Beyond the Rust
It is a rare gift to have a career in which each day has challenges both enjoyable and creative, with an inexhaustible amount of delicious food. It seems as if it could not really get any better, but my being a food photographer also allows me to engage in a hobby that I love: searching for and collecting kitchenware both new and antique.
In the years that I have been a professional food photographer I have amassed thousands of objects to use in my work. Forks and spoons, dishes and bowls, platters, pie pans and plates. They line the walls of my studio on ceiling-high shelves and live in every drawer and cabinet, spilling over into storage units and my home. It has become an obsession, but one with a purpose. The objects I put in my shots have become as much my signature as my use of light and my choice of composition and food styling. When I teach workshops I have dedicated large sections of my presentations to my props and how important they have become in defining who I am as an artist. One of the greatest compliments an artist can receive is that people can identify your work without a byline; one of the main reasons that is true for me is the meticulous care I put into selecting props.
A still image often has to be able to tell a complete story with one frame. Including objects that had a life before they landed in my collection adds layers to my work. One weekend I was driving home from a wedding in Boston and stopped at a neon colored yard sale sign in a small suburb. The family had just lost their elderly father and were trying to ease the burden of all of the things left behind in the family home. That it was a sad day was not lost on me. I engaged his daughter in conversation after admiring a metal plate for serving fish that looked like it dated back to the 1950’s. She proceeded to tell me the complete history of the plate, how her father would serve his favorite fresh catch on it and how it was important to her that it lived on to keep those memories alive. When I told her who I was and what I intended to use it for, she was thrilled. The thought that I might use her father’s plate in a New York Times photo shoot gave her a small measure of comfort. Experiences like these add weight to my work and keep me conscious of how objects can be connected to people and their histories, families and memories.
After showing interest in objects at yard sales and family antique shops I am often invited into relatives’ homes to learn more about the people who once owned these things. I always consider it an honor when this happens. Such connections are essential to understanding how to illustrate food stories because food stories are ultimately about people.
Food is something that we experience every day and many foods are connected to particular cultures, different seasons, and all sorts of holidays and histories. With those foods come the objects that we cook them in, serve them on, and eat them with. There is a certain beauty to things that are brand new, shiny and clean, but I find the soul in the things that are well-worn. A little tarnish and rust, scratches, grease, and wear show the love that many of those meals were created with. Items can connect the viewer to a time or a place or a feeling they have had while experiencing the foods of their childhood or their country or something made by their loved one.
I collect these things because I love the stories they tell. I am lucky to have an outlet to use them to tell my own stories and guide my viewer to something memorable and comfortable. It may be a subliminal approach to reaching an audience but for many it really resonates. To some, an object may be just a corkscrew or a cheese grater or a pretty gold-rimmed tea glass, but to others — and to me — these things are time capsules and memory triggers. They make my photographs more than a good composition or a delicious-looking sandwich. These items connect my photography to people and history. I hope one day my collection lives on, with all the collected stories told to someone else who will see beyond the rust.