In 2010, Mary Jo Hoffman, a Honeywell aerospace engineer turned stay-at-home mom, went to France with her family. The goal, she says, was to “cement that language acquisition” for her children, who had been enrolled in French immersion school in the Twin Cities. While in France, Hoffman acquired a new passion: blogs. “I had time to go down the rabbit hole, which for me was the online creative community,” she explains. She discovered blogs dedicated to a variety of objects, a community that was collaborative and supportive, and compelling picture-a-day projects. Hoffman thought: “I’m a good amateur photographer. I want a blog project to fit around the edges of the family.” In 2012, back from France, she started STILL Blog, a daily portrait of the natural ephemera—rocks and flowers, seedpods and bird eggs, spiders and frogs—she finds on her walks and elsewhere. Shot on white paper, her images are simple and serene, and have garnered an avid following for their quiet aesthetic. In December, Target Online will introduce “STILL by Mary Jo Hoffman,” a line of soft goods. In February, West Elm will offer wall hangings on acrylic using images from STILL blog. Hoffman’s images have found surprising applications elsewhere, as well. (Photos by Mary Jo Hoffman)
Describe your daily process.
I live in Shoreview on Turtle Lake. There are nice trails where I walk the dog every day in the early morning and look for my subjects. I don’t want to walk with a camera, so I pick up things I can carry home. Sometimes, though, I pick leaves out of the gutter while waiting for my kids at piano lessons or sumac berries on the way home from soccer practice. I put my subjects on white tag paper, sometimes creating patterns, or I work with texture or color, shoot the results and put the image on the blog. I don’t use a macro lens, because I don’t want to create abstracted images. These are familiar objects. There’s beauty in the familiar; in seeing something totally ordinary turned into an extraordinary image. Last November, however, I found a gorgeous dead heron while on a walk, so I went back the next day with my camera and light board and photographed it. My image of the heron wing will be on a shower curtain for Target.
How did Target find you?
Last winter, I decided to print some of my images on organic linen using the online digital printing website Spoonflower. On December 31, I put pictures of the tea towels I made on Instagram. Immediately someone replied, “I used to work at Target. I’m forwarding this to my former boss.” An hour later the phone rang and the guy from Target home goods says, “I just spent an hour looking at your blog and it’s perfect.” I pitched them 16 images for a product line and they picked eight. It all happened very fast.
How else have your images been used?
I get one or two requests a week for wildly crazy applications. A company that creates animated short films for kids asked to use the driftwood sticks for character animation. Last week, the Smithsonian asked to use my milkweed seedpods for a scientific lecture on seed germination. Two women—one in Australia, the other in France—have done their master’s theses on the blog. Other people have used my feathers as tattoo patterns. Textiles are just the most recent application.
Why do your images resonate so deeply with people?
Right away the blog won awards for its minimalism. Not for its photography or subject, but for the minimal, white on white layout. That’s also a Scandinavian aesthetic: clean and refreshing, meditative and serene. These days we’re so bombarded with stimuli. To slow down and just look at one thing, isolated on white, is very calming. The images are also orderly and orderliness is calming. For me, creating the images is meditation, a form of deep play. I sit down on the kitchen floor and lose track of time. I certainly didn’t set out to make the blog meditative, but it became meditative for me and for other people who have responded to it.
Bed and bath collections using Hoffman’s images will be available this December at Target.com. You can also follow her on Instagram @maryjohoffman.
By Camille Lefevre
Photo by Wing Ta