The “Wanderful Girl” is a modern bohemian. She’s a nomadic bon vivant collecting perspective and style inspiration around the globe. - from "Wanderful: The Modern Bohemian's Guide to Traveling in Style."
Meet Emily Alben, a photographer (who shoots film!), a model (for hip AF brands like Lisa Says Gah), a director (see her aesthetic dreamscape of a video created for Pansy) and a mystical woman who just exudes a sense of connectedness and deep spiritual grounding - she's a Capricorn after all, and my Capricorn rising self can feel that sort of goodness from across the room.
I met Emily when she moved to New Orleans for a brief stint away from Los Angeles - a mutual friend recommended we connect and I'm so incredibly glad that we did! In a serendipitous turn of events her boyfriend was also an old friend of mine from New Orleans too... so we were clearly just meant to know one another.
Andi for Oui We: I've been inspired by your imagery since the day I came across your work - tell us a bit about your approach to photography and how you got started.
Emily: That's so sweet, thank you! I got started in college with a B&W photography class my freshman year. I had never even touched a film camera before, but my whole worldview was opening up - going to Sarah Lawrence, being in New York, so I was able to record everything I was seeing and experiencing for the first time. I had been looking for a new medium to explore after having grown up doing theatre. I loved that I could create my own world through the lens, like a movie in a way, but could be more fearless and remove the ego that I never connected with as an actor, behind the camera.
I started out doing more documentary photography and refined my aesthetic after being introduced to photographers such as William Eggleston, Stephen Shore, and visiting the South for the first time. I love a nostalgic Americana setting, but also reminding viewers that these places I'm capturing do still exist. The final step I guess was adding characters to the story so to speak, so sometimes that's a model, friends, or my boyfriend. My favorite work on a more personal level has come from when I'm traveling through a place for the first time, capturing those in between moments and the confluence of color and light as memory.
AE: You’re the photographer on some days, and often a muse and a model on others - what do you enjoy most about being both behind the lens and in front of the camera?
EA: Behind the lens I love finding the perfect location to communicate a vision, whether it means driving out to the desert for a mars-like atmosphere or my grandma's home with its Eames style architecture. Shooting film for me is simultaneously a meditative and engaged process, paying attention to the light, and how a model and what she's wearing moves and interacts within the space.
In front of the camera I love working with different photographers and seeing how their process differs from mine, as well as playing dress up for different brands. I feel like I'm coming to understand and accept different facets of myself with each shoot where I model, seeing what each photographer is able to evoke.
AE: After spending 2 years traveling America for Wanderful, I'm more in love with American road tripping than ever. You’ve done so much of that - driving across America to move to New Orleans and then back to LA - tell us some stories! Which places surprised you the most?
EA: I could have never imagined falling so in love with West Texas! I had connected with Peach Fuzz Magazine and planned to fly into Austin then drive to Marfa to photograph the Marfa Myths music festival for them. I never had any doubt that the editor in chief Kelly Dugan and I would connect (come to learn we're both photographer/bakers) but looking back it was a bold move to hop in some random chicks car for a 6 hour road trip that I'd never met before! I love how the landscape goes from rolling hills to flat desert with wide open skies.
More recently, I got to share the beauty of Big Sur with my boyfriend for our anniversary. I used to do that drive all the time when I had friends who lived in SF, but sadly they all moved away so it had been a few years. Coincidentally, it was the first weekend Highway 1 was open after the mudslides, so we got to see it in its full glory. Ojai was our first stop, where we visited hidden hot springs and explored orange groves, then made our way to Big Sur where we stayed at Deetjens and had an indulgent dinner at Big Sur Bakery. I think we both could've stayed forever, and I was so happy that the redwoods and ocean vistas had the same effect on him as they'd had on me my first visit.
A few other favorite locations - Los Alamos CA, Holbrook AZ, Tucumcari NM, Yucca Valley CA, Avery Island LA.
AE: What was the earliest trip that inspired you?
EA: When I first got my license at 16 I drove to Anacortes, WA (about 3 hours away from Seattle where I grew up) to visit my friend Candace for this now defunct music festival called "What the Heck Fest," way before Coachella and music festivals in general became what they are today. It's this small island town with everything the Pacific Northwest has to offer - lush woods, rocky beaches, fields of tulips in the spring... but it was really when I first equated driving with this sense of freedom and being able to clear my mind of any stress, and just spend the weekend having this sweet and authentic experience with artists like Kimya Dawson, The Blow, and Calvin Johnson of Beat Happening. We'd all sit cross legged on the floor of a warehouse venue or braided each others hair in the park while bands played, but then the artists would lead games or throw barbecues, so there was no pretension or ego, even though my 16 year old self was still in awe of those twee pioneers.
