Laurie Frankel is an award-winning still-life, interiors, food, and kids photographer based in San Francisco. I fell in love with her work the first time I visited her site – the beautifully composed images that are at once rustic and elegant, restrained and yet full of movement with a graphic sensibility and at times a sweet sense of humor, much like Laurie herself. And all shot with an ever-present beautiful light. Her background as an art director is clear. With an impeccable eye and a refined aesthetic, she moves with grace between all her subjects, creating an instantly recognizable style.
Laurie is incredibly talented, supremely nice (more on this below) and has an open and sincerely humble collaborative approach to working. Testimony to this is a long list of loyal clients that includes Serena & Lily, Roost Home Furnishings, Draft FCB, Carters, Target, Y+R, Ogilvy , Martha Stewart, Dwell, Tea Collection, Real Simple, Kellogg’s and many more whom she says she really misses between shoots.
I recently had one of those passing thoughts that a little book called You Make Me Want to be a Better Person could be inspiring. It would be filled with anecdotes about those moments when one is made aware that there is room for improvement. Sitting with Laurie and talking with her about her passion for photography, for collaboration and how she wants to use her photography to make positive change in the world was filled with these moments. Many of them. Especially when someone sitting next to us was talking loudly and I made the decision that a passive-aggressive sideways look might send just the right message and Laurie, sitting calmly with a big smile, just looked at the woman with the patience and kindness I’m certain she brings to all her professional relations and to “an affection for the objects and people she photographs,” invaluable qualities in those who show us the beauty in the world.
A big thank you to Laurie for all her time, her beautiful work and for her incredible professionalism and patience with the process of producing an interview. I am so happy to share her work with everyone. I couldn’t put it all up here (which I would have!), please visit her site to see more of her work.
POP: You were an art director in a previous life. What is your background and how did you transition to photography?
I studied visual communications at University of Delaware: graphic design, photography and advertising. I had amazing professors who were a huge influence on me. I found photography compelling. But, after school, I moved to NYC and had two job offers: one to work for a photo studio and the other to work with a design agency. I took the design job. It paid more and I needed it for rent.
As a fashion art director at Macy’s, I was fortunate to work with many great photographers, like Albert Watson. I think that helped increase my curiosity about photography which had begun in college. From there, I went on to Revlon and then other great design jobs, including creative director working for advertising legend Mal MacDougall (creator of famous campaigns like “Just for the taste of it, Diet Coke,” “Come to think of it, I’ll have a Heineken”, and many others) and then as the creative director for I. Magnin before transitioning to a freelance career.
As a freelancer I had great relationships with my clients. I love collaborating. People have so many things to offer. I find great ideas and inspiration come from anywhere. So, when one client—a manufacturer of high tech baby bassinets—who was familiar with and liked my personal photography—suggested I photograph the promotional materials I was designing, I was thrilled. Additionally, my second son had just been born and I thought I needed to try this. I wanted to show my kids that you should follow your passions. I had to try.
Another client, Chronicle Books, soon approached me about shooting and designing The Beauty Workbook by Cynthia Robins. I had such a great time on both projects that I became fully committed to making photography happen. My husband and I reorganized our lives (I’m very lucky because he has always been so supportive). And off we went.
POP: How has your background as an art director helped you in your photo career?
Knowing the process of advertising agencies I think has been very helpful. I loved the process of pitching new accounts when I worked at agencies. I enjoyed learning all I could about the potential new client, finding what their strengths and weaknesses were and what set them apart from their competitors. We would spend so much time focusing on their business when it came to the pitch it was always exciting!
You work so hard on campaign ideas. You live in the research for months. You must feel totally confident in the person you are handing over the concept to in order to execute your ideas you have been working on so hard for so many months.
It’s my job to really understand their goals and dreams for the final images. I love creating beautiful images, but really want to create images that will deliver the results they have been working on.
POP: Do you miss the continual interaction and collaboration of your agency jobs?
Yes! I LOVE collaborating and feeding off other creatives. It is awesome to go to a space everyday where you are surrounded by so many imaginative people. I do miss that. But I love that I now can work with so many different creative directors. I feel so lucky to work with so much talent. The variety of different jobs keeps it fun and fresh and I feel so lucky everyday! But I always miss my clients between jobs. That’s the bummer. I fall in love and miss them.
