English countryside. Winter cookery. Fires in the hearth. Knitting and weaving. Cozy tea time. And of course, the photography of it all. These are the things that danced around my head, finger poised above the purchase button, as I read and re-read the enticing description of a Local Milk retreat to be held in rural Surrey.
Last autumn, while sitting at my desk in San Francisco and avoiding the tedium of invoice writing, Beth Kirby announced her latest retreat on Instagram. I happened to see her post just as she published, and clicked through to read the details immediately. Really, she had me at ‘English Country Winter.’ But everything on the page was calling my name. And I felt, though I loathe to admit sounding like a complete hipster cliche, as if it was written just for me.
Like some 600 thousand some-odd others, I’d been following Kirby on Instagram for quite some time. Drawn first I suppose to her lovely imagery, cool palette and well-curated gallery, and later by her distinct voice and beautifully written words. If not already familiar with her work, start with the Local Milk Blog, and then follow with her must-visit her Instagram account and Snapchat. It’s rather common these days to see a multi-hyphen moniker under someone’s name in their social media bio. However, Kirby is that rare bird who’s earned each one: cook, writer, photographer, recipe developer, blogger and last but not least, teacher.
Come February 1, I traveled solo by train from London to the town of Dorking, and then by car into tiny village of Abinger Common and Goddards House. There, I was met by an expanse of rolling green hills, traditional gardens and an absolute chorus of songbirds chirping from the surrounding wood. I’d arrived first and plodded around the estate trying every antique latch until I decided no one was hiding inside. They all arrived moments later, but not before I was forced to sit among the stillness in a quiet moment of gratitude.
Overall, the retreat was wonderful, surmounting my expectations. Practicums on food styling and photography were balanced by engrossing talks on the creative process and discussions about our own goals and aspirations. Everyone came from a different background, level of experience and perspective, and was encouraged to share her story. I found myself surrounded by and reflected in a truly wonderful group of women. With a schedule designed to be loose, we were free to explore in small groups, or take time to reflect on our own in between scheduled activities. When we talked as a group, it was with ample tea and biscuits, while knitting surrounded by cozy fire.
The sweet Natasha of the blog, Taking a Moment in Time, taught knitting and weaving, gifting us with lovely hand-dyed wools and hat kits to get started. She stayed on hand to help throughout the week, dispensing advice on knitting and life. The talented photographer, Marte-Marie Forsberg, joined for a day of visual storytelling and baking, while we photographed her demoing a tart tatin in gorgeous directional light. Meanwhile, Chef Aaron Teece of Studio Neon not only cooked three incredible meals each day, but regaled us with tales of stupendously luxurious culinary adventures with former employers. His meals were fresh, flavorful, varied and authentically English; this meant hearty roasts, rashers of bacon, steaming bowls of porridge, soft-cooked eggs, jams and pies, clotted cream and robust vegetable salads.
As a professional photographer, I wasn’t looking for an advanced technical workshop or serious critique on my work. But I was keen to connect, to slow down, to get away and to be intentional about what I seek next––in my work and, admittedly, in my life. I believe this is what Kirby does particularly well with her retreats, and why she’s cultivated such a loyal following. A couple of devotees in my group booked multiple trips with her this year alone. Kirby creates a unique, inspiring, beautiful space—both metaphorically and physically—in which we could completely nourish and cultivate our creativity and learn from one another, free of distractions and inhibitions. And she shares a lot of herself. Whether it’s a specific camera setting in tricky light, understanding an aspect of business, or navigating the unsteady terrain of social media, Kirby’s willingness to share her approach not only boosted our confidence, but encouraged the rest of us to do the same.
Throughout the retreat, Kirby held one-on-ones discussions with each attendee. Mine wasn’t until the very last evening, just before dinner. About an hour before, I decided to wander around the grounds a bit, camera in one hand, journal in the other. Though it was quite cold, I wanted to be outside. Under a tangle of crooked black branches of a winter tree, I sat on a rustic wooden bench, the soft mossy wood in state of beautiful decay. I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to write, to take pictures, or just shut my eyes and meditate to the sound of a thousand birds in the distance. In the end, I did all three. And so I wandered inside, feeling completely content in the moment, inspired from a week of artistic exploration and utterly reenergized.
