Monday, February 4, 2013

Food Photography & The Art of Irritation: Foodtography essentials: Ten Easy Steps to a newer and better you

In 1989 I embarked on my first trip to Europe with my brother, a whirlwind vacation over the course of a month covering Paris, Zurich, Munich, Amsterdam, London and Manchester. It was a trip of legend, everything I'd hoped and planned on and everything we never expected, and more. and being a ragtag eighteen year old able to consume alcohol in fashionable european establishments was the butter on my baguette. I took full advantage of this brilliant foreign law.. and more. 
But thanks to my youthful excessive american behavior and wayy too much of a good thing, much of those memories are a little foggy today. however I'll never forget our experience with my brother's friend JB...
JB was a photographer colleague of my bro, they had worked on several ad campaigns together for my brother's agency. I didn't know much about the man except that he was a handsome french dude, and that we were about to stay at his place in Paris for a few days..
After our arrival and walking through Paris for a couple of hours with our suitcases, it was time to hit up JB. We dug into our crispy fresh Berlitz guide for coordinates and were off to our new home for the next week. It was a short walk featuring the distraction of a couple record stores, but in an hour we'd arrived with a box of vinyl under our arms.
JB lived in a somewhat secluded spot in Paris a little group of very old houses which we found out later were formerly Marie Antoinette's stables. The buildings had been transformed into loft spaces and were infested with successful artists, several of them milling around outside when we strolled up. We found his place and hit the buzzer.
JB answered with a huge smile in a casual Parisian work outfit that screamed cool, and a perfect lock of hair hanging askew over his left eye. Some abstract 70's french noise-wave was coming from the stereo inside... "Come in, come in!" he said, "I'm right in the middle of a session"...
JB's loft was incredible. 50 feet high, stark white with stainless steel and hardwood, completely open with a kitchen area to the left and stairs up to his loft bedroom on the opposite side. His work area was the focal point of his environment, and currently there were three directional floodlights trained on a small cup of yogurt sitting on a white table. Forgetting my manners and with low blood sugar controlling my emotions, I said "Dude, that looks awesome, can I have a bite?"
He laughed. "You can, but you don't want to. It's plastic" ... He motioned over to a small side table which was his mixing station, and popped open his 'special effects' briefcase, filled with paints and polymers, tongue depressors, brushes and Q-tips. "You see, in order to make food look good, it has to be TOO good." he said. "You need to capture the shine and the drips and the beads and that's impossible unless you can control it"
I remember thinking to myself that JB's briefcase had to be the coolest thing I'd ever seen. My mind was spinning on the possibilities of creating liquified striations on food that was too good. He took us into the kitchen and opened the fridge and pulled out a yogurt and said "but this one you can eat" and handed me a yogurt and spoon. It was the same brand and flavor of yogurt that he was photographing. "Hmmm.." I said.. "Is this your polite way of telling me that you need a model?" He answered with a smirky grin: "yes, I do my friend. do you know any?"

Pondering. Paris 1989
Seriously contemplating JB's magic suitcase at a Brasserie in the center of Paris in 1989, captured via my first  inappropriate timer shot during a meal. My premiere foray into not actually eating my food, rather just mugging for the camera with it.

During the week of our stay at JB's, we had a vivid taste of 'the good life'. His flat was frequented by interesting artists, beautiful women, eccentric bohemians, and JB's taste in music and food was unexpected and perfect. His personal style was uneffected yet chic, utilitarian Paris high fashion. The dude was all cool.
At some point over dinner with two hotty girls from Amsterdam, I told JB: "I want to be just like you dude, how do you do it man?" ... He smiled and took a slow sip of his vodka and said.. "You need to be a food photographer"

Although the memory is burned into my mind, I failed to act upon what could have been my calling, that of a jet-set food photographer, dressed down to count, a camera and a girl on each arm and a briefcase full of my fake food imbellishing supplies.
While this lucrative career and comfortable lifestyle has thus far eluded me, over the past few years I've taken it upon myself to always have a camera in tow ready to document the day's events. Often that includes taking photos of food. Yes, I hesitate to admit it, but I'm one of 'those' people. I take pictures of my food. and other people's food.  At first this behavior was met with grunts and rolled eyes, but as time went on it became natural for my dining companions. And now in a strange turn of fate, I've gone from the irritating guy with the little camera who keeps arranging plates on the dinner table while everyone is trying to eat, to the guy everyone invites over for dinner and "bring your camera"...
What's different for me, is that I have a few rules with myself about violating the intimate relationship of ingesting meals, and guidelines on how or why I should document that particular moment. If you see a photo on Instagram of a plate full of an unknown diarrhea-esque meal, it's definitely not me. I'm sure it tastes fantastic, but stop taking photos of that Vegan restaurant dudes.

So, why take photos of your food anyway? So hungry you can't control yourself? Loneliness? Boredom? Documenting your food so you can tally up your Weight Watchers points later?

For everyone involved in this silly ritual, there is a reason for the photo. Some better than others. Don't fall down the rabbit hole of blandness and make your food photos count. You don't have to be a professional photographer at a Michelin starred restaurant to put your food photos on the map. I am far-removed from a pro, without decent gear and with inexpensive taste in meals, but I like to have a little fun at the dinner table for sure.  

Here are my Ten Golden Rules when committing the culinary photo nasty that will hopefully help you in your quest for that glistening meal pic without alienating your friends. You too could be one of those guys who should've listened to JB.

