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The Fashion Photographer Who Traded Film for Flour

By Nick Marino

Norman Jean Roy, photographed outside his bakery, Breadfolks, in Hudson, New York, on 22 September 2020.
 
Elias Williams
Norman Jean Roy, photographed outside his bakery, Breadfolks, in Hudson, New York, on 22 September 2020.

For almost 30 years, the Canadian-born photographer Norman Jean Roy made his name synonymous with beautiful portraits of beautiful people: Rihanna reclining in a shark’s open mouth, George Clooney waltzing in a garden, Carla Bruni posing beneath the Eiffel Tower. His own life was as chic as his subjects’, with an apartment in Manhattan, a bungalow in Hollywood — and a place alongside Slim Aarons and Herb Ritts in the pantheon of artists who defined their respective eras of glamour.

But Roy, 51, was becoming disenchanted with his routine and missed spending time with his family: He has two children with his artist wife, Joanna, along with three others from a previous marriage. So in 2014, he walked away from his career, moving into a modern barn in the Hudson Valley town of Taghkanic, New York. There, he spent his days swimming and cycling, relaxing with his kids and having dinner parties with other New York expats. “I thought, ‘Well, we’re fit, we’re active in mind and body. So let’s just really maximize this now,’” says Roy. “Work is always there, but your body is not.”

He and Joanna, 44, had often dreamed of opening a mom-and-pop cafe, and one fall day in 2018, the couple sat down to weigh the pros and cons of launching their own business. “We just couldn’t come up with any cons other than, well, what if it doesn’t work?” he remembers. “Which has never been something that’s deterred me.”

Courtesy of BreadfolksLeft: Baklava cruffins at Breadfolks. Right: The bakery’s croissants.
Left: Baklava cruffins at Breadfolks. Right: The bakery’s croissants.

In the two years since that conversation, Roy, who used to bake dinner bread with his grandmother while growing up outside Montreal, has transformed himself from a hobbyist to a professional baker. He’d made the transition from amateur to expert once before: When he was a 21-year-old graphic designer in Nashville, he bought a Minolta X-370 to shoot test images for his girlfriend, an aspiring model; three years later, he moved to Paris with $400 in his pocket and a dream of becoming the next Richard Avedon. In the early days, his process revolved around the painstaking technique of developing his own colour film, but as digital took over, it left him yearning for something new to do with his hands. Last year, he enrolled in a bread-making boot camp at the San Francisco Baking Institute, and back home, he rented a 7,000-square-foot red brick building in downtown Hudson to create a 50-seat bakery called Breadfolks. Roy designed the space and did much of the finishing himself, reimagining it with hardwood floors, whitewashed walls and Germanic stencil typography on a coal-black facade. He bought Italian baking equipment, including a stainless-steel Logiudice oven, known for its precision, and plunged his fingers into the flour.

Roy was determined from the start that Breadfolks, which has a dozen or so employees, not be a vanity project. He starts baking at 4:30 each morning, adjusting recipes as he goes. “A Breadfolks product is something that has these deep undertones of caramel and chocolate,” Roy says. He’s captivated by the Maillard reaction, in which sugars and amino acids are activated by heat to brown the ear and belly of the bread, and though he makes ciabatta, focaccia, bagels, baguettes, croissants and cruffins, his signature is a custardy country loaf that blends whole wheat and rye. “My products have a patina feel to them,” Roy says. “I like texture.” The bakery, which officially opened in August, was an instant hit, and by early September, they were selling 1,000 pounds of bread each weekend.

Still, success is relative in this line of work: “I’m making a living two, three dollars at a time,” Roy says. “There’s nothing more humbling than that after spending years in five-star hotels and private jets.” He and Joanna are also launching a coffee brand, Roastfolks, along with a utilitarian, all-matte stoneware line called Clayfolks, creating a complete ecosystem in one building. The next step is franchising. “I’m not interested in ever opening a Breadfolks in New York City or places like that,” says Roy, whose photography is now mostly relegated to his bakery’s Instagram feed. “My intention is to create these micro bakeries in these micro places.”