Courtney Watkins is a wardrobe and prop stylist in Atlanta. She has been a familiar face on a multitude of shoots, ranging from lifestyle to corporate to product and editorial. When it’s been a long and difficult day, you can usually spot her because she’s the only one still smiling.
Hello, Courtney. Could you tell me what you do?
I’m a photo stylist. I also do film work. My undergraduate was in fine art and then I went to Portfolio Center for photography because there’s not much you can do with a fine art degree [laughs]. And I love photography. It was one of my last undergraduate studio classes and I decided to expand on that. Portfolio Center opened up a whole new world to me. I met some really great people. One of my instructors at PC was a former stylist and became a great mentor. The longer I was involved in photography and photo assisting, I realized that I didn’t want to be the photographer, I didn’t want to be the boss. I was much better being a support person. I could create, compose, sketch my ideas, and put all the pieces together for a shoot. Frankly, my technical skills in photography were mediocre while my creativity and resourcefulness were off the charts. It became very obvious that styling was a perfect fit.
What was your next step. How did you go out and start getting work?
Actually, another teacher at Portfolio Center gave me a list of people to contact. She was really helpful. I just started getting on the horn and calling people, telling them that so-and-so referred me. I tried to get my foot in any door possible. You know, you do some really horrible work as an assistant and I was photo assisting too. I was trying to figure it out, seeing if I was making the right decisions. I was having a photographic identity crisis, but after a while, it became clear.
In those first years, was it trial and error or was there someone who was able to show you the ropes?
Well, through assisting, that’s how you learn most of the ropes. I learn things every job. I’ve been doing this for 12 years and I still learn things. At the end of every job, I look back and ask myself if there was something that I could have done differently or better? What would have made things go more smooth and every time there’s something that I think I could improve.
Your job is not one that is not very publicized, but there is a market for it.
Atlanta is different from New York and LA in that it’s a smaller market. You sometimes end up doing multiple departments. If you’re in New York, you rarely have a prop and wardrobe stylist. But sometimes that involves more than just clothes.
I’ve got a whole list of crazy things that I have had to do on the job. I had to have a severed finger made. I’ve had to dress a cow like a reindeer. I’ve had to make a man into a Christmas tree. I had to make four orange Santa suits. I’ve had to make a cyclops and a monster truck. But I enjoy it. It is hard work, so you have to be prepared to work long hours and staying up all night designing something for the next day. No two jobs are going to be the same. I’ve never had a sit still job.
How does a job start for you?
I will get a call from a photographer or producer about a job and they’ll send me a production brief. I’ll read it and look at everything. Typically there’s a pre-production meeting that I’m invited to. I bring my list of 1,000 questions because I have to ask about every detail. “So you want a car? What type of car? What color car? And you want people in there. How old are they?” I have to get all the specifics from them so I know what I’m supposed to go out and shop for them to put the pieces together.
Once I have my prop list created, then I go out and pull everything. If I bill $25,000 on my AMEX we may only use like $8,000 worth and the rest is returned. So there’s a lot of shopping for options that are not used and then we take back the rest.
$25,000? Is that the most you’ve ever rung up?
Thereabout, at least for print stuff. That’s not too bad. It’s so easy to do. I think at one point I had three jobs, and this was before the great recession, I was trying to juggle multiple jobs. I think my card was up to $45,000. It was crazy.
Was this all stuff you were going to be reimbursed for or returned?
They were mostly purchases and I bet only a third of those would be reimbursed, like cash reimbursement. The rest were returned. A lot of times I get cash up front, but sometimes I don’t get an advance, so having good credit is the only way I can do business. If you had no credit, you’d be doomed. There’s no way you could do this.
So you’ll go shopping for whatever the production needs are. How many options will you pull to make the client happy?
Some clients are so easy to please. Some photographers are very easy to please. And then there are others that want to see everything and it doesn’t matter if they wont really love what you show them. I could pull a rack of clothes for just one talent. If I know they are going to be high maintenance client, then I must have as many options there as possible.
For men though, you have a basic list. At least about 10 shirt options, and four sweaters, at least five pants and depending on outfits, maybe four to five pairs of shoes. And that’s minimal. That’s just for men. It’s not that much.
Are you getting feedback from the client beforehand or is that on set?
We’ll have a show-and-tell and in the show-and-tell I’ll basically run through everything I’ve pulled, with the client and with the photographer. Usually the agency is there as well. We run through, shot-by-shot, talent-by-talent, and I show them everything. I put together looks that I hope will make them happy.
So do you have an insane wardrobe collection at your house?
You know, I have a lot of guys stuff. As far as a women’s wardrobe is concerned, there’s not that much because girls know what is current and on the shelves right now. They can tell. They can pick last years styles and colors, so it’s not really worth it. I used to keep a lot more women’s stuff but it wasn’t getting used.
Mens’ clothes are usually pretty timeless. You guys wear dress shirts, t-shirts, three-button polos, jeans, pants. So I have a decent amount of menswear. How many times in your life can you buy khaki pants in size 32×32? In Atlanta, we have a lot of Fortune 500 companies so there’s more lifestyle and not as much fashion.
What kind of shoots have you been doing recently?
