Food Photography Through A New Lens

7 years ago

I have spent a good portion of my life trying to balance out time for creative work and time for work that actually pays the bills, fitting in art and writing at the edges. I write stories on planes, in that window of time when people have gathered around a conference room table but a meeting has not yet started, in the mornings before work when most people I know are still asleep. I carry my camera everywhere, shoot whenever I can, and process photos late at night because there's no other time to do it.

Testing the avocadosPhoto: Genie Gratto

But every now and then, I stop and devote a luxurious amount of time to the creative, and over the weekend, I carved out a full day to take a restaurant and street food & culture photography workshop with Penny De Los Santos in San Francisco.

Penny, who blogs about food and photography at Appetite, is an award-winning photographer whose work appears in Saveur Magazine, National Geographic, Sports Illustrated, Newsweek, Time, Latina and Texas Monthly.

Penny talks about making photos in a reactionary way--finding details and stories and moments in markets and homes and restaurants all around the world. In Penny's aesthetic, the food you see is the food you could actually eat -- she might rearrange the food on the plate to make it more photogenic, but she's not going to use many of the inedible tricks of the trade food stylists use to make food look better in a magazine.

The two-part class started in my favorite restaurant in all the world, Contigo, where we photographed food as it came out of the kitchen (and, on occasion, snuck into the kitchen itself to make a photograph or eight), and continued in the afternoon around San Francisco's Mission District, where Penny dispatched us with assignments designed to take us out of our comfort zone and make photographs that showed the food and culture of this rich neighborhood. Whether tasked with sitting down at a table with strangers and photographing them and their meal, or shifting perspective and really showing the Mission through unexpected images, Penny pushed us to find photographs that told stories through details.

Blue crabs, The MissionPhoto: Genie Gratto

Penny started her photographic life as a documentary photographer, and though she still documents life all around the world, she most often does so through the prism of food. She said other photographer colleagues and friends sometimes ask her why she has moved to primarily food photography. "I tell them you have no idea what you're missing," said Penny, who explained how the stories that arise from food and community are often the most compelling.

Penny taught a similar class, minus the out-in-the-street component, in Seattle in December, and I watched many of the participants tweet about it (including the photos of the incredible images they were making throughout the day). Rebekah Denn of Eat All About It shared her thoughts on the Seattle version of the workshop on her own blog, as well as a detailed list of what she learned from the class on Al Dente.

Paula Thomas of Paula Thomas Photography, who also took the class in Seattle, wrote an interesting comparison of that workshop with one given a few months earlier by Lou Manna:


"I found myself comparing Penny to Lou a lot and found they do things almost totally opposite each other. Here are a few of the differences I noticed. Penny uses natural light, Lou likes to shoot in studios with lights. Penny hand holds her camera, Lou uses a tripod. Penny uses auto white balance, Lou uses custom white balance. Penny likes to step back and get all the food in the shot, Lou likes to get in close. Penny doesn't alter food to make it inedible, Lou adds inedible things to food to make it look pretty. Penny and Lou are both very successful food photographers. It just goes to show you there is no one right way to do things and there are lots of different styles out there. I think it's great to hear from two people with completely different styles, it makes you see things differently."


Though I only took the one class, the two-part component of it gave me two different approaches to the process of making photographs. (After all, the food on the plate doesn't talk back to you when you try to take its picture.) And the opportunity to spend an entire day thinking only about how to improve my photography and think differently about the images I make -- of food, of people, of places, of objects -- was invaluable.

You can see my full set of photos from the day on Flickr, and there is a Flickr pool where our class' work is going as people post it.

Here are some more posts about street food and food photography:

Genie blogs about gardening and food at The Inadvertent Gardener, and tells very short tales at 100 Proof Stories. She also tells stories with photos at 5x52.


Photo credit for all images: Genie Gratto, © 2010 All Rights Reserved

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