At first glance, Mary Jo Hoffman’s works for west elm appear to be your standard pressed nature specimens. Housed in gold frames with a transparent backing and depicting all manner of natural ephemera—flowers, leaves, feathers—it’s an easy assumption to make. Upon closer inspection, though, it becomes evident that these are not pressings, but photographs (indeed, some of the depicted objects—insects, for instance—would not fare well between two panes of glass). This mesmerizing marriage of both traditional and newfangled artistic production is one that Hoffman has been toying with since the beginning of STILL, a daily series of nature photographs, taken from her home in Minnesota. Digitally photographed and minimally processed, Hoffman’s work is a fascinating—and often breathtaking—exploration of the natural world that so many of us take for granted. Artfully arranged and photographed against a super white background, familiar objects like twigs and blossoms take on an otherworldly feeling; deceased birds and delicately woven nests serve as poignant and beautiful reminders of time’s passing. With her collection of prints for west elm, Hoffman allows us to bring the artistry of STILL into our homes with pieces that are at once flat and wonderfully three-dimensional. Mary Jo recently took some time to take us on a tour of her process and share some of the amazing things she has learned while working on STILL. Take a look below and shop all of our collaboration on westelm.com!
Tell us about the story of STILL. What compelled you to start the series?
I had taken photos semi-seriously ever since college, when I received a Nikon 35 mm SLR as a gift from someone whom, it occurs to me, I should probably try to track down and thank. The photos sat in boxes, very quiet and well-organized, and mostly unlooked-at, for most of my adult life. Then I read a very simple book on creativity by Austin Kleon that happened to be the right book at the right time. The sentence from that book that started everything for me was, “Do good work, and put it where people can see it.” I had been doing pretty good work, for a pretty long time. But now it was time to put it where people could see it. And on January 1, 2012, I posted my first photo on STILL blog, where people could see it.
Has nature always interested you?
Always. My favorite and most enduring childhood memory is of being told to go play outside and not to come back until dinner time. We lived in a suburb of the Twin Cities that would have been an exurb at the time. Fields, woods, and a small lake surrounded us, and I spent most of my time playing, exploring, swimming, and collecting outdoors. It’s where I’ve always gone to feel centered and connected.
We assume you must learn quite a bit about the natural world through your work! Care to share any fun factoids?
I have indeed. Everyone in the family has become a bit of a citizen naturalist since starting STILL. And I am still learning something new almost every day. Just last night as I was posting a photo of raspberry canes, I learned that raspberries are in the rose family. I mean it makes sense, but who knew?
A trained naturalist will smirk at my naiveté, but here are few things I have learned since starting STILL:
All trees have a gender. It is easiest to identify the gender in spring, because the catkins and blossoms of the same species will differ by gender.
Trees actually set their buds for the following spring in fall. We often don’t see them until the sap starts flowing in spring, and the buds start to swell. But they are there all winter long.
Seedpods are endlessly fascinating. I could happily spend my whole life just photographing seedpods.
Non-native plants, like gingko trees, may be beautiful to look at but contribute very little to the ecosystem. They are not natural hosts for any of the indigenous bugs, and if the bugs aren’t around, then the birds won’t hang around. I think cities should be required to plant only native trees on public lands.
Field guides should include photos of plants in winter as well as high summer. It is incredibly hard to identify plants by their winter silhouettes.
Imperfections are more interesting than perfection; branches twisted by overcrowding, stems bent at unusual angles by galls, beetle eaten leaves turned into delicate lace work—they make for the most memorable photos.
Pussy willow is the first to bloom in the north, and a critical early food source for the bees. As are dandelions.
Genetic testing is rapidly rewriting our understanding of who’s related to whom in the natural world. Species once considered close cousins, are now estranged, and vice versa. Wiki is full of sentences that read “Once consider in the abc family, it is know know to be in the xyz family”.
Are there any challenges that you think are unique to the way you photograph?
I knew if I was going to take one image a day, that I would need a really simple technique and set up. So I shoot with natural light, on a white background. I am usually shooting with a tripod on my desk, or my kitchen floor if the arrangement is too large for the desk. My white background is usually a piece (or several pieces) of white poster board, but I have used everything from notebook pages, to bed sheets, to my sons white tee-shirt as my backdrop. I use a tripod if I am shooting at home, and a hand held light diffuser if it’s a bright sunny day.
When I chose a bright white background as the unifying aesthetic for my photos, I didn’t realize at the time that I was creating a minor handicap for myself. So much of Minnesota’s natural beauty comes in white—trillium flowers, apple blossoms, water lotuses, black locust flowers, hepatica, and on and on. I can’t photograph any of them. Having chosen to photograph exclusively against a white background means that white objects effectively disappear when I try to capture them. I have developed a few work arounds, like dirtying up the white tips of feathers with fireplace soot so they don’t entirely disappear on the white background.
Do you have any favorite places to find pieces to share on STILL?
One of the most important features of STILL as an activity is that it must fit into my life as a mom, cook, soccer practice chauffeur, and partner with my husband in our three small businesses. I have a very short window of time each day to find that day’s STILL blog subject. As a result, all of my favorite places to gather materials are nearby—along local trails and lakesides. One of the biggest rewards of STILL blog has been the way it has forced me to search for new material, not farther and farther from home, but deeper and deeper into familiar territory.
You sell prints on your website and have recently partnered with other companies like west elm! What’s the craziest place you’ve seen one of your prints featured?
The range and variety of uses for STILL blog photos has blown my mind. They have been used all over the world, in ways I could never have imaged when I started. Some favorite examples: A photo of one of our chickens ended up getting a rainbow flag Photoshop overlay, and appeared on a poster as the mascot for a LGBT Film Festival in Serbia; some driftwood pieces I photographed became animated characters in a children’s TV series in Isreal; a photo of dried leaves became imagery for Handel’s Ariodante by the Scottish National Opera; milkweed seedpods were used in scientific presentations by the Smithsonian; and the blog itself has been subject of two Master’s theses. And those are the uses I know about, in those cases when the user of the images was kind enough to ask permission. Imagine all the unauthorized uses!?!
If somebody is visiting The Twin Cities, what are 3 places they must visit?
Well, we’d start with coffee at my favorite coffee shop ever—Moose & Sadie’s . Then a visit to the iconic Spoonbridge and Cherry sculpture in the Walker Art Center Sculpture Garden. Followed by a walk around any one of the gracious Minneapolis chain of lakes—Lake of the Isles, Lake Calhoun, and Lake Harriet. Then cap the day with a stroll around the North Loop of downtown Minneapolis, with some of the best shopping in the Twin Cities—Foundry Home Goods, Martin Patrick Men’s store, Askov Finlayson—at the end of which waits one of the best meals available anywhere in the United States, at chef Gavin Kaysen’s restaurant, Spoon & Stable. That’s was more than three, but who’s counting?