Styling & Visual Storytelling

I love words. I love their ability to conjure up an image, and their simultaneous frailty when it comes to exactly describing something. There just might be the perfect words out there, and finding them is so illusive. It's that ongoing search—the game of it—that makes writing so appealing

Yet I would be remiss, foolish not to admit that a good image has a descriptive power separate from that of words. Not better or worse, but certainly important. The strongest messages come from thoughtfully pairing well crafted words and imagery.

Apple-strawberry hand pies and mini chai-cream pies from Stephen's and my first food shoot.  P  erhaps its my love of gluten-free desserts, but I continue to find that baked goods have a photogenic quality that makes them   easier to style.

Apple-strawberry hand pies and mini chai-cream pies from Stephen's and my first food shoot. Perhaps its my love of gluten-free desserts, but I continue to find that baked goods have a photogenic quality that makes them easier to style.

I have always had an appreciation for strong and beautiful images. But I did not understand that the people behind those pictures, specifically the stylists, have to have a strong sense of story if they are going to construct something meaningful. 

I started styling when I thought that I might create a gluten-free food blog. I had recipes I enjoyed making, and wanted to share them. I also had the good fortune of being married to a photographer with a growing interest in food photography. The first time we put together a food shoot, I made a series of pies. We created two shots that were moody, but still gave a clear sense of what was in the pies. They remain some of my favorites—I think because the shots came together so naturally.

That first shoot was a bit of a tease. A few months later, when I got my first styling freelance assignment for fresh style, I was less sure of myself. Without constructing the recipe and executing it, I didn't have a clear sense of what the picture needed to communicate and how I was supposed to contribute to it. It was only with the help of my editor that I began to fully grasp that without using any words, my job as the stylist was also to tell a story. 

One of our first collaborations for  fresh style , where Stephen took the photos and I was charged with writing and styling. We were there in September, and had to make this Ohio greenhouse look like it was the middle of spring. 

One of our first collaborations for fresh style, where Stephen took the photos and I was charged with writing and styling. We were there in September, and had to make this Ohio greenhouse look like it was the middle of spring. 

A lot goes into that kind of visual storytelling. If it's a home, where does the throw blanket go so that it looks natural, but not sloppy? If it's food, how do you place the utensil so that the fare looks all the more enticing? Simple decisions can bring these inanimate objects to life, or make them look awkward and out of place. So often it boils down to instinct, taste, and a good eye.

Some people mistakenly think that styling means faking something or creating impossible standards. Yet a good stylist knows that the best stories are approachable and subtly inspiring, but are never overpowering or didactic. 

The best styling you never notice. It's like a well-constructed sentence, so naturally crafted that the reader doesn't imagine a writer behind it, but merely absorbs it as something of his own. Likewise, the stylist is often the unsung hero of the photo shoot. She has researched the right props, and found the ideal location. She understands all of the visual pieces that need to come together to convey the narrative. Then she collaborates with the photographer to bring it all together. 

While I now spend most of my time writing, and this blog instead focuses more broadly on creative processes (which sadly only sometimes involves gluten free desserts), I still get to keep a toe in the food and prop styling world each month, when Stephen and I shoot the monthly manual for The Mantry Company

Mantry is a masculine food-of-the-month club, that offers six well-curated artisan food items to their customers each month. In addition to the food, they send along a manual with simple recipes. They are fun stories to tell—Thanksgiving leftovers turned into shepherd's pie, a bourbon breakfast, even a cocktail party how-to that was featured in GQ.

Yummy shrimp skewers from Mantry's grilling manual. 

Yummy shrimp skewers from Mantry's grilling manual. 

These shoots are a fresh reminder of the central importance of good, thoughtful styling. They help sharpen the visual side of my creativity, and allow me to leave the words behind for a minute and consider a different narrative form. 

They are also a humbling reminder that the next time I see a beautiful picture I love, to not only appreciate the photographer, but also look for the stylist behind the story. 

Analog and Digital: CineStill Film and the Brothers Wright

When I sit down to write, I generally need a pencil and a few scratch pieces of paper. I might do 90 percent of my composing on the computer, but those analog tools remain essential to my writing process. Sometimes the words start to flow, but my thoughts somehow get jumbled on the way from my brain and the keyboard. I need my thoughts to slow down, so I stop typing, pick up my pencil and jot down the sentence I'm trying to articulate. The change in rhythm helps me clarify my thoughts. The words start to untangle themselves on the page, and I’m soon back to typing. 

People are now discovering that all important things in reality have an analog beginning and end, and the digital world is just one step between one analog experience and another.
— Brian Wright

When it comes to using a word processor or writing by hand, it's not an either/or choice. I need both. The two methods support and reinforce each other, and hopefully make me a better writer in the end. What I've recently come to see—thanks to some incredibly thoughtful and creative friends—is that this cyclical relationship between the analog and the digital is not just about writing, it's really a way of understanding the many creative possibilities that surround us. 

