Friday, June 15, 2012

Interview with Michelle Oberholzer of Cinder & Skylark

One of my favorite, recent discovery street style blogs is Cinder & Skylark, Cape Town, South Africa's premier urban fashion database. Below are edited excerpts from my Skype conversation with Michelle Oberholzer, the photographer and blogger behind Cinder & Skylark. 

Brent: So, who is Michelle Oberholzer?

Michelle: Well, I would say [that] deep down inside I’m a creative. I’ve been creative since I was a small child, always painting and drawing and knitting and crocheting and making things, and exploring different ways of being creative. And over years of trying different things and enjoying some of them more, some of them less, I never really found something I could actually continue doing without getting bored, until I started [doing] street photography. With street photography, from the very first day I just loved it. The very first day I went out, I was very insecure about it. I didn’t even know how to use a camera or anything. [But] when I got home I [realized], “Whoa! I really really love doing this.” It was quite a surprise to me.

Brent: What do you think it is that you love about it?

Michelle: I really respond to the individuals I meet. And having a great love for style, as opposed to trends, or fashion, or what’s on the catwalk, I love seeing how people interpret their own way of dressing. And [I say that as someone who has] a diploma in fashion design. [Street photography took] my love of fashion and it brought it closer to who I am as a person. I also love interacting with different people on the street. The cultures in South Africa are so diverse, and there are such diverse people that I come across all the time, it’s really really interesting, and I discovered after I started [doing this] how interested I am in people. I never really thought that was a part of me. I love talking to people. And the latest thing on my blog, where I’ve introduced questions about their favorite places and music — music also being one of my great loves — is sort of a way of relating to people in that way.

Image by Michelle Oberholzer.
Brent: While we’re on that subject, do you see an easily defined relationship between the kinds of music people listen to and what they’re wearing these days?

Michelle: No. [And] it’s [been] very surprising. No, I don’t. I mean [that is] obviously not [true] all the time. Obviously if someone is dressed in a very gothic way [for example], they may very well listen to goth music. But most of the time there’s no way of telling, and I love that element of surprise.

Brent: I’ve noticed a similar thing. I think my generation [who came of age in the early 1990s] was much easier to define [in that way than the current generation of young people]. If we liked a certain type of music, there was a certain sort of lifestyle and a certain style of dress that [went] along with that. [Whereas these days] I find it very difficult to predict what it is that people are into [from what they wear].

Michelle: Yes, it just makes people so much more fascinating, because you don’t actually know anything about the person until you start asking some questions.

Brent: So how did you settle on what questions you wanted to ask them?

Michelle: I wanted to keep it quite local, and make it interesting for locals, so that’s how I settled on the question of “What’s your favorite place in Cape Town?,” and in the beginning, when I started out, I was asking people about favorite movies and books. But then I quickly realized that some people don’t like movies and some people don’t like books, whereas 99.9% of people I talked to responded to the music question. So I just thought, you know, that in a way it tells a bit about the person, and it makes it more interesting for people to read the blog as well.

Image by Michelle Oberholzer.
Brent: From an ethnographic perspective, for me, it’s really interesting to see. And it makes me wonder if that’s a question I need to start asking people [as well].

So, is there a Cape Town style that you can point to? Is there something that differentiates Cape Town style, to the extent you’re aware, from street style that you might observe in other places, on other blogs, for instance?

Michelle: The main thing I would say is that it’s quite casual, [at least] in terms of the people [who] actually walk on the street. Cape Town is the kind of place where a lot of people just get in their cars and drive. They’ll leave home, get out at point B, and just get straight back in [their cars] and go home, so I do know that there’s a huge part of the population that I never see on the streets. And I wanted to keep my blog very authentically street, so I don’t really like going to big places like malls, where there’s a different kind of person going out, because to me that’s not true street. Cape Town is definitely not like it is in European cities, and American cities, where there’s a lot of people walking on the street all the time, so the kind of people I meet on the street tend to be quite young. They tend to be using public transport. So what I photograph is usually quite casual.

