If you were at South by Southwest Interactive in Austin, Texas, earlier this month and happened to drop in on National Geographic's Nerd Night, then you may have seen photographer Adam Voorhes and prop stylist and art director Robin Finlay. The Austin-based creative couple was invited to talk about their book, Malformed: Forgotten Brains of the Texas State Mental Hospital, which they co-wrote with journalist Alex Hannaford. The book features a collection of rare brains photographed in the Voorhes' unique style, one that has developed and is now sought after by major magazines including Wired, Fortune, Details, O Magazine and GQ, and brands like Caesars casinos and AT&T. In fact, if you've read this month's issue of The Atlantic then you've seen their work.
Adweek spoke with the couple behind what's now known as the Voorhes brand about their creative collaboration, their style and how they got started.
Adweek: What is the Voorhes style and how has it evolved?
Adam Voorhes: We're definitely still life. That's our focus. Where we came from, I was a still life photographer, and Robin was an art director. And we started collaborating on projects together. She would come up with a lot of concepts that were still life concept-driven, still life images that focus on storytelling with objects in it, and we would collaborate on this stuff. And a lot of times she didn't have much of a budget, so she would work on styling and prop-making for this stuff.
As our professional relationship developed, we developed a romantic relationship and ended up getting married and this whole thing turned into us collaborating together and us starting to work together. Now we operate in a capacity where if we have a story that we're working on, or if someone has a need, even if the concept is pretty well figured out, we brainstorm and problem solve how to execute whatever it is. We do a lot of sketching. Robin prop-makes; I light.
A nice thing about having a relationship where you know so much about each other's process is that we can meet in the middle when it comes to retouching versus what's done in the camera. What Robin makes in reality, sometimes it's easier to make everything for real, and sometimes it's easier to cheat a little in Photoshop. It's this total collaboration of ideas, prop-making and photography.
Robin Finlay: As far as our style, we talked early on about who are we and what is this look we're creating and what do we want to do. Stylistically, in the beginning, it was that we wanted to stay as close to classic as possible. We were shooting a lot of things on black, white, gray, neutrals, really involved light because Adam is a phenomenal master of light and how to manipulate it.
I feel like there was this turning point when we were trying to do some personal work, and I kind of started meddling in his personal work and was like, "You're doing these big, overly productive things, and we don't need that, and we can tell a story with one simple object and light. So that evolved into the more colorful style. So I'd actually say, when you asked what is our style, that we have two. We have one that feels more classic and is something that doesn't date itself, and it looks like it could be now, could be shot in the '40s, could be 10 years from now.
It's such a classic approach to still life photography, and that's something we never want to let go of. And then we have this more modern or very now style that's playing with the right colors and simple backgrounds and is about how can we tell a story with just an object and light without doing this super elaborate sets in various locations and stuff like that. I think that's it: We really like to strip down an image to its most basic how can you tell a story quickly and simply, and I feel like that's a measure that we hold up to our images when it's working. Does it really need that extra flourish, and if it's not there, can we tell the story without it?
How did you build up your client base? You're doing a lot of magazine covers. Do you ever work with brands?
Voorhes: We do, yes. Some of the early stuff I did was jewelry. Stephen Dweck was an early client. And magazine stuff, you shoot smaller projects, and you shoot more and more and more, and people see your work. Most of the way our brand has evolved has been word-of-mouth, people seeing our images, people hearing about us from their peers. And our career has grown from doing small little things in the front of magazines to now we're doing covers. Last year did over 20 covers. We've done a few already this year and it's exciting. As far as working with brands, we've always done a little advertising. Last year we did some fun campaigns from Droga5 for Chase and one with Anomaly for Captain Morgan Rum.
Finlay: Very early on in our career, one of the things that made us feel like, oh we can do this together, was GSD&M had Caesar's Casinos and we did an entire campaign of creating Caesar Casinos' wreath laurels. We created those laurels out of different objects to represent the different aspects of the brand. We made one out of spa rocks for the spa at Caesars, we made one out of a bunch of gold shoes for shopping, we made one out of chefs' knives. I think we bought a bunch of every chefs' knife in a 20 to 50 mile radius to create this one laurel. We have done [brand work] but we haven't been as prolific there as we have with magazines.
Voorhes: It's exciting. I feel like every six months there's some sort of—the first time we shot for Esquire was like oh my god, that was a dream I didn't think we'd ever shoot for Esquire. Then you're shooting features and shooting covers and shooting huge campaigns. All the time it gets more and more exciting.
Finlay: [The brands] when they come to us and people ask us to create these things the really fun thing about us, it feels like in the advertising world they're a little more used to using CG [computer graphics] and that's not what we do and so when people come to us with these crazy things and they're like, "How are you going to make this?" We're like, "Oh, well we'll just problem solve it. That's what we do."
For example, with the Caesars Casinos, one of the laurels was for the pools and they wanted a laurel made out of water droplets and they were like, "How are you going to do that?" And we were like, "It's going to be a light table and it's going to be glycerine and we'll style it and work through it." And everyone was like kind of sat there and was like, "We don't know how you're going to do it." And then we just did it.
The process and the execution is something we think about early on. The same thing happened with the Captain Morgan and the cannon blast campaign that we worked on for Anomaly. They wanted explosions, and they wanted stuff flying. They wanted these shot glasses that looked like they were made out of metal, and they weren't sure we could do it. The whole time that people are talking through the creative we're talking through logistics and how can we really pull this off. We're going to get it in camera.
Voorhes: We're going to bring it to reality rather than it being illustrated or CG; reality in the images are huge for us.
What should creatives who want to do still life photography like you guys—when they want to create shots that seem unrealistic—what should they know?
Voorhes: For us, the message we would want to stress is that even though you think it can't be done for real doesn't mean it can't. Things that you don't think can be done for real, we want to do that, we want to execute it and make it incredible.
Finlay: For creative directors it would be to just come and talk to us. Because we've been working in the magazine realm longer, we've had multiple people come to us and say, "We want to do this thing and we want to pull it off but we know you'll figure it out." That has started to happen a lot more. We would want creative directors, if they have something where they're like oh I'm probably just going to have to CG it, we would want them to come to us and tell us what they want. We'll talk through it and maybe we can do it.
How does it work as a creative couple and being a romantic couple?
Voorhes: The work/home life thing hasn't been an issue. Robin and I get along so well at home, the only thing we ever have enough energy to bicker about would be work. We have such strong creative opinions that's the only thing we argue about.
Finlay: We're so passionate about what we do, and we find so much reward in the creative process. That's usually the only time that we have issues because we have such strong visions in our heads. Then it's just about figuring out how to balance out those visions. When we find other creative couples that work together in the capacity that we do, we just have immense respect for them.
Voorhes: We were a workaholic couple when we were dating and now we're a workaholic couple that works together.
Finlay: That's the nice thing. When we were working separate jobs we were such workaholics that we never saw each other. And now we see each other all day and still at the end of the day we can sit down for dinner and be like, what did you do today because I was over here doing this thing.
You shot over 20 magazine covers last year. Are any design trends you've noticed?
Voorhes: Visually, I feel like, for us, we've been doing a lot of very graphic, vibrant, colorful work. A lot of things that are stripped, down, poppy, maybe even a little abstract for still life. Now, moving forward, we're doing things that are a little moodier, things that might have more of a natural light or more classic feel, some drama and a lot of richness to them.
Findlay: The client seems to dictate a lot of what that is.
Voorhes: Some people are trying to do a lot of things that are light and obtainable, and others are doing things that are really slick and has an edge.