Image by Ana Kamin
Photographing and tasting your way through the bountiful landscape of the Wine Country seems like a dream job, but…
Wait, there is no but. It is a dream job, which Emma K. Morris gets to “go” to every day. One glimpse at her Instagram and you will be already planning your move to Napa.
By way of Michigan and Florida Emma calls Napa, CA her home today.
After careers in both the music industry and nonprofit arts, Emma now works predominantly as food, wine, travel & lifestyle photographer and stylist while also offering brand consulting and art direction. We were fortunate enough that Emma found time to give us a peek into her favorite local spots, so we hit the road to Napa to tag along. With contagious energy, Emma showed us her favorite food spots, we strolled the Oxbow Public Market, and drove around Napa.
Read on to find out Emma’s picks for best hotspots in Napa, favorite road trips, what challenges come with being a freelancer, and what Emma loves most about California.
Tell us a bit about how you landed in Napa and where you are today in your life?
Prior to freelance photography, styling, and brand consulting, my professional endeavors included music industry promotion, fine arts curating, and nonprofit arts marketing. Breaking into radio promotion as an on-air disc jockey at the age of 16 led a marketing position with Sony Music throughout college. After graduating, I developed a passion for the nonprofit sector and left music in order to direct and curate an alternative art space in East Lansing, MI. From there I relocated to Orlando, where I was working in marketing for a large Local Arts Agency. For a short time, I worked as Creative Director for Orlando’s public market, East End Market, helping them build their brand and cultural programming. In 2014 I moved to the Napa Valley to explore my love of food and wine, which quickly led to my change in career direction! I am a self-taught photographer and stylist.
When we look at your Instagram, you seem to be living the Napa dream. How is life in Napa in general?
After a few years here, I’m feeling very content and happy here! That’s largely in part due to the meaningful relationships I’ve been lucky enough to forge in this community where I find so much inspiration and support. Napa is obviously a very beautiful place to reside — I’m surrounded by vineyards, passionate foodies (+ lots of fresh produce), and impeccably-made wines. But like everywhere, Napa definitely has its downsides…namely insane cost of living, major housing shortages, and small-town chatter. Life’s what you make of it every single day, regardless of where you live!
In what way is Napa influencing your work and life?
The landscape, people, and industry here very heavily impact my work and life! It all inspires me daily to be a better, more creative, and more driven person. I’m forever like “HOLY CRAP WTF” at least once a week when I witness a thick white blanket of fog over a winter vineyard, or the most epic cotton candy sunset over Mount St. Helena. It’s a perpetual well of inspiration, and I become more and more passionate about my work here every day.
How does your creative process look when working with clients?
Because I offer a variety of services, my process shifts wildly from client to client. For some, I just show up and shoot — winging it and letting the unique environment and my unique perspective guide the way. For others, I’m hatching concept to creation consulting (i.e., for a new wine brand) which involves many months of continued brand strategy, creative direction, copyediting, photo shoots, etc. Lately, I’ve been traveling a good amount for work, which has been a nice change of pace — I’m typically in Los Angeles bi-monthly for client shoots.
*Emma at work. Photo:Meg Van Der Kruik
Like every job, it’s not always rainbows and unicorns. What is great about being a photographer? And what are the challenges?
I could not agree with this statement more. I have a knack for making it look like I’m living it up day to day, but when it comes down to it, I’m a branding gal with a knack for finding the beauty in everyday life so even when it’s the worst day, you’d never know. I struggle just like everyone else — my camera malfunctions during a shoot, I burn my food and spill whatever I’m styling all over my dress, and some days I am at the computer editing for solid 10 hour blocks and feel like my brain is going to explode. It’s important to remember that nobody ever really has it all figured out. But this is life, and even if it’s not perfect, it’s wonderful. Being a freelancer can be infuriating and scary but equally as freeing and fulfilling. I absolutely love my field, and I’m so thankful that I’ve finally found my vision and what I’m meant to do. I’m a bit of a perfectionist in work and life, so sometimes self-care and little things (like sleep!) seem to fall to the wayside because I’m so busy, but ultimately my work ethic, standards, and creative vision is what sets me apart from the pack.
Any advice for someone looking to get into photography business?
Be yourself — the worst thing you can do is compare yourself to others. I struggled with this a lot at the beginning and found myself either shit-talking myself OR even worse others. But ultimately I moved past that quickly because I embraced the fact that art is subjective — not everyone is going to love what you do. What matters most is that you believe in and invest in what you’re doing. Also, toughen up: there will always be competition, haters, tech failures, and many frustrations along the way.
“Be KIND and treat others the way you want to be treated.” – Emma
What does your typical day look like, from am to pm?
Every day is so different, which keeps me on my toes! I’m certainly never bored. Any given day will include 1-2 shoots, 1-2 meetings and/or conference calls, and 3-5 hours of editing. I try to break up my days by implementing an hour break here and there for a workout or cooking myself a healthy lunch. I occasionally co-work with my fav people, Jen and Jessie of Shipwright & Co. Letterpress, then we break for lunch and pool time. This is the stuff that helps me maintain my sanity!
Styling, shooting, and eating can be exhausting, too. What is your way to unwind from a stressful day or week?
The key is everything in moderation. I don’t eat and drink everything I’m posting — actually, I’m a longtime vegetarian with vegan-leaning tendencies, so many times I don’t partake at all. I don’t mind that though because a big part of post-work decompression for me is browsing cookbooks and making dinner at home!
Being a freelancer requires also promoting your work on social media, how do you stay focused and not fall into the rabbit hole that is Instagram?
It’s a delicate balance! I do check Instagram throughout the day to try and stay on top of tagged photos, direct messages, and engagements with my followers. I pride myself on being approachable and available, which can sometimes be consuming. I limit myself to 45 minutes in the morning, then check in quickly throughout the day as I can. I try hard to post once/day and be active daily on IG Stories as well. Part of my brand is my voice, so the continued quality content and storytelling is super important to me personally.
What inspires you at the moment?
A lot! I’m always inspired by nature and the colors, shapes, and textures found within it. Spending time in my garden and utilizing whatever seasonal ingredients that provides me for my meals. Also feeling especially inspired by music lately — can’t get enough of Manchester Orchestra and The Head and the Heart, and I’m really into classic Motown and jazz right now too.
What’s next on your to-do list?
It’s looking more like a novel at this point, but my most immediate need is to get my home studio cleaned and organized so I can concentrate better in here! I’m a bit of a Martha (minus the whole insider trading thing), so I love a good DIY project. Last year I went through a major life transition (aka a divorce) which called for a revamp of my home, room by room. So I’m still in the midst of that! But then a legit non-working vacation is on my to-do list…easier said than done!?
Ok, and now few questions about California…
The thing that makes you happy about where you live?
My favorite thing about downtown Napa is the proximately to so many gems. I’m walking distance from Oxbow Public Market which houses my go-to coffee shop (Ritual Coffee Roasters), my spot for green juice (Hudson Greens & Goods), my local florist (Monkey Flower Group), and my local bookstore (Napa Bookmine). I also adore my thoughtful and wonderful neighbors (including the wildly talented dynamic duo fashion designer Nicole Kelly of Yolotli and visual artist Mikey Kelly) who have become dear friends! We all look out for one another, and that alone makes my quality of life soar.
*A visit to Monkey Flower Group to get some blooms for her home.
What is your favorite road trip in California?
All-time favorite day trips include:
Napa→ Bodega Bay → Marshall → Point Reyes National Seashore
Napa → Healdsburg → Geyserville → Booneville
Where should we go for a weekend getaway?
Any of all of the above-mentioned spots!
How would you spend your perfect Saturday?
Sunday is the one day in my week that I strive to spend at home. When I do get a rare full day at home, I tend to make a few batches of sourdough bread (which is basically a full-day commitment), so I start the process when I rise, usually around 6:30 am, then by 9 pm, I’ve got the warm crusty sourdough (which I eat right out of the oven slathered in butter + flaked sea salt). If it’s truly a perfect Sunday, it will also include: the gym, coffee drinking, record playing, catching up on chores around the house, and reading.
Your three go-to restaurants in Napa?
Miminashi (you must try the soft cream with the miso caramel sauce + sesame honeycomb), Compline (a new breed of wine bar — killer wine list, incredible food, laid-back classes + a retail wine shop!), Small World (best falafel pita of my life).
Three wineries you would take your guests to?
*Emma in the kitchen. Photo: Amanda Paa
What else should we do in Napa?
Eat breakfast at Southside Napa, head up the valley to experience the St. Helena Farmers Market, eat lunch at Farmstead, go for a hike at Robert Louis Stevenson State Park in Calistoga, check out the Oxbow Public Market in downtown Napa. Grab a glass of wine and small bites at Outland. And be sure to get take-out malfatti at Clemente’s at Val’s Liquor — you’ll never experience anything like it!
A hotel, you cannot wait to stay at?
I’d never stay at one since I live here in my cozy little nook of a home, but if you were visiting I’d suggest looking for an Air Bnb in the Sonoma area as there aren’t a lot of affordable options for hotels.
If we have only 12 hours in Napa, what should we do … Where do you take out-of-town friends?
Everything I’ve already listed above! Any and all.
Best kept California secret…
Geyserville, Glen Ellen, Occidental. All teeny tiny towns with GREAT food and antique shopping.
What do you love most about California?
The weather, the scenic views, the quality and variety of cultural experiences and amazingly fresh local foods. I feel like no matter where you go, even if it’s a bigger city, you’re never too far from raw beauty!
Thank you, Emma!
*As told to California Weekend