People often ask me why I’m a Redskins fan, and although I often ask myself that same question, the answer is really quite simple. When I met Dr. Fiance nearly eight years ago, she told me that she was a big football fan. I never really minded the sport, but I never really paid it much attention either. She immediately went to work on her campaign to get me to like football. I was a little meh about the whole thing, but then she divulged a key piece of information that for some reason I hadn’t put together before: watching football means that you get to sit in a bar on a Sunday afternoon and drink beer and eat hotwings to your heart’s content … all in the pursuit of rooting for your favorite football team. Beer! Hotwings! Huzzah!
Back in July, I undertook a daunting project for Feast magazine: documenting Mexican tiendas (grocery stores) and the taquerias that reside there. Why was it daunting? Well, these tiendas were located all over the metro area, and I discovered that while everyone was incredible to work with, there was significant language barrier to deal with. I found that it was tough to schedule appointments over the phone, so I had to do at least one, and in some cases several in-person visits to set up the photo shoots. It should be noted though, the fact that there isn’t a whole lot of English being spoken at these joints is a plus rather than a negative: rather, it speaks to the authenticity of the food that is prepared and served at these tiendas. In this day of Chi Chis, Taco Hell and all of the other chain restaurants, real Mexican food is savory, refreshing and simply amazing.
Those of us who live downtown are super excited about the new branch of the Pi chain of pizza restaurants that just opened up on Washington Avenue in St. Louis. Sure, it’s a chain but it’s a local chain and their pizza is kickass (albiet a touch pricey). I caught up with Pi co-founder Chris Sommers at the shiney new downtown location to photograph him for Feast magazine’s My Stuff column.
Recently I had the chance to meet local artisan Jermain Todd, who I photographed for Sauce magazine. Jermain owns Mwanzi, an eco-friendly design-build-supply firm. Among other things, Jermain makes really excellent furniture out of local wood, whether it’s reclaimed or trees he acquires from people around town who need to cut them down for whatever reason. You’ll be able to eat on some of his tables at the new Pi in the Mercantile Exchange downