Is styling lying?

July 28, 2017

Julie Cate photography

We were on about hour five of working on Loren’s branding shoot and I was watching her write a to do list on her handmade paper with a calligraphy pen. I laughed a little when she brought out the calligraphy pen to write the to do list (but loved it) and then she said, laughing, “no, I really do write with this pen on our paper,” and I’m pretty sure I did something close to a fist pump.

While Emilie Szabo stood above me, snapping photos of Loren writing with her dye-and-ink-covered hands, and we laughed about how often Loren actually does write to-do lists like this, and as I grabbed a few more grapes from the leftovers of our charcuterie spread, Loren looked over her shoulder and asked,

“Emma, do you ever feel conflicted about styling? Like you’re not always telling the truth?”

I felt my insides smile with such an interesting question and I loved the sincerity of the asker. I thought for a moment (and also had just stuck a few grapes in my mouth) and then articulated something I’ve never been able to before because no one had asked me a question like this.

The thing is, I get why Loren asked the question.

Styling can sometimes feel manipulative. It can fool the honest Pinterest-project-er into believing she can make the perfect Dory cake for her toddler because the pictures made it look easy. It can fool the recently engaged into thinking that even the lowest of budget weddings can produce a stunningly huge bouquet with the perfect lighting. It can fool the design-loving mother into thinking that her home should have blank white walls instead of hung with drawings by her littles.

Let me also say that I think some people do lie when they style. Lie about what’s important in life. Lie about what life should look like or feel like. Lie about whether someone’s life is full of genuine joy.

But my response to her was this:

“I actually think that sometimes it’s more honest.”

Typical for me to say as someone who spent two years sitting around a table discussing the merits and truths of storytelling (aka my MFA program in creative writing).

What I’m trying to say is that yes, we moved Loren’s beautiful farm table into the studio instead of using the less beautiful but regular work table. Yes, around Loren’s writing hand, I scattered papers, birds nests, sheep’s wool, and other little bits from her farm, seeing in my mind’s eye the perfect little Instagram post and caption about productivity.

But here’s the truth that transcends any kind of tweaking we had to do to create this shot:

Loren and her family live their lives often divided between the duties of a farm and the duties of business.

Julie Cate photography

Printing beautiful design gets interrupted by a goat escaping. The walk to the papermaking studio is interrupted by a trail of goslings following their mother. There is paper on most surfaces of the house while half-clothed adorable little boys run through the front room after getting muddy in the backyard. So while snapping a picture of Loren writing a to do list on a counter with cheerios, a sheet pan, receipts, and diapers in the frame might show what Loren’s actual to-do list writing looks like, it speaks nothing to the truth of what her work and life feels like. How could you express the juxtaposition of the two without styling it at least slightly unless Loren stood at her press and the goat happened to walk into the studio while a photographer was there to snap a picture? (That wouldn’t even communicate that though. It would just be a really weird picture.) I’m probably going a little too far. But do you see the dilemma? If you click here, you can ask the right questions to check your heart to make sure you’re telling true stories.

What I’m trying to say is that styling allows us to tell truths that we can’t otherwise tell.

Styling allows us to express how something feels when it happens, not just exactly what it looks like when it occurs. 

After we finished shooting the studio and as the sun set, I filled a market basket full of flowers and we had Loren stand next to her chicken coop with peeling paint with her family and their huge white dog while the goat tried to reach the flowers to eat them and the sheep milled around in the pasture and the cows mooed a little further down. As we walked back to the house Emilie looked over at me and nodded with a smile and said, “the whole story for them is really coming together in my mind.” 

I’d love for you to know the 6 questions I ask myself to check my gut about whether I’m telling true stories. Click below for access.

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