Still Life With Eggplant

Working with raw foods can be an interesting task, mainly because you need to create drama and interest without having a fully cooked dish to work with. When shooting raw foods or ingredients it is particularly important to start with really beautiful subjects. As I mentioned in my last post about the bitter melon, I have been working on a series of images that focus on exactly that: really beautiful food. Things to remember when designing a food photograph: color, light, composition, and drama. Today’s image is a grafitti eggplant with dramatic lighting.

Personal Projects and A Bitter Melon

How many posts do you think I can possibly start with some variation of the phrase “It’s been a busy month and I haven’t had time to work on the blog”? Apparently a lot. The good news (for me anyway) is that the reason posting has been so light lately has been because of the a whole lotta work which I hope to be able to share shortly. The other thing that has been taking up a lot of time for me is several personal projects.

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To Crop or Not to Crop

Cropping in photography is an important tool that can be used to change the meaning of a photograph, by drawing the viewer’s attention to a different part of the image than in the un-cropped version. Digital photography has made cropping easy as pie. Heck, these days, you can even crop your photos on your cell phone in seconds. The question is, should a professional photographer crop his photos or not?

Shortly after I first starting shooting professionally, I was invited to attend a critique session with a small group of fellow photographers in New York City. A friend of mine hosted the gathering his apartment – it was a casual affair with some beers and whiskey and laughter. I was feeling very cool to be hanging out with photographers – I’d only been shooting for money for a year or so and was feeling quite proud to consider myself a peer to all of these cool people. Photographers are inherently cool, right? Right?

These cool photographers were all either photo-journalists, art photographers or both. We viewed slide-shows of each of our work – the photographic styles ranged the gamut from truly artsy-fartsy photography and hard-hitting journalism on one end of the scale to my more commercial work on the other.

At one point one of the most successful photojournalists at the event declared that she never crops an image and that a true photographer captures an image in the frame or not at all. “Anyone who crops their photographs is a hack”, she said, “because they don’t really see what they are photographing.”

I remember getting very quiet at that point. Clearly I could not admit that I was cropping nearly 100% of all of my images. I was spending a lot of time on post-production in fact, cropping and tweaking my images until they were perfect. The idea of delivering a no-cropped photograph to a client seemed … well … crazy. Holy crap. What if all these cool people found out I cropped? Would they think I was a hack? Never mind that even to this day, the question of whether I’m a hack or not is an almost daily consideration. I now know that comes with the territory of being a photographer. But did I need to be so hard on myself? For the almighty sin of cropping?

Back then I relied on all of the advice I could get (and still do) from other photographers and hearing a statement like that from a fellow photographer threw me through a loop. It is always tough to be told that you’re doing something wrong, particularly by someone who you have just met and want to impress. The thing is, I wasn’t even sure if it was wrong, but that didn’t make me feel any better. I was too inexperienced to question the seasoned photographer’s opinion. I left that critique feeling like dirt, because despite my ability to produce good images, in my mind they were somehow tainted by my use of post-production.

These days I have become a lot more philosophical about the whole issue: the bottom line is that if I need to crop an image to sell it to an editor or client … I’m gonna crop that image. This is the essence of being a commercial photographer: deliver the image that the client has paid you to make, on-time and on-budget. End of story.

When I started thinking about cropping recently, I realized something interesting about my work. Without any real conscious thought about it, I almost never crop. When I do it is usually small tweaks to straighten out an the skyline in a portrait or to clip out an unsightly crumb or piece of flatware that has sneaked into the corner of a food shot. Don’t get me wrong though, the reason I don’t crop isn’t one of artistic purity of thought or some other such nonsense. The simple fact is that over time I have become better at seeing the shot that I want to make without having to go back and crop it later.

The ironic thing is that I think that I got to this point BECAUSE of all of the cropping that I did as a beginner. I taught myself how to see a better image by playing around with the photographs I made, and as time went on, I was able to get closer and closer to framing the image correctly in-camera. I would also go so far as to say that when I do find myself spending a lot of time cropping an image or a series of images it is because I wasn’t as successful capturing the subject as I would have liked to be, and am just trying to make a the proverbial silk purse out of a sow’s ear. When this happens I need to be aware of it and need to spend some time figuring out how to do better the next time around.

If you feel an image needs to be cropped, go ahead and crop it. There is no shame in trying to publish the best image possible. You will not get kicked out of the photography club for cropping (anyone who tells you that you are doing something “wrong” with photography is not thinking clearly). I personally find that if I can make the image I want to make in-camera it means less time at my computer working on post-production and more time behind the lens.