POP: What has influenced your style and where do you look for inspiration?
My college photo professor, Bill Deering, was a huge inspiration to me. He pushed me to look at things differently, from angles and unexpected ways. To try something new and different and I always keep that with me. So now when I’m shooting I’m always pushing myself to push past the first obvious idea.
It’s all about the people you surround yourself with. I have worked with so many great, talented people and try to learn from them. One of my first copywriters I worked with really taught me to keep it simple.
I stay curious. I love learning about new artists, looking at the old masters, hearing new music… and looking at new student’s work. To see the freshness of what kids coming out of school are thinking and bringing to their work is the best.
But I’m mostly inspired by my children and how they see the world every day. Many days I come home from a long day of work and find the most unusual things waiting for me. It is normal for me to walk into our dining room and find wires coming out of pickles, or to open the freezer to find ice cubes with light bulbs embedded in them or hear some incredible tunes my kids are jamming on in my basement. My family is a constant inspiration for me. I know that sounds so cliche but it’s true. It comes from the heart.
It inspires me to keep my creativity alive and keep it fresh. It’s always unexpected and that’s what keep things fresh. And what’s unexpected is often what makes a good photo. They also challenge me in so many ways that I try to apply to my work. They come up with surprises. And when I think about my work I want it to challenge me and be a surprise.
My husband is a math and science geek. Through him and our kids, I look at things I otherwise would not have noticed. Every day, this helps see things in fresh ways.
POP: How did you evolve your areas of specialization?
I used to art direct a lot of fashion and, as much as I loved it, I was never drawn to shooting it personally. I was inspired by the great photographers I worked with and how they could make the models and outfits look so incredible with light, composition and color. I’ve always been drawn to beautiful still-life, interiors and food photography. When I started shooting professionally, my kids were young, so I was shooting the cute things they did all the time. That got me more into shooting some lifestyle.
I think each one inspired the next and always keeps it fresh for me. I couldn’t shoot just one thing. It cycles around and makes it more exciting. Every day I love what I am shooting and hate it when the day is over.
POP: When did you start shooting kids?
One of my first clients was Tea Collection, a kid’s clothing line. The designer and partner approached me to create their identity and graphic design program. I told them I was focusing on photography and not working as a designer. A year later they called me to shoot their promotional material and we continue to collaborate to this day.
I owe a lot of my success to them taking a chance on me. The work I did for them got a lot of exposure and opened many doors for me.
POP: You do a lot of work with babies. How do you get specific emotions from them?
I love babies and just can’t get enough of them. I love their pure emotions and innocence. I love seeing what they will do and capturing that moment. When going for an emotion with a baby or child, I always try to connect with them beforehand. I will work hard to engage a child along with the stylist or baby wrangler. I want them always to have fun and feel like we are playing.
Many times I will work with baby wranglers who usually come with a bag of great tricks for the babies or kids. I work with a great wrangler out of NY named Gerri who dyes her hair bright red so that the kids will all call her Elmohead.
We worked on a Target job for W&K that required attitude and funny faces, kids 9 – 13 months looking like they were going to the bathroom, a sour look. It was quite specific what they were going for. I focused on each emotion for days and proposed some ideas to the wrangler ahead of time. We both discussed it together how we would approach the shots to make them feel like a unique moment.
We had one shot when we needed a pacifier in the child’s mouth, which we thought would be the easiest shot, since kids like to keep their pacifiers. For this shot, on that day, none of the babies wanted a pacifier even though they were cast with one. We worked with the mom and tried many tricks of putting different organic flavors on the tips etc. and it finally worked. It was the one shot of the six we worried least about. That is the fun of shooting kids. It’s always unexpected!
POP: How do you maintain your style across still-life, kids, food and interiors? When working with different stylists?
Working with stylists reminds me of when I worked with copywriters in collaborating and brainstorming. We are constantly talking about concepts, propping, textures, and bouncing ideas back and forth with each other.
I have such a huge respect for stylists. I’ll have an idea and the stylists will take that idea and run with it. They bring so much more. It’s the collaboration. We are always brainstorming back and forth together.