1. Set The Scene, interior design your meal
Rule Number One. With a little effort your photo capture could echo Baccus meals of ancient times, or blaze new trails with the synthetic dining imagery of a future world. Before you take the photo, mentally step back and compose the shot. Visualize the four coners of the camera frame and how everything is sitting to the camera's eye. Shift some things around, quickly but articulately. Think of JB's f/x briefcase and how to better treat the otherwise flat elements of the shot. Move the candle toward the food, strategically tilt the little desk light, move the fork, twist the pint glass so the logo faces away. Of course these tweaks are not always executed without someone's heavy sigh halting progress, but given a few short moments it's amazing what your little pocket-stylist subconscious can do when no one is the wiser. and if you end up getting the end result, you will never hear that intimidating sigh again. An important note here is that you are only as good as how well you know your camera. Whatever your hardware of choice is, iPhone, CoolPix, CyberShot, SLR, etc... make sure that you take the time to spend some quality learning experiences with your rig before embarking on confident decorative dinner table diversions. If you are in need of a camera upgrade, now is the time. Good little cameras are powerful and inexpensive. And they are everywhere. with everyone. Creativity and artistic sensibility are what makes the photos different.
Wait a second... I sound really serious about this food-photo stuff all of the sudden.

Giving Thanks. Thanksgiving. Isleton 2011
A last minute conceptual photo that materialized just as our dinner was hitting the table, impressing our dinner guests (assistants) and the cook (photographer). No one seemed to mind that once we had nailed the photo, the champagne was luke warm and the turkey was ice cold. The pie however was perfect. (perhaps because we didn't stop to take a photo of it). This is one of my favorite examples which demonstrates the essence of Foodtography.

Fishmas! -  Christmas Dinner. SF 2012 
 Alberta and I were in no mood to cook, but the thought of a creative festive place setting was enticing. We made a trip to Trader Joe's for an assortment of fried seafood, some vegetables, and rum with needed supplies for Dark & Stormy's. The 'Merry Fishmas' concept didn't hit us until we were walking back from the store, at which point we gathered some river rocks from a hotel garden (which we returned later), cut some branches and twigs from a nearby yard, and hit the hardware store for some cheap blue lights.
Arranging our table was just as fun and gluttonous as eating all that fried fish.

Red Velvet randomness for my girl. SF 2011
 A few days after her birthday in September last year, on a rainy blue mood kind of day, I thought it would be nice to surprise Berty with a little something special for no reason. I dug out one of our vintage tablecloths and a swanky pop LP, swiped one of her cool lights from the left side of her vanity, dished out some birthday cake, and whipped up two coordinated cocktails made with pomegranate juice, vodka and mint. I snapped a photo and posted it to facebook, waited a few minutes and then said "Hey honey, have you checked your facebook? Someone just posted a photo of you". While she was checking her page, I put on the record and walked into the bedroom with the cake and the cocktail... (note to dudes: chicks lovvvve stuff like this, just remember to return the vanity lamp to it's original location)

Oysters on the mortar shell. 4th of July, Vinalhaven Island, Maine 2011
In direct contrast to the forced ambiance and premeditated actions mentioned above, this oyster photo was a complete accident with no adjustment required. On the 4th last year, I spent the holiday back east at the family home of sailor Cam Lewis. Cam is beloved for being notoriously a little nuts, and that weekend in Maine gave me an intimate sampling of this behavior. He is totally crazy in the best ways possible. On the evening of the 4th, he hauled a massive box from the shed and declared that it was fireworks time, and all of us dudes began to wire up the display on a piece of plywood with one large fuse. About halfway through the procedure, the ladies came from the kitchen with a platter of fresh oysters and silently set them in the middle of our workspace, Cam didn't miss a beat, with pliers in one hand he grabbed an oyster with the other and slurped it down as if firework time and oysters were a family tradition. It was such a cool moment. I pulled out my camera and snapped a shot. It was a dark night out there and a crappy photo. I couldn't miss the opportunity so I had Xavier run into the kitchen for a flashlight and we illuminated the setting a little better. Still not a perfect photo but we captured the random decadent yet sleazy ambiance of gunpowder and oysters.

2.  Friendly Persuasion. Take the helm
Put aside your kajagoogle too-shy tendencies and become the master of ceremonies. It doesn't take Dine Juan to romance the table into thinking that your pending food photo is a brilliant idea. A little complimentary and creative manipulation goes a long way in helping you shed that foodphotogeek personna that's been dogging you. Think of things this way: If it's a good pic, they will love it. If it's not a good photo, at least everyone had a fun experience during the procedure. There are several ways to incorporate real living people into an otherwise mundane picture of stagnant food. Involve the table, specifically the host or the guest of honor. Or someone that couldn't be there. Or a household pet. These techniques work especially well during birthdays or family gatherings. But realize that no one is going to do this stuff for you. It's up to you man. Step up to the plate and orchestrate that killer photo while including everyone in the process. 

French guys with French fries. Sausalito 2011 
A visit to SF from France from my right hand colleague Pierre and friend Tim, a brilliant day sailing with John Saul onboard a 38' Wyliecat tester for Bearmark Yachts. This photo was taken at the great Cafe Roma just outside the harbor in Sausalito after our little sail. We were having a blast. And it shows. This photo is just one of many images throughout their stay that I look at and makes me feel warm and fuzzy with a bit of nostalgia. I love those dudes. With every action there is a reaction. DON'T take photos of your crappy times.
DO take photos when life is good and in full swing. 

Oysters with Wind Report. Salon Nautique, Paris 2010 
While in Paris in 2010, I tagged around with Loick Peyron for a day while he buzzed around the main hall. His freestyle public presence is something to be admired for sure, I tried to soak it all in while I tailed his erratically elequent and organized hummingbird behavior darting around the perimeter of the boat show. As Loick and I spun around to the Wind Report stand, I spotted a tray of oysters out of my peripheral vision with my internal oyster-cam. "I'll be there in a minute dude" I said. Loick nodded and kept walking into the back area. I bellied up to the oysters, greeted my host, and was sampling my first french oyster while he poured me a flute of Mumm champagne. I smiled inside, Here I was accompanying a living french legend at the best boat show in the world, casually sipping oysters and champagne behind red velvet ropes.. I needed a pic for posterity. I sized up the scene through my lens but something wasn't right. Instinctually I began arranging the oysters and the lemon wedges around the tray a little.
The dude in the pic is Florent who slyly cackled out of the side of his mouth french-style, equally startled and somehow pleased with my spontaneous oyster design...
"Wait," he said.."Did you really just put that lemon in front there because it's better for the photo?" I nodded confidently "Yup." He shook his head and smiled in a very "that's so retarded and ridiculous yet totally cool" way, and mumbling to himself, he left to go find someone to share his observation of the crazy American micro-styling the hors d'oeuvres. He returned with an inquisitive Yannick, just behind him was Loick. Florent explained his findings with joyous sarcasm, pointing to me and my camera and the oysters. Yannick knowingly looked at me and rolled his eyes. Turning to Loick he muttered something in French and pointed to me... Loick looked at me and recoiled his massive eyebrows and said "Oh No! Not Zeees Guy!" and made a beeline for the opposite direction. Without question I was the crazy Yankee at the boat show that year. It was a really cool little snippet of time that would've been lost unless I'd taken this photo. And arranged the lemons.

Feelin' Fine. Isleton 2010 
And we were. It was Berty's birthday, a beautiful day in the Delta. We'd just come in from swimming and it was time for drinks and dessert and the great unveiling of Berty's present. Somehow by fate's hand, we'd ended up with three different birthday cakes, two of which we'd been slowly attacking with forks while they sat in the fridge over the long weekend. When it was time for the candles, we were unsure which cake to apply them too. Wait, I thought. We have three cakes. What's a good three-letter word that says Birthday? I started slicing fruit in preparation to spell out some letters with the candles on the top of the cakes when it hit me:  O-L-D.
The fruit was sliced and arranged, the candles put in place, all we needed was a surface for the birthday girl. Hey, my present! That year I was gifting Bert with my most-cherished and coveted 70's lucite bar cart. It was perfect. We set it all up, wheeled out the cart onto our patio, lit the candles, put a flower in Berty's hair and handed her a bottle of American Honey. The sun was just setting and the photo is a bit dark but it was a very happy moment of celebration. (The O-L-D on the cakes wasn't a big hit, but the lucite bar cart sure was)  

Pizza at Sodini's. SF 2010
This restaurant is one of my favorite haunts in San Francisco. In the heart of North Beach, there is always a nice electricity in the air as we arrive for dinner, Sodini's is usually full of lively types enjoying their meal amidst the Rat Pack clutter, crooner classics booming from the Hi-Fi. And who doesn't love crayons and butcher paper tablecloths? Highly conducive to a fail-safe food photo. This one falls under the "celebrate someone who isn't there" category. This is just one photo of an ongoing series, whenever we are at Sodini's we like to give a nice crayon tablecloth shout-out to my friend Duff in Talmont St. Hilaire.

Macho Cheese. Isleton 2012
This one is bittersweet. One of our final photos taken at our awesome house at Ox Bow Marina in the Delta, a house that had been in our family since the 70's. Another sunny day, this photo taken after a nice swim just as the sun was dropping down behind the farmland across the slough. We made some sort of melted cheese thing and sat on the porch reflecting and having some drinks until it was dark. There was no moon that night and I can still see the bright stars peppering the sky above our heads and I feel the crisp night air and the emotional time it was for us. Normally this photo would make me very sad. But then, like magic, there is a LOL-dog in there and I can't help but smile looking at his little brown head. When in doubt, go for the dog move. They are irresistable. Macho is my ju-ju for an otherwise difficult occasion.

3. Utilize The Floor 
It's a proven fact: good things happen on the floor. Twister. love-making. Linoleum. basketball. naps in front of the television. food pics. Food pics? Sure. Another clever move that will keep them guessing... head for lower ground. This can be a delicate maneuver, but executed properly and you have a winner on your hands. Some interesting results can be achieved when your focal point deviates from the dinner table and heads downtown...

Wine with Napoleon - Paris 2010
I had arrived at my friend Gentry de Paris' apartment near Rumbateau one cold evening, our world's unexpectedly colliding in the City Of Lights. We hadn't seen each other in over ten years and we both were experiencing a distinctively French twist on our lives at this moment, it was a happy reunion and cause to celebrate. At the time Gentry was a well-known burlesque dancer and rabid Parisian socialite, always at the forefront of chic style and wit. It was a bit of a surprise then, when she answered the door in a robe sans makeup. "Dude, why didn't you dress up for me?" I joked. She bit back: "Shut up and pour us a glass of wine, I'm totally in the middle of adjusting one of my costumes." I couldn't find a wine glass to save my life until I noticed a mismatched pair sitting on the floor next to an empty dog bowl, obviously abandoned en-route to join the other dirty dishes in the sink. Instead of picking up the glasses, I opened the bottle and sat on the floor and poured us each a tug. Hearing the commotion, Gentry's pet pug Napoleon scurried out to greet me wanting in on the action. I found his bag of food and poured him a small amount in his bowl marked "RABBIT" ... Gentry came from the bedroom half dressed in a bejeweled gown of her own design, with safety pins in her mouth mumbling for some assistance. I obliged, we gave each other a big hug and not questioning the odd placement of our wine, she stooped awkwardly down for one of the glasses, chugged it and said "thanks dude" and walked back into her bedroom to continue her costuming. Napoleon followed. I sat there on the floor chatting with her for the next half hour, her muffled voice dishing the dirt from the next room. It was a retarded moment. So perfectly representative of the ease and familiarity of our friendship and the ridiculous circumstances that we've experienced over the years. I snapped the pic.