Just remember that if you are cropping every single image you’re shooting, then perhaps you are using it as a bit of a crutch to get through. Spend some time studying the images you’ve cropped and see if you can figure out how you might make the same photo without cropping the next time. At the very least it will save you some time in post.

The bottom line, however, is that the only thing that matters is that final image, and it doesn’t really matter how you get there.

The Other Side of the Camera

As a professional photog, it is a rare occasion when you are the subject rather than the photographer, and it can be a bit disconcerting to be on the other side of the camera. Last week, my friend and fellow photographer Corey Woodruff lugged his gear over to my studio to photograph me as part of his Shoot The Shooter series.


Photograph by Corey Woodruff

Corey is a talented photographer with a completely different style than my own. In addition to food and music photography, Corey also shoots interesting portraits. His work features strong, rich colors and a quirky sensibility which lends itself to editorial portraiture. He has photographed a number of other photographers for his project and I was flattered to be a part of it.

Corey wanted to rif on the fact that I split my professional work between food photography and corporate photography and had me dress in a suit and tie and the we experimented with several food-related scenarios. Also I think he wanted to see how long he could get me to hold an apple in my mouth.


Photograph by Corey Woodruff

Corey also played off of the concept behind my food blog Shoot to Cook. I started the food blog last year as a way to teach myself how to be a better cook, so Corey took the concept of the bachelor learning how to cook and ran with it. Miller High Life really is the champagne of beers you know.


Photographs by Corey Woodruff

Check out more of Corey’s work at coreywoodruff.com.

On Assignment: Dvin for Sauce Magazine

I recently had the pleasure of photographing Dvin restaurant in Webster Groves, St. Louis. Dvin is a tiny family restaurant run by the mother/daughter team: mom cooks and daughter serves. The interior really feels like you’re having dinner in a Ukranian grandmother’s living room filled with Eastern European tsotchkes and knick-knacks. The exterior windows are obscured with lace and houseplants giving the place a closed appearance even when it’s open. It was definitely a challenge to photograph but I had a blast doing it. Read the Sauce review of Dvin then get out there and support a great family restaurant.

You can find the latest issue at Sauce at your newstand in St. Louis. If you’re not in the St. Louis area you can also get a subscription on their website, either in hardcopy or electronic.

On Assignment: Sauce Magazine – July 2011

As I mentioned in my previous post, I did some work for Sauce Magazine, a culinary magazine here in St. Louis. While the majority of my work these days is corporate, I have been exploring food culture and photography over at my blog Shoot To Cook, and it is always exciting to get food assignments.

My assignments for the July Issue included The Boat House in Forest Park, a recipe ingredient’s shot, and the vegan banh mih at Sweet Art. If you haven’t been to Sweet Art you should totally check it out, and I have to say that the banh mi tastes just as good as it looks. I am a dedicated carnivore, but I have to admit that it is a fantastic sandwich and shouldn’t be missed.

You can find the latest issue at Sauce at your newstand in St. Louis. If you’re not in the St. Louis area you can also get a subscription on their website, either in hardcopy or electronic.

Going Farther

There is nothing more satisfying than making a photograph that you are really excited about. When I make a shot that really inspires me, I usually make a hardcopy print, and keep going back to it over and over again to relive the excitement. Sometimes I even put the hardcopy on my bed side table so I can look at it again in the morning when I wake up. This excitement fades however, usually much quicker than I would like, and is followed by a kind of creative depression.

A couple of days ago I made some images for my food blog that I was very pleased with. I felt that I had made a big step forward in the food work that I have been shooting lately. I was proud of the care and attention to detail I’d taken, the new direction I was taking my photography. That feeling of pride lasted until I woke up the next morning and decided the images were terrible, uninspired and worthless. This, of course, is nonsense. I should still be proud of the photographs, because they are a big step forward in both my technical skill and in my processes. They are images I should be proud of. Yet the aftermath of creative success is usually followed by a low point where I think everything that I do sucks. Then I stare out the window and wonder how could I be so stupid to consider a career in photography at all. I’ve been shooting professionally for many years now, and this happens on a regular basis.

I had a conversation about this with a friend who is a fine artist, and he admitted that this often happens to him too: he loves his work as soon as it is done, and then later (in a day, in a week, in five minutes) when that high of creating something wonderful starts to wear off, he immediately start picking apart the work and finding the flaws. Essentially, he loves his work up until the point that it is finished, and then he starts to hate it, and to want to do better.

