Nicole Franzen’s photographs somehow make you simultaneously want to walk the streets of Copenhagen, assemble a fresh salad from a garden, have a real garden, spend more time in architecturally-arresting rooms, and, de-clutter your kitchen. As an interiors, travel, and food photographer, Nicole counts Condé Nast Traveler, Architectural Digest, and Bon Appétit amongst her roster of clients.
Over breakfast at the newly opened Hoxton Hotel in Brooklyn, we chatted with Nicole about the difference between social media influencers and photographers, whether or not she considers herself “a brand,” and if Instagram is a net positive for the world.
Can you tell us a bit about when you started doing photography professionally and your first paid job?
When I look back at it I’ve always had a camera in my hand, though I didn’t realized it was something I wanted to explore professionally until my 20’s. I started taking photos on disposable cameras as a teenager; I also loved documenting my life and friends. As early as I can remember I was drawn to the same things I am now: interiors, peoples spaces, food, travel and lifestyle. It’s been a journey discovering and unveiling it as I go along.
I worked in the restaurant industry for just over a decade. I started a blog back in the day, pre-Instagram era. I starting teaching myself to take photos of food. A highlight and breaking point was when I won a gift card to Gramercy Tavern in a raffle and I documented my lunch there. They ended up liking the photos and I took the opportunity to start a relationship with them. It led to shooting seasonally at Gramercy Tavern and some of Danny Meyers restaurants and their catering company. I also started shooting restaurants for New York Magazine, one thing led to another and here I am. I tried to assist other photographers and learn the ropes the more traditional way, but it wasn’t in the cards for me. I am self taught through and through, and worked really hard every single day to improve my skill set.
Fill in the blank. Instagram is a force for ____ for photographers.
I have a love hate relationship with Instagram. I am an avid user and addict but with everything there are always two sides. What I love, or loved pre Facebook take over, was the ability to connect with people from all over the world, view their lives and to showcase my work in a seamless platform. I’m frustrated by how the algorithms infiltrate our social communities. I follow who I follow for a reason and want to see them everyday, in chronological order. I don’t want to be told what I want to see based on some algorithm that some bot came up with. So the love that I had for Instagram early on has changed. While it’s a super powerful tool, especially to me as a photographer. I often find myself annoyed with the app.
The smoke and mirror sides of things also take its toll after awhile. False beliefs of perfectionism. I am a huge culprit! When the truth is everyone has bad ugly days and it’s not always how it appears.
Is this a problem inherent to Instagram though? Hasn’t it always been the case that professional photography promotes an unrealistic life?
Totally. It’s just that people have more access to it than ever. They are ingesting it at a higher rate compared to when it was advertised on a building or in a magazine. And on Instagram, these are real people who are making their photos seem really believable.
What’s your opinion on the relationship between Instagram and brands?
I understand why brands are making the shift, they want to be where the eyes are. It’s a new way of creating content and its seems like a natural transition. I do have some issues with it as a professional photographer. When the lines get blurred between people who are good at taking iPhone photos versus pro photographers and vice versa. I have made a conscious effort over the years to be selective on how many “brand partnerships” I do. I don’t want to be confused with being a full time influencer (nothing wrong with it, just not the direction I wanted to go) when in reality I am a full time photographer. All that said, more power to the the influencers. They are making a killing and creating all the content themselves!
Is your feeling that real photographers are different from brand influencers? Should those be categorically different?
They are for sure different. Does that person know how to show up to a hotel and say the light goes here, here, and here? It’s a different skillset. There’s a lot more involved in what I do. But I don’t want to discredit [influencers.] It’s amazing what they are able to do — they are creative directing these whole things themselves. I’m not downplaying it, but I think the skillset is different for bigger sets.
What opportunities do brands have on Instagram? Where can they really add value to their customers?
It’s very valuable for brands. I have done shoots for branded content on social media. Sometimes the budgets are the same as ad jobs; they are willing to put as much effort into creating content because there are so many eyes on it. I’m not against that at all. If they’re willing to put together a team, I’m very open to it. Sometimes it’s more creative, less pressure, really fun.
Are there any brand accounts that you follow because you think they make great work and not because you have a working relationship with them?
Over the years what I want to see has changed. Currently I follow more furniture companies, designers, architects, restaurants and hotels etc. I don’t follow a lot of huge brands to be totally honest. One that I do follow is Clos 19; it’s part of LVMH and they create really beautiful content fr some of their liquor and wine brands. I follow Everlane because I genuinely like and believe in what they do.
What make an especially challenging shoot or subject and what makes things run smoothly from a production standpoint?
I just had one of the most challenging shoots recently. It always stems down to not having tools you need to do your job well. Light is a huge part of it. When you rely on natural light you need to strategize constantly, planning your day around the sun. Some jobs require more organization and prep early on to insure a smooth shoot, and that can fall on my back. Other times there is zero prep and I have a variety of different obstacles I have to jump around. No shoot is ever the same. Always with its own challenges, and how you deal with those challenges is what makes you good or not.
How would you describe your ideal job or client?
My ideal client is someone that is really really gifted at what they do. Whether it be an interior designer, an architect, a chef, a maker. It’s always a pleasure to work with people who are really skilled and masters of their crafts. Obviously having fun on set is also a really nice bonus. I feel fortunate when those come along. When I get to show up, and do my job making them look as beautiful as possible.
How would you describe your photography style, or your brand, in one word?
Timeless. Elegant. Effortless.
Do you think of yourself as a brand?
No. I don’t.
Because I’m more of an individual.
But can’t an individual be a brand?
I guess so. But what do you have to do to be a brand? I am only hired to do photography work. I am a freelance artist. I wouldn’t call myself a brand. I’m more of an artist. But maybe that is what it is. I don’t know.
It’s interesting, right? This is something we talk about a lot. What makes a brand? If a brand is fundamentally a reason someone buys you or believes in you, the thing you stand for, then you could potentially be a brand.
I guess it is my brand, then. I would say “that’s on brand.” Sometimes I can tell when a client isn’t a good fit. I choose what I want to represent and try to reflect that. I try to be mindful on what I want to represent and attract more of. I’m always trying to hone on my niche, each year I want to progress.
Let’s think of you and your work as a brand. And brands change seasonally, over time. How has your brand evolved?
Just refinement. Quality control. Having the luxury of being able to be a little more choosy in what I want to shoot. It’s a privilege I don’t take for granted. It’s super hard being a freelancer and work ebbs and flows, you’re never really safe.
Why are some people so much more successful? What are the keys?
That’s such a hard question. I do believe you’re born with an eye and sensibilities. You either see it or you don’t — not saying that you can’t teach yourself and evolve. There are many reasons why some people are more lucky than others. Where you live and who you know is a big contributor. New York is all about connections and dedication. The talent pool is huge, you have to stand out.
What’s your proudest professional achievement?
I haven’t won a bunch of awards or accolades, there isn’t one big thing that sticks out. Every time I create a cookbook I am proud of, like Bestia, or The Lost Kitchen, or connect with a dream client etc. Those sorts of things are my driving force and make me give myself an occasional pat on the back.
What do brands need to understand about photography and how can they use Instagram better?
I have no idea.
Okay, that’s fine.
I mean, I really don’t know. They’re adapting and finding their own voice. I don’t think I’m the most educated in that area.
Who are some of your favorite photographers?
What’s next for you?
I am really making it a point next year to one take more personal vacation time — gotta have that you time. I also am going to make much more of an effort to use my platform to help share others stories in a meaningful way. With the way the world is right now, it’s hard to sit in silence. I will do what I can to help with environmental issues and make peoples voices heard.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
All photos by Nicole Franzen.