Interview - the Forest Feast's Erin Gleeson
Four years ago, Erin Gleeson and her husband left the hustle and bustle of New York for a quiet California cabin in the woods. With no job prospects and friends in a new city, Erin thought the heyday of her photography career was over - so she started a blog photographing fresh fruits and veggies in her backyard. Within a year, this spiraled into what is now known as “The Forest Feast,” a Tumblr blog with over 150,000 followers and a book deal that eventually became a New York Times bestseller. Erin's story shows how amazing change can be if we welcome it into our lives and let it guide us to new, exciting places ! I sat down with her over a bottle of rosé and some of her delicious home cooking as she shared her story with me in the comfort of her lovely home.
So you're known now as author and photographer of the book and blog, “The Forest Feast,” featuring beautiful photographs that accompany your simple and delicious garden-fresh recipes. But before that, you were an editorial food photographer out in New York, how did you end up there ?
I grew up in Sonoma County and studied art and photography at UC Santa Barbara. Right after that I moved to New York in hopes of becoming a photographer ! I did a lot of internships – for National Geographic photographer Steve McCurry, and also for Conde Nast Traveler Magazine. I went back to school to get my MFA at the School of Visual Arts in New York because I also wanted to teach.
It's a competitive market to be a photographer in New York City – what was it like for you ?
When I first went there I said I'll go out there with enough money for one month and see what happens ! I'd do babysitting, dog walking, and work in restaurants just to make ends meet, alongside all these unpaid internships. After I completed my MFA I did a combination of teaching and freelancing, and shot for Edible Brooklyn and Edible Manhattan, small daily newspapers, sometimes the New York Times dining section. I also shot a lot for the James Beard Foundation, which opened a lot of doors for me in the New York culinary world and allowed me to photograph famous chefs like David Chang, Thomas Keller, Daniel Boulud, and the Voltaggio brothers.
Sounds like things were going really well having just graduated ! Then your husband Jonathan got a job offer out here in the Bay Area, and you came back to California. What was that like ?
Part of the draw was definitely that my family is two hours from here, but yes, it was mainly for his job. When I first arrived here, I really wanted to shoot other people's cookbooks. I tried to meet with a couple publishers in the Bay Area and it became clear I needed a more rustic aesthetic to shoot here in California. My stuff was on all-black, all-white backdrops, fancy chef-food that had been styled with tweezers. They wanted natural light, more lifestyle, more rustic.
So you had to build out a whole new portfolio, despite having already shot for some very solid clients on the East Coast ?
Right, I was like – well, I'm living in the woods, and have all this rustic wood around me already – maybe I can make that happen right here ! I had all these props right outside in my backyard – a mossy log or fallen leaves. I basically starting shooting a blog to send links to photo editors of new work. I wasn't setting out to be a blogger, just trying to build a portfolio that looked more California.
And then the social media boom took over ?
It happened naturally and slowly. Tumblr featured me as a blog to follow on their homepage, which got me a ton of followers quickly, and my editor featured me on her blog where she talks about other good blogs. Six months later, a literary agent saw my work on there, and then approached me about finding a publisher for a book deal.
And you got this book deal how long after starting “The Forest Feast ?”
It was about a year after starting the blog. I didn't even have a lot of followers yet.
That's incredibly fast, how wonderful ! From there, how did the book come to be ?
My agent and I spent about 6 months writing a proposal, a 20 page pdf to send out to publishers. In the end, we went with Abrams – they do a lot of both art books and cookbooks, so I felt like it was a good fit for me. And they also gave me a lot of artistic freedom.
In what way ?
They really let me do what I want to do; while they gave me a lot of helpful notes, they didn't art direct me. I've been painting since I was a kid, but always thought there had to be this delineation of what you do – a painter has to paint, a photographer has to take photos. It's so specific. For the book, they let me lay out everything, my handwriting on top, and I did all the watercolors. The whole watercolor-photography combination was something I'd never done professionally before.
And it took off in a really wonderful way. I see your book everywhere – bookstores, Anthropologie, Urban Outfitters. And it's a New York Times bestseller ! What do you think it is about your work that people are so drawn to ?
The visual layout makes it so much more approachable. I always try to include a pic of all the ingredients needed to make a certain dish, and a photo of the actual dish once it's made. When I'm cooking from a cookbook I feel like seeing the photos make it so much easier. I also never went to culinary school, so while I always cooked a lot with my family, everything I do is super simple ! On Instagram people like to cook from the book and hasthtag it. That's one of my favorite things – seeing my recipes are working and that people like it !
I also think you're really selling this amazing lifestyle – you live in this beautiful cabin in the woods with this magical mist and greenery, you entertain and throw these awesome-looking parties, and you somehow balance being a successful mother, wife, teacher, and working artist !
It's turned into that somehow, but I certainly didn't think of it like that in the beginning. It was so surprising for me when I initially got some emails from people who liked hearing my stories and about my life, and I just thought I was a photographer wanting to share some food photos !
Where do you get your inspiration ?
I'm usually just experimenting. I get a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) box every week, I pay weekly and it's collected from farms and delivered once a week. Often my inspiration comes from – what’s in the box ! Sometimes it's seeing something in a magazine, or reading about local flavor combinations I want to try out.
What's up next for you ?
My own son is almost one now, so I've been working on a kids cookbook – I just finished “The Forest Feast For Kids”, which is 40 recipes and about half the size of the original book. Produce-rich recipes that are simple and visual, and that comes out in the spring. And now I'm working on “The Forest Feast Gatherings,” featuring menus for parties, and that comes out next fall 2016. I do entertain quite a bit, and I always try to do stuff that can be prepped beforehand; I like to try to be out of the kitchen by the time people arrive !
In your journey – from California to New York and back again, you had a lot of life changes thrown at you, and I think that can be really scary for a lot of people. When you can roll with the punches like you did, great things can happen !
Creatively, coming here I thought that my biggest career accomplishments were behind me in New York. I remember moving here and being like, what am I going to do ? That might be it. I knew no one, and was moving into these suburbs. I knew that coming here would be a really different turn for my work and it has been, but it's been a better turn which I wasn't expecting - I was hoping to shoot other people's cookbooks and ended up shooting my own cookbook !
As one photographer to another, we also talked a lot today about the challenges of being in any creative industry. Any lasting thoughts / advice to people wanting to pursue their creative passions ?
Basically - do what you want to do more than what you think the industry tells you to do, or what will make you money; I think eventually your audience will find you no matter what you do. If you really get into whatever project, your work will show for it, and then people will want it. Stick to that, and while it might not be easy, what you love will win out in the end !