I think a lot of people have the perspective that that’s [a reflection of] my style. That that’s what I want to photograph. Whereas [in fact], I love diversity, so if there [were] more diversities available on the street, I would be photographing [them].

Brent: So what do you look for in the people you photograph?

Michelle: That’s difficult for me to pinpoint. If I were to [limit it to a single word] it would be “energy,” a certain kind of energy a person projects that makes the way they look interesting to me. No matter what subculture [they subscribe to], if there’s any sense of style there [and they emanate the kind of energy I look for] then I take [their] photograph.

Brent: How long does it usually take you to identify whether someone has that energy that you’re looking for?

Michelle: I find that [it depends] on what kind of mood I’m in.  Some days I tend to be not as quick on the draw as other days. Or some days [by the time I’m finished] scoping someone out they’ll be a block down the road, and I’ll be like “Aw, damn! I should have photographed them! “ But most of the time I would say [it takes] like split seconds.

Brent: When you do identify somebody, do you have a set approach that you use with everyone?

Michelle: Yes, I usually start out with “I do a street style blog, and I love your outfit, would you mind me taking your photograph?” And most of the time people are very keen to have their photos taken. I hardly ever get anyone that objects.

Brent: Yeah. Likewise. That seems to be what more or less everyone tells me. Which in some ways continues to surprise me, because I think were you to do this 10 or 15 years ago, the idea of being photographed on the street to be put online would be kind of horrifying to a lot of people.

Michelle: Yes, it really is fascinating that people are so [willing to be photographed].

Brent: What do you think is behind the global street style blog phenomenon?
Image by Michelle Oberholzer.
Michelle: It’s almost a contradiction to me, because it feels like [on the one hand] there is a sense of people wanting to show their own city, the people in the city, [and] the individuality of [the] style that’s going on in [in that city]. But on the other hand, it’s this growing sense of the global village, you know. The Internet makes everything so accessible that someone in New York would like to see what people in Cape Town are wearing, or people in Cape Town would like to see what people are wearing in Tokyo, and it’s this cross-interpretation of style that makes it so fascinating.

Brent: So how much time do you think that blogging takes up for you?

Michelle: At the moment, a lot of time. It’s getting to the point where I’m beginning to feel like I need a bit of a holiday. Because of [the success of my blog], I have slowly but surely begun to work for other blogs as well. I [work on blogging] at least a few hours every night and quite a lot of hours over the weekend.

Brent: How often do you actually go out shooting?

Michelle: When I started out [I had] the intention of only posting once a week, because I thought it would get [to be] too much if I committed myself to more than that. So I would go out to photograph one or two days per week and post once a week. Now, with all the other [blogging] work that I’m also doing, it’s probably about three to four days of photographing, and then in between editing and posting almost every day.

Image by Michelle Oberholzer.
Brent: I know you’re doing It’s What I’m Into. What are the other blogs that you’re working with?

Michelle: I am working for a Paris-based blog called, which I only send one or two photos to a month, so that’s not really that time-consuming. I would say What I’m Into is taking up most of my time, and then just in the last two weeks, I have started to take some photographs for New York Magazine’s The Cut. They are requiring quite [a lot] of photos from me, so I’ve been quite busy with that. [But its worth it,] because that’s been quite an exciting project for me.

Brent: Of course. How do you find balance between your day job, blogging, and actually having a life besides that? Or is it possible to have a life besides that?

Michelle: Well, I think I am quite balanced. I think my life is quite full. I am single — I don’t have a partner in my life at the moment — so there’s no one really needing a lot of my time. I see my friends when I have the time, which works out. And I’m also quite a spiritual person, so I spend quite a lot of my time meditating. I think that helps to keep me sane.

Brent: Right. Do you have long term goals that you would like to see come out of this blog and the various other projects that you’re a part of?

