Instagram can make you feel inspired, even happy, if you know the right places to look, like former editor Susan Kaufman’s feed. I have known Susan, though not very well, throughout our magazine careers; lastly she was the founding editor of People‘s popular Style Watch magazine. Rather by coincidence (and now by design), Susan started chronicling the areas around her two homes in New York City and Amagansett on Instagram, and in the process created a second career by highlighting the beauty on streets she had walked down but ignored for years. She sells her photos to prestige real estate companies, guest blogs for sites, and has new partnerships on the horizon. Best days to shoot? Non-sunny days (too many shadows). Most popular season? Anything with snow (she bundles up and runs out the door when the first flakes start to fall.) Here she shares what she loves about her new job, the women who inspire her and her five wardrobe go-tos she relies on to get the shot.
What was your career path to date? I worked in magazines my whole life. I was a fashion editor–I did shoots, styling, production. And then I became the founding editor of People Style Watch, so I oversaw all the writing and ideas, worked on the business and partnerships, and all kinds of adult responsible things. From Glamour, to Mademoiselle, to US Weekly, to People, to Style Watch–I was in the industry for 30 plus years.
When the publishing industry sort of imploded, I knew that time was going to come where I had to make a switch into something else. While I was the editor at Style Watch Instagram started happening. I couldn’t relate to Twitter. But with Instagram I thought, “Here’s something I can relate to because it’s a visual, and it’s like putting a gallery together.” So I started taking pictures on it probably 2012, ’13, while I was still working.
Backing up, I did photography professionally while I was at Mademoiselle and Glamour.
What kind of photography? Fashion and beauty. When I was at Mademoiselle in the early days I was the editor of a lot of front of book shoots. I would work with these young photographers, I would book the models, style the clothes, find the location, do everything except take the picture.
When I worked with a good photographer it was all lovely, and when I worked with someone who didn’t know what they were doing I felt like, “You know what, just give me the camera. Let me take the picture.” At a certain point I decided, “I’ve just got to learn how to do this.” So I went out with a photographer friend, Christopher Micaud, and I bought a Nikon with a portrait lens. He showed me how to use it with f-stops, and I took one year at Parsons and I learned printing and all of that.
They started giving me jobs at Mademoiselle, and when I moved to Glamour I said, “You know one of the contingencies for coming here is that you let me shoot.” They said, “Absolutely.” So I started shooting front of book stories, fashion and beauty. And then I did some actual large portfolios.
That’s amazing because I can’t think of one editor who is also a photographer. Can you imagine what your Instagram would have been like then if had existed? I think about that because I used to do my own little books. I had this machine where you put the slide in, and then you pulled out this Polaroid. The quality of the Polaroid was just gorgeous; I would make these little books. I would have slides of Harbor Island–the beautiful little candy-colored cottages and details. They were almost like mini Instagrams.
Do you still have them? I do. But the ability to take pictures on this phone is a revelation. When I was at Style Watch, the other thing that was the aligning was the Fitbit came out. I got on this kick where I was wearing my Fitbit and was like, “I’ve got to walk.” Before and after work, or if I was going on an appointment somewhere, I would start taking different routes and walking.
All the sudden I’m walking through the West Village and taking a different subway to work and noticing brownstones, doorways–beautiful parts of New York that I’ve lived in all my life and I never really looked at. I started doing “Door of the Day”. I’d run into people at fashion shows and they’re like, “Oh, I love your Instagram, you do that Door of the Day thing.”
When I stopped working and I had time, I was walking, looking, and falling in love with New York again. That’s kind of the genesis of it.
How do you describe your photography? What genre is it? It’s hard to categorize. It’s not really about the architecture–it’s about the charm. I hashtag all of my pictures #socharming because that’s the context. It has to have some charm to it, some details, some prettiness, some human side of New York and the Hamptons, and sort of old-world charm. But I guess it could fall into travel, lifestyle, architecture.
Beyond that, growing up I always loved architecture and I’ve always been attracted to anything that is aesthetically pleasing or beautiful design-wise. And the discovery process of walking through the West Village and reading the plaques of who lived somewhere. Or discovering these little streets. Then I go home and I Google and get all kinds of information. There’s this process of discovery, and history, and learning something new. All those things that make it really fun and exciting.
What do you love about doing it the most? Having been in magazines and being a visual person, to have control over this gallery that is a total expression of what I personally like, and what my aesthetic is, and treating it almost like a little mini magazine where I can look at the “layout”. You get instant feedback. you start realizing what people are responding to, and you can almost predict what’s going to do well and what’s not.
Everyone is looking for purpose in life, and you think, “Oh, it’s just Instagram. What’s the point of all this?” But, honestly what’s going on in the world is so depressing, at the very least I’m putting out something beautiful and positive every day, and I hear that feedback from so many people.
And I got this comment from this woman in Sydney, Australia. She’s wrote, “You’re the first thing I look at when I wake up. And I always go to that. And my husband thinks I’m crazy, but it makes me so happy.” Nothing could make me happier than getting a comment like that.
