's Sites We Love Saveur Magazine has listed The Skinny Gourmet among its "Sites We Love"

I've been having a great time checking out Nashville's high end dining on the cheap thanks to Groupon. Have you tried it yet? Its awesome. I don't know why I ever hesitated.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

CreativeLIVE with Penny de los Santos: Finding food photography I love, and figuring out why

This weekend I was incredibly lucky to participate in a live streaming broadcast (thanks to CreativeLIVE of food photographer Penny de los Santos, whose work is often featured in Saveur magazine. Her food photography style favors drawing out graphic elements of food with overhead shots, and setting sharp colors off with white or understated backgrounds. I found out about the workshop the day before it started and as soon as I saw Penny's images I knew I had to attend. So this weekend--with an incredibly sick toddler next to me endlessly rewatching Curious George movies--I hunkered down on my couch and devoured the experience of a weekend workshop in artistic, smart, gorgeous food photography.

When the second day of the workshop ended on Saturday, I was so fired up I couldn't see straight. I spent an hour in my garden shooting crusty carrots (photos to come!). Once it got too dark to do that, I came inside and decided to follow Penny's advice to saturate yourself with work you love and to think about why it speaks to you. She advised that when you put images you admire into your head before a shoot, your brain digests them and it can subtly inform your work without being derivative. So here, in a jumble of stream of consciousness, are photos I stumbled on, sought out and reacted to...the visual food I'm trying to feed my brain to make me a better food photographer.

Where to start? Naturally with Penny's blog. Though a signature overhead view, I utterly love the humanness of the hands in this pesto ingredients shot, as well as the way penny completely embraces the directionality of the light as a member of the compositional scene. Here, in another overhead I found myself reflecting on how not only texture, but sheen (degrees of light reflectivity) could add interest to the composition. The shiny oil plays against the matte plate to add interest even within a muted color palette.

Penny really shines with a human subject, and her cultures of food portfolio is entrancing. I found myself looking at some of the photos and having to remind myself how utterly common some of them were, because Penny infuses them with an intuitive sense of capturing personality that makes farm boys at a diner look at home next to the seemingly exotic turbaned men at a lunch counter.

Perhaps because it was my first love, the food photography of Lara Ferroni will always be foremost in my mind when I think of images that make my heart race and my mouth salivate. I am impressed also because she seems to have such a truly broad style and voice to her photos, utilizing different compositions and angles and colors, while still having a style that is immediately coherent and recognizable.

I like how she pairs verticle and horizontal movement in photos, giving negative space an interesting voice, as in these diptechs of cake and compote. I'm not ashamed to admit that I may have actually moaned out loud at the second photo of Beignets with fudgy chicory coffee sauce. The inky darkness has just the right amount of movement on the plate. Having watched the food stylist spend tons of time trying to achieve that "effortlessly messy" effect with hotsauce in the workshop, I have a new appreciation for a "messy streak" in a photo. And I'll confess this one makes me think slightly dirty thoughts about chocolate and wreckless abandon. Enough said.

Gorgeous use of vibrant pink color on a cool white and metal background together with subtle contrasting texture in these photos of red onions. The sliced rings stacked beneath the smooth body of the onion ending with the wild flare of the onion skin pulled back is a stroke of genius.

As food bloggers go, you have to love Deb of Smitten Kitchen who does more in a tiny kitchen than any human has right to. I particularly like her set up shots, like these recent photos of leeks or these cherry tomatoes (particularly the one of them randomly floating in the bowl).

I also love the work of Jennifer Davick, who photographs for Southern Living (and who I've met). This diptech citrus still life makes me breathe a little faster. I imagine if I looked at a thousand portfolios, citrus would come up often because of the beautiful geometry and color. But this one is still lovely.

In this pineapple upside down cake, done in cast iron, the pineapple and traditional cherries provides eye catching color, while the crusty" cast iron appears just in frame, adding some tension to the composition.

After watching the photographers dance around color palates all day, I found myself surprised by how drawn I was to the nearly monochromatic green pea soup with the green pea background and how much I liked the clean simple lines of the white and the textured natural color of the napkin breaking the continuum. And I find myself sucked into the slightly darker zucchini tie like mass into a black hole.

Shooting whites is always a terrible challenge for me, but I was really drawn to this white and neutrals palate broken by the golden syrup on the finished dish, and the tasteful placement of the two star anise, which get rockstar positions in the composition by virtue of their chromatic contrast. I also love the way the comparison (the position of the spoon?) bounces the eye between the eaten and the polished, finished dish.

David Bishop does a lot of very close in shots, like this or these deviled eggs or this brittle. Most of those didn't really work for me, they felt like a bossy woman who was talking too close to my face.