Image by Michelle Oberholzer.
Michelle: I would say yes. Since I started with the photography, I’ve loved it more and more, and even since I’ve started working for It’s What I’m Into I’ve realized that, even though street style is my first love, I also really love photographing other things, and I really enjoy interviewing artists and other interesting people as well, so that’s really sparked an interest for me in wanting to become a better photographer, and I’m really hoping to spend more time on that in the future.

Brent: So how are you teaching yourself photography?

Michelle: (laughs) That’s been a bit of a problem for me, because I find that it’s almost [as if] the jobs have rolled in faster than I’ve actually wanted to learn. So I find that when I go out to photograph something I’m always in a rush and I don’t really have time to experiment and play around that much. So I’m [looking into doing] a short course, to actually learn from someone, to take some time out and learn. At the rate I’m going at the moment, I feel that I want to better my skills, and I need to actually take the time out to do it.

Brent: Well you have to think so quickly when you’re out taking pictures of people that it is hard to experiment in the moment of doing. You have to have trained yourself in advance if you want to make it that automatic. I know that feeling.
Image by Michelle Oberholzer.
Michelle: And because of the day job to find the time to do that… I haven’t actually. It’s been in the back of my mind for a long time. So lately, realiz[ing] that people are [beginning to] recognize me internationally, I [have been] motivated to become better at what I do.

Brent: Well, it shows in the images. I think you take lovely pictures.

Michelle: Thank you.

Brent: For this project I read quite a lot of street style blogs, and yours caught my attention first because of the aesthetic of the images themselves, but also because I think you capture very interesting people, a range of people that’s actually quite unusual for a street style blogs. What kind of camera do you use?

Michelle: I have a Nikon D5000 with a standard lens that it comes with it.

Brent: So nothing extraordinarily fancy.

Michelle: No. Not at all. When I first started my blog, I had a very very small old silver Canon. I don’t even know what it is, but it was literally a one-button camera. And I took that out with me on the streets when I started out, and when I think about it now, I find it quite embarrassing. But it was where I was at, and I had to learn. A couple of months after I started, I [decided], “OK, I’m actually going to buy the bottom of the range of what is a reasonably better camera and see [what happens]. And I saw such a huge improvement in my photos [that] now I’m really inspired to try different sorts of lenses and learn different techniques.

Brent: Do you think that you have a distinctive photographic style?

Michelle: To me it doesn’t feel that distinctive. It always feels that in a way I was shaped by the city I was in and the camera I was using. I tend to not take very many long range shots, because of the lens that I’m using. I don’t really get blurred backgrounds and things like that. And also I just find that the streets aren’t all that appealing to me, so I like using gates and walls as backdrops.

Image by Michelle Oberholzer.
Brent: I have noticed that about your blog. You tend to do the walls and the gates and the gratings, and these kinds of elements that certainly read as “of the street,” but they have a different perspective to them than the standardized blurred backdrop cityscape that so many street style bloggers use. Is there a story behind the name Cinder & Skylark?

Michelle: (laughs) Yes. It’s actually quite a long story, but to make it short I really wanted to use a name that was completely unique, and it took me about six months to find it. I didn’t want a name that was something like “Cape Town Street Style.” It just didn’t feel like me, or what I wanted. So I literally started reading dictionaries and Googling names, and I chose some[where] around 150 names, and every time I would Google it I would find it on the Internet. And at that time the double barrel kind of name sounded quite cool to me, and I just put the words together, and when I Googled it there was nothing else like that out there. And that’s how it happened.

Brent: That makes as much sense as any other approach that I’ve heard. It’s quite a frustrating experience coming up with an original name. Do you participate at all in fashion events in Cape Town for the blog? I know you have the fashion design background, but has that entered into your practice of blogging at all?