I just wrapped a job with Ford. Suntrust Bank. Arbys. I’ve done some work with Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, for childhood obesity, which got a whole lot of negative press because they were very in your face, but it’s been interesting, that was a fun project. I also recently did Russell Athletic in Texas.
Some big corporate jobs in there. How are people finding you nowadays?
Usually word of mouth. I have a lot of repeat clients. Customers, photographers, and producers who keep calling. I love when you find a photographer that you click with and just stay with them. Working with them becomes very simple and second nature.
During the great recession, was it easier because you could move between stills and video?
Video and film definitely filled in some blanks for me. Turner Broadcasting. Cartoon Network. I did some work with Boomerang last year. It was tough, but I feel lucky that I didn’t have to change careers like so many other people did or get a part-time job. I had enough work to keep me going.
What do you have to do different on a still shoot versus a video shoot? What kind of factors play into your decision?
Naturally the sound. The clothes can’t be noisy. You can’t have any windbreaker material. If they are mic’ed, then when they start walking it picks up on the audio. So quiet clothes and soft shoes.
And with print, and print is my first love, you have one frame to tell the story. Every wrinkle and every seam has to be perfect. You have to dissect and sculpt every fold or bend in the garment. With film, you have many frames to tell the story. Fabric in motion is much more forgiving. You can be a little more relaxed with wrinkle structure and fabric detail.
There are continuity issues with film. You have to take detailed notes on how many buttons are buttoned on someone’s shirts. How many cuffs did you make on their sleeves? Where exactly are their sunglasses? Were they hanging on the second button or were they in the pocket? You have to note all these things so the next scene or the next day you come back and it has to be identical.
Tell me about a disaster scenario.
Ok. It was New England. Early spring. We were doing an outdoor athletic line shoot. There were very athletic girls wearing running shorts and sports tops, and it was sleeting sideways outside. The girls get out there and immediately turn blue. It’s just freezing cold. So I have the hot pockets, the little hand warmers that you break open, shoved everywhere, in the back of their sports bras, in their shorts. We have them in a motor home and make them run a lap, get their photo taken and run back inside to cover them with blankets so they start turning beige again.
The photo assistant came inside after this situation and her jeans had frozen solid. I felt so bad for her. I had to take her jeans and dry out them out with a hairdryer.
I remember once on set, you were deciding what decor would be used for a living room and you were asking the photographer what kind of people live here? Are you coming up with back stories for the setting or the models?
It helps a lot, especially if you have to dress an environment and people. Building a character helps tell me what someone would wear or where they would live. Knowing how old the person is, or if they are in college, or are professionals or are they hipsters or nerds?
Do you draw on people you know? Your definition of a nerd might be different from the client’s.
[laughs] True. A lot of it is when you have the show-and-tell and you get that client feedback. I can give as many ideas and solutions to their problems but in the end they have to be happy with it. I will pull images off the internet and I will set up a quick little website with my ideas. I’ve been doing this for the last two years and I’ve gotten a really good response from clients and photographers. Everyone has access to this link and they can go through it, say yes, say no, make comments so everyone’s on the same page.
I’ve learned that even if you just try to describe something there’s almost always something that gets lost in translation. Showing them exactly what I’m trying to convey helps so much.
Tell me about your research process.
I do a lot of online research. A lot of time spent on Google images, scouring any visual information I can get my hands on. If I see a store that just opened up in Atlanta, then I pull a u-ie and turn around and go in and see what they have and take notes.
Yesterday I went to a store on Howell Mill that has all sorts of weird prop rentals. I love antiques. There’s an antique market that happens once a month and I’m always down there scouring piles of dusty, dirty junk. There are a few places between here and up in North Georgia where there are yards full of rusty, cruddy, wonderful things.
I bought a 1923 bungalow and have been renovating that for quite a while and most of my stuff is stored there. A lot of it is now part of my personal surroundings.
Is there something in your house that you might just pull off the wall for a job?
Oh, all the time. If it’s needed for a job, I pull from my stash. All but two pieces in my house have probably worked on different jobs.
Is there somebody out there you look up to or is doing great work right now?
I really look more at film for inspiration more than anything else. There’s so much great art direction out there. I love City of Lost Children. Jean-Pierre Jeunet. He’s amazing. I’m more into items and design. The whole steam punk movement thing is cool. Truthfully, I great photographer I think, can take a styrofoam cup and make it look gorgeous. So I find more inspiration in objects than looking at a picture that someone took of a watch or something.
When you’re on set, how do you make tactful suggestions?
It depends on where we are in the shoot. I think there’s an appropriate time for me to make suggestions. If we’re on set, everybody’s there, lights are on, I’ll always approach the photographer where the client can not hear me [laughs]. That’s just a courtesy. It might be something he or she might not want me to say out loud. And he or she needs to be the censor of that. If it’s something they feel needs attention, then they can lead and make it happen.
Can you describe the Courtney Watkins style?
Impossible! [laughs] Doing this for commercials and advertising you’re asked to style everything from the Coastal South to “this needs to feel mountainous and wintery”. I guess with me there’s always something that’s a little fun and quirky and playful. I like imperfections, which can go a long way. If it’s too perfect, it can look bizarre and fake.
What feeds your soul?
I just think it’s the day-to-day. Find something inspiring. I still sketch and take snaps. For me, it’s the crew…the people you work with. When you all get together and you make something that’s unexpected. That’s what’s so much fun