But I continue to feel like Penny is too quick to totally throw out the idea of getting in close with a subject. I did like the combos of the dewy sprouted garlic and whipped mayo as well as the spun sugar and poached pear.

Has some up close ones as well (breakfast). For close work, one I liked best was the one of the zucchini rolls. I think close was effective in this case because the horizontal lines of the dark green and the roundness of the salmon color were nice simple color motifs that are repeated in the background without being distracting because they play against a simple white palate and are out of focus because of the short depth of field. I think it gives me the sense of greater concentration on smaller food.

I also thought that the very tight shot of a cooking egg was incredibly effective because the closeness and the unconventional angle on the egg gives it an other-worldly appearance. Though it is immediately recognizable as a familiar culinary item, the viewer confronts it like an alien world, and therefore attends to different aspects of the egg, seeing the common through new eyes. However, the same was not true for these close ups on beef cubes and shrimp. There the tight focus isn't doing it for me because it is not adding new information about the item, and it is not making me view it in a new way. Actually I sort of thought of this shot in the back of my head all day today.

For looser shots, I liked the uncooked meat. Something about the way the board came towards the viewer while the bone went away, the casual salt sprinkled on the board and the apples breaking the rectangular lines. I thought the pork chops scattered on wood sort of missed the mark. Evidently "messy is the new black" but this seems completely inauthentically messy to me: when does one scatter cooked meat on the tabletop? Plus a color to break the browned meat from the browned table would have been nice. I found myself thinking of a pewter platter, maybe with a white or spring green napkin.

I was drawn to the work of Matt Armendariz. His people work has a lovely eye for capturing personality and contextualizing food with its human element. In his food work, I really liked how he was able to move seamlessly between light, dark and colorful palettes. He uses dark palates to make colors pop--like these bacon wrapped shrimp in a way that appears comfortable and natural, less contrived.

Because Penny de los Santos spent so much time mentioning pizza as the classic case of a "no brainer" overhead shoot, I was really drawn to photos that seemed to successfully capture pizza from other angles. One great example of that was this fig and arugula pizza still on the wood peel. I think I love that the peel is coming towards the lens, but slightly off center, and that the out-of-focus figs in the background tone into the shadows of the napkin, but I think I would have liked a purple element--a cut fig?--up front to pull that theme throughout the composition. I wrestled with my feelings about these asparagus. This seemed to be a case of artistically choosing whites that were "too hot" but the effect of the backlighting hot whites (perhaps plus this front angle?) is to make them seem like they are floating, which is slightly disorienting and not in an entirely good way. Christina Peters had another example of a very tight focus on food, combined with an interesting lighting choice, that I thought really elevated the food and presented it in an ethereal and unconventional way. The lighting and perspective gives the swiss chard vivid and voluptuous motion, part other-worldly cathedral, part curling tidal wave.

Interestingly composed baking ingredients still life. When I get several elements at the same time I have never been able to master the ability to frame them with different graphic elements (that also vary in size) and arrange them in a way that has tension and conversation while also being visually pleasing. I think this hits the mark for me at least.

Up close, vegetable takes on the form of fantastically curved alien tenticlesThese star anise. These prosciuto wrapped figs evoked a sort of modernist architecture that reminded me of vegas, both lush and sterile. But the modern sterility of the lines of the background and complementary dishes really highlighted the veining in the proscuitto for me, making me almost embarrassingly aware of its live, natural vitality.

Shooting the soup in the bowls of butternut soup from an angle other than overhead really made the accent of the thyme pop for me. I think the structural three dimensionality of the thyme would have disappeared from overhead. The plated fish and the steamed dumplings both really worked for me, though I can't quite figure out why.

Fellow workshop participant Steve E Miller apples still life. I also liked the tension and movement captured in this flaming wok though I would have loved to see that photo paired with a picture of the dish being plated so we knew more about the content of the food. Though this is a bit tight to really know the food--Penny might say it needs more room to "breathe"--I loved how the composition highlighted the gentle curve of the lobster across the white space of the background.


Cooking in Mexico said...

We were classmates -- I followed Penny's 3-day course also (my username at the lounge was kathyleen), and it really opened my eyes to a new world.

Like you, I only learned of the course the day before it started. We were so lucky!

Thanks for the links you gave in this article -- more to study.

Happy photography,


Anadrol said...

Great post and may you make many great pictures.


s.e. miller said...

Thanks for the mention in your blog :)
Out of pure curiosity I wonder why you looked at my work vs all the other participants though?
Cheers to you!

LinkWithin Related Stories Widget for Blogs