Heidi Robb is a food stylist. Her work is sublime, a Dutch Master painting in photography form. Her designs are a balance of contrasts: strength and suppleness, simple and complex.
And I’m so pleased to share them with you.
I remember learning about chiaroscuro in college, the Italian word for light/dark. It’s a word that speaks to strong contrast within a piece of art – but not contrast as in light versus dark. The two dance rather than fight, shadows quietly sculpting the light. Or perhaps in the case of Heidi’s work, they meditate.
I asked her to speak about her inspiration, and her continually evolving creative journey.
Here is her story.
Interesting, as I’ve been considering where my inspiration comes from and how much that answer has changed over the past several years. While honing my craft, the majority influence of creative input as it related to career arrived through available visual food imagery – magazines, books (I am drawn towards style cues of UK and AU food photography, as well as vintage publications), then on to endless scrolling through instagram feeds. As I cultivated my own rhythms and style, there became less need to rely on those sources, and more comes through intuitive flow. Post-covid, my nervous system dug in its heels and loudly roared “STOP” to excessive visual (and other) noise and has directed me towards deeper regenerative practices which transcend all areas of my life. An abiding respect and awe for nature can inform as much as time spent working in the kitchen (lifelong, a source of inspiration, exploration and sensorial pleasures). An intentionally observant walk through the woods teaches light and layering; woodland vegetation grows and falls and coexists in microcosms just as a variety of ingredients can similarly live on a plate. There, one can discover the calm within the chaos – which is also a goal when at work on a frenetic set. My mother practiced ikebana, and our home displayed a Japanese aesthetic, subconsciously imprinting my eye for balance and harmony in composition. Farmer’s markets present the beauty and seasonality of what is available right now, which, unfortunately, is often incongruent for ad work with a food stylist on a retail schedule, i.e. Christmas in July. Cooking, always cooking. Understanding how raw ingredients behave in all stages of their integrities is key. Travel! Collaborative test projects with talented colleagues offer alternative perspectives as juicy fodder for creative work.
As ephemeral as much of this sounds, the bottom line is to please a client and bring their desires to fruition. Often, their vision is clear. When it is not, the challenge is up to the photographer, set stylist and food stylist to decode what that can look like, and that look can be a frustrating one when limited time is what’s budgeted. This is why in addition to personal aesthetic, it is absolutely key to stay current and on trend with the visuals and to be able to marry the two. Digital media rules the day with multiple formats and with that, come greater demands and expectations from a photo shoot. Not too long ago, an image meant exactly that. Now there are asks for multiple size formats, gifs and motion. More content and rarely more time for delivering that content, which means devising creative strategies in finessing less and presenting quicker punches to the eye. Painting in broader strokes, as it were. The industry has, and is changing with velocity, and requirements do include a propensity towards mental gymnastics.
A career in food styling came to me later in life after decades spent in the restaurant, catering, recipe development, personal and pastry chef world (entirely another story). I seized the opportunity (oh gosh, truly another story), with a fervor, and a knowing of “this is what I must do next”. Styling still feels like the new job. It’s taken me from various studios and locations across the country, to presenting personal work in a gallery setting, as well as teaching workshops for an international peer group at conference in Denmark. I’ve had the fortune to work with a multitude of talented photographers, set stylists and diligent assistants and remain grateful and appreciative for every single one of them.
To offset job intensity (I am not in any way an adrenaline seeker), I head to the woods. Recently, I took needed time away, which evolved into a magic-filled year spent in the mountains of northern New Mexico. While there, I lived peacefully and in constant amazement with the seasons on a large-scale hobby organic vegetable farm. I’ve foraged wild edibles and tinkered with homemade plant medicines for years which fueled a desire to take those interests to a next-level, and enrolled in a program to study native and folk herbalism. At a point, I continued learning and making on my own, and have developed a penchant for making highly saturated and beautiful plant oils, which feel a natural extension to my cooking. Using the plant oils as a base, I’ve been using them to create soothing and healing balms under the name, “Verano || Sagrado” (sacred summer), and are currently available for purchase at a little jewel box of a boutique in Richmond, VA. It’s been rewarding to see a passion project emerge and come to fruition. No, it’s not the new day job – which I love – it’s an “and, also”. Ritual that soothes my soul and spirit, which was ripe for sharing. I am so looking forward to spring!
Thank you Heidi for sharing your work and your story. You can find more of her work on her website.