Sushi with a good backbeat. Paris 2011 
I accompanied my friends French Boutik to their band practice in the 11th to snap some photos and hear their new tunes. On the way I realized how extremely hungry I was and stopped into a small sushi place for something to go. While waiting for my food, I popped across the street for some cider. I picked up my bag of sushi and when I arrived at the practice spot, I sat on the floor opposite the band and began to eat. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed Gabriela's tambourine and maracas and scooted them into the frame. I spent a few minutes fiddling with the setting and snapped a photo at which point I gazed up at the band and they were all looking at me laughing. Instead of defending my makeshift percussive sushi composition, I distracted them with some california rolls and a swig of cider. Which I served from the floor.

Plouf Patio with the Pooch - SF 2012
Now mind you, as I sort through these photos I realize another disorder has developed throughout my cozy relationship with my camera. I cringe to think that I am also becoming one of THOSE guys too. The "omg my dog is so cute look at heem" guys. Except unfortunately this isn't a guy thing at all. It's a girl thing. Especially when the dog in question is a long-haired chihuahua. At some point I will tell you all the long sorted story of how Macho the rescue dog came into my life but this is not the time nor place. But rest assured, when I do unload this emotional tale of love and struggle and victory, your heart will melt and you will love him as much as I do. This type of little dog would be the last on my radar of pets to own, but sometimes life dictates circumstances that are beyond one's control. Thankfully I am confident in my sexuality or I might feel a little strange with the magnetism that my dog & I have on other men. I never realized the dog park was such hot cruising grounds. It doesn't help that his name is Macho. But I digress, we are talking about this photo. Dude. it's oysters AND a dog. and he's on the ground. Slam-Dunk. Just someone please call my ass out if I ever change my Skype name to 'MachosDaddy'.

The Kat that ate The Kanary - Thanksgiving 2011
When I see photos like this it makes me realize how rad my friends are. It's a very comforting feeling to have people close to you with an understanding for the absurd and a desire to participate in your joint vision of scenarios that are stupid cool. After my extremely taxing pre-dinner session featured in the first photo of this blog, Kenji took it upon himself to cause a little photo-inconvenience of his own. The table was just about cleared except for the turkey, I was popping off some macro shots of the flowers and leaves when Kenji declared it was his turn for a Thanksgiving photo souvenir, he promptly laid down on the floor as if in extreme pain from overeating. It was a great shot. Then he growled "Me.Want.Turkey" in a Cookie Monster-esque voice, and Alberta put the tray of turkey on his chest. Again another great shot. But when he tore of a piece of the bird and shoved it in his mouth I knew we had a winner. Floor success yet again. But in this instance, it's not so much the dude behind the camera, it's the dude in the photo. Guys like Kenji are a diamond in the rough. Treat these dudes well and be thankful you have them in your life to share these retarded moments. Someday they might not be there to sprawl at the foot of the dinner table when it's time for the money shot.

4. What Not To Photograph
You are what you eat, don't be a lonely fatso with a trigger-happy smartphone.
Don't be a super-sized American in a foreign land photographing your crepe.. Or the Instagram portrait of a tragic alcoholic. Or a diabetic spinster. With no money.
This rule is very straightforward:
We all eat breakfast. We all eat lunch. And we all eat dinner. ...and we all snack.
Why do we need to see pictures of you doing this if the subject matter is less than stellar?
Snacks seem to be the biggest problem here.
Think twice before exclaiming "OMG YUMMMM!!!" while uploading that photo of your Dr. Pepper and Twix bar (but if it's a Mr. Pibb and Red Vines? - Rock it bro, that sh!t is crazy delicious)
Besides these key points, there are many different food items that simply do not photograph well due to texture and/or lack of color or contrast. This includes (but not limited to): refried beans, hummus, baba ganouch, lentils, mashed potatos, whipped cream, melted butter, pudding, gravy, most sauces, and creamed spinach. I will save you from the eyesore and refrain from posting any of these particular infractions.

Super Size Me. The Sonics in Paris, Thanksgiving 2012 
Politics and food don't belong together. Except in France. This is especially true for opinionated food-oriented initiatives such as free-range, foraging, foie gras, kosher, buy local, and fast food. Somehow the french can intelligently discuss these matters with rabidly conflicting opinions while leisurely absorbing the comfort and civility of food and wine. The french may have very strong stances which incite borderline arguments, but however opposing their feelings may be, they are never important enough to eclipse hospitality and the enjoyment of each other's company. There almost seems to be an intellectual challenge afoot when the frenchies gather together in the presence of food. In the States we can't pull this off, feathers get ruffled and emails get sent, and the following day someone has or is soon to be 'unfriended'. We are too damn sensitive for political sparring, and too boisterous to keep it together when a button gets pressed. Much like religion, food and politics don't work well together. Well, unless it is Food AND Religion or Food AND Politics, in which case Christmas, Thanksgiving, Sabbath, Easter, Hannukah, dinner with Bill Clinton, and peanut butter celery sticks with the Dali Lama all have their place among food photo's best.

"Dude, check me out, I'm a sloppy pig" August 2010 
My birthday was a simple one in 2010. After sleeping well until the afternoon and slounging around the house all day, I had a couple of  friends over who were sharing my lazy mindset. We did next to nothing for the entire night, climaxing into actually putting on shoes and driving to Jack In The Box (followed by a commando run through the truck stop mini -mart just in case The Box wasn't fulfilling enough). Back at the house, we were eating our (equally luxurious and wretched) birthday treats and it struck me how incredibly gross it all was. I took a pic. And it's gross. Dinnergeddon. We all have those days of corporate comfort food convenience and we can all relate, but these types of images only confirm what a sad culture we can be. So please, let's all promote positive foodtography instead. If you are being a pig, don't take a photograph of it.