The only true way to combat this post-creative depression is to figure out how to go farther. Ira Glass from This American Life did a piece a while back on creativity and one quote in particular has been making the rounds on the interwebs for quite some time. He said:

All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple of years you make stuff, it’s just NOT THAT GOOD. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your TASTE, the thing that got you into the game is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase; they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know that it’s normal and the most important thing you can do is DO A LOT OF WORK. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you finish one piece. It’s only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take a while. It’s NORMAL to take awhile. You just gotta fight your way through.” – Ira Glass

It really is an insightful sentiment. I like to think that I will never truly be out of the phase that Ira is talking about, because I never want to stop improving. I feel like every single photograph that I make, or at least every single shoot that I get needs to be better than the last one. I need to go father and to keep building. This is why the photograph I made yesterday isn’t going to be as satisfying as the photograph I’m going to make tomorrow. Each shot that I make teaches me something, even if that “something” is nearly imperceptible – it will show up in my photographs. Does this mean I will never make bad photographs? Certainly not. There is no way around making bad photographs, because the process of making those bad photographs is the process you go through to make the good ones.

The photographs I made earlier in the week? They are pretty good. I have every right to be proud of them, and in time I will. The reality is though, that they are not as good as the photographs I’m going to make tomorrow, and they are certainly not as good as the photographs that I’m going to make next year, or the year after that. Learning how to do more, be better and to go farther is what this profession is all about.

COLOR Magazine Bronze Award

I was at my favorite bookstore, Left Bank Books today and much to my surprise I found that the latest issue of COLOR Magazine was already on the shelves (as of this writing they have not updated their website to the current issue). I have been eagerly awaiting the publication of their most recent special issue because I was lucky enough to be chosen for a Bronze award which is featured in this issue! The image that was chosen for the award was from a personal project called Vegetation that I have been working on over the years.

While corporate and commercial photography is the mainstay of my business, I do a lot of personal work on the side (including my food blog Shoot To Cook). While the work that I do on my own is very different from my commercial work, I find that doing personal projects really helps to add depth to the commercial work. Spending time focusing on color and abstraction is a great creative outlet for me as well.

I have always had a fascination with the color and beauty which can be found in vegetation, specifically in the every day flora that we come across every day. One of the plants that I find to be absolutely gorgeous is the every day cabbage. Not only do I like to eat cabbage but the layered leaves and variety of colors are simply amazing. The image that was chosen by COLOR was one of the first cabbage shots I made in my father’s garden in Pennsylvania. It was late in the season and this particular cabbage was one that was left in the garden past the frost.

Below is the image that was awarded the Bronze Award by COLOR Magazine as well as a slideshow of the entire Vegetation Series (which is still a work in progress). In addition to my photograph there is some really amazing work in the issue so I would urge you to stop by your local bookstore and pick up a copy.

COLOR Magazine Bronze Award: Cabbage #2

Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, 2008. Photograph by Jonathan Gayman

Photo by St. Louis Photographer Jonathan Gayman

Companion Bakery at Niche Food Blogger Event

I was recently invited to attend an event at Niche along with other local bloggers and food writers. Sponsored by Companion the event was hosted by Josh Allen of Companion and Chef Gerard Craft of Niche, a Food & Wine Best New Chef in 2008 and a two-time James Beard Finalist. Companion’s bread is served in more than 100 local restaurants and grocery stores and has cafes in Clayton and Ladue. You can read a full description of the event on my food blog.

Click on an image to view the gallery. Use the arrow keys to toggle through the images.

City Seeds St. Louis

I went out for a walk one evening, ostensibly to explore the neighborhood and work on some urban decay photography. In Saint Louis, there is certainly enough urban decay to go around. I’m still a new resident, so I wasn’t sure exactly where to go first. My inclination was to head north, where the abandoned warehouses start appearing a few blocks off of the newly gentrified Washington Avenue. However, to be honest, after a few conversations over the weekend about crime, I haven’t worked up the courage to go to far off the beaten path with my equipment by myself. So I headed west along Pine, intending to spend some time taking pictures of the dozens upon dozens of unused parking meters all over the city.

Next to the highway on-ramp, squeezed in next to a hotel in one of the many empty lots in the area I stumbled across City Seeds, a St. Louis non-profit project with the goal of increasing “food security in St. Louis” by providing “mentorship, supervision, and training twice a week.”

It certainly is an interesting project, there in the middle of the urban landscape, and given the number of signs warning people not to steal food, I was a little concerned about being chased off. To be honest tough, there wasn’t a lot of ready to eat food, so either it had already been stolen, legitimately harvested, or the garden wasn’t really producing much. Looked like there were a lot of leeks and potatoes approaching maturity, so maybe all of the earlier veggies had already been picked.

I was able to spend some time photographing the site and it was a really neat experience. I’m all about urban gardens – if I had some grass or a green roof I would certainly have one. Makes a lot of sense both environmentally and economically. Really cool to see that sort of thing locally here in St. Louis. Below are some of the images from my excursion of City Seeds as well as the surrounding area.