Rachel Hulin, the photographer behind Flying Henry, tells us about the influences and process behind the photo project that became a wildly successful children’s book
In an interview with Time magazine, Photographer Rachel Hulin revealed that the Flying Henry book began as an escape from boredom while on assignment back in 2011 (who hasn’t occasionally wished they could fly away from a project!) The photos she made of her son flying through the air found firstly an appreciative audience on Facebook, then became a fully-fledged phenomenon appearing on Time Magazine, Huffington Post, CBS News, ABC News, CNN, Oprah.com, and The Today Show.
The book was released in March and as Rachel Hulin tells us below, the initial print run is nearly sold out. What is it about these images that have made blogs and mainstream media go ‘gaga’? The blurb on the back of the book suggest some reasons – “The flying baby photographs transcend cute”, said Time, while Oprah.com says the book offers, “A new level of whimsy.”
The project itself feels wonderfully whimsical in the way that whimsy can feel very generous, letting people in to see and roam around your slightly daft ideas. And the images ‘transcend’ cute in the sense that many photos aren’t really cute at all. Odd, magical, mysterious even ominous. As Hulin told Patrick Witty of Time about people’s responses on Facebook, “Some people like the cute ones, some people like the spooky ones.” Classic children’s books and stories, such as Maurice Sendak’s (see below) are rarely simply cute. Sendak, author of Where the Wild Things Are told The Believer magazine in a remarkably frank and honest interview not long before he died, “I refuse to lie to children, I refuse to cater to the bullshit of innocence.”
Hulin’s Flying Henry pictures partly feel like a dreamwork and partly picture the child as as a visitor, explorer, checking out spaces and objects. This is what young kids do – ‘here’s an umbrella, let’s fly!’ But ultimately it’s the photographic craft of Hulin – the composition, the lighting, the tone and colour – that give the images in Flying Henry their hypnotic charm and ambiguity.
Hulin’s editorial clients include Martha Stewart, Living Magazine, Country Living Magazine, Whole Foods Magazines, Food Network Magazine, Fitness Magazine, and Exit Zero Magazine. And while on the surface Flying Henry seems a world a way, it’s easy to see why clients respond to her ability to craft narrative imagery that reveals the magic of everyday life.
What did you study at Brown and what was the most important thing you took from there and the ICP?
I studied Art History at Brown, which gave me years of just looking at work, which I loved and I think is important for any artist. ICP was all about practice; I basically spent two years in the color darkroom, and then worked at ICP for a few years, which gave me great access to brilliant facilities and students.
When did Flying Henry begin?
Flying Henry began in the summer of 2011 when Henry was about 6 months old. I was struggling to start making my own work again and realized I had an available and eager subject right in front of me.
The images feel like the narratives you would get in an illustrated story book, was there any inspiration from that world?
Thank you, that’s exactly what I was going for. I read a lot of children’s books for inspiration— things that were very magical to me as a child, lots of Maurice Sendak. I also looked at a lot of Chagall’s flying portraits.
The images look effortless…were they?! How long does an image take to create?
No, they weren’t! There were actually many discards, but many of the ones that did come together were fairly easy to make. Our shoots were definitely very quick– generally five shots and we were done. I spend most of my time looking for good locations and waiting for the light to be right.
How did you choose the settings and locations for your images? Or was it Henry?!
Scouting! I shot near my home, my parents home, my in-laws home. I’d drive around and look for magical spots. And we’d need certain things— something slightly spooky, a tractor, a party, so we sought those out as well.
Your work (in general) straddles art and commerce very comfortably. Was there a conscious decision not to keep to a singular style?
Thanks so much. I generally try to shoot what I know, of places and people that I’m very familiar with.
Your imagery is low-key, understated, not overlit. I’m thinking of the series On The Lake for example, how do you resist the temptation not to ‘overproduce’ the image?
It’s just the way I shoot— this project is by far the most produced I’ve ever done. I’m not so interested in creating false realities generally, there’s so much interesting stuff going on without it.
Do you have an initial print-run for Flying Henry, and any thoughts on future projects?
Yes, and the initial print run is nearly sold out, so there will be a second edition! I’m formulating an idea for a second children’s book… stay tuned!
You can buy remaining first editions of Flying Henry here
Rachel Hulin’s website