Toast and Gaviscon. London, 2011 
I was staying in London with my good friend Jesse Armstrong who writes the Peep Show TV series on BBC. I hadn't seen Jess since 1990, when the aforementioned Europe trip with my brother crashed into Jesse, Julius and Jason's flat in Manchester at the height of the baggy mad scene. It was an outrageous week of questionable liquids and revelry which I wouldn't trade for the world. Now in our 40's and Jess and Jules & Jas living up to their dadrock potential with kids of their own, it was high time for a proper catch-up. The evening began in pubs around London and rapidly deteriorated (got brilliant) once we arrived back at Jesse's home. We stayed up most of the night even though the dads had appointments the next day. This is a photo of my breakfast at around 10am. A dis-harmonious landscape of messy eating, alcoholism, and digestive disorders. However much fun we'd had on our marathon reunion binge, this wasn't the way to capture it. I look at that piece of toast and instantly I'm transported back to that table, sweating and miserable, head spinning and pounding, trying to choke down some toast so my stomach didn't cave in on itself. I much prefer looking at the photos from earlier in the evening. And I do. Moral of the story, if you are too drunk to make a wise decision behind the lens, don't take a photo. Or if you do, save it and laugh about it later with your fellow drunkards du jour, but please don't upload it online. Every Instagram filter possible can't prevent you from you and your friends looking like total drunk asses.

Der Sea Dog. Oakland 2010 
We've learned our lesson about not posting fast food photos, this only cements the sentiment.
Staying with my friends Jon & Karen in Oakland for the weekend, and the day after a sailing event, I opened the Sunday paper and there was a coupon for the new featured 'Der Sea Dog' at the crappy hotdog joint Der Wienerschnitzel. It seemed like the perfect tongue-in-cheek Sunday Brunch to cap off my regatta experience from the day before. "Dudes. We HAVE to go." I showed them my coupon and it was agreed. Yes, dude. we had to go. We arrived singing sea shanties and I even ordered like a pirate "Yearrrg, we'll 'ave three der sea dogz matey!!!" ... (the hispanic cashier was not impressed but I was undaunted, I figured she had heard the pirate routine before). We received our order, I unwrapped the puny things and took a bite. It was simply one of the most hideous and disappointing 'food' items that I've ever had. Completely nasty cold particle-board 'fish', stale bun, wilted lettuce, and tartar sauce so old that had a crispy outer shell. I wanted to cry. Or run. or vomit. So what did I do instead? I took a photo of the monstrosity. Now when I look at this image, I'm overcome with feelings of despair, acid reflux, and the distinctive pungent smell of the Der Wienerschnitzel floor cleaner. Never again.
As with the birthday food gorge photo: If it's not a good memory in the first place, do yourself a favor and don't photograph it. 

Hairy Shrimp. Oakland 2010 
At another food photo mishap at Karen and Jon's, the lovely Safeway shrimp platter we'd selected came with a surprise side of forensic evidence. Except it wasn't on the side. It was ON the shrimp. A beautiful specimen of dark brown hair just sitting up there taking in the view of two dozen shrimp. The main problem with this photo is that none of us noticed the hair while eating the shrimp. Only after I had posted the photo on facebook and our friend Dawn (who was there) squeeled how gross it was did we all spot the hair. Even though the two events were months apart, I wondered if it was the disgruntled girl from Der Wienerschnitzel at the other end of that piece of hair who was trying to get me back for my self-involved pirate-speak. (same hair length and color, hmm..)
Thankfully, at the time we were actually eating them, the shrimp were terrible and we ended up throwing that tray away. Damn, here if we'd known that they came with bonus hair and eczema, we'd of finished those little suckers!!
This is an important one, for your health and for your public image. Don't take a photo if your food has unwanted or humanly-shed substances in or around it.
The message here is twofold, not only do you need to keep a CSI out for foreign bodily discharge on your food, you need to be a good detective once the photo is online. If your food looks questionable, so do you. 

5. The Doritos Clause
For  some reason capturing this iconic brand of overly-seasoned snack triangles in various environments is an endeavor embraced by the public conscience (and even championed in some weirdo circles by fan-girls of the deleted and recently reborn Taco Flavor). People are crazy nostalgic for these orange devils. The sub-genre of Taco Bell photos has also been widely accepted, maybe due to their crossover capacity or because it's another fast Mexican snack that Californians hold dear to our hearts... our little guilty comfort zone. Everyone can appreciate these brands, so if the Doritos are flowing the film should be rolling. But take these photos while you can, perhaps the main hook for Doritos some years back was their pioneering marketing trend of Limited Edition Food (Mountain Dew flavored Doritos anyone?)  ... This trend thrives today across many different food mediums and we have the Doritos team to thank, specifically the flavor geniuses and graphic designers responsible for the bizarre Doritos presence in the asian marketplace. Have a look at this formidable repertoire of weirdness for a deeper feel for this initiative: 35 Strange Doritos Flavors From Around The World

Tease-o-Rama - Isleton 2009
Gentry was having a difficult week in Paris, experiencing intense withdrawls from some of the things that make America the place to be, namely Doritos, Taco Bell, and Nutter Butters. As an homage to her unfulfilled desires for the spicy, creamy, and cheesy, I rallied the culprits and paired them with a bottle of Veuve Cliqcout. Adding Gentry as my screensaver and slapping a Bertrand Burgalat LP on the turntable to set the mood was almost like fine dining with her in real-time, except without the cute twisty smile and the snarky comebacks.

High Numbers - Oakland 2010
Another homage to another favorite girl with a Doritos fetish, this one was snapped for Carrie Swing, somewhat of a victory shot featuring the newly reissued Taco Flavor now in handy 99cent size. Karen and I had stumbled on this bounty at her local corner store ripe for the picking and so we picked up the lot. or at least like $8 worth. In another configuration this photo would just be a grouping of bags or snack shelf fodder, but add the incongruous pizazz of the groovy tv tie-in hardcover and surely Carrie was frug-ing and jonesing at the same time. It's a shame that she was never able to actually enjoy any of these Doritos with us, if memory serves me correctly these bags all ended up empty and wedged in between Karen's box springs and the bedroom floor.

