Hunting for Perfect Apple Crisp
The room was extremely hot because of all the klieg lights used in the studio but the most noticeable trait of the photographer was the filth that littered the floor. A vast majority of her shots were from the perspective of the tabletop so she never viewed her working floor as a priority. The studio was busy today; a grocery chain was introducing an in-store deli and needed a supportive collateral kit of headshots of shiny, happy people enjoying their food as well as close-ups of some of the more photogenic food items.
“The cheeseburger needs to be more yielding, give it some heat” said Mariah Wickstrom. Her long, blond hair was tied back and away from her face. As she looked down into the viewfinder, she had no time to keep pushing it away so she came up with a highly functional look that involved a photographer’s clothes pin that caught her hair and held in secure while she was working. The shot of the cheeseburger was a short-lived window: the cut tomato slice was at its color peak thanks to several applications of fruit punch and the melted cheese had approximately two more minutes before the faux cheesy patina of uniform smoothness would begin to congeal.
In the viewfinder, she realized that the cheese had to extend a few more nanometers down the side of the burger and as she called for a hair dryer from one of the production assistants to precisely hit the edge of the burger; no more, no less. It was a waiting game with her finder on the snap cable to capture the cheeseburger in all its pre-fabricated perfection. The initial build happened an hour ago and through the shots to date, several ingredients had to be enhanced to present the perfect burger. The sesame seed bun was replaced twice due to irregular seed placement and the onion slice had been shined with lemon to keep the sheen noticeable and attractive.
Not bound by any documented truth-in-advertising standards, Mariah used a variety of methods to make her food look both presentable and plausible. “I always work within the system; I will only augment the food with other food products but would never push the level of believability. That is, of cource, unless I need it for the money shot.”
Food photographers, aka food stylists, hated stock photography. They viewed its use as both pedestrian and short sighted. And stock photography, being what it is, shows up in numerous other campaigns: if your selection of a smiling face is placed on a shot depicting a happy family, there is a chance that a hemorrhoid company will use the same graphic a month later when composing a print ad lamenting the embarrassing torment of inflamed nether regions. So, in a risk-adverse industry, food companies made sure their images and visual strategies did not co-mingle with the outside world. For Mariah, that is what kept her in business.
Mariah’s back hurt due to all the stooping over the food and she kept looking over at the full-length mirror that reflected her positioning. She used a mirror as a fail safe point: a low-tech tool to approximate the general composition of the subject. She always wanted to see what the shot was going to look like one level away from reality and the mirror reflection, save the reversal effect, gave her the correct approximation at any moment's notice. The image allowed her to quickly factor in light refraction and composition without wasting a shot but these days, due to digital photography, the only thing wasted was time.
As she peered back to the mirror for the thousandth time today, she finally noticed her own face and body. She was always so fixated on the shot that unless something was woefully out of place, she only noticed the objects in the frame. She didn’t know why her eye drew to her silhouette but she found herself looking at herself as if she was the subject. As she looked at herself in her nice clothes, she knew she had to take a moment to go change into her work togs but she felt that she was close to a great shot and walking away, even for a moment, was bad luck in her book.
As she prepares food for the camera, she realizes that she may have to augment reality with several more camera-friendly ingredients. She has added dry library paste stock to already ice cream saturated mashed potatoes to maintain a critical architectural integrity, she has used laundry markers and cigarette ash to create grill marks on hot dogs that cannot risk damage to their skin surface due to actual heat and although she is not proud of it, she has literally sucked ice cubes smooth to remove imperfections and allowing her own saliva to put a nice shine on the rapidly disintegrating surface.
She started laughing as she strained to mix some back-up mashed potatoes. The mix was already hardening and the reluctant viscosity combined with absurdity of the entire operation suddenly struck her funny bone. She was working as fast as she could, staying moments ahead of the potatoes desire to calcify when it hit her.
“I can’t believe six years of art school and I am still doing the stuff I did when I was in first grade!”
“What did you say, Mariah?” One of the production assistants, preoccupied with her own backup concoction, reacted to her muttering.
“Nothing. I just find it pitifully fascinating that the biggest thing in my life right now is not photography, or even food photography. It is contingent food photography and the contingency is a skunk works collection of eye pleasing falsehoods.”
“You are thinking too much,” said the assistant as she was cold mixing a medium-size vat of clear gelatin with cola. In a few minutes, she would have another batch of luxurious and rich-looking gravy. Once composed, the batch would be used to constantly re-apply faux gravy until the perfect combination of an attractive potato mountain meshed with the rivers of well-behaved gravy. They could only get a maximum of two shots per plate presentation because the lights would quickly turn the whole concoction into a gleety mess so she was mixing enough for dozens of re-loads.
“I need to get a real job,” thought Mariah. “I want to dress up like an adult, have lunch someplace where I am not constantly playing with everyone’s food at the table seeking gastronomical epiphanies.”
“You have a job,” responded her assistant. “And because of you, I have a job. If you want to go out someplace nice and get dressed up, I will go with you. If you want me to slap your hand before you can re-arrange my asparagus on my plate, just give me the word but as you are complaining, you forget one simple thing.”
“What is that?”
“You are a great artist. I will admit that your medium of choice is a bit narrow but you have the God-given ability to turn something challenging into a real art form.”
“Some people would say all we do is play some odd food manipulation game.”
“Some people should spend the day picking out perfectly oval grapes for a cheese plate shot. Art is art.”
“Well, I do have fun with it sometimes but for some reason, today I am hitting a wall.”
“Blame the food. Potatoes are a bitch to work with as a rule but one does what one has to do.”
Mariah was falling back into the zone: she had kicked off her expensive heels. They looked great but they were completely impractical to wear during a shoot. She switched into some Wellington boots that were spackled with a wide variety of clues from gigs past. She was a single woman living in the world’s most exciting city but she knew that she had to look the part when she wasn’t working. Once she got into her studio, she went to a locker and switched into comfortable coveralls and slipped on her wellies.
Because of today's earlier ponderings, she made one of her common mistakes: she started working before she was ready to work. Arriving back to the shoot from lunch, she saw her production team busily preparing for the afternoon gig. Instead of going back to her office to compose herself and plan her work plan, she immediately inserted herself into the thick of things without taking a few minutes to determine the overall composition of the shot or change out of her two thousand dollar black Armani suit, which didn’t match the industrial green colored boots. All great photographers know the importance of such a rule but too often they get pulled into an interesting challenge and before they know it, they are thinking about the shot and forgetting all they learned. Good photographers are like professional pool players: they should be thinking about five shots ahead of themselves so as not to literally shoot themselves into a corner. Today was no exception: it is always easier to make your shots once you have laid down the purposeful foundation of one's literal focus.
The goal is not to take a picture of some food item, the only true goal is to romance the food and you want to make it look almost perfect but not something that doesn’t exist. Everyone wants it to look natural but natural in only the most perfect definition. Much of her work has appeared print advertisements with her specialty focused on food product packaging, magazines, cookbooks with her single favorite task: cake mix boxes. Mariah felt that cake mix shots bordered on pornography: pictures of cake slices that are yielding, moist and begging to be eaten brought food photography to its most fascinating core. However, for every one perfect avacado or flawless slice of marble cake, a hundred must be disposed of all for the uncaring desire for eye candy.
Usually, Mariah’s first task when she gets into her studio is to clear out the refrigerator from yesterday’s work. In it very common to see serving trays uniformly stacked up with yesterday’s topic. In the old days, her stacks of hors d’oeuvres, picture-perfect desserts, cold cuts and miscellaneous stand-in food were tossed out without a second thought but thanks to a small fire she experienced two years ago, now she places them in the loading dock cooler and the nearby fire station sends their least senior member over before lunch to liberate it all. She learned early that being around food was convenient but the potential weight gain and improved relations with the local fire station made it an easy trade. She was known to ask occasionally for the use of a ladder truck in her pursuit of some trickier shots and the station was always more than happy to accommodate her wishes because of her ongoing generosities. The potato and gravy shot was eventually captured to her satisfaction; the series of similar but unique close-ups exceeded her critical expectations. The gravy looked luscious and the potatoes appeared to be full of substance and character and the harmonious combination of the two long time partners worked well. The digitals were impressive and she knew, once they got to the production house, they would be even better. She used to take instant photographs to pre-check her shots but now with digital photos and her mirror, she doesn’t spend a lot of time on warm-up shots and she was professional enough to know when she got what she needed. The shoot was dismantled and Mariah, still in black suit, slumped down at the table. As she decompressed, she unconsciously began to sort through a sleeve of crackers, seeking the uniform and pristine.
This assignment began, as many do, with a phone call from a client she had worked for previously. The client might be an art director, an advertising agent or agency and they when called and began discussing particulars before pleasantries, she knew the gig was hers without discussion. A budget or timeline might have been uttered, but for the most part she would schedule a half day for the actual shoot and a half day (broken into two quarters) for both prep time and to strike the set.
The cracker reflex caught her by surprise but when she began smoothing a tablecloth over the large workbench in front of the camera, she knew it was time for a vacation.
“I either have to get a boyfriend, a hobby or a vacation. I can’t turn myself off from this job!”
Her longtime assistant, busily documenting the shot compositions and setups, barely looked up over her glasses and said (as she had said on dozens of previous occasions), “So, do all three.”
“I don’t know about all three. I would rather work with cheese.”
The sarcasm of the her comment would have been lost on the uninitiated. She never liked working with bulk cheese as she always found herself using tweezers, toothpicks and a magnifying glass to remove any non-cheese particles that seem to constantly collect during a shoot. Cheese was a reluctant subject and a solid matter imposter. The properties evolved from a solid to a more viscous object during a photo shoot and no amount of cooling workarounds could postpone the inevitable.
“Work with cheese?” The assistant looked up: the boss was crying out for help.
“Sure, I am not the one that has to wrangle it.”
Her assistants usually are fussing over the food and cheese was the bane to their collective existence. Mariah had received her battle stripes through her history but one of the only perks about owning your own studio was that you picked your own food fights. She first struck out on her own right after the Federal Trade Commission sued Campbell's Soup for misrepresenting their soups with some creative, but definitely non-kosher manipulations.
The old-school commercial product photographers were always finding ways to better showcase the product ranging from putting marbles in the soup bowls so its main ingredient (i.e. chicken chunks, vegetables, mushrooms or whatever) would stick up out of the broth to adding exaggerated sized pieces of key ingredients (clams the size of quarters, beef modeled after bullion cubes) until the FTC actually got a complaint from someone who purchased these soups and found that what was on television was not what was collecting at the bottom of the can. The class action suit was destined to go nowhere until some middle-management spokesperson remarked, “If you ever wonder why your soup at home doesn't do that. It's because you forget the marbles.” As the unfortunate soup company (not Campbells) learned is that you don't make fun of your customers, especially in an election year. The cause was picked up by a young but extremely energetic District Attorney and the game was on.
While somewhat dishonest, this practice was nothing new but it had been standard operating procedures for years; even since the mathematical formula correctly estimating the birth rate of suckers, which begat the sweet science of advertising. It was not isolated with soup: ice cream, when photographed, is not ice cream, it is dyed cookie dough and any juicy meat is sprayed with glycerin mist to enhance the illusion of au jus. Once that quote hit the wire services, a hue and cry for soup reform rose up from the complacent soup eaters and the bait and switch game was over. Although it started the marble comment, all other consumables were brought along with their soupy cousins. The District Attorney was quickly promoted and eventually, the new rules were the law of the food world.
Most companies, wanting to distance themselves from unscrupulous advertising agencies, acted surprised and started reaching out to boutique photo professionals as fast as possible and overnight the food photography business became the wild west: wide open and full of opportunity for a fast trigger. Mariah saw it coming before most, left her gig with a large agency and by the time the shingle was up on her studio, she was booking sessions solidly and as a result, never looked back.
She was well within her inner dialogue, reminiscing about back in the day when six feet away, several people were huddled around a photo, talking in hushed voices.
“There is something wrong,” said of the four identically dressed creative types. This series of shots were using a glass of red wine to provide a fresh composition to the cheese. When the preview shots began to be reviewed on screen, the group all wanted to add their opinion. The trouble with creativity is that everyone thinks they possess it so opinions usually flew fast and furious. Mariah quickly looked at the table that was being prepared for the shot and then she quickly shot a glance at the mirror: she saw the problem in a second.
“It’s too dark,” said Mariah without looking at any of the rush shots. The entourage gasped: their master knew all. Mariah added a small amount of drain cleaner to the wine and repositioned one of the backlights. The drain cleaner was heavier than water and the dribble allowed the color to be subtlety push to the top while the backlight illuminated it.
“A boozehound warning: the wine will kill you now,” screamed Mariah while waving her hands in the collective young faces. “No one drinks the wine. It has been jacked with drain cleaner to life the color. No one, I repeat, no one drinks the wine. Understood?”
The group all mumbled their acknowledgement but experienced food stylists never drink anything but Mariah didn’t take chances: food was usually propped up with benign support (almost always mashed potatoes) but anything to drink was usually a concoction of mystery fluids and avoided.
