The creative team behind the Aparna Nancherla cover shoot talks about the inspiration, experience, and historic location of the “Money” issue.
If you’ve never been to Los Angeles, it can be hard to imagine the spirit of a city where bougainvillea flourish next to concrete walls and chain link fences. Upon first experience, LA can be jarring — then striking — then almost fairytale-esque when you encounter a metropolitan oasis with cacti crawling from corners seemingly uninhabitable for anything “alive” to stand a chance. Despite the exhausting “so-LA” tropes of overpriced smoothies and unreasonable wait times for brunch, the greater location now known as the “Hipster Triangle” (comprised of Echo Park, Los Feliz, and Silver Lake) in part set the stage for active citizens — ones who come together to challenge history — since protesters took to the streets and started advocacy newspapers to combat persecution of the LGBTQ+ community after the arrests of same-sex lovers who were caught kissing inside Black Cat tavern on New Year’s Day in 1967.
On this same stretch of Sunset Boulevard, a little over 50 years later, Grace Bonney, the editor-in-chief of Good Company magazine set up shop at the Echo Park home of photographer Joyce Kim to oversee the cover shoot of the third issue of a magazine aimed to cultivate a like-minded community in reaction to similar events.
“I felt like I was in the Girl Scouts,” says Taylor Tanaka, the hair stylist hired to help produce Aparna Nancherla’s look for the cover. “A lot of time on set, you are a tool in somebody else’s toolbox — you’re creating someone else’s vision,” she explains. “But this was so much different — it was like summer camp.”
“I walk into countless shoots, [and] a lot of times the entire team, like the entire photographic team is men,” says Natalie Toren, the wardrobe stylist and fifth member of the “Money Issue” cover shoot creative team. “There’s not that sense of warmth — but this was completely the opposite.”
In the same vein as one might react to seeing a desert plant sprout from a city street, Kim says at first she was struck to see the team. “It made me realize how rare an occurrence it is to be on a crew of all women,” she says, noting she had only been on one other job like that. “It was a different kind of energy that felt supportive and also comfortable.”
As best she can, Kim tries to make the subject forget they are being photographed.
Toren tells me about bonding with her fellow collaborators over Taiwanese food, while makeup stylist Afton Williams references a shared love of La Croix, but, as cliché as it may sound, no one can really remember the logistics of the shoot — even the exact month is hazy to many — but they all clearly articulate how it felt to talk about their personal narratives, shared interests, and family as strangers who just met.
“The fact that it was an all-women creative team gave it that sort of comradery, spirit, and encouraging vibe; it made the whole experience more special,” Nancherla tells me after the issue launch. “It’s kind of the whole ethos behind the magazine.”
Toren says she knew Nancherla herself would be the focus on the shoot — not the clothes — after she dove into the mission of Good Company. “You know it’s not a situation where the clothes would be wearing that person — which so often these profiles tend to be when you have to commit to advertiser demands or you’re trying to create a fashion story,” says Toren. “Aparna is her own story — she’s so clear about her representation.”
Nancherla fits the mission in Tanaka’s mind as well. “The vibe that I got [from reading Good Company] was celebrating individuality, which I was like, ‘Oh, Aparna is a perfect fit for something like this because she has gone through such a unique journey herself,” she says.
Minor tweaks along the way allowed cover star Aparna Nancherla to shine.
Williams remembers the day of the shoot was beautiful — hot in the sun and chilly in the shade — and quieter than usual as many in the city gathered in front of screens to watch the LA Dodgers in a World Series play-off baseball game. An estimated 103,000 viewers watched in real-time as men ran around rubber bases to the cheers of fans all around the world, but, back home in LA, a humble team of all women almost went unnoticed — except by a guy walking by carrying a pie (Williams said “we all joked we would like to have some of the pie — I think he agreed”) — as they wrapped a segment of their own life’s work for an eager audience who would have to hold their applause for six months until the magazine hit stands.
Kim planned the cover shoot to take place in her neighborhood (with her house as the base) because of the time constraint, but also because the corners and textures are familiar to her. (The idyllic area — though a serious case study for gentrification — is still majority home to people of Cuban, Mexican, Puerto Rican, and South and Central American cultures; though the Spanish-speaking population continues to drop while white residents move in to occupy more of the space.) Kim had a loose inventory of walkable spots in mind but left it open until she knew which outfits would be selected on the day.
“I’d like to say it was happenstance finding those flowers but that’s actually my favorite bougainvillea bush,” says Kim. “LA is unreal when it comes to corner moments like this,” Bonney texted me from the shoot.
“What I didn’t know was that Natalie had pulled a dress that was basically the same color as the flowers, nor that Aparna would choose it as one of her looks, so that was a nice surprise.” Since Kim knew the issue was coming out in May — though the shoot was in October — she thought the bougainvilleas would be a nice pop of color for a spring release.
Space can be a character in itself or provide context to a person, says Kim.
As the femme touch can go unnoticed with women and non-binary creatives historically working behind the scenes (sometimes without credit) the day-of details may seem trivial, but — with print especially — every last detail is considered when creating a cover. A quick hair trim by Tanaka here, the smoothing of wrinkles by Toren there, and a slight touch-up of Nancherla’s glow by Williams all along the way, are all fundamental to the “invisible hand” concept to support the in-camera work of photographers like Kim.
To prep for the shoot, Toren, albeit a visual artist, listened to podcasts featuring Nancherla. “I love hearing people express themselves,” she explains. “I wanted to get a sense of her personality and accomplishments.” For technical matters, Toren also watched YouTube clips to see how Nancherla takes on the form of clothes.
Kim sometimes sources videos to research a subject’s demeanor, but she prefers talking face-to-face before the session starts. “I can relate to feeling awkward in front of the camera, so if someone is feeling the same, I always mention it in case my empathy is somehow helpful,” she says.
Tanaka — to use the second sports term I’ve ever referenced in my life — had the home-field advantage as she styles Nancherla’s hair on Corporate which airs on Comedy Central. “I do the same hair on her every day,” she says. “I had so much fun changing it up because I feel like I got to play.”
The team set up shop in Kim’s Echo Park neighborhood for the photo shoot.
“I feel proud of it because she can shine,” Toren says of Nancherla’s photo spread in the magazine. The actual energy of the shoot translates to the page — especially the carefree capture of Nancherla on the light pole — Toren says. “If you didn’t know that the hands of five people were involved, you’d feel face-to-face with this really cool person.”
The irony of historical editorial shoots — even ones with an intimacy like this almost-unicorn-like crew — is that they eventually end even when you don’t want them to be over. Everyone will get booked — whether by way of agents, good rapport, or word or mouth — on other gigs with team members that maybe aren’t so inclusive. But, as Nancherla says, “You don’t just need to drop one woman in to a thing to make it diverse — there are enough of us doing this sort of thing — that you can have them be the whole production from start to finish,” she says.
With this shoot, the protests after Black Cat, the evolution of Echo Park, and so many of the counterculture movements Good Company aims to champion, it’s up to the community to come together to collectively embody representation first hand — whether through picket signs or a print magazine — to encourage anyone “alive” to crawl out from their corner of a seemingly uninhabitable society to express themselves. To, perhaps, stand a chance.
As Bonney says in her latest editor’s letter in Good Company, “In addition to discussing these issues together as a community, we’ll dive into the nitty-gritty.”
An issue which certainly starts with — but isn’t limited to — money.
Read more conversations on a changing world in Issue No.3 of Good Company magazine. Available here.
Go behind the scenes to see how the cover was designed here.