How do you evaluate what brands you work with?
I evaluate brands like any business would: can they pay my rates and does their brand message fit organically with mine? If they don’t have the budget and/or it’s a bad fit, we don’t work together.
How do you continue to refine your own brand?
It’s an organic process. I focus on my own creative vision and what topics inspire me; I look at very little other work at this point in my career. I rarely even look at my Instagram feed, preferring to use it to post my work and then focus on other areas of life. I prefer to get my inspiration from travel, the market, art, literature, music and other sources. That said, I do let what I see influence me. If something I was doing that wasn’t common before becomes common, I immediately focus on how I can grow and change. I think it’s easy to get frustrated with styles that were once unique to you becoming a trend, but I have a very different take on it. If something I once loved becomes oversaturated and I see so much of it that it stops inspiring me, I view that as an opportunity to grow and be creative and strike off in another direction. To remain unique in a sea that tends towards sameness, you have to be constantly evolving. I love that. As far as the content I cover, that evolves organically along with my life. Originally, Local Milk was a food brand. And then when I started hosting international workshops and retreats, it became a food and travel brand to encompass the other love of my life. Now, with the start of our family, the remodel of our home and my exploring slow living in areas other than just slow food, it’s becoming a food, travel, and lifestyle brand. I love that it’s grown in such a way to allow me to share everything I’m passionate about with my audience whether that’s a recipe for hoppin’ john or a face wash I love or a trip to Kyoto.
There’s been an emergence of up-and-coming creatives with hyphenated mastheads, particularly in the social media circuit. They’re no longer just photographer or writer or chef, but photographer-writer-blogger-author-recipe developer, etc. Do you see this as an important trend or even necessary for future generations? Do you think it will continue, or do you think it’s a passing phase?
Frankly, and I say this as a photographer-stylist-cook-writer, it’s a horrible idea for most people. I think a very certain personality type works well in a scattered way. But I think for a lot of people it can lead to mediocrity and dilettantism, and it can also create undue pressure where creatives feel they have to spend time on things they aren’t passionate about or be good at things they aren’t. I’m a manic, ADD sort of person, and I thrive on chaos. I’m also mercurial and creating a job that allows me many outlets is perfect because sometimes I’m mentally capable of some parts of my job and not others. With a job description so diverse, there’s always something I can do no matter how I’m feeling. But I think there’s a lot to be said for picking one thing and pursuing it with all of your being. I think true greatness often lies there. I think it’s important that people know themselves. Most of the best work still comes from people with singular pursuits. There’s no need to have your fingers in every pie. But now there’s no reason to not either. It’s up to you.
Are there any food styling trends you’ve grown tired of?
Anything that becomes overly saturated or oft mimicked tires me, even things I myself use. Especially things I use. I can’t help it. My eye grows rough to what I see frequently, and I can’t find it inspiring any longer. I don’t enjoy the sea of same. Things I’m not currently feeling are rustic wood backgrounds (save a very particular color wood that reminds me of Japanese farmhouses and happens to make up half of my kitchen island), throwing flowers absolutely everywhere for no good reason––or including them in every scene––tea towels absolutely everywhere, using cheesecloth or gauze as if it were a kitchen linen and over-editing in post processing (heavy vignetting, uber vibrance, fading, unnatural colors/white balance, etc.) are things I’m not inspired by. The last one isn’t technically styling, but it’s a stylistic trend that isn’t for me.
How has your creative process changed as social media has evolved and new platforms are constantly invented?
The creative process is the same no matter which outlet the final work is appearing on. That said, I do pay special mind to format as social media changes. For instance, if I’m looking for work to perform well on Pinterest or Instagram, I’m going to choose dimensions for that photo that do well there. If I’m sharing on Snapchat, I’m going to share behind the scenes instead of the finished product.
How do you feel about the shifting nature of social media; what are its flaws in your opinion and how do you navigate those changes?
You can’t ever get too hung up on social media—it’s shifting sand. Platforms will always come and go. But people will always respond to good work. I just focus on creating the best recipes, photos, styling and stories I can. And I share them wherever seems pertinent at the time. I never focus on how I can grow social media though. I think that’s putting the cart before the horse. You focus on your work, that’s all that matters. The rest will come.