Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Interview with Emma Arnold of Très Awesome

This last Sunday, I had the opportunity to discuss the ins and outs of street style blogging with Emma Arnold, the Chicago-based blogger and photographer behind the aptly named Très Awesome. Below is a condensed and edited version of our conversation via Skype. 

Brent: What is “awesome,” and how do you recognize it?

Emma: There are a lot of components I take into consideration, the first being that the person just looks comfortable in their own skin, and that they are using their ensembles to express themselves, telling some sort of story or sharing with the world something about who they are through their clothing. That, at a baseline, is the requirement for anybody I take a picture of on the street.

B: Do you think that you’re looking for a particular style type?

E: Well, no. I [wouldn’t say that]. I guess broadly [what I’m looking for] is what I think looks cool. It’s hard to describe [what that is, though]. I try on my site to capture a broad spectrum of different people, [but] I struggle with that a lot [too]. If you see my site it’s [mostly] a lot of really young, traditionally beautiful people, who are using clothes in interesting ways. [A diversity of people] is something that I don’t always do such a great job of [depicting], but for myself, I want to continue to strive to include all kinds of people. Beautiful people are always lovely to look at, but there’s something kind of boring about [just photographing them].

B: How long does it usually take you to figure out if you want to photograph someone?

E: Like a split second. You know immediately. As you probably know from doing it on your own.

B: Well, I think my reaction time has gotten faster, but when I first started it took me a while to assess it, and so I was missing a lot of the people, and regretting that I was not taking a picture [of them].

E: Right. Well for me, actually, I’ll know if I want to take their picture almost immediately, but then sometimes I hesitate because I’m nervous or [because of] whatever sort of circumstances are happening inside my head. I’ll miss people because I just am too tired to ask them or whatever, but I know [immediately] when I see somebody [whether] I want to take their picture or not.

Image by Emma Arnold.

B: And do you still at this point get nervous before you approach people?

E: No. Not really. I guess when I first started it was really really difficult to approach people. I hated it, actually. I would really have to make myself go out and take pictures, and I would make up a million excuses why I wasn’t going to go out and do it that day. It was not fun at all initially. But then as I [have] continued pursuing it, it’s gotten much easier, to the point where it doesn’t make me nervous at all to approach people. If they’re famous, I’ll get a little nervous, but I’m over the hump of being hesitant to ask people.

B: And do people often turn you down?

E: Sometimes people turn me down, but it’s almost statistically insignificant. The type of people I’m approaching are obviously proud of their style and are generally pretty thrilled to be approached and to be given confirmation that they look cool.

B: What about celebrities?

E: When I say “celebrity,” I mean quasi to minor celebrity, people who are popular in the fashion world. I don’t even know if celebrity [is the right word].

B: Well there are people who show up a lot in street style blogs, [whose] fame may be more significant among street style bloggers than perhaps the general population.

E: Yeah, exactly, like an Olivia Palermo or someone. Style stars, I guess you could say, are a little nerve-wracking.

Emma's photo of style star Susanna Lau, AKA Susie Bubble of the personal style blog Style Bubble.

B: So what is your approach? Do you have a specific line that you use?

E: Yeah. I go up to someone and say, “I think that you look great. I love your outfit. I have a street style fashion blog, and I would love to take your picture.” And they usually say yes.

B: I know that you’ve done shoots in a lot of places, even though you’re based in Chicago. Does Chicago have its own brand of style?

E: Yeah. Chicago has a lot of different styles going on. Chicago is a city of neighborhoods, and each neighborhood has it’s own flavor. There was a GQ article that came out last summer that roiled a lot of feathers here in the city that said that Chicago was like the fourth worst dressed [city in America](see the complete list here).I think that in every city there are people who aren’t dressed well or don’t care about clothes, but I think that Chicago, because it’s the city of neighborhoods, there are neighborhoods where sports are the top of mind, or business, or something else. But then there are a lot of neighborhoods that are incredibly stylish. So I think the people who put that list together—the people who have ideas of Chicago as an unstylish city—are coming to Chicago, staying downtown, going to see a ball game at Wrigley Field, and not really ever getting to any of the neighborhoods that have more thriving artistic communities or design-focused groups of people. The places that I shoot are the places where more stylish people congregate: Wicker Park, all the western neighborhoods centered around Wicker Park, Ukrainian Village, and Logan Square, also downtown in the Gold Coast, sort of around all of the really high end shops. I end up taking a lot of pictures of shop clerks, the men and women who work in these really fancy stores. The amount of shop people on my blog is really really high.

B: Do you go into shops to capture them?

E: When I first started I did, and it was because I was still sort of nervous and slightly uncomfortable approaching people, and so going into a store was a lot easier, but now I don’t really do that all that often.

B: It just turns out that they happen to be shop clerks after you take the picture then?

E: Exactly. I have two major neighborhoods I go to. One is the Gold Coast neighborhood in Chicago, which is [where] Barney’s New York, Hermes, all these really really fancy stores [are located]. Some of the people who shop in them are stylish, but it’s great for street style, because there are all sorts of young people who are really passionate about clothes and style who are working in these stores. Those are the people that I take the most pictures of in that area.

Image by Emma Arnold.

B: That makes a lot of sense. I know a lot of the people I’ve taken pictures of have been store clerks or work in retail in some kind of capacity. Do you have a particular time of day you usually go out shooting?

E: I like to shoot from like 3-5pm, around dusk. It’s just the easiest time to take beautiful photographs. Other than that, I don’t really have any set times. I shoot on the weekends a lot, because I have a job as an art director in an ad agency during the week. For any photographer, the early morning and the late afternoon are great times to shoot.

B: What kind of camera do you use?

E: I use a Canon 50D with an 85mm lens, which is great for the sort of depth of field, getting that nice blurred out background, but it’s a little weird because I have to stand really far away. It’s hard with such a short or long lens.

B: Do you have any particular settings you tend to use on the camera?

E: I use manual most of the time. The best pictures that I take are when the lens is really wide open, so that you are getting that really blurred out background. You can focus on the subject.

B: Right. I do the same thing, and it seems like that’s really what helps the subject pop.

Image by Emma Arnold.
E: Yeah. I shoot in raw, and you can totally overexpose the photograph, and it’s collecting enough information that you can produce a pretty decent picture with that blurred background, even though you’re totally overexposing.

B: Do you do much tweaking after the fact?

E: Yeah. Absolutely. I process all the photos. Sometimes you don’t have to do anything. I’d say like 60 or 70% of my photographs I’m doing something to, like adjusting the levels, and that kind of stuff. And I’d say that [on probably] 15% I’m actually doing photo retouching, where I’m lightening some parts, dodging if the face is underexposed and the outfit is overexposed or whatever. And there [are] a handful of photographs where I’ll actually add in background. I’m really good at Photoshop, because of my job, which is great. It’s great to have that flexibility, where I don’t have to throw away photos if they’re not quite right.

B: Do you have formal training in photography as well?

E: I’ve taken a lot of photo classes in my life. My dad has always been a serious amateur photographer, and my grandfather was a professional photographer in the ‘30s. He was a news photographer in Chicago, and he owned a camera store. There were always photo books all over my house.

B: So it runs in the family.

E: Yeah, but I was always a painter.

B: Oh, ok. Your educational background is in painting?

E: Yeah. I went to Earlham College and got a BA in studio painting. My wonderful parents, I really have to give it to them for letting me do that, and then I did another undergraduate degree, that only took me a year and a half to do, at The Art Institute of Chicago in graphic design.

B:  So I notice you watermark your images, and I’m wondering if you have trouble with people using your images in ways you’d rather they didn’t.

E: Well, that’s an interesting question, because I think in this age of digital sharing and social media and things like Pinterest and Tumblr, where it’s essentially just reposting stuff from other sites, it’s a balance that you have to maintain in terms of your flexibility and willingness to give away your images. I mean, the thing about Trés Awesome is that it’s not a money-making venture, and what I consider to be important and more valuable than retaining the rights to my photographs is getting people to my site, and sharing is a big part of that. I want people to see my work. I want people to be able to share my work. So, I watermark my images just as a nod to that. I’d like people to share it. I know it’s not always going to link back to my site, but as long as I have at least some little watermark on there, it gives people a clue that it’s mine. 

Image by Emma Arnold.
B: What kinds of opportunities has the blog opened up for you?

E: A lot of really amazing ones. I’ve done a lot of work for, covering different events for them. I’m going to be covering Pitchfork, the music festival, for them here in Chicago in July. I’ve done lots of events with different corporations, their fashion labels, like Top Shop, they did a feature on me for their holiday city guide. They picked four different fashion experts or bloggers and asked them about their city and what was their favorite thing in their home city. I’ve done all kinds of cool stuff.