Michelle: It has lately. I’ve been invited to different launches in shops, launches of ranges by designers, [and that sort of thing], which I can’t always attend, but I love doing it [when I can], and I also love attending the local fashion week, which is coming up again now in July.

Brent: What kind of role do you see the street style blogger playing within a larger fashion industry these days?

Michelle: Jeez! That’s quite a difficult question for me. I don’t always know how serious[ly] the industry actually takes us. For me it’s really been such an individual expression thing that I’ve never really thought about it. I mean obviously you see what The Sartorialist is doing and what he’s getting involved in and all that, which is definitely quite influential, but, for general street style bloggers I don’t know. I often get asked the question, “Does street style in South Africa influence designers,” and I don’t think it does yet. And I do think that from my perspective it is actually a good platform, because you do see patterns in what people are wearing and what people like in different cities, and what they respond to.

Image by Michelle Oberholzer.
Brent: It becomes something of a database of styles internationally that designers could potentially be tapping into, but aren’t necessarily. Do you think that street style blogs in South Africa are having any influence on what people are wearing on the streets of South Africa? Like, are people conscious of perhaps ending up on a blog if they walk in a particular district in Cape Town?

Michelle: Yes. They are (laughs). And Cape Town, the way that it’s laid out, there’s [only] a very small part of the city center where all the trendy people hang out. When I started my blog I was trying to keep it diverse and trying to go to many different places, and then I soon realized I’m actually wasting my time. I tend to go back to just the city center where there’s always well-dressed people around.

Brent: Any trends that are striking you as particularly interesting right now?

Michelle: There’s definitely a big trend going on at the moment with women just wearing leggings and oversize jumpers, like knitwear jumpers, and definitely still white Converse sneakers. Lots and lots of white Converse sneakers.

Image by Michelle Oberholzer.
Brent: Those sound like trends that are happening in places beyond Cape Town as well. What are your feelings about advertisements and sponsorships on blogs?

Michelle: I have been feeling like I want to get into that lately. I’m a bit clueless as to how to go about it, though. I haven’t actually done it [yet], but I want to approach people who are knowledgeable about it, so that I can get started.

Brent: What do you know about the readership of your blog?

Michelle: I only use the information that comes on Blogger, so I can see the basic demographics, and it’s very interesting in that about a third of my readers are from the USA. Most of them [of course] are South African, and then, quite a lot from the UK and various European countries, including Russia. Russia featured quite a lot in the last couple months. A lot of people started using links to my blog. So there’s quite a lot of diversity. Also some South American countries. Australia pops up every now and again. So it’s quite diverse.

Brent: What kind of social media do you use to promote the blog?

Michelle: I use Facebook and I use Twitter. I don’t think I use Twitter very effectively, because I’m not a person that tweets a lot. I basically only tweet when I put up posts. So I do think it could be used more effectively. I also feel that that’s something I need to learn more about.

Image by Michelle Oberholzer.
Brent: What other blogs do you regularly read?

Michelle: I’m not a very regular blog reader. I tend to be inspired by certain things and then I will just Google and find random things that I’m looking for. The one blog that I consistently enjoy reading is Hel Looks.  And Hel Looks is definitely the blog that inspired me to go out on the street as well.

Brent: Do you have much interaction with other street style bloggers?

Michelle: No. I don’t actually. Apart from the people I’m now working with on It’s What I’m Into, I don’t have interaction with other street style bloggers.

We talk for a while about my previous research and what led up to this project and I tell her that this is the first fieldwork project I’ve done where I never have a feeling of dread about doing it. There’s something, I say, addictive and compulsive about it. She responds with the following:

Michelle: [For me, what’s compelling about it] really is the element of surprise. I find that you just never know when you’re going to see the most amazing outfit next. Sometimes when I’ve walked down the street for like 20 minutes, and I’m starting to think “Oh my word! I’m not going to find anything today,” suddenly this amazing person appears in front of me, [and] that’s the best feeling ever.

Image by Michelle Oberholzer.

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