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High Fashion Photo Shoot: Part 1 (Behind The Scenes)

A Guest Post

by Andrea Johnson | Andrea Johnson Floral Design

 

Like many of us here, I am a floral designer. What few people know is that I am also a runner. I picked up running when I was sixteen and I have been on the move ever since, carrying with me all of the life lessons running has taught me along the way. Since I made the decision to leave my New York City advertising career after six years to pursue flowers, running has held a particularly special place in my heart. Those life lessons planted years ago, are now blooming throughout this new adventure. As a result of those life lessons, and a bit of dumb luck, I now find myself published in the Style section of a major magazine, alongside an immensely talented, high-caliber team from Ontario, Canada. 

Always remember that growth happens when you step outside your comfort zone.

It all started in February 2020, when Mila Haynos-Owen, of Lavender-Blu, reached out to ask if I would come to her farm for a photo shoot that summer. With less than a year in floral design, I was beyond eager to accept her offer! But I had one condition — this was not going to be a typical styled shoot, it was not going to be wedding focused — instead, it had to be weird, quirky, different, and ideally, high fashion. I had a clear business goal to be more than a wedding florist, and this was an opportunity to create something new with that goal in mind. Mila was immediately onboard, and neither of us knew the road ahead.  

Before I continue with the story, I cannot thank Mila enough for her trust in me! As a floral designer of only five months, she gave me creative license to bring whatever I wanted to life — and that opportunity doesn’t come around everyday! 

We were booked for July 16th, my wedding anniversary, and even though that was five months away, I began planning the most critical elements for the shoot. I called my close friend, and favorite photographer, based in New York, to get her flight booked. I started brainstorming what I would create, compiling inspiration, creating timelines, assessing what flowers would be in season, and the teams I would need — I was well on my way at a rapid pace, without a clue. 

Then COVID-19 shut down everything. 

And George Floyd’s death sparked global protests.

And I changed direction for the shoot. 

As a creative and small business owner, I reassessed my decisions. 

I wanted to embrace the feeling of isolation that COVID-19 was forcing everyone to face, and work with a more representative group of people. So I went back to the drawing board, rewrote the story this shoot would tell, and formed three key pillars that would inform every decision of the shoot:

  • Wild Open Nature (in honor of the lavender farm site, wild flowers, and the outdoors)
  • Singular (embracing the narrative of isolation)
  • Editorial High-Fashion (edgy/unique look)

With these pillars as my compass, I moved forward by seeking out vendors and partners that provided varied and distinct perspectives to the project, with the same passion I had. 

I felt comfortable. I was tracking towards the shoot date with a cool set design that told the story of one man’s road trip into rural Ontario. I had a classic car lined up, a few rental vendors onboard, hair/make-up and wardrobe almost locked down, and a model; but I also had one major problem — the US/Canada border was still due to be closed one week out, and it was apparent that the photographer was not going to be able to make the shoot.

Panic. Not much of a photo shoot without a photographer.  

So while she called around to try and figure out any loopholes to jump the border, I began reaching out to new photographers. 

During my preparation for the shoot, I had created a planning document that shared more than just a mood board. This document mapped out the shoot from start to finish. It included the key pillars, the mood, the look, location and model details, vendors, floral design plans, and the day-before / day-of run sheets. It provided a full scope of the project. I began emailing this document to any Toronto photographer I found on Google. I just needed someone to respond “yes” to my email that clearly stated “this project is unpaid and a week away”.

For every ten emails I sent, ten emails came back that they couldn’t take on any unpaid work or that they were already booked. 

Desperation. I was running out of options.

Then I found Lawrence Cortez, an accomplished, well regarded, global talent. I took one look at his site and immediately thought there was no way he would even read my email, let alone respond. But I had no time to overthink, just move forward with relentless pursuit to find a photographer.

Within one hour I received an email back from Lawrence, saying he would accept the job but with two conditions — that I be open to collaboration, and that the shoot be pushed by two weeks.

Relief. Photographer problem solved.

