The Still Life

©Mary Jo Hoffman

Each night, Mary Jo Hoffman has the same question for her family: “Which one?” After a facetious “ugh,” they spout off their opinions of the three still-life images on her computer screen, each of which offers a different perspective on the same subject. “It’s funny: My husband will always pick the most interesting photo and not the prettiest one,” she says, “and my son will always pick the prettiest photo.”

After hearing everyone’s opinions, Hoffman selects one image and uploads it to her blog. “It’s a family project. Everyone gathers and helps,” she says. It’s been this way for a full decade.

©Mary Jo Hoffman

Hoffman began making photographs as a hobby in college at the University of Wisconsin, driving out to the country with her roommate on weekends for the sole purpose of creating images. But she pursued a completely different graduate degree at Stanford University: aeronautics and astronautics. After working in the field for 17 years, her doctor recommended as a last resort that she quit her job since she was having trouble conceiving a second child. The plan worked—she gave birth to a son. But being at home with two kids was a vastly different lifestyle from working as a scientist, and she craved a creative outlet.

©Mary Jo Hoffman

In 2010, one-work-a-day art projects were popular on the internet and social media, which was just hitting its stride. “I was watching these communities gather around these projects,” Hoffman says, “a watercolor a day, a doodle a day. So, I thought, Well, that looks like fun.” Though she enjoys sketching and working with watercolors, she knew painting a watercolor a day would be too much of a commitment with two kids to look after. At the time, her now 12-year-old dog was a puppy and needed a walk every day. Hoffman lives in a wooded setting with ready access to natural surroundings, so she decided a photo-a-day project inspired by those daily walks was in order. “My subjects would be natural objects that I find that day,” she says. “That is how it started.”

©Mary Jo Hoffman

When she began the project on Jan. 1, 2012, the internet was younger, but “I was already having that sensation of information overload,” she says. She also noticed, particularly with the advent of Instagram, that people were oversaturating their photos. “The world had gotten very vibrant.” She wanted to create works that were an alternative to that trend: photos that had a minimalist, Scandinavian aesthetic, that featured an object from nature in natural lighting and its natural colors—“not super saturated for clicks.”

To share her works, she created a blog, something that was  completely new to her. “I had to Google ‘blog,’ literally,” she laughs. She and her husband own a rental property and their tenant at the time was a budding graphic designer. She enlisted the tenant to design her website, which she named “Still.” Her aim was to post one photo a day with little text. She wanted the site to be as spare as possible to reflect her minimalist taste and style of photography, with just one photo on the homepage and the functionality of the site buried. The site still has the same design. Designing a minimalist website is like designing a minimalist house, she says: “It looks easy but it’s super hard.” As a thank you for the graphic designer’s toil, she nominated him for a graphic design award, which he won for his work on her website. 

That exposure is how Hoffman’s website got very popular very early. Six months after she’d launched, the editors at Martha Stewart Living reached out to do a story on her work. They photographed Hoffman in September for an article that would run the following September. She’d only intended to continue the photo-a-day project for a year, but how could she quit before the feature ran in the magazine? Soon more magazines were reaching out to Hoffman, including Mpls St. Paul, Midwest Living, and even the Stanford alumni magazine. Instead of ending the project after a year, she just kept going … and going.

Jan. 1, 2022, marked the 10th anniversary of Hoffman making one photo each day. That’s 3,650 images, she notes. At this point, “Still” isn’t just a project; it’s a lifestyle. “I just love it. It makes me pay so much attention and be so engaged with my day to always be looking for a new subject. I am obsessed with it.”

©Mary Jo Hoffman

“I’m more like an artist who uses a camera,” says Hoffman, who describes her work as intentionally low-tech. From the get-go, she knew if she was going to make a still-life photo every single day, she’d need a process that was easy, fast, and portable. Over the past 10 years, her equipment has changed very little, except that she’s added a Manfrotto 190CX3 tripod with a Manfrotto 222 Joystick head (she used to prop her camera on stacked books and chairs), and she’s upgraded from Canon Rebels, which she used for the first six or seven years, to a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV and a Canon EF-S 17-55mm f/2.8 lens. She relies primarily on natural light but recently began incorporating a circular diffuser to soften the blue light she gets on Minnesota winter days. She works in Adobe Photoshop on a 27-inch Mac screen.

