The scenarios are similar. Here I am again, in a studio kitchen facing a frozen pizza or other homogenized fare in the middle of my workspace. Inspiration is pending. Or my client insists on showing their product the exact same way as they have for fifteen years, otherwise “our customers won’t recognize us.” Even worse, I’m handed a wonderful magazine, cookbook, or film job—and I freeze. The freedom is almost too much; where do I start?
How can we all keep our appetite for discovery keen? Feed our imaginations so we can allow ourselves to see wonderful possibilities in something unformed, ordinary, or even ugly? Battle the stress of deadlines, tight budgets, and unrealistic client expectations?
Creativity exists within everyone. It’s the bread-and-butter of what I do as a stylist, yet often we suppress it with an inner voice of judgment or feel we must express it upon command. Michael Ray, a Stanford professor who speaks about creativity, believes there are five qualities that define it: intuition, will, joy, strength, and compassion. To stimulate those qualities, it’s necessary to have faith in your openness to see and do new things, free yourself from your inner censor, carefully observe the setting, and ask important questions. He and others agree that creativity is not a moment of epiphany that produces a brilliant idea. It is a way of life.
Stocking Your Toolbox
Over the years, the most truly creative styling professionals I’ve talked to agree that being prepared for a job sets the stage for creativity. As a character in Madeline L’Engle’s novel A Wrinkle In Time says, “We can’t take any credit for our talents…it’s how we use them that counts.” By knowing my stuff—cooking technique, food science, specifics about a job, making lists, reading the recipes or knowing the product, shopping well and within the client’s budget—I can then clear my mind and open it to inspiration.
Horror and science fiction writer Stephen King wrote a marvelous book about the craft of writing. He cites an old popular movie, A Raisin in the Sun, as an example of a grounding moment in the creative process. A character in the movie cries out: “I want to fly! I want to touch the sun!” to which his wife replies, “First eat your eggs.” What a nice, commonplace analogy for laying the groundwork for creativity. King also devotes a chapter to the concept of filling your psychological toolbox with basic skills. If you haven’t learned the elements of your craft, then the artful part can’t be fully developed.
Another aspect of this is communication. When a job is booked, the first step is talking with everyone involved. Collaborating with the entire team along the way, defining what needs to happen to achieve a client’s goals, lays the groundwork for trust and confidence—and art will bloom.
The Spirit of Creativity
Maureen McKeon, a highly successful food stylist in Melbourne, Australia, created a pyramid for working toward creative outcomes at a seminar on visual culinary artistry. Her pyramid base was devoted to dreaming—being expansive in thought about the world of creative options. The next step was design—narrowing the choices to the ones that are realistic and controllable. Step three was to decide—choose two or three of your best ideas and be ready to implement them. And the tip of the pyramid was to do—execute your best idea. We need to allow creative thought to seep into our thinking, and then take the process one step at a time.
She also spoke about the goals we strive for when in the studio, beyond creativity. We always need to remind ourselves who our audience or target is for the image. Is it reality or fantasy? Are we conveying information or a message? Can we achieve a visual hook that will draw the viewer in for a closer look? Is there approachability and appetite/sensory appeal? Can we use surprise or humor? Keeping these questions in mind can help drive the choices we make in our creative dreaming.
A long-ago issue of Australian Vogue had a black-and-white ad for Rolex watches on the back cover. The image featured Helmut Newton and his wife June (known professionally as Alice Springs)—both notable European fashion photographers. The tagline on the ad was for perpetual spirit: “It’s not just what they see that surprises, but how differently they see it.” The same can be said for all of us—we each interpret projects in different ways, but a balance is struck when all the issues, goals, and personalities involved weigh in and evaluate the direction of the shoot. But independent visions can reach beyond the expected and give a view of a subject that may surprise and delight.
The Art of Composition
Composing or plating food is just arranging the parts so that a unified, harmonious whole is created. This can be done skillfully and with technical consistency, but it’s creativity and point of view that bring style. Personal preferences, regional, and ethnic associations will also bring a unique approach to presentation. Following trends may be a guide at times, but generally is a futile way to fuel creativity. Just because a look or style is “hot” doesn’t mean it will work for all applications. I strive to do the unexpected when I can and do not sacrifice good taste to appearance. The more complicated the plate composition, the stronger the sense will be that the food has been over-handled. Beauty can lie in minimalism—the freshest, seasonal food presented simply. And as always, beauty still lies in the eye of the beholder.
One of my favorite food photographers often surprises me when I bring a styled plate to the set. He spins the plate 180 degrees, despite my protests about what I had designated as “camera front.” Nearly without fail the camera’s view of the food is often much more interesting and natural than what I had planned.