Our little town made it into the national news a couple of times recently. First, it was the Thomas Fire, then the heavy rain, flooding, and destructive mud slides immediately thereafter. Many people in our community were displaced due to evacuations, loss of homes and businesses, and many lost their lives. Since our community is so small, we were all affected by these natural disasters directly or indirectly. Our home was never in danger of being burned, but we did encounter some hardships in the process.
It was the beginning of December when the fire first started burning in the hills of Santa Paula, moving to Ojai, Ventura, and eventually north toward Santa Barbara. November and December are by far the busiest months of the year in my work. As a small business owner, the idea of NOT working during December was hard to grasp. The task that was on my plate for mid-December (when most of the Christmas orders had been packed and shipped) was to photograph new inventory. I really enjoy taking photos, styling, and visual merchandising, so I was actually looking forward to this task. By mid-December the air quality in our town reached hazardous levels. Reluctant to leave, we packed our bags and headed south toward Los Angeles, to find clean air (oh, the irony!).
Packing for a family that includes a 5-yr old and a dog for a week-long hotel stay (that could last longer) was hard enough. Packing for a mini-photoshoot, should I pull one off, was even harder. I am not exactly in the line of work in which a laptop is all I would need to work remotely. I don't even own a laptop. I work with sewing machines, ironing boards, measuring and cutting tools, a DSLR camera, and many, many styling props for photos. So, challenge #1 was, "What exactly do I grab on my way out the door?" I took a couple of sets of new napkins, my trusted Canon, and a few props that I had recently acquired. My only hope was that the hotel room had plenty of natural light and looked half as decent as its website.
The hotel we found is called Native, and it proved to be a real gem in terms of hospitality (they allow pets and offered a special rate for the Thomas Fire evacuees), as well as design. Located in Malibu, it was originally built in 1947 and recently refurbished in the mid-century-meets-LA-bohemian style (that's my best shot at describing it!), with a shed for yoga out back and plans to add yurts to the property, gourmet coffee, you get the idea. Bob Dylan is said to have stayed in Room #13 back in the day. My heart plunged for a split second when I saw the unassuming facade when we arrived late at night. But then we checked into our room, looked around, and hope returned. I decided that if it was good enough for Bob Dylan to create music there, surely it was going to be good enough for me to photograph my stuff.
Our room was a bit of a parallel reality for us. First of all, the room number was the same as our house number in Santa Barbara, and the bed was by the same designer as the one we have at home. It had a patio, a snack bar, and lots of natural light. Pretty much home away from home (minus the hammock and the snack bar).
It took us a day or so to settle in, process why we were there, and try to find some sort of routines in a town we passed through many times in the past but never spent much time exploring. It was unnerving, discombobulating on top of (or maybe because of) the circumstances that had led us there in the first place. With a home-based business such as mine, being away from home also meant being away from my studio, my office, my shop (even though it is all in one and the same room!), and my work routines. Nonetheless, little by little, we got our bearings. New routines emerged, inspiration bubbled up, and a photoshoot happened. What would normally take me a couple of hours at home took about 3 days to accomplish. Nonetheless, I am really proud of how the photos turned out, and wanted to share this post partly to journal all the things that this experience taught me, and partly to use this as a refill on my virtual "gratitude jar".
Once I realized that the place was absolutely perfect for me to take some photos of my products, other challenges emerged. I kept thinking, "What if the hotel does not allow me to take photos (challenge #2)?" And, "How am I going to do this with my 5-yr old and my dog in the same room (challenge #3)?" My husband had to go to work during the day (his office was 20 minutes away from the hotel, which was part of the reason why we settled there). Little did I know that the hotel staff would be so gracious and allow me to photograph not only in my room, but also anywhere else I wanted. And, I was quickly reminded that my daughter has amazing social skills and was making friends left and right with hotel staff, other guests, and the resident dog. So, between all the socializing and free WiFi, she was perfectly occupied.
Here are the photos I took while working from a hotel room for a week and some of the things I learned from this experience.
1. Use what you have on hand, literally. This is a Gingerbread Man Decorating Kit I brought to entertain my daughter. It worked perfectly with the chartreuse linen napkins. Also, the markers came in handy.
2. Look to your surroundings for props and styling inspiration. I lucked out because the hotel's snack bar had these Matcha Pocky cookies and other amazing stuff, but it took me a while to notice this perfectly matching tray in the hotel lobby and piece it all together.
3. Don't snub CVS or a local supermarket for inexpensive but usable props. This tissue paper served as a textural element and a photo surface!
4. Don't be afraid to go off-brand or out of context. Sure, I don't use disposable coffee cups in my photos. Or house plants, or other people's pet portraits for that matter. But having allowed myself to just go for it really surprised me with how much I loved the result.
This may sound like a cliche, but it confirmed something I've always known and only accidentally experienced: we do our best work when we work outside our comfort zone. Kevin Kelly, founding executive editor of Wired magazine, said something along these lines in his interview with Krista Tippett (On Being Podcast, January 18, 2018):
As a creative individual who only recently embraced the creative lifestyle, I understand that I can bring a lot to the table (pun intended). I also often think that being fully creative means I must bring all of me and all that I have. What I realized from this experience is that I don't have to do it every time and everywhere I go. It's ok to leave most of it behind, travel lightly, focus on what's directly in front of you, and allow the magic to happen.