Making a nature photo every day means paying close attention to the natural world around her. As she runs errands and walks the dog, she makes mental lists of possible compositions. “I know if the locust tree on our street just went into bloom or the forsythia just bloomed or the maple tree at the end of the road has started to turn orange,” she says. But there are also those rushed days where she’s running out of daylight and just needs to go outside and quickly find something to photograph. “I’ve been doing this for 10 years, and those images are sometimes even better than the ones I’ve pre-imagined and gathered and foraged for,” she says. “Those last-minute ones often end up way more interesting than the ones I put together slowly over the course of the week.”

©Mary Jo Hoffman

For example, one of her favorite compositions was of fall leaves—arranged into a pleasing layout—that she’d gathered from the gutter while waiting outside school to pick up her children. “To photograph leaves from the gutter, that is so fun for me—to get an ordinary subject and make it beautiful,” she says.  

Though she makes some photographs outdoors—for example, when she doesn’t want to pluck a live wildflower—most are made inside her home, since the wind can ruffle her compositions. “Eighty percent are shot in my kitchen,” she says, “because I have skylights in there.” In the summer, when the light from the skylights is too harsh, she makes photos on the north side of the house where she has sliding glass doors and a deck. She often lays her subjects out flat on bright white poster paper from the art store, using her tripod and joystick to position her camera.  

She doesn’t use a macro lens, though she sometimes thinks it would be nice to have one. For example, recently she was photographing a dried scabiosa flower and its star-shaped seeds, which were falling out of the flower, seemed like a great subject for a macro lens. But the constraints she put on her project were intentional, and they’ve worked, she says. If she added an abstract macro photo it would feel jarring to the viewer. “I wanted the blog to be a calm place,” she says. “The images had to be a certain style so that as you scroll through them it would be calming.”

©Mary Jo Hoffman

Because she relies on natural light, she makes her photos before the sun sets, which in the winter in Minnesota means 4 p.m. She enjoys the editing process, saying, “It’s the rewarding part of the day,” and usually squeezes that in sometime in the early evening. Her biggest challenge in Photoshop is to lift the white background to bright white without blowing out the subject. She uses curves and duplicate layers, so if one part of the subject gets blown out as she lifts the brightness, she can erase and add that duplicate layer back in. The straw-colored and frosted objects she photographs during the winter are the most difficult to edit because they’re so easily blown out. “Still, the less I manipulate the image, the better,” she says. “If I really have to tinker with it a lot, it gets further and further from a truly natural image.”

At around 9 p.m. each evening, after she’s enlisted the opinions of her family members on which image to share, she begins working on the post for her website. “Most of the people who come to my blog daily are doing it as a part of a morning routine,” she says, “like reading the newspaper. So, I set it to post in the middle of the night.”

©Mary Jo Hoffman

Hoffman considers herself an artist rather than a professional photographer, and she doesn’t think of her work as a business. Nevertheless, she does get requests for individual prints, and she works with design professionals who purchase digital files for everything from fashion to screens to murals to framed artwork. “Anything you could put a digital image on, it’s probably been tried,” she says.

Other photographers have pushed Hoffman to upgrade her technology and workflow, but so far, she’s resisted much change. “I’m not afraid of technology,” she says. After all, her background is in science. “But when it becomes about the technology, I know I will lose interest. I want it to be about the creative process of making something beautiful.”

©Mary Jo Hoffman

Recently Hoffman’s 18-year-old son, who was just eight when she began the project, returned home from feeding the ducks and trumpeter swans with his girlfriend. They carried a huge bundle of weeds wrapped in a wild grapevine. “He comes in and he is radiant and he’s like, ‘We found this for you,’” Hoffman says. His haul is perfect for Hoffman’s purposes, and the moment epitomizes what she loves about her work. “It’s a daily creative expression,” she says. “It’s a lifestyle. A way to live attentively in the world.” And, after all these years, it’s still a family affair. 

Amanda Arnold is a senior editor.