B: It sounds like it. You make this distinction, at least in the last sentence, between experts and bloggers. Do you think bloggers count as a kind of expert these days?

E: Well, it depends who they are. You absolutely can be an expert if you’re a blogger. And the thing about blogging [is that] it’s just self-publishing. It’s like these little magazines. Some of them are good, and some of them are bad.

B: What are some of your favorite blogs out there?

E: You know, it’s funny. I’m so busy that I don’t really ever get the chance to look at as much stuff as I should. Something, actually, [that] I just discovered, is Backyard Bill. His stuff is great. You should check it out. He’s a pro, I would say. He does stuff for T Magazine [for example]. He take pictures of people in his own backyard. It’s all street style, but it’s like street/lifestyle. His stuff is beautiful. Who else is wonderful? The Sartorialist does beautiful stuff. He’s such a wonderful photographer, and his eye is so weird. 

B: Although, [it]seems like everyone he takes pictures of these days is a model.

E: It’s true. And that’s such a boring thing that’s happening in street style. And it’s funny, it took me a long time to figure it out. It took me actually going to one of the fashion weeks. Because I was like, “Wow! Where are they finding these people? I can’t believe they’re just running into these people.” But all the big street style sites just travel from fashion week to fashion week, and it’s actually pretty boring. I think that they should mix it up with more true street style.

B: That’s something I blogged about the other day, actually, that exact issue. And it struck me, because I interviewed Ted Polhemus. He wrote this book called Street style back in ’94, and back then street style meant, you know, mods, punks, skinheads, subcultur[al] style. And these days it means something very different from that. There’s still those elements, but it’s turned into something else. I think that [the] line between street style and street fashion has been blurred.

E: Absolutely. A lot of what is called street style is really more of an offshoot of fashion photography. And a lot of the really big street style photographers have relationships with [the major] brands and fashion publications. So it’s not really street style in that they’re exploring the beauty of individual style. They’re really exploring the fashion industry and how that translates on[to] the street, as opposed to capturing people who are influencing the fashion industry through these subcultures.

Image by Emma Arnold.
B: I agree. I think there’s something very interesting going on there. There’s a reversal in some ways. It’s one of the things that I want to focus on with this project.

E: And I think it’s [as is], as brands and the publishing world are becoming more internet savvy, the field of what it means to be an expert, or what it means to be in the in-group of the fashion world has changed.

B: Is blogging a new avenue into that world?

E: Absolutely. You go to fashion week and looks at who sits in the front row, [and] a lot of them are bloggers. A lot of them are [in fact are] personal style bloggers. They’re just taking pictures of their outfits.

B: So do you get a lot of requests then from potential sponsors and advertisers? And if so, what are some of the more interesting or bizarre requests that you’ve gotten?

E: I’ve gotten not a lot, but I would say I have people reaching out to me at least 3 or 4 times a month with concrete offers. It comes from PR or advertising agencies. None of it’s weird. The bottom line of the request is always ,“We need content,” and—they don’t say it this way—  “we see bloggers as a smart way to get that content, because A) there’s a viral or social component to it, and B) the content is really cheap from a brand’s perspective. I’m in advertising, and so, when we do a print campaign or we do a website, bidding photographers for a commercial shoot is really really really expensive. You could pay someone [as much as] $30 to $50,000 for a three day shoot. So, if you don’t have a budget or you want to do something virally, you can just say, “Well let’s reach out to third part popular bloggers, and we’ll just give them a purse, you know, and maybe we’ll give them like 50 bucks an image.” I think the advertising and PR world sees bloggers as a cheap and smart way to get buzz around their brand.

Image by Emma Arnold. Shot at Coachella Valley music festival.

B: Do you have any big plans for the blog? What do you see as see as the future?

E: The future of Trés Awesome [in a mock serious announcer voice]. Well, I guess I would just like to continue capturing and documenting cool personal style. I don’t have any real major plans. I just hope to be able to continue doing this really cool project that I love.

B: So, what is it that you love about doing it?

E: Well, I love meeting new people. I love talking to people about their style. That’s the best part of it, being able to interact with these creative, interesting people.   

1 comment:

  1. Great Piece Brent! Thanks so much for taking the time to talk with me. xoxox

    Très Awesome


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