For fresh style, we ran a web series on the modern craft of film photography, and talked to photographers Brandon and Brian Wright (jointly known as the Brothers Wright) about their creation of CineStill Film. Their work makes motion picture film available to still photographers—something unheard of in the past. Now, they’re in the midst of a Kickstarter to expand production to a medium format film. In the freshstylemag.com story, I explored what their invention means to film photographers. I think their work sends a bigger message, though, to anyone interested in innovation and creativity, regardless of whether or not you pick up a camera or can tell a light meter from a flash card. 

Portraits of the Brothers Wright by  Stephen DeVries . (Left: Brandon Wright; Right: Brandon - left, Brian - right).

Portraits of the Brothers Wright by Stephen DeVries. (Left: Brandon Wright; Right: Brandon - left, Brian - right).

I asked Brandon and Brian about their take on the relationship between digital and analog. Knowing that they're dedicated film photographers, I wanted them to actually explain why film still matters in our digital age. Brian responded that he believes we’re entering a “post-digital” Renaissance. 

“Digital is no longer a new and shiny ‘revolution,’” he continued. “People are now discovering that all important things in reality have an analog beginning and end, and the digital world is just one step between one analog experience to another.” 

Left: Brandon (left) and Brian (right); Right: Brian Wright. 

Left: Brandon (left) and Brian (right); Right: Brian Wright. 

Brian’s point helps explain why there’s a growing market for vinyl records and vintage typewriters; why there’s a return to handicrafts, and you can attend entire fairs dedicated to carefully spun fibers. People are discovering their most meaningful present by returning to older forms of creativity that have them using the same methods generations earlier employed. It’s not about finding an altogether new creation, but a more mature understanding that what we do now confidently stands on the shoulders of those who came before us.

The Brothers Wright are embracing the modern growth of analog with more dedication than most. Supporting their expansion of CineStill is an opportunity to participate in a new innovation that is as deeply connected to the past as it is relevant to the present. I can’t invent a new pencil and paper that will help me develop as a writer. For me, that’s all the more reason to help support the development of an important new tool for other creatives.

A conversation about art and life with photographer Lara Porzak

Lara Porzak at her studio near Venice Beach, California. Photo by  Stephen DeVries , courtesy of  fresh style magazine .

Lara Porzak at her studio near Venice Beach, California. Photo by Stephen DeVries, courtesy of fresh style magazine.

For the most recent issue of fresh style, I wrote the artist profile of Lara Porzak, a fine art film photographer based in Los Angeles. Her ability to capture feeling and emotion on black and white film has gained her the attention of many LA celebrities, several of whom have had her shoot their weddings. That said, she does not name drop—although after a few enjoyable phone conversations I did hear some entertaining stories. The story on Lara, though, really focused on her fine art photography and how her career has developed.

During one of our conversations she shared a succinct statement about her life as an artist that has stayed with me: “My life is my art that’s made.” 

Every time I went over my notes, I paused at the quotation. I underlined it, and even put a star next to it. But it never found a place in the story. Rather than weave it into a larger narrative, the sentence deserved more careful attention, so I turn to it here. 

My life is my art that’s made.
— Lara Porzak

What does it mean to have your creativity and the everyday routines of your life be so interconnected that you cannot separate the two? How do you produce something and then stand back from it and say, yes, that’s me? How do you find the confidence to take yourself that seriously as an artist? Or as a musician, writer, or baker—whatever your particular expressive mode might be?

Lara shared a story about how she came to see herself as an artist. Nearly 20 years ago, she attended a workshop given by Mary Ellen Mark, a photographer well known for her ability to capture deep elements of humanism. (Her most famous images include photographs of circus performers in Mexico and India, captured in her book Man and Beast.) Lara recalled that all of the other attendees showed up with expensive Leicas—the signature camera of a professional documentarian. Lara, however, brought her plastic Holga, known for its vignettes, plastic lens, and square images. That willingness to be herself apparently impressed Mark, and she asked Lara to assist her on a shoot at a nearby Mexican circus. 

So Lara went to the circus, Holga in hand. While there, she snapped a shot of a young boy wearing a plastic animal mask as he stood in front of a tent. It has since become one of Lara’s signature images, and led to entire photo series on people wearing animal masks. The photo also had a deep personal meaning for Lara. She told me that it proved to her that she could be a fine art photographer—that she had what it took. While she has since had that conviction confirmed by a significant number of outside voices, believing it for herself was such an essential part of seeing herself as an artist. How would she be capable of understanding her life and her artwork as in sync, if she didn’t operate with the conviction that she is an artist, regardless of outside recognition? 

There’s a bravery to pouring yourself into a creative endeavor and then putting it out there for others to see. I think of a shy and cautious musician whose love for his work forces him onto the stage—his art transforming him into a performer and entertainer. That process can be so intimidating that some people never even give their creative dreams a chance. But what a reward to be able to stand back and say that your life and your art are one and the same. 

Hearing Lara’s story encouraged me to take myself all that more seriously as a writer—to see myself as a writer, and to produce work that I truly believe in. For me, that process hasn’t come without the encouragement of those around me. (Stephen’s matter-of-fact statements to friends and colleagues that “my wife is a writer,” has meant more to my professional development than he probably knows.) I share Lara’s story here in hopes that it prods others to consider their own passions more earnestly, so that they truly become a part of who they are.

Read her statement a few more times, and let it really resonate.