Elation. I couldn’t believe I had secured such talent.

Terror. I couldn’t believe I had secured such talent.

Discomfort immediately set in. 

Remember, it’s OK to be scared, just don’t let it stop you. 

Next, I experienced the craziest 48 hours in my life (or so I thought). I was on the phone with Lawrence for hours at a time. We got to know each other, and quickly kicked this shoot into an entirely new gear — a gear I didn’t believe I could pull off. Lawrence was elevating and expanding my original plan, and he was bringing a team of incredible individuals along for the ride! 

We went from one model to two models, three sets to six sets, a make-up artist, a stylist, a videographer and more! The story evolved into two nomadic men arriving and exploring in the wild — sharing with nature, themselves. 

I wanted to know why Lawrence had agreed to the shoot, so I asked. Somewhere between the stars aligning and my punctilious proposal, Lawrence was inspired and decided to respond to my inquiry.

After those 48 hours passed and we got into a good place together as a team, it sunk in how much work was ahead of me. Having never created on this scale, I had no idea what I was doing, but I was not going to let the fear suffocate me, rather, I would let it fuel me on the miles ahead. 

First, I prepped floral sketches and recipes, using the shot list Lawrence and I had finalized. I envisioned how I would create each floral set and with what tools. I estimated how many stems each design would need, accounted for waste/breakage, determined what I could forage from Mila’s farm, and placed my order for the rest. I first ordered what I could from local farmers. It’s very important to me to support the local flower farmers before ordering elsewhere. If I depend on local support to grow my business, I must give back to the same community. Next, I mapped out the timelines for each individual floral set. I had a two-day floral build schedule which included how, when, and by whom the designs would be built. I was sharing all of these details with Lawrence for his input and alignment, while popping on calls with the rest of the team whenever needed to hash out the last of the details. 

Even with all my planning and team of volunteers ready to help, I still felt like I was trying to race through a dark forest with a blindfold on. But this moment was so much more than the fear I felt, and THAT feeling motivated me more than any fear of failing.

The week before the shoot, I gathered and organized all of my tools into labeled boxes, finalized COVID precautions for the team, cleaned buckets, performed a site visit with Lawrence, and had a pre-pro meeting with my floral design assistants to walk through the schedule and each floral build. With help from family and friends, I processed over 400 stems (that stayed cool in my bedroom with the AC pumping), memorized the floral details and recipes, and issued the Call Sheet to the full team.

The night before the two-day event, I lay in bed with all of the “should-of” thoughts running through my head, with no idea of what was going to happen, and my alarm set for 4AM.

The first day couldn’t have been more smooth. It felt easy. A few smaller pieces were designed, all stems were foraged and sitting in water, large mechanics were prepped, and all set sites were ready. Most importantly, the largest piece — the hanging installation — was built. It was secured over the gazebo using metal grids and zip-ties and held over two hundred stems with a water source. It took over three hours to build, and four people to get the job done. We were on schedule! The 15 hour day wrapped and the team raised a hubristic beer to cheers to the end of a very successful first day. 

We went back to the hotel to rest up and give my husband time to prepare the meals for the next day. He had taken on catering dinner for the entire crew the day of the shoot so that I didn’t have to figure out how to feed everyone — just  another item on the massive to-do list. 

The alarm went off the day of the shoot at 5AM and we were back on site, building the major sets by 6AM, ahead of the shoot that started at 2PM. This is when my legs began to feel heavy. 

Remember, trust in your strength. It comes in many different forms. 

The winds were so incredibly gusty that morning, but it was still the second hottest day of the summer. Everything with a water source, including the stunning hanging installation (that I half expected to find on the ground) had dried-out and the blooms were on the verge of dying. We were rebuilding what we could, while building all of the major sets simultaneously. The sun was already beating down on us and we were all exhausted from the day before. Now we had double the work to get done.

Then when the classic car arrived, I hit my wall.

