Athletes, doctors, scientists, and entrepreneurs have all crossed paths with Boston-based photographer Nicole Loeb (née Chan). Most recently, though, her subject was someone who wields the pen and commands the keyboard with considerable success. Poets & Writers, the nation’s largest nonprofit organization serving creative writers, contacted Nicole for help with their November/December issue to close out 2022: photograph New York Times best-selling novelist Celeste Ng.
Without fail, Celeste’s novels earned critical acclaim on arrival. Her debut entry, “Everything I Never Told You,” was named Amazon’s Book of the Year in 2014. Her 2017 follow-up, “Little Fires Everywhere,” topped The New York Times fiction bestseller list for three weeks. It was also adapted into a Hulu miniseries starring Reese Witherspoon and Kerry Washington, extending the author’s influence beyond the publishing space and into the broader entertainment landscape.
The focus of Poet & Writer’s feature, though, would be her most recent novel released in October 2022, “Our Missing Hearts.” The book is centered on a family during a nationalist movement gripping the United States, playing out as a suspenseful thriller in a dystopian setting. It’s a world where the State monitors and surveils all, and dissent is met with disproportionate punishment. While writer Renée H. Shea would supply the words digging into the book and the author’s motivations, Nicole would furnish the photos for the profile.
Since the issue would run toward the end of the year, the editors instructed Nicole to refrain from summery wardrobe choices. Images that waxed nostalgic for the hottest days of the year while readers were deep in the winter trenches just wouldn’t do. That was the only concrete requirement to follow. There was no set shot list, but the magazine wanted a variety of portraits for the issue’s Contents page and Celeste’s feature.
Nicole photographed Celeste in her Cambridge, Massachusetts, home on an overcast day. From start to finish, the whole shoot was surprisingly quick work, made easier by a friendly and amiable subject. It was wrapped in 30 minutes, even while including an outfit change and four to five different background settings. It didn’t hurt that all of them were within walking distance. Some credit for the efficient operation should fall on the shoulders of Victor Zhang, Nicole’s assistant on the day, who also filled the role of “voice-activated light stand” for that half hour.
Throughout the photoshoot, those behind and in front of the camera were in a buoyant mood, a stark departure from the ambiance of Christine’s latest novel. Nicole loved hanging out with the author, using her characteristic verve to guide the proceedings.
I love photographing people. I love asking them quirky questions, getting to know them, and creating a portrait that is vibrant, fresh, and authentic. I ask them about almost anything except what they’re famous for. I ask them about what they do for fun, restaurant recommendations (because I’m a big foodie), and things that most people don’t know about them. I’m genuinely curious and interested, and it’s easy for me to find some sort of common ground.
It may strike some as a roundabout methodology in portraiture. Still, it’s one that Nicole has employed for over a decade when snapping photos of models or real-life subjects. During a separate assignment where Nicole had to elicit genuine laughs, she told the couple on camera to think of the first time they broke wind in front of one another. Laughter ensued while Nicole clicked press on the shutter. It’s an unconventional approach, but the client did use that exact photograph.
See more of Nicole’s work on her website.
Assistant: Victor Zhang
Read more about Nicole on our Published Blog.