I also get a lot direct messages, “I’m coming to the Hamptons, I’m coming to New York, where should I go?” I’ve become a mini tour guide, and have made up templates for specific streets, buildings.
Mini walking tours! What inspires you? Beauty. I also like things that have history and a backstory to them.
You spend your time between Greenwich Village and Amagansett, how does the dichotomy of being in these two different places affect your work? The Hamptons are wide open–there’s sky, there’s air, there’s the beauty of nature, there’s the beach. I feel that Sag Harbor is the West Village of the Hamptons. It’s where I love to stroll. I love the smaller houses, I love cottages. There’s again that sense of history. And the light there is just…that’s why painters have always gravitated there, the light is so beautiful.
Every time I get off the Jitney in New York in Midtown, I’m shocked. I just get this jolt of noise and energy and it’s kind of crazy. It takes me about a day to readjust. I love the city because I can walk anywhere, I can go to lots of different neighborhoods.
Do you walk so many more miles than you ever used to now?I walked six miles yesterday. Not every day is like that. But that’s part of my daily goal, to walk at least three miles, take at least a few pictures.
Three words that describe your work: Charming, pretty, inspirational.
Three words that describe you: Curious, and I think that’s why I ran magazines, I’m always looking for something new. Responsible, which goes along with common sense, and sensible, and hardworking. Definitely very responsible.
Women you identify with or admire: That one isn’t hard at all because my grandmother and my mother were absolute … I’m so really lucky. My mother’s mother moved from Akron, Ohio when she was 70 to Greenwich Village. She started traveling the world by herself when she was 50. She had incredible style. She was the most curious, energetic person. She went through Afghanistan on a bus through the Khyber Pass, by herself in the 70s. She lived in Portugal, where she started writing a book. She she took me to Europe for the first time, just the two of us, when I was 14, for six weeks.She walked so fast in her 80s I couldn’t keep up with her. And she was one of my best friends and just really inspiring.
My mother is a doctor and she’s 91. She plays tennis every week. She still has an office at the hospital, she’s on boards. She just started doing voter registration because she needs people to vote. She plans trips, she took our entire family to Peru last summer and climbed up Machu Picchu.
At 91. She’s going to be 92 in June. She’s got so much drive and integrity, and is the most intelligent person I know; she makes me feel like a slacker.
You have some fearless women in your life!
Life goals: To stay out there, stay curious, be nice to people, and try and make this world a slightly nicer, better place because it’s really not at the moment. To stay healthy. Simple things. I don’t have lofty ambitions. I feel like I’ve accomplished a lot, and now I want to enjoy my life, and I want to enjoy people, I want to keep meeting people, and I want to keep learning.
Daily goals: Walk at least three miles, post a good picture.
Daily rituals: I really get up early and make myself a cup of coffee. If I’m at the house I’m with my husband and dog, a black Lab. So it’s all about the dog early in the morning; I have to pet him for at least 15 minutes. Then I read the New York Times, I post. In the city, and also at the house, my main ritual is after I’ve done everything I need to do at home, around 9:30 AM I go to Jack’s Coffee. There is one in Amagansett and one on West 10th Street. I have my morning second coffee and that’s when I do all my social media stuff. I follow people, I comment, I catch up with things, that sort of my me time to just focus.
I never feel dressed without…Laura Mercier tinted moisturizer and Lancome Hypnôse mascara.
Writers and/or books that have opened a new world for you? I came up with 100. I don’t know what to do.
… that might be too many.
I have a lot. I’m a really avid reader and so many books have affected me in so many different ways. If I had to narrow it down, I love Edith Wharton; House of Mirth is one of my favorites. Growing up, this is cliched, but Little Women really opened my mind to many different ways of being. I wished I could be more like Joe, but I probably wasn’t. Alice Munro is the best short story writer ever. And then on the flip side I love David Sedaris. Gary Shteyngart, A Super Sad True Love Story, still freaks me out about social media and that was a really good book. Last but not least I’m obsessed with India, A Fine Balance, by Rohinton Mistry, is an epic book which I would recommend to everyone.
Flair Five–What you wear to get the shot: 1) A Xirena shirt— “I’m obsessed with this slightly oversized boyfriend shirt—I can move freely, and the light cotton is perfect for warm temps.” 2) Madewell jeans, ” I’m a die-hard jeans girl, and although I’ve been into skinnies forever, I’m loving these new wider legs.” 3) Adidas Stan Smiths–“I walk miles every day, so comfort is everything! This season I went “wild” and got this updated version of their classic green trim pair.” 4) Jenni Kayne saddle bag–“The best stylish and functional bag: It’s hands-free for shooting, has an easy access pocket for my iPhone, and just enough room for keys, credit cards, and most importantly my Mophie!” 5) Laura Mercier tinted moisturizer–“Since I mainly shoot on cloudy days my tinted moisturizer with SPF 20 offers just enough coverage, and I love the glow it gives my skin.”
A perfect evening is….with my husband and dog at our house. He barbecues, we binge watch something on TV or watch a movie, and it’s just super mellow.
A table is never set without….flowers. My favorite are peonies.
Handwritten notes or email? Absolutely handwritten. But if they’re younger, probably an email.
Favorite artists: I’ve always gravitated towards photography so Diane Arbus, Helen Levitt, Mike Disfarmer, who you’ve probably never heard of.
He did incredible portraits. They found this trove from 1939 to ’45 of families, they’re so beautiful. I love Avedon. Artist-wise I love Matisse, Picasso, Cy Twombly.
Five things that make a perfect room: Books, photographs, a chic but comfortable sofa. It’s the personal things that make a room, that tell your story. I lean towards a little more maximalist than minimalist.
Always in your handbag? My Mophie. God forbid my battery dies. It’s happened. I learned my lesson.
You can tell a lot about a woman by? Her shoes.
Why? I just think it tells you whether they’re into being comfortable, they’re super stylish, they’re trendy, or they’re practical.
What shoes do you wear most of the time now? Almost 99% of the time I’m in flats. Right now I have these Ralph Lauren classic Chelsea Boots. In the Summer, I’m in same as you: the Stan Smith Adidas. I just bought a new pair. I have a huge closet filled with beautiful shoes with heels that I look at now and go, “Yeah, it’s like a little shoe museum with shoes I’ll never wear again.”
Destination wish list: Next, I am going to Paris with my husband because we both love it, and we’ll be celebrating my birthday there in June.
I’d really like to go to Copenhagen and Istanbul. I’d like to go back to India. There’s a lot I haven’t seen that I would love to explore. And I lived in Italy three times for a total of two years, but I’ve never been to Puglia and I’d really love to go to Puglia. And Portugal.
Biggest splurge you don’t regret: Staying at the Oberoi Amarvilas in Agra when I visited the Taj Mahal. It was the most expensive hotel I’ve ever stayed in that I paid for. It was a huge splurge and it was 100% worth it.
Favorite small indulgence: Cappuccino and a croissant, or a really good slice of pizza.
Album currently on repeat: I don’t have a specific album, but I always love to listen to Stevie Wonder from the 70s. Any time it pops up on my iTunes I’m deliriously happy.
Scent that brings back memories: Bain de Soleil–the best beach smell ever.
Lucky charm: I don’t really have one, but my dog is named Lucky.
Sunday morning means….The same as Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. Except for the Sunday Times, because I’ll start on the crossword puzzle. And I love the CBS This Morning Sunday show. They have so many interesting stories.
Favorite hour of the day: 6:00 AM. I love having my coffee and being really chill. When I look out the window in the city no lights are on, it’s still quiet.
Follow Susan: Instagram.
I love this! That comment from the woman in Sydney…about the first thing that she looks at and it makes her happy? That is how I feel about The Flair Index! I look forward to it everyday. Thank you!
Just discovered “The Flair Index” through Sue Kaufman. I love to follow Surbin her NY/Hamptons adventures. CBS Sunday Morning should do a piece on her!! Enjoy Paris and look forward to your posts.
Thank you for sharing…
I’ve wondered who takes those fabulous photos…would love to take a walking tour of these neighborhoods…
Nice profile and a thoughtful glimpse into your process! Susan, you have such a great eye!
Julie @ Creating This Life says
I adore Susan’s IG. My son just moved to NYC and it makes me feel more connected with him. This story of Susan’s background and look into her life will make me enjoy it so much more! Thank you.
Caren Garlock says
Such a great, personal, inspiring article! Read it first thing this morning as I look for Susan’s feed first as well. Thank you for an easy to read, comprehensive, totally positive, personal interview! I love that format for getting to know someone and she is one I wanted to know!! What an interesting and admirable journey she has had that has now led to such an inspiring portion of my day! Thank you!
Lyssa Horn says
This is brilliant!
I would love to see/hug you in Paris and meet your very lucky husband.
Proud to know your inner & outer beauty since Madamoiselle magazine.
Huge hug & lots of love,
Pamela Stetson says
Absolutely love Susan! I look forward to her insta images and stories everyday. I love that her images are “found” right before your eyes. Thank you for more insight about the woman behind the lens. She really is so charming and real!
Well done! A good and beautiful life for a good and beautiful person. Not sure how I find her instagram a few months earlier but I’m inspired to capture more of the college town in the upper south where I happen to live. And get up earlier!!
I’m a big fan from IG + enjoyed reading this so much! Here’s the thing: I’m turning 67 in a couple of weeks, + your story of your grandmother moving to NYC at age 80 blew my mind! Your 91 year-old mom playing tennis once a week! Wow! What a morale boost! ????
I just loved reading every word of this. I have loved your Instagram page for some time, and it was so interesting to hear the story behind your beautiful photos. Thank you for sharing this!
Truly loved this interview. Questions were inspiring too. I can easily agree with Ms. Kaufman that walking around New York you see some beautiful treasures all over -lived here for over 30 years and still discovering things. Truly I am a perennial tourist in my own city. I loved Amagansett years ago stayed at the Sea Breeze and would ride all the back streets (never a car) all the day and find the most astoundingly beautiful vistas and small roads tucked away deep in Sagaponack. Just loved everything you had to say and described! Will follow!