I started briefing the team on the car build — reviewing the stem counts, the tools, and the assigned builders for each section — while thinking about all the other work still ahead of us. We hastily started working. Then, wind. The entire design, on both the back and side of the car came crashing down. First checking to see if the car was scratched, we rushed to save the stems we could and re-secure the design to the car in another way. If my memory serves me right, this happened two more times…as if Mother Nature had been trying to tell me something.

We finally got the pieces secured but something was looking terribly off with the build. Somehow, we’d managed to make a hearse out of a black Pontiac Station Wagon, with a low and long casket arrangement on top, and baroque tableau on the tailgate. It was nothing like the sketch, and I couldn’t figure out what I had done and how I had directed the team to get to this point. 

Then, blood. 

A pair of scissors to the head of a teammate — adding physical trauma to the growing list of things going wrong. She’d somehow clipped her head working on the back of the car, but thankfully was fine after a quick patch-up. We hurriedly wrapped up the car design just as Lawrence and the crew were arriving, and we still had one large set to build. So we moved on and I worked to let go of my disappointment with the car. 

The team was still working when Lawrence and I did a walk-through of all the sets. Together, we agreed on the things that had to be adjusted and fixed on each — this was the power of collaboration at work, and I trusted that Lawrence’s eye would elevate everything. As we went, I was making notes and adjusting our timeline to accommodate the additional work that had to be done. Then, as we got up to the car, my chest hurt from my pounding heart. I could see the disappointment on his face. This was the set Lawrence and the team were most excited for, and it was nothing like the sketches I’d shared, nothing like I had planned. 

After a pause, he asked, “How do you feel about this design?”.

I answered almost instantly, and honestly — “I’m not happy with it,” I said. “So, you have time to fix it,” Lawrence responded. 

Exhausted and unsure of how I would correct this gigantic mistake, along with all of the other adjustments that had to be made, I asked for help on what he thought needed to be fixed, in hopes his answer would unblock whatever wall was stopping further progression on this particular set. 

“It’s supposed to be more organic and overgrown. Remember, it’s supposed to look like it’s been here for awhile.”

I had forgotten to honour the first key pillar for this shoot: Wild Open Nature. 

 “Let’s take a look at the schedule to figure out when you can fix it.”

I sat down with Lawrence and we found the time. My team would work through dinner to make sure it was back on track. But I still couldn’t figure out how it was going to be edited. The shoot was underway and I had to be present at all sets to make sure the florals were being captured cleanly, while literally running back and forth to sets being adjusted. Holding my breath. Sweat dripping.

Remember, when it hurts the most, that’s when you don’t give up. 

Lost. The feeling was palpable. 

That’s when I decided to open up to my floral assistant, Jill, of Toronto’s Bloom Bar Studio, who’d recently taken a scissor to the head, but was continuing to build tirelessly. I talked to her about what issue I was finding with the current design and the initial vision for the car, as everything was dying under the hot sun of the afternoon. She suggested we lean into the dying flowers and add Spanish moss from another set. I could have kissed her. 

Once I envisioned the Spanish moss in the design, the creative block melted, and the road to the original design was before me. I told the team to start ripping down everything, and sent everyone into the woods to begin foraging VERY large branches. We reconnected the design to the nature around us, allowed the blooms and branches to guide the way, and within 30 minutes, we had finally found the original design. My breathing eased. 

When the crew and models arrived at the redesigned car, everyone had a light in their eyes! Cell phones popped-out and everyone was photographing and filming the new piece. We had done it! 

Lawrence had asked the right questions, provided direction, and given me the space to correct the design. Jill had made a creative recommendation that freed up my mind to find the original design, and we’d found everything we needed to bring the design and story to life. And on a tight and rejiggered schedule, we managed to clean up our mess as we went. It was incredible!

There were three more shots to capture after the car set and we crossed the finish line at 10PM. 

High. THESE had been the craziest 48 hours of my life.

I could hear the models chatting about how cool the experience was, others were talking about the entire vibe of the shoot that everyone was buzzing on, while someone mentioned that dinner was delicious.  

