: As you know, it’s a little more difficult to find and create content [than people might expect]. And to do that consistently can be a challenge when you have a full time job. I [myself] don’t actually have a lot of time to work on Urban Weeds. I used to post 5 times a week, and lately it seems like I’m lucky to get out posts [at all]. I always have the goal of posting five times a week, but it’s hard for me to get to it. Primarily I’m a full time commercial photographer.
B: So what is your blogging routine like?
L: Well, first I typically finish up everything I need to do for my real clients. And then it’s always on my [to-do] list for the day. If I can finish things up enough, I’ll add a post to the blog. Shooting and posting I have to do separately. I typically plan shoot days where I’ll go out, and I’ll spend a full day shooting for Urban Weeds, and gather a whole bunch of content that I can later post. But since I do the black and white portrait as well as full length—and those are both fully retouched and professionally edited—the actual posting of the content takes me a long time as well. Typically, for each post, it takes me about an hour to shoot, or to find someone to shoot and photograph them.
B: An hour per person, you mean?
L: Yeah. Here in Portland there are a lot of stylish people, but when you’re on the street walking around, trying to find somebody, it’s like “[Hey], where did they go?”
B: So, do you end up revisiting a lot of the same spots?
L: I do. I usually go back to the spots that I find people in. There are certain areas around town that have more interesting styles than others. Typically designers and artists tend to dress really well, and typically they are going to be the ones who are out and about at 3 o’clock in the afternoon. And a lot of times they are out and about at coffee houses, so I tend to go around to those places and find people there. [As a result], there tend to be a disproportionate number of artists and designers [on the blog].
B: I notice that as I go out and really pay attention to what people are wearing, it [has begun to affect] the way that I look at how people dress and present themselves in general. I find it really hard to turn that assessing peoples’ outfits thing off.
L: Oh, if you continue it, you never stop that. It’s constant! I’m constantly looking at people and thinking about what they’re wearing. That never goes away.
B: That’s sort of what I suspected. So, do you have your camera with you most of the time?
L: No. I don’t actually. When I’m not on duty for shooting Urban Weeds I like to put the camera away and give myself a break.
B: Are you still shooting in your head?
L: Yeah. I am. And then I wish I had the camera there, and I’m like, “No! I need to stop!”
B: So you’ve been doing this for three years now. Do you find yourself [shooting] a lot of the same people [over and over again]?
L: I actually have never reposted the same person.
B: Is that intentional, or did it just work out that way?
L: That is intentional, actually. I wanted to see how long I could go without repeating somebody. So far so good. But Portland’s not that big, so eventually it’s going to have to come back around.
B: [So, a few days ago] I posted about how you always do this black and white shot with a square frame, and then you do a full-length shot in color beneath it. For me it seems like the black and white [portrait] is more about the person and the full-length shot is more about the situation they’re in. [And] it’s more about the clothes themselves. Something different is expressed in the two images. I’m curious about your idea behind that.
L: Yeah, that’s exactly right. I’m a photographer primarily, and what threw me into the love of photography is people. So I want people to see the black and white portrait first and then scroll down and see what they’re wearing. And I thought it would be kind of fun for people too, to wonder what they’re wearing and scroll down and find out.
B: So, what kinds of opportunities has this blog opened up for you?
L: It certainly has helped me connect with a lot of other bloggers. I [also] spoke at a blogging convention last year, and that was really fun. It was Alt Summit, a blogging conference in Salt Lake City [that is primarily focused on] style and design blogs. Urban Weeds has a weird position, because it’s not like other high-end style and design blogs, like some of the blogs that come out of New York. Portland will never be anything like New York, and I can only get what people in Portland are wearing. That tends to be a lot more low-key [than what people are wearing in New York], and [for] a lot of people who are strictly looking for fashion, Urban Weeds isn’t going to be the blog for them. But [other people, for example,] artists and designers that are living across the country, who don’t have a designer wardrobe, they love the blog, and find it to be really inspiring for the way they dress. Have you heard of Street Style News?
L: Whenever I do post [an image], it typically hits the number one [position] for a while [on Street Style News’ “Daily Most Popular” list], and it’s not infrequent that it’s one of the top ten posts of the day. [This] really surprises me a lot, because [the rest of the top posts will be in places] like New York, Paris, and Tokyo, and [then there’s] the little Portland post.
B: Maybe people are looking for something a little bit different from that.
L: Yeah. It’s definitely a little bit different.
B: Do you mind me asking you how many pageviews you get?
L: Well, typically I get around 100,000 per month. And then that number keeps climbing.
B: Does it matter to you if people are looking at it?
