For my first-ever photo shoot for a cookbook, Caribbean Cooking in the mid-1980s, my publisher flew me out to Los Angeles to keep an eye on things and pose for my author photo. For the latter, the stylist spent close to 30 minutes fiddling with the shadows cast by folds in my white jacket. Well, I don’t wear white jackets much anymore, but I’m still writing cookbooks and pretending to be useful at photo shoots.
I’ve spent the past few days in lovely old Fredericksburg in the Texas Hill Country, working with photographer Andrew Hanenberg and food stylist Meghan Erwin to make beautiful pictures for our book titled Fischer & Wieser’s Fredericksburg Flavors, coming from Bright Sky Press in the fall. Of course, that means lots of dishes prepared with F&W’s sauces, marinades and toppings, such as those above – and that’s always good news for my taste buds.
One of the beauties of having a food stylist like Meghan is she makes stuff look its very best in the photos. Another beauty is that she simply makes stuff. I never figured out if Meghan was or is a trained chef in another life, but I know she whipped through recipe after recipe, timing each new dish to be ready when the one before finished under the bright lights. As a guy who cooks a lot, I think her work put the whole “cooking timing thing” in a new, well, light.
As many know by now, both plays and movies have extensive “prop tables,” where all the pieces that make up a shot wait for when they are needed. In the test kitchen at Fischer & Wieser, Meghan set up a prop table of her own. With time being of the essence, it’s important to keep a wide variety of plates, bowls, glasses and cutlery within a few steps, for those moments when the thing you thought would look great doesn’t exactly.
The “set” is ground zero of any food photo session, a square foot or two in which all changes of food, decorations and lighting occur, one shot dissolving immediately into the next one and then the next. A far cry from my memories of the mid-1980s, the computer is front and center at modern photo shoots, showing Andrew exactly what he’s going to get as (or even before) he gets it. Changes are made on the spot and on the fly, in a way previous generations of photographers and stylists would have thought impossible.
Finally, of course, there’s the food – from the skewers shown at the top to this chicken stirfry that served as my breakfast this morning. Used to be, most food seen in cookbooks was phony to the max: vegetable shortening with coloring as ice cream, marbles holding vegetables up in the soup, meat pies actually stuffed with cotton, etc. The single greatest benefit of the ethical move to greater reality and honesty in food photography is, well, you may be “quiet on the set” but you’ll never be hungry.