By 11PM,  the floral team was popping champagne and chattering about the past two days in Mila’s now dark, quiet lavender garden. In bed by 2AM (now up for 22 hours), I still had a full day of clean up ahead of me — and THAT was the hottest day of the summer. 

Remember, you get out what you put in. 

My husband and I toiled away and cleaned up all of the sets, raking-up petals, clearing branches, returning everything we moved, and chugging litres of water. All of our muscles were sore, our feet blistered, and skin burnt. And in those moments, all felt worth it.   

Over the next few days, I recalled the entire experience to family and friends, sent all of my thank you emails to the extraordinary team, and I opened an email from Lawrence. 

It was to inform me that GQ South Africa was interested in the photos and that he was just waiting to hear back on confirmation. Over the moon with excitement, I was on the edge of my seat waiting to hear if GQ would take our story! Then, we didn’t hear anything for over a month. 

The adrenaline of the shoot had long since worn off and it was almost a distant memory as I was in the throes of another floral project. Lawrence had only heard just one more time that the magazine was working through their upcoming issues and evaluating if there would be an opportunity to showcase our shoot. We had to decide if we’d wait for GQ, with the chance they could pass up on the photos (making it too late for another publication because of seasonality and editorial calendars) or if we’d reach out to another publication with the risk that GQ would want the photos after all, meaning we could no longer offer exclusivity. 

We were at a fork in the road. 

Ultimately we decided to wait. It was a risk— but a risk with a big reward. It was more important for us to be in GQ South Africa than any other publication; and that decision paid off. 

Finally, run with the finish line in site but don’t forget to appreciate the place you’re in.

On November 23rd, 2020 the feature titled: Full Bloom, showcasing this shoot from Ontario, was published in the Style section of the December 2020 / January 2021 Issue of GQ South Africa. Perhaps this was the finish line, not 10PM on that hot summer night of the shoot.

I can look back and tell you that I didn’t truly understand how important it was to be invited to a local farm to create art. I didn’t slow down enough to understand that the interactions of local support and collaboration I was experiencing were essential to artistic growth, connection, and self-awareness. The entire team felt this kinship the day of the shoot, and it’s something I will never forget.

Yet again, I find myself picking up pace, running towards another shoot with Lawrence, an upcoming art exhibit, and the new workshop season ahead. This shoot was not the finish line. This publication was not the finish line. My fears fuel me along the mountainous marathon I still have ahead of me, but this experience reminds me to stop and appreciate the people, the creativity, and the flowers along the way, for the road ahead is long.


Enjoy a sneak peek of the photo shoot and come back later this week to see the full shoot as seen in GQ South Africa!

 

FINAL IMAGE & MAKING OF VIDEO CREDITS 

Photographer: Lawrence Cortez, @lawrencejcortez

Floral Designer: Andrea Johnson Floral Design  @andreajohnsonfloraldesign

Floral Assistance: Jill Laakkonen @bloombarstudio, Clare Ambraska @willowandwildeflorals

Stylist: Ashley Galang, @ashleygalang

Hair & Makeup: Robert Weir, @robertweirbeauty

Models: Malcolm Omoruyi, @malcolm.omoruyi & Silvano Ferreira @chezeus | Dulcedo Models @dulcedomodels

Location: Lavender Blu @lavenderblu4u

Retouching: Bruno Rezende Studios, @studiobrunorezende

 

BEHIND THE SCENES IMAGE CREDITS

All BTS photos were taken with a cellphone.

Photographer: Lawrence Cortez, @lawrencejcortez

Floral Designer: Andrea Johnson Floral Design @andreajohnsonfloraldesign

 

BEHIND THE SCENES VIDEO CREDITS

All BTS photos were taken with a cellphone.

Stylist: Ashley Galang, @ashleygalang

 

 

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  1. Dolores says:

    Wow this story is super inspirational and very cool. Congrats!

  2. Hayden says:

    Wow, I felt my heart racing along through this story – what an incredible experience!!

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