With the rise of Instagram, and the explosion of creatives using it to share their work and artistic journey, it makes sense that there seem to be more of us working to forge a freelance, untraditional career path. After all, with the help of one amazing app, you're able to get your message out into the world, in front of people who might otherwise not know you exist.
But I've also always been curious to know more about the tried-and-true paths of creative professionals. How did they learn their trade? Who do they work for along the way? How do they take it from an interest, to a skill, to a paid profession?
It was through Instagram that I met Anna Toupitsyna (of STILLANNA.com and @stilllifestylist) sometime last year. Anna's ability to create magic with her still life styling was unlike anything I had ever seen- she could convey so much beauty and emotion, just with a few simple props! While it wasn't "art" in a traditional sense, this was as much art as any painting I'd ever seen. As I myself became more immersed in styling, I was fascinated to learn more about Anna and her work. A few weeks ago, we chatted for a long time on the phone (and she's so humble, you'd never know how big of a deal she is! :)) and I was so impressed, I knew I had to get her on the blog to share more of her story.
Initially, I was most excited for her to share some of her behind-the-scenes experiences working for some major brands (an impressive roster ranging from Cosmopolitan to Rebecca Minkoff to DVF to Mattel), but I think what I ultimately took away, was her message of going with your gut. Styling a photo (or working on a painting or a logo or whatever it is you create)? Don't overthink it. Thinking of making the jump to go freelance? You SHOULD be scared, jump anyway. The most beautiful things in life usually come from trusting that gut feeling.
1) WHO ARE YOU AND WHAT DO YOU DO?
I’m a still life stylist and art director based in NYC. It’s kind of a weird job, one that many people outside the industry don’t even know exists! I didn’t either until I fell into it! This job is all about making products look their best while making an intersting photo. In this role, I work with different brands and magazines to help them create exciting still life imagery: anything from expensive rings balancing on lollipops for an editorial in Cosmo to a stop motion video of gifts flying out of a box for Intermix to a relatively simple arrangement of beauty oils for another magazine, in the perfect containers from various rental houses and just the right amount of props.
2) HOW DID YOU GET YOUR START IN THE STYLING INDUSTRY?
I got my start at Gilt Groupe, which, until recently, had one of the biggest (if not, THE biggest) photo studios in NYC. I started out just unpacking and prepping clothing for shoots, super clueless and exctied simply to be working in fashion while living in a more expensive city and on half the money I made in another industry the year prior. My family thought I was totally crazy but I was just happy I finally had the guts to be in the fashion industry; I heard and hoped that the money would come later if I just worked really hard.
After about 6 months of prepping clothes for at least 10 hours a day I started assisting stylists with on-figure sets on some days and styling still life product on other days. But after a while, it didn’t really feel like I was on a path of any kind. I couldn’t see myself being an on-figure stylist and styling e-commerce product on white every day didn’t do it for me either and I didn’t know enough about the industry to know what my other options were. I had an awesome manager at the time, who after hearing all this encouraged me to do some test shoots to figure out what I was really interested and good at. I did exactly that and my first couple of test shoots turned out to be some of my favorite shoots to date! They also helped me get into still life editorials at Gilt, when they needed to run more sets to get caught up after the studios were closed for a few days due to Hurricane Sandy.
After that I got to style a couple times a week. I also got a new boss, who would always bring me on the biggest and most important shoots with him as his assistant yet let me style a lot of the shots myself. It was such a great way to learn really fast as he trusted me with so much so early on, I had no choice but to act as a stylist and deliver the best I could. About 1.5 years and 2 promotions later, I had my boss’s job when he became an art director and we continued working together in different roles.
3) WHAT HAVE BEEN SOME OF THE BIGGEST LESSONS OF YOUR CAREER?
1. Always do what you’re passionate about so you can be a sponge and absorb as much information about your field as you can. I still surprise clients when I identity the photographers who shot the images they show me as reference or inspiration.
2. Don’t compare yourself to other people. And this is a big one. It’s not a race. I am inspired by the success of others in the industry, but I don’t expect to follow their paths and do exactly what they do. For a long time I was told that in order to be a successful styllist, you have to start out freelance and assist a famous stylist for a few years before striking out on your own. I set out to challenge this way of thinking with my career.
3. Know when to leave and do it even when you’re scared of what comes next. For me that time is when I realize that I am no longer learning or growing.
4) WHAT MADE YOU DECIDE TO GO FREELANCE?
I had become too comfortable with my job. It felt like second nature and like there just wasn’t anything else left for me to do creatively, like I’ve reached a certain limit. I missed the hustle and the variety my outside jobs provided me with. And I had just enough steady clients to know that I might just have a chance at this thing. It was time to try it, to be scared and uncomfortable again, and to build my own business, which is something I always wanted.
5) WHAT IS YOUR NUMBER ONE STYLING TIP?
Have a strong point of view and go with your first instinct without overthinking. I often find myself on sets where we’ll try a bunch of different variations of a shot only to go back to option 1.
6) WHAT WOULD YOU LIKE TO BE DOING IN FIVE YEARS?
This is tough! If someone asked me the same exact question 5 years ago I would have no idea I’d be doing what I’m doing now! I didn’t even think my job existed at that time! But in the next 5 years I want to learn and grow and do more of the creative concepting for brands. I want to be able to have the freedom to come up with really weird and out there still life and style it. I’m even toying with the idea of starting to shoot on my own as well. Oh ambition. Only time will tell.
7) WHAT'S YOUR BEST ADVICE FOR SOMEONE JUST BEGINNING THEIR CREATIVE JOURNEY?
Don’t be afraid to experiment and do something different. Be bold and go after what you want. Also, find a person in the industry you can come to for info or advice. A mentor of sorts. My old boss is that person for me. He’s a wealth of information and experience.
8) WHAT IS SOMETHING FEW PEOPLE KNOW ABOUT YOU?
I grew up in Eastern Europe and moved to the US when I was 12 years old after my mother received political asylum here. I also double majored in Honors Accounting and Business Administration in college so I’m a nerd who’s used to changes. ;)
You can find Anna here:
- Website: StillAnna.com
- Instagram: instagram.com/stilllifestylist
And most likely, in the pages of your grocery store checkout magazine, too... ;)