Mariah quickly set up the shot again: she looked in the viewfinder, walked around the table, micro-adjusted a few lights and shot a quick look at the mirror. Once satisfied, she fired off about a dozen shots and tossed her camera to the closest assistant. She nailed the shot and didn’t have to stand around to see the finished contact sheet. Similar to a baseball player that knows they hit a home run the moment the ball left the bat: they just knew and didn’t have to see it go over the fence; they just toss the bat and begin the home run trot.
The day was done and she gave the hand signal to strike the shoot. She quickly starts closing up her three toolboxes, which were referred to as her “meez.” This idiom was universally assumed to-be-Mariah shorthand for “mise en place.” The first one was is primarily a make-up kit for food (lotions, conditioners, lipsticks, blush, mascara, base powder and blush), the second is full of miscellaneous tools (dozens of glue samples, toothpicks, q-tips, tweezers, combs, a rack of thread spools with every color imaginable, candles (for hot wax effects), clothes pins and markers) and the third box was a combination of her own food supplement inventions (including, but not limited to, lemon juice, drain cleaner, whiskey, oatmeal, shoe polishes, ground coffee, tea bags, liniment, molasses and glass cleaner).
The three bags were always packed and unpacked by Mariah and the assistants knew not to touch her stuff. Once gathered up, she placed the three bags into a secure locker and then did the same with two bags of photographic equipment. Her shutdown process was also to inform the team that they were done for the day. Once the place was tucked away for the night, Mariah grabbed the wine (to dump), cheese (to package up for the fire boys) and the contact sheet and was quietly pleased with what she saw: there was several magnificent pictures to choose and she made a note on the back of the sheet to experiment with a montage just for the hell of it. It wouldn’t take too much time and the customer would be blown away at the new dimension.
Mariah scanned the call sheets for tomorrow’s assignment: a cookbook insert for apple crisp. She liked cookbooks because it had to be done with a respect for the food and the overall context of the book. She had done numerous recipes for the cookbook and she understood (and agreed with) the author’s approach to the project: combining the integrity of the food with the love of eating. She was already thinking about how the apple crisp was going to be presented and she was relieved that she would not need her bag of tricks to make this an elegant presentation.
She was pleased as she looked back at the day’s work but was also a bit disappointed that a vast majority of people had no idea of what she did and outside a small circle of friends, no one cared. She quietly changed back into her power suit and tossed the coveralls and her wellies into the locker. She wasn’t sure what look she was going for as the evening’s adventure was not yet determined; friends and colleagues were heading out for a standard night on the town and her presence was expected. She gathered up her keys and purse, slipped on her shoes and looked into the mirror in front of her: the image was as good as it was going to get, no matter what the pending collision of reality and perception brought to light.
As she ran through the personal inventory, a knock on the second floor window startled her. A handsome, slightly graying man was literally standing outside her second floor window. She went to the window and discovered it to be the new station captain from the fire house. She knew he was coming, thanks to the normal chit-chat between herself and the always-visiting fireman but until she saw him, it didn't register as anything but generic news.
“Hello” said the man with twinkling blue eyes. “You must be the nice woman that feeds my boys.”
She immediately liked him and thanked the internal Gods for allowing herself to be surprised in a fashionable suit and manageable hair. She felt so lucky as the chances of him seeing her with a clothespin in her hand, green wellies and mashed potatoes splashed across her ass was so plausible that she decided to attend church this weekend as additional thanks for not allowing him to see the real her, at least not the first time.
“Hello” said Mariah. “You must be the new guy.”
“That I am. This is my first day here and all I have been hearing about is you. And since tradition has me making tonight's meal, I would like to invite you to join us.”
“That would be my pleasure.” She looked around to see the studio completely vacant. “I will be there in ten minutes.”
“With the exception of a fire, we will be there.” He smiled as the cherry picker pulled him down and away from the window.
Obviously she had been set up through a partnership of her staff and the fire boys but it was time to do something reality-based. She was pleased as she looked back at the day’s work but for the first time, in a long time, not disappointed that a vast majority of people had no idea of what she did or that no one cared. She smoothed her power suit and stepped over the dirty coveralls and her wellies. She wasn’t sure what look she was going for as the evening’s adventure was not yet determined; friends and colleagues were likely heading out for a standard night on the town and her presence, due to the plotting, was likely not expected. She gathered up her keys and purse and looked into the mirror in front of her: the image was as good as it was going to get, no matter what the pending collision of reality and perception brought to light.
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