L: Well it does now, actually, because it take[s] so much of my time to do it. I’m at a point where I’m not going to quit doing Urban Weeds, but I need to either figure out a way where I can dedicate more time to it and have it pay me more somehow, or maybe figure out a way to scale it back and be content with that. I’m not quite sure what to do yet.
B: So in terms of sponsorships on your web site and paid content, do you have any personal policies about what you’ll put up on there, or who you will allow to advertise through you?
L: Well, yeah. It really depends on what they’re asking me to do. I always consider any opportunity for the blog to make some money, just because it needs to bring in some money. And if you are dedicating your time to something you need to have it pay you, especially with how much time it takes over the years. So any request I get, I typically do consider it, but as the blog grows I get a lot more unreasonable requests from companies that don’t seem legitimate.
B: What kind of thing would constitute an unreasonable request?
L: Like doing a sponsored post in the content of Urban Weeds, and then including five links to their products, and then they’re going to pay me by sending me a bottle of shampoo. Um, no. I’m not going to do that. And then I get requests from a lot of places that say, “We want you to send us pictures of you in different outfits,” and [I say] “No, that’s not what I’m doing.” There [are] a lot of requests for stuff that just isn’t going to happen. But [then] there are [things] link link exchanges from different companies, which I [have] decided to go ahead and do, and they [have been] great. They [are] always super professional and [pay] me right away, and [in accordance with my actual] sponsorship rate. So I’m happy with that.
B: Do you have any problems with people stealing your images or reposting your content without giving any kind of credit to you?
L: As a photographer, that’s a constant issue. I used to be very pro-crediting. I still am. And it used to really upset me when I’d see my images, that I worked so hard to create, just on some random blog with no credit [given], especially if it’s a blog where the blogger is actually making money off that content. Then it really bothers me. A lot of people repost the outfits on their style blogs, and there’s this whole group of young girls [who] post their outfits and write about their day. They’re more personal blogs, and they’re not sponsored. If they repost anything that doesn’t bother me. But when it’s an actual style blog that’s reposting without permission it does get to me sometimes. Not to mention it’s illegal.
B: So you mentioned before that you’ve met a lot of bloggers through Urban Weeds. Do you see street style or fashion blogging as a kind of community that you’re a part of?
L: Oh definitely. At least it’s a community [in the sense that] we all know each other. I haven’t really met anyone that is also a street style photographer, but some of them have been really really awesome, and we cheer [each other] on. [Some bloggers, however,] are just too big to really connect with the smaller city street style bloggers, [and that’s fine]. I don’t think they even talk to each other.
B: That could be. Although, they must run into each other when they’re all outside New York Fashion Week or whatever.
B: Have you done any of those kinds of major fashion events?
L: No, I haven’t. I don’t think that’s really the soul of Urban Weeds. It’s definitely a weedy little town over here.
B: I like that about Portland.
L: It’s charming. I really enjoy it here.
B: I wonder, does shooting outside big fashion shows really count as street style [anyway]?
L: You know, I don’t know. It’s an interesting question, though, especially when [many of us] are [out] walking around looking for people. But at the same time, [I can understand why people would do that], because [street style photography] is [a] really hard [thing to do]. It’s a lot harder than I thought to find good people to show on your site. So if there’s an event here that I know is going to have a lot of stylish people then I’ll probably go stand outside that too.
B: Do you have a sort of personal criteria to determine a stylish person? Or is it instinct? How do you choose someone for your pictures?
L: I tend to just walk around and just look for something that catches my eye. There has to be something special about [an outfit]. It has to fit well. Or be styled in an interesting way, where I [think to myself] “That’s interesting!” And you don’t have a lot of time to decide whether to shoot them or not. You just have to go get them before they walk away. So I guess part of it is instinct. But then the worst is [when] you stop someone and [think] “Oh, never mind!”
B: Do you find yourself taking pictures of people that you end up not using fairly often?
L: It’s really rare. It’s such a small town, that I feel really bad if I don’t post somebody. So, I usually try to be sure that I can at least post that before I stop them. And certainly not every post is that great, but… I try to make sure that I don’t waste my time with something that just isn’t good.
B: What advice would you give to a budding street style blogger about how to get into this game?
L: Gosh, well it’s pretty easy. You just go out on the street with a camera, [and] post some pictures. It’s a really straightforward process. So, the advice I’d give to someone else is the same advice I’d give to myself: Be consistent. [And] be nice to people. I don’t think anyone benefits from a rude photographer. [Also] don’t be weird when you approach people.
B: What’s your approach?
L: I usually just stop them and I say, “Hey, I love what you’re wearing. And I shoot a street style blog here in Portland, and I would love to take your photo. Are you up for that?” And usually people are like, “You love what I’m wearing? That’s awesome! Sure I’ll be on your site.” It typically works out.