I am not afraid to admit that five years ago, I had no idea my job existed. I think I had an idea of it. I knew there were professionals who made money cutting hair, and others who could make fashion look easy - but the idea that there could exist a subset of individuals who created their livelihoods out of these professions baffled me This might have had something to do with my college experience. I had the pleasure of attending a small liberal arts school upstate, whose photography major had a fine art bent. I had gone into the program with grand designs of becoming the next big fashion shooter, and couldn’t wait to take my first lighting class.
The first, initial assignments were all about working with the figure, and I practically lived in the studio that winter. There was nothing I loved more than going through friends' closets, picking my favorite pieces and getting them to meet me late night to see what we could make.
Once we hit spring and the snow started to melt, our professor asked us to start making work on location, and our first assignment out of studio was to create an image about food. The day of our project review, I did not feel very good about my work. I was aware something was very wrong with my final product, but was unable to put a finger on it. My professor knew, though.
“Now this is a great example of setting the scene,” she started, taking in my shot, pinned up to the dry erase board. “I get a good sense of environment from this picture … and time of day. The lighting feels very organic, fresh. But the cake,” she said, looking right at me, her face falling “Heather, that cake looks horrible.” And she docked me 20 points.
Although disappointed at my grade, I was more disappointed in myself. How could I forget such an important part of image making? Sure, manipulating light is one thing, but isn’t image content the most important thing a photographer can create?
Unbeknownst to my younger self, the real answer to this question is no, absolutely not - that’s what a stylist is for. But no one tells you what they are in school. Photography is instead portrayed as an all-encompassing medium – from project conception to completion, and in explanation, often treats the image-maker as a solitary creative genius who operates alone and in their own time.
Sure, this is a very romantic idea, but when we’re talking about commercial imagery, this perception could not be further from the truth. To create successful pictures, photographers must challenge themselves by working with a wide assortment of different artists who come to the set with specific experiences and skill sets that have been honed over months and years of practice.
It is in this vein, that I can’t help but view styling as one of the great under appreciated arts. In my experience, the best food stylists were once sculptors and cosmetic artists, painters. I have had conversations with makeup artists who got their first taste of color theory mixing old crayons and pastels, just to get the right effect, and fashion stylists whose happiest times growing up were taking day trips to the local Marshalls or Salvation Army to pull and then reconstruct their finds.
So how do I talk about my job at family reunions now? First I’ll ask my relatives if they have ever seen an ad for iced tea. Family member X will laugh and say of course, we’re from Pennsylvania – we drink ice tea. I’ll then ask them to picture the ad. Is there a person in the ad? If not, add one. Now look at the ad in your mind. How many people do you think were on set to create this image?
My relatives will think for a while.