Alessandra Mortola and I have been working together for years. We were working on a project together, the Roost catalog, which required us to go to the flower market in the morning before work. We noticed all the cuttings in the ‘garbage’ and both loved the beauty of it all. We decided to do a series of the flower market and started meeting whenever we could very early before our jobs.
We scoured the garbage there and everyone thought we were a bit nuts. It was a metaphor for there being so much good stuff, so much love and beauty, that it was taken for granted and tossed away. The two of us going together allowed us to see things differently and to build on that. I get so much from connecting with others and sharing. There is always something to learn from one another..
It’s all about what you put out determining what comes back. About feeding each other and growing. It’s very organic that way. To not have all the answers and to come together organically, magic happens.
POP: You shoot the Serena & Lily catalog. Are you involved in developing the concept and story?
The concepts are developed by their in house creative director, but we always meet beforehand to discuss how we can push the work. The creative director, stylist and I are always sending each other inspiration for future work even when we are not on the project. I think this constant collaboration helps move the creative forward and we challenge each other in creative ways.
POP: Example of collaborative process on specific job?
I just worked with an agency out of Minneapolis, Zeus Jones, for a line of scent, oils and candles. The initial call was just a conversation to see if I was interested in the job. We had a great initial conversation and, from the questions that came up, the call turned into a brainstorming session where new ideas and imagery came out of it. The creative director went back and put together a new creative direction that the client loved! It was a perfect look for a stylist I have wanted to work with and she brought so much more to the table.
I just got a note from the CD that it was the best project they have done with that client and were all thrilled. I loved when that happened and it should always work that way.
POP: In collaboration, listening is nearly as important as seeing. Has your capacity for collaborative ‘listening’ deepened over time?
Yes. More creativity flows when you can really connect with others. I find it fascinating. I’ve learned not to have expectations. Every encounter is unique. You never know what will come out of it.
Communication, respect, and growth are critical to your success.
POP: Your personal work is so much about finding beauty in the everyday. How do you bring this to your commercial work? How often do you get hired to shoot in this style?
Personal or commercial doesn’t make a difference. The beauty comes from the subject. There is something in its fabric, its color, the way it reflects light that I look for.
For example, early in my career, I had to shoot some impressively dry crackers. For a week, I studied them, trying to figure out how to make them look appetizing. Finally, I hit upon a lighting treatment that highlighted their texture and made them look rich and appealing.
I am hired to shoot this way often, but when a client asks for something on white seamless, or more technical, I try to apply my own personal twist to it in some way. I will obsess over little details, like the tiniest texture of a corn flake and it can be just as inspiring.
I started this career feeling it would be intuitive, and usually it is. Still, I’ve learned that you can’t beat hard work.
POP: What camera and lighting set-up do you use to shoot food and still-lifes?
I always shoot food with a medium format camera and Phase digital back, the camera depends on the specific project. I usually supplement the natural light with strobes as well. With food, I use a lot of mirrors, silver and black cards.
POP: In your bio, you talk about your affection for the objects you photograph.
I am always obsessive over how the light hits simple things no matter how busy I am. I can be rushing out the door but notice how the light hits a doorknob, or reflects on my toothbrush. I file these moments away. When I can look through the lens, it really stops everything to focus on that one thing, that one moment. It’s very calming, meditative.
Someone once said they looked through the lens of wabi-sabi. I feel lucky to have the same lens.
POP: Is there a relationship between your aesthetic, this genuine appreciation you feel for the objects and subjects you photograph and the authenticity in your images? Do you feel the mood and beauty can be revealed and conveyed through a high attention to the formal considerations of capturing light and framing a shot?
Photography is all about light and composition. So, I feel strongly that mood and beauty can be revealed through those formal considerations. And that plays into the way I see things. The way a shadow falls across someone’s face affects how we perceive his or her expression.
But, they are not the exclusive components. The expression itself plays a role, too. You can use light and composition to comment on your subject. But, you can instead use it to unveil something special in it. That’s what I try to do.
I try to look at things differently to figure out what will magnify it’s unique beauty. I lean towards making my photos feel authentic and not too set up. I hope the photo will spark an emotion.
POP: When you approach a project, what are you trying to convey about the subject?
If it’s a commercial job I start with the client’s needs. Often that’s a range of ideas. I want to explore all the approaches while making a shot feel as organic and authentic as possible.
If it’s personal it depends on my mood. I love imperfections in objects. I love marrying the unexpected. I love simplicity yet I also love the chaos that highlights a unique personality. I want it to be meaningful. I want it to be timeless.
POP: How much post production goes into your final images?
I don’t do a lot of post production work. I usually deliver what is shot or change very little. I sometimes work with a freelance retoucher, Molly Street, to whom I will send work to make sure the look I have shot will reproduce perfectly in print.
POP: How do you stay inspired? Have you ever had a period where you had to jumpstart your creativity?
It’s tough trying to keep a balance of work and personal time.
I’ve learned that I need to book time out no matter what in order to have time for myself to rejuvenate. When I take the time to recharge, I always get inspired by something unexpected, whether it’s something I’ve read, see on the streets, on vacation or during quality time with family. I realize I need to just change it up, take in more, take a risk, do something different. Somehow, something usually sparks.
POP: You are very busy. How do you manage writing treatments?
It’s hard when I’m on another job and have to stop and write a treatment for a possible job. I usually spend many quiet hours late into the evening or very early mornings really focusing on it. Listening is key. Meditating helps.
POP: How has your background as an art director affected how you market yourself to art buyers? What do you do to make your images stand out?
As an art director, I would receive zillions of promotional pieces and phone calls, daily. There were so many amazing talented artists out there and as an art director I wanted to meet so many of them, but could never have enough work to work with all of them. Plus, I needed to get my job done! This has always stuck with me, and has made me reluctant to promote myself too aggressively.
I try to pick images that speak for themselves. I like shots that happen naturally, surprises on set, lovely composition and color you stumble on in life. I love shots that are like the experience of Jacques Tati’s Traffic, the beauty that appears all around us but is masked by the routine of every day life.
POP: Favorite objects, locations, stores right now?
I do love the flea markets, and finding beauty in other’s old junk. I’ve always loved Devera and am still sad he closed the SF store. I have not been to his new second store in Manhattan but am having fun imagining it. I am never tired of his esthetic and though it hasn’t changed for years, it somehow always inspires me. I will always love the East Village.
POP: Favorite blogs you’d like to share?
I can get lost in the blog world and so inspired by so many. It seems like I will find a good one which takes me to a better one and it just continues. I usually will then get lost in this world for hours. So now I need to set limits or only look at them while stuck at a hotel. It can be an addiction, but I love seeing what is out there. I feel I’m constantly learning by finding new things when I look at them.
I love the NOWNESS blog. I LOVE Kickstarter (is that a blog?), I learned about Vivian Maier on Kickstarter who was amazing! Love the TED blog, the selby (wish I did that! such interesting people!!!). Droog blog, the blogs on beautiful spaces like in emmas designblogg, and of course SF’s own sfgirlbybay . . . there’s so much inspiration out there.
My favorite thing about blogs is how so many can inspire so many.
POP: Are you working on any other personal projects?
I’m still working with Alessandra on the flower market series which we hope to make into a book or magazine.
I am also working with another stylist, Barb Ries, on a sparkle project. We want to bring out the sparkle within all of us. Barb and I were in Africa a few months ago for a job and are hoping to sell some of the shots to raise money for Free the Children, a charity working there. I am always trying to get my work to raise money to help those in need any way I can. I want to do that so I can help others in some form or another.
I’ve always wanted to start a type of eBay for artists where they can sell their art and the proceeds go to different causes. I know there are sites out there, but I wish they were as hot as eBay or Craigslist. I know this is an important issue with so many artists. It’s a collaboration I am yearning for. To work with someone, maybe through KickStarter, to take my work and do something better. I’m inspired by Hopemob which I’m counting on to be the new Craigslist and want to somehow connect with them.
I was inspired by a poem I heard recently, “Be the Spark,” by a young poet named Noah Kaplan. I think about it often and try to apply that to my life, somehow affecting someone as often as I can.
POP: Lessons learned? Advice to young photographers?
Follow your heart!!! Don’t do something because you think that’s what people want to see, do what inspires you the most.
Open up to learn from others. Take risks! What’s ahead is what counts.