AE: What cheats do you have for looking good while spending days traveling?
EA: I usually wait until I'm at my destination to put makeup on, so I'll just slather on some serum (I love Biossances Squalene and Rosehip oil with vitamin C), curl my eyelashes to appear more bright eyed than I usually am after hours of traveling, throw on some boy brow from Glossier and I'm good to go. I've also been known to drive with foam curlers in my hair from time to time too.
AE: Tell us about a person you met on your travels that you know you’ll never forget?
EA: My friend Cassie, who lives in Upstate New York with her husband Peter and blue heeler, Hank. She's a self described "Edwardian-wearing, flower-growing, wannabe pre-raphaelite woman" with the lushest longest brunette locks, who looks like she just walked out of a John William Godward painting... but with more tattoos. We connected years back when I worked for The Loved One, a magical vintage company (that sadly no longer exists) but was another wonderful community of inspiring women that I was lucky to be apart of.
When I was in New York a few Autumns ago she invited me to stay in her farmhouse for the night, so I took the Metro North, which I hadn't been on since my Sarah Lawrence days, and she picked me up from the train station in her old gold Volvo. We drove through the most idyllic fall scenes, took photos in the woods, and Peter made us pumpkin pie out of pumpkins he'd grown himself! It's one of the most comforting feelings, and always makes me feel like I'm on the right path when I have the chance to connect with beautiful people like Cassie and her family. This past May I made another trip out to their new home (a converted schoolhouse even deeper Upstate) where we spent the day hiking to a waterfall in the sticky East Coast humidity, and frolicking inside a church in the woods for another photoshoot. When I'm out there I truly feel like I could abandon city life for good... maybe one day I will.
AE: What’s one clothing item you always take with you on your travels?
EA: Not the same dress for every trip, but a dress that can go from day to night, is comfortable, flowy, and usually off the shoulder!
AE: Favorite souvenir?
EA: The rainbow robe from El Cosmico in Marfa, TX.
AE: You work with female owned brands that with a sense of mysticism and romance (our favorite kind over here at Oui We), tell us about some of the projects you've worked on recently.
EA: My favorite too! And those connections have come about pretty organically which I'm thankful for. Recently I've been doing a mix of modeling and photography for two female owned lingerie brands, Pansy Co and Figs. I love the imagery both brands curate on social media, the variety of models they work with, and how they care just as much about the creative direction and mood as the pieces themselves, which is right in line with what I look for in collaborating with a brand!
For Pansy Co I just directed a video of my friend Diana playing harp and roaming around in dry fields of wheat on a hot summer day. My boyfriend composed the music and my friend and fellow photographer Hana Haley edited it all together. It's my favorite thing to receive a few pieces in the mail and create a whole world around them.
AE: For someone interested in becoming more involved in a mystical life, how do you suggest they begin?
EA: Surround yourself with witchy women! I was lucky enough that my godmother (I call her my fairy godmother) introduced me to a kind of subtle clairvoyance at a young age, which taught me to trust my Capricorn intuition. When I moved to Los Angeles, a place where mysticism abounds, I started to get into tarot and even if you don't believe in the cards "telling your future" I like that it makes me think about different situations in my life from a perspective I may not have before.
AE: What’s on your favorites list:
The book on your nightstand: I’ve been so bad about reading lately, but devour every issue of Bon Appetit
Camera you shoot with the most: 35mm Pentax K1000
The app you can’t live without: Instagram, for better or for worse. Just getting into Yoga Glo as a cost effective alternative to joining a studio in LA, and it’s been funny doing yoga while my cat watches me in the morning
An object or charm you keep with you? An opal ring that I wear everyday.
A quote that inspires you? I’m not sure if it’s inspiring so much as centering, but it’s from a scene in Mad Men where Anna Draper reads Don’s Tarot...
"This is the one." "Who's she?" "She's the soul of the world... She says you are part of the world. Air, water, every living thing is connected to you."
"It's a nice thought." "It is." "What does is mean?"
"It means the only thing keeping you from being happy is the belief that you are alone." Anna Draper, Mad Men (S2.12 "The Mountain King")
AE: Lastly: tell us about a moment you knew that magic was real.
EA: Honestly, falling in love!
Follow Emily on Instagram and shop style inspired by her below: