You market Punchbowl Studios as specializing in vice. What falls under that, and why did you see a market in this area?
What it really means is working with industries that deal with a lot of regulation and compliance. There’s a lot of very specific issues that we need to be aware of to work in that space, specifically in cannabis. I saw a gap there in the photography space. You see a lot of user-generated content, that’s kind of the standard of a lot of social media, but not the level of the higher-end product photography that I’ve been doing for the last 10, 12 years. There are people doing it certainly nationally, internationally, but regionally there wasn’t as much competition. I had that conversation with Josh and Juli [Sullivan of Fried Design Co.] probably August 2022, knowing that there was a good potential that [the legalization of] recreational [marijuana] was going to hit that November, and it did. We launched Punchbowl right alongside recreational, Feb. 5. Within two or three days, we were very fortunate, we picked up our first multistate operator, which was huge.
New regulations came out this summer from the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services on cannabis advertising and packaging around the use of coloring and logos. How is that impacting your work?
That was, and it still is, a good chunk of my first 15 minutes of my day – making sure that I’m up to date with the newest regulations. It seems like it’s constantly changing. That’s been an issue for people working in the space, specifically people working on the packaging design. Initially, it was no food items, no people, no pets, no animals. It makes sense; they’re coming from a place of not wanting to advertise or be appealing to children. Initially, the way it was written, we were supposed to be on par with alcohol and tobacco advertising. Coming back to these new regulations, they kind of flatlined it a little bit more and made it a little bit trickier. What we saw at Punchbowl is you get to kind of middle of summer, and everybody panicked and everybody stopped because they didn’t know what was going to be compliant. We had a lifestyle shoot that got postponed and then inevitably canceled because of the concern of showing cannabis products with people. It kind of pushed us more into the grow facilities space and fresh flower manufacturing. The plant’s going to be the plant, and that’s OK to show – in some instances. With the new packaging guidance, the deadline is coming up and everybody is rushing to get that out for the end of January. It’s definitely still the Wild West. Every state is going to be a little different. Without federal guidance, we have different problems for different states. It’s really having that conversation with the client and making sure that before pictures are ever taken that we’re planning out what markets and what assets and how we can accommodate for that. My plan, with the way that the market is changing, is giving the client products that can be repurposed or reused. Let’s say a label’s going to change, maybe there’s an option to shoot a product in a way that later on we could digitally alter or change that. There’s nothing evergreen in the cannabis world right now; everything is very short lifespan.
What brands are you working with?
The cannabis industry is notoriously secretive. I have yet to shoot anything that didn’t require a (nondisclosure agreement).
How are you finding clients?
Instagram’s been a good resource. When we first started, I got very fortunate. I came from New York City before I moved to Springfield six years ago, and through some of those connections, I had a friend that was moving from a legacy state, California, and was going to be working in the region. That was, and still is, one of our largest clients. It is difficult, especially with how quickly things change. A lot of people are under the assumption that cannabis sells itself. It’s weed, right? But at the end of the day, it’s another commodity. There’s a (Missouri Cannabis Trade Association) event coming to Springfield (this month), so some of the product that we are shooting today, while not for a client, is for spec. It’s something that we’re going to build into a portfolio that we can show. We’re still under a year old at this point and I’m happy with where we’re at. In-studio pricing is going to come in right around $2,500 a day, and then based on location, about $3,000 for on-location.
Where do you see the industry and your business going?
As far as Missouri goes, once we get over this initial hurdle with regulations and can set a baseline, I think that it’s going to make a way for people to bring the creativity back. With the new regulations for packaging – the single-color regulations – in my opinion, it’s stifling to the creative process. I’d like to see that come full circle and see some of that relaxed and get more on par with where we’re seeing alcohol. If you look at all these beer cans, there’s birds and there’s animals and there’s fruit to be able to differentiate the product. Once we can get to that spot, I think that’s where you’re going to see the industry lifted up. As far as Punchbowl goes, we’re looking to work with more multistate operators. But we love working for the local, little guys. There was a bunch of [marijuana business] microlicenses given, and we’re reaching out and having conversations with those people as well. I’d like to see a good balance of the smaller kind of scrappy startups, and then also these big multistates, kind of an equal playing field.
In regard to photography style, what are clients looking for? What seems to be resonating with consumers?
What I'm seeing right now, and what we kind of jumped on early on, was these highly detailed macro [photos], especially with flower. There's kind of a two-pronged approach for these highly detailed macro shots. The brands and the growers want to use this work because they're wanting to get in really tight and microscopic and see the trichomes, the glands of the plant. It's a way for them to do (quality control), but through that, there are these stunning artistic shots as well. We just picked up a set of lenses that were released recently that let us get to a 50-times magnification. Almost to the point of a strand of hair that could be photographed. If you look at publications like High Times, we're seeing those shots are getting the centerfold shots these days. Focus stacking, which is to take a number of photographs at different depth of field and kind of stack those – you have to think of like a loaf of bread and you have all these slices. You take very thin slices and you stack those together. You get one crisp, clean picture and something that you couldn't normally do with just a single shot.
Tell me about your background and how you landed in Springfield.
I went to school in Denver in 2008. I was 30 at that point. I had a good time in my 20s and decided when things fell out in 2008, maybe I'll go back to school. Photography was something I'd done since I was a little kid. My grandfather gave me my first camera when I was a baby. I was fortunate to have some incredible instructors and finished that within three years, top portfolio upon graduation, and went to New York thinking I was going to take on the big city and it was going to be awesome and easy. New York is absolutely brutal. I started out assisting in the fashion world. Some brands that I assisted on are Free People, Bloomingdale's, Macy's. It was a lot of fashion. It was highly technical. I got to learn how to shoot on location; I got to learn how to shoot product and beauty. That led to a retouching role at Macy's. My goal is always to have an understanding of every step along, really, the e-commerce process. Everything from grip to assisting to the photography side of it, retouching, post-production. I got this crash course over a number of years in New York. I was ready to get out of the city and had some really good friends that I went to school with that had a studio and still do, Starboard & Port, here in Springfield. I was with them for almost three years. COVID hit and I took a little bit of a mental health break. When I came back and kind of reevaluated what I wanted to do, that's when I saw this opportunity specifically in the cannabis space, and there was no better place to do it than Fried.
SBJ interviews the associate dean, vice chair and professor of the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Pharmacy at Missouri State University.