Jacked - Macho at home in SF 2011

Fiery Fusion - Macho at home in SF 2012

6. Join The Club
What better way to fine-tune your food fixation than to spend time with other weirdos just like you? Surely there are several 'normal' channels and organizations for championing good food and socializing, however in the case of my friends and I, we much prefer to get a little jiggy with jell-o and ambitious with aspic. The Mid Century Supper Club parties were born from a longstanding mutual passion for 50's and 60's culture and the recreation of classic and often defunct dishes culled from vintage magazine ads and recipe books. Originally started by a flickr group of four women with fine taste who were inspired by the blog "My House is Cuter Than Yours", thanks to Jennye Garibaldi and Karen Finlay the concept perpetually took on a life of it's own by way of hosted parties to promote the spirit of mid-century cooking and entertaining. These gatherings began as an outlet for trying something new while meticulously bringing those 50's & 60's graphics to life as real three-dimensional (and hopefully edible) modern creations. Authenticity and presentation were the key to success, prizes were awarded after the group had sampled and voted on each others dishes. Every Supper Club event had it's own theme, and guests were encouraged to adhere to the concept and arrive in festive attire. Somewhere along the way the shindigs took a little turn for the outrageous and now the campy characteristics of mid-modern have arrived front and center. Not surprising when you've invited a room full of super creative artistic types in the first place and then asked them to bring strange food... things were bound to eventually go haywire in the best ways possible. It's always a blast to see what people come up with at these parties. What started as a charming idea featuring harmless meatloafs and deviled egg trays has blown up into adventurous guests bringing display tables, animatronic dolls, and LED illuminated gingerbread. And the staunch retro-correct purist in all of us is totally cool with it. In our idyllic extended nuclear family, it seems mid century food appreciation is a gateway drug opening the mind's-eye to post-modern tendencies and a flair for pop art.
Massive gratitude to the four original torchbearers (charm and poise, eartha kitsch, julia & miss retro modern on flickr) for changing the way we look at our food.  For more stylish madness have a look to the Mid Century Supper Club 

Baby Doe's edible flocked christmas tree lot - MCSC Holiday Edition 2012

A snapshot of the table as things were just getting going - MCSC Holiday Edition 2012

Persuasive Potluck Goes Latin - MCSC Lounge Key Party 2011
One half of a mid-century themed DJ coffin featuring vintage teak record decks 'playing' the food. This was the turntable on the left hand side... chips and guacamole spinning around in a bowl made from a melted LP. 

"I got 2 turntables and a quesadilla..." - MCSC Lounge Key Party 2011
Now we crossfade to Persuasive Potluck deep in the groove. The record player on the right had it's auto-play return arm stacked with six quesadilla 'records', each 'playing' a different flavor, in between the two decks was a 'mixer' featuring salsas and condiments. Resting on the floor and slid below the formica and teak DJ table, underneath each record player were the boxy acrylic dust covers for the decks, turned upside-down and filled with ice, Jarritos, Tecate, Dos Equis, and horchata. Ole! 

Liberace Ham Salad with musical statuette - MCSC Holiday Edition 2012

Pineapple Upsidedown Kook - MCSC Tiki Party 2009
Me posing with another eye-popping and jaw-dropping creation from Enid, our current reigning dish queen for the Mid-Century Supper Club and my creative nemesis when it comes to the vote count. Enid and I have developed a healthy rivalry over the years, she sure knows how to clean up at the awards ceremony.

7. When To Say When
Here comes the grunt..
There will come a time when despite your playfully innocent camera-toting motives and festive demeanor, your friends are having none of it. Don't push your luck. Reputations are easily soiled by a failed attempt of capturing the moment. The main disturbances that cause your friends to turn on you are: excessive staging of plates and food, making people pose (dude no, hold your fork like THIS), not having your camera ready when everyone else is, and making your friends wait to take the first bite of their meal because you are scrambling to get a picture in before the utensil breaks the surface of a dish that is rapidly getting cold. Be very wary of this behavior and learn to recognize your friends seething disgust behind those fake smiles. This is when 'that guy' becomes THAT GUY. If the mood is not right, it's just not right. It's not going to get any better. Put the camera away. I know it's difficult, but when things smooth over, you'll be able to re-introduce the camera (usually that same night when too many drinks have been poured and everyone is in the loosey goosey pocket together)

Pensive Cheesecake. Paris 2012
Much to Gabriela's frustration, I couldn't get this photo right. What started out as a wonderful dessert between three friends, at this moment was slowly sliding downhill into the danger zone. I should've picked up on the signs right away, but at this point it was too late. To increase the pressure, somehow on the way to the restaurant, I had bumped my camera and accidentally changed a setting, but I wasn't sure what had been changed. Meanwhile, the glorious strawberry dessert sat there idly oozing as I fumbled with my camera. I persisted, even fending off their probing forks so I could get the shot. Not a good road to take, especially because I I still couldn't nail it...

Then Serge had this to say about my obnoxious photo styling:

okay okay dude, I deserved that...

Rum and Tonic. Paris 2012
Presumably sensing the tension in the air, as we went to the bar to settle up, the owner had set out five shots of 
Père Labat rum. Three for us, one for the waitress, and one for himself. Because of my failure to perform during dessert, I was anxious to photograph his presentation at the bar before we all drank. But I had learned a valuable lesson. This time, I popped off one quick photo and without looking at the result, promptly put the camera in my jacket. There are certain intimate imbibing moments that are best not documented if you don't have your act together behind the lens. And if you feel like your camera might be obtrusive and making people feel uncomfortable, chances are it is. Never go for the hot photo at the expense of your guests, it's best not to challenge the rhythm of the evening. With the camera asleep inside my parka, everyone was free to socialize without fear that our every sip and bite was being documented. We ended up standing at that bar with the owner for another round, by the time we were ready to leave, we were feeling pretty buzzy and in top spirits. The stupid dessert incident from just an hour earlier was all but forgotten. And as luck would have it, this one pic that I shot couldn't be better. It perfectly catches the mood. Be good to your camera, he's got your back in a pinch. This was actually a big turning-point for me and a good lesson on how to gauge the situation and be respectful to everyone else.
If you build it, they will come. Don't be a rookie and kill the mood.

Dude. Stop. Oakland 2011
In a similar situation, a disgruntled Jon who's been watching my tedious garnish arranging finally calls me out on my behavior, and strongly suggests with this bottle-thrusting gesture that I put the camera down and pour us a glass of wine instead of a glass of dill.

Fajita Downer. Alameda 2011
It's later that same evening and I still haven't taken the hint. Check out the body language and facial expressions in this pic as the tension comes to a boil. Jon is completely ignoring me. Karen is sullenly taking a bite of her food slow and disappointed style, the silent-treatment is in full effect on her end. And my brother is about to snap, you can see his mouth forming the 'f' word as in "put the f'ing camera away or I'll put it away for you"... it even seems as though he is about to backhand me here. I got the message alright. Things slipped back into a normal groove once I put the camera away.
Sometimes it's just not meant to be.

8.  The Old Cupcake On The Foot trick
Only under extreme conditions should you attempt this move, this is reserved for when you've pissed everyone off at the dinner table beyond repair except your lover and/or the person you came with. (who are only mildly pissed because they know you so well).  If you came alone, your nearest default friend is your waiter or the youngest person in the room who has big enough hands to hold a cupcake. If you are unsure if ANYONE likes you anymore, this move needs to be executed solo. The idea is to choose a partner to either: A. place a cupcake unknowingly on someone's foot, you snap a pic, B. leave the room quietly with you to stage a photo of a cupcake on their own foot to show the table, or C. bake a cupcake or purchase one so you can attempt A or B. In every different scenario, cupcake flavor and footwear victim may vary, but when your friends see you photographing a cupcake on someone's foot shortly after you've made a dick of yourself for food pics, they don't know what to make of it. They assume you are serious, realize you are taking the piss and voila: they love you again. It's comedy gold and your way of saying "dudes, I'm sorry, I know I'm being lame with the food pics, I think you misunderstood.." putting the blame on missed-signals and gold-intentions via a little healthy comedic self-depreciation. Sometimes you just need to take one for the team.. Everyone has a personal trigger that flips them from being super upset to having fun and going with the flow. A cupcake on the foot is a universal trigger. Hilarity will ensue, and in some rare cases cats will lose control of their bladders & women will swoon at your room-melting prowess. (see below)

BEFORE (cupcake on chelsea boot)

AFTER (putty in my hands)

9. All you need is love

It seems that some of my most successful food photo ops have occurred under the pretense of romance and minimal finance. Creative platters happen when trying to do something special for my girlfriend without the financial means to be an obvious stud. It's a good thing Berty enjoys a little TV while dining in bed, I'm able to whip up impressive variations on the 'breakfast in bed' theme without a struggle, showcasing my flair for minimal extravagance in the comfort of my own boxers. These little portable trays of ad-hoc cuisine are often just glorified munchies, but with some effort on the presentation and a kiss on the check upon delivery, they've become an important component in our relationship. With our freestyle schedules there is never a proper time for tray service, rather these events happen organically or when I hear her squeak "I'm huunnn ggrrree" from the next room at any given time of the day. It's become a fun game to scour the kitchen for new ideas with old groceries and see what develops. This often involves a trip outside to snip some flowers for the setting, and maybe pick up a magazine from the newsstand to throw on the tray for her.
What's even better is she completely appreciates the gesture, understands the procedure, and on more than one occasion I've been on the lazed-out horizontal receiving end of one of HER magical trays. I much prefer these spontaneous meals over cooking a decent one, and having to arrange everything on a tray or nightstand feels like I've been given a three-dimensional canvas to paint with food. Being a terminal romantic, this is a challenge I attack with passion. Which causes me to mention to be forewarned that these moments are not always photo-friendly, crazy things can happen when you introduce food into a sleeping woman's boudoir. Expect spills, thrills, and pillow fights.

Love Is All You Knead. Valentine's Day, Isleton 2011 (before)
Valentine's Day has always been a special occasion for good and bad, it's Berty and my anniversary but it's also the day that we had my mom's funeral. Every year instead of succumbing to the melancholia of losing my best friend in the world and gaining my soulmate on the same day (though many years apart), I channel that confusing energy and put it towards something goofy and commemorative, something colorful and creative. Flowers are always present, sometimes even Hawaiian shirts which we wore to the funeral. With every death there is a dynamic rebirth to replace the loss, and for my family on Valentine's Day anything can happen. I know that my Mom is right there with me on that day, beamed down to earth to join us in the fun and craziness. On this day a couple of years ago, the date snuck up on me and I had nothing planned. Berty and I were stuck in the Delta on a beautiful sunny day with no car, no money and at the tail end of a grocery run from the previous week. We pooled our culinary resources and as we started pulling things from the cabinets and fridge everything just started to flow, we were having so much fun whipping up these little pizza breads, snacking on chocolate & cheese... picking flowers in the yard, all while grooving out to my makeshift DJ set. Then we stumbled on a bottle of Veuve Clicquot that I had stashed and completely forgotten about. There was no question that Mom was there with us. And she was living it up. We were living it up together.

Love Is All You Knead. Valentine's Day, Isleton 2011 (after)

Yup. Mom was there alright.

10. Warning: Burritos are extremely delicious 
When making a run for the border, try to maintain a cool head dude. Channel that energy. You are on the verge of making some every foolish decisions, don't go into the first bite unprepared. Under NO circumstances is it wise to allow your burrito to be in charge. They will prey on you like a tortilla-wrapped succubus. Bring yourself a distraction. Burrito time is good ringtone changing time, or perhaps toting along a mexican mini-comic with the sexy cartoons is more your speed. Soduko if you must. Better yet, bring along a stack of your business cards and host an informal photoshoot...

Dipping For Dollars. SF 2011

If you decide that there is no way around photographing yourself with your little mexican roll of heaven for the world to see, keep it tasteful as illustrated in the image below. Notice the added stylish flair that Emma the Pomeranian adds to this particular photo, lackadaisically clutching her Bohemia bottle like a seasoned gringo at breakfast. And check me out. Totally in control. Inside I'm unraveling and wishing my hair was cilantro, my heart feels like a butterflied shrimp and I'm  trying to come up with the best way to take a bath AND eat a burrito at the same time. And despite the rainy day ambiance of the pic and my too pale face, it was a bright sunny afternoon. Those would be the burrito sweats kicking in.

Puppy Love. SF 2011

I learned this the hard way. Upon returning from a 3 month trip to France completely devoid of the raw emotional power harnessed within the mighty burrito, I came into the situation like a vulnerable little boy with taste buds made of rubber, I ran into that burrito without any facial control whatsoever. I remember the smell then bliss then nothing. I don't even remember the photo below being taken, but obviously it was a good experience for both me and the burrito, though perhaps better suited for a bachelorette party gone retarded.
Let this godawful image serve as a brutal reminder of how not to artistically represent your food. Failing that, feel free to perpetuate burrito orgasmica at Burrito Love

Burritogate. Oakland 2012

It's important to make a distinction here. When and if you find yourself completely smitten with the food in front of you, provided that you are wearing a leopard coat with a pink cat-eared fur hood, a kingly costume-shop crown, and a suit and tie, all bets are off. Speaking from experience, you and those within a two foot radius of this regal outfit have somehow earned the disgusting privilege of smearing food wherever you see fit. Notice the similarities to the forbidden burrito etiquette and embrace the differences. Main one being: everybody loves a good cupcake. Even slammed into their face... frosting first. I've not tried this technique with other wardrobe ensembles, but I wager that anything along these lines is a good alibi.

1st Annual Leo Party, Redwood City 2009

And speaking of a good cupcake, here's a rack of beauties... I snapped the following photo during the filming of the popular Food Network show Cupcake Wars, recorded live at the America's Cup VIP hospitality area Club 45 on the waterfront in San Francisco.  The victorious team of two lady bakestresses on site had just won the battle to create most aesthetically pleasing execution of an "America's Cup(cake)" ... And they were goodies. Those Golden Gate Bridge spans adorning the tops are pure white chocolate sitting on blueberry frosting. Well done ladies.

America's Cupcake Wars. SF 2012

And one final photo before we go. My favorite thing to eat (and photograph) is oysters.
I'm not sure who decided that these grotesque mud-dwellers were edible, let alone that they were considered a delicacy, but whoever you are: Thank You! 
There is nothing like a platter of fresh oysters and drinks with good friends. Generally oysters aren't the best candidates for a sexy macro photo thanks to their somewhat disturbing vagina-like tendencies, but oyster presentation and ritual are always photogenic no matter where you enjoy them. And more often than not, once you pull out your camera for an oyster photo the rest of the table will follow suit. 

Escapism. San Francisco 2012

With that, I wish a belated Happy New Year to my friends far and wide.
Here's looking at you from a chilly February window in San Francisco.

Happy eating and telling everyone about it...


This particular blog entry would be sorely lacking if not for the continued inspiration and participation from the following supporting cast of dudes & dudettes. For a different online universe have a look at what my mates are up to...

Miss Flighty, my main squeeze and mixology superhero: Cocktails on The Fly
Carlos Perez, ace face and ace friend, style for miles: Mod Male
Serge, Gabs, Zelda, Iky & Elian aka French Boutik, the now sound of Paris: French Boutik
My brother Billy, Trader Joe's artist by day, photographer by night, incredibly awesome 24/7: Mister Big Idea 
Peep Show series on BBC, written by my mate Jesse Armstrong, largely inspired by a magical time in our lives.
Jess on twitter, always a good time: jessearmstrong1
My udder nutter from anudder mad mudder, Julius on twitter: trouteyes
Karen Finlay, hostess with the mo' stess, partner in crime and the twin sister I never had: 97 Things Blog
Jon Burchard, mod audiophile, top dude & Karen's better half: Like Dynamite To The Brain
Carrie Swing, mod as they come, makin' time, makin' trouble and makin' the goods: Carried Away
Gentry Lane, burlesquette and groovy gal around (many) towns: Gentry de Paris
Enid aka Froggy Boggler, undisputed queen of quality junk: FroggyBoggler
Baby Doe von Stroheim, an eagle eye for class, camp and culture: Devil-Ettes
Paula Wirth, professional foodtographer extraordinaire and creator of: Eat Drink Oakland
Kenji Kato, tech genius, future astronaut, part-time guardian angel: kenjikato
Le Duff, french sailing photojournalist & grand papa #twailor: duffcomm
Katy Davidson, a UK bird with a unique passion, expert in all things oyster: mangez moi oysters

Plouf Bistro - my favorite french spot in SF
Sodini's - my preferred little italian joint in SF
The ever-changing world of Doritos

you'll run into more of my pics & writing here:

1 comment:

  1. MOST EXCELLENT POST. I think you should consider a career in food photography... But your writing has a great mix of funny, snarky, and sweetly sentimental... You can tell how much you love your life and friends. Maybe as much as that burrito.

    Keep blogging, my friend. And don't buy anymore shrimp trays.