Ever since Emily Minton Redfield spent five post-university months traveling across Southeast Asia with a camera around her neck, photography has been the medium through which she explores the world. For nearly three decades, her sweet spot has been photographing the work of talented architects and interior designers for publications including this one—until the COVID-19 pandemic forced her, like all of us, to slow down and stay put. The unexpected but welcome benefit? “Getting off the hamster wheel enabled me to tap into some hidden creativity that had been suppressed by work, my social life, juggling teenagers’ schedules, travel, and more, which all came to a screeching halt during our stay-at-home time,” she says. In particular, she began experimenting with still life photography, the story and gorgeous results of which she shares here:
5280 Home: What inspired you to shift your focus from the expansive living spaces you so often capture to the more intricate, intimate moments portrayed in your still life images?
Emily Minton Redfield: Two things led me to the still life creations: More and more, I’ve loved to play with flower-arranging—an assignment I often have during photo shoots—and flowers just bring me joy. I also remembered that, as our family was touring museums in Europe the summer before last, I saw paintings by some of the Dutch masters in more of a photographic way. That was where the idea germinated. I made a Pinterest board of some of the 16th- and 17th-century Dutch still life paintings I liked—flowers by Jan Davidsz de Heem and table settings by Pieter Claesz, among others—and riffed off their ideas without outright copying.
To your eye, what makes for a successful still life—and what is your process for getting there?
For me, it’s about filling the frame in a pleasing way and creating flow for your eye to feast on various visual treats throughout [the composition]. Because I tether to my large laptop while shooting, I can really tweak each flower, bug, or branch to get it in the right spot.
The other essential element is getting the lighting to be dark and dramatic, as it is in the Dutch works. I set up a studio in my bedroom where I had lots of space, turned off all the lights, closed all the blinds—except for one crack in a curtain with light coming from the side—and my exposure time was like 13 seconds. My family would walk in and marvel that I was creating these things in near darkness.
Do you gather each composition’s “ingredients” with a plan in mind?
The wholesale florist was still open during the quarantine, so I was able to source my flowers there. I went with a color scheme plan, but then had to flex based on what was available. After years of shooting flowers in my home shoots, I have a sense of complementary colors and how to create different shapes to make it interesting. With my fruit and veggie shots, I definitely had a plan for what I wanted and had to visit several groceries—in my mask, no less—to find some of the exotic fruits I was looking for.
Does composing and photographing these images draw on skills you use when shooting homes?
In terms of composition, those skills are really the same. The nice difference for me was letting areas of the photo go into dramatic darkness. When I’m shooting for clients, they really like to see detail in their fabrics, rugs, etc., and the trend over the years has been toward brighter, happier interior photos, so letting things go dark was a nice change and added to the overall drama.
Do you think there might be a place for some of that drama in future home shoots?
I have actually seen interiors [photography] going in that direction recently with great success, so I’d like to carry some of this style over into my commercial work.
As that commercial work becomes more of a full-time job again, do you think you’ll continue to carve out time for this or other creative outlets?
Because [COVID-19] has indeed slowed down my work a bit, with many folks not wanting me in their homes, I’m taking advantage of this time to create some more, as the process of creating solely for myself has been very joyful. There has always been a part of me wanting to shoot fine art, and whether there is a sales outlet for this series remains to be seen, but the process has been so fun. The ideas haven’t stopped yet—thank goodness!—and I already have some ideas for another batch of photos, including a series of tree photos—inspired by a book called The Overstory, about the secret life of trees and how incredibly important they are for our planet—which I’ve manipulated with some filters and Photoshop tricks.
Living with uncertainty continues to be challenging, but I truly feel the uncertainty forces me to live one day at a time, and I’m choosing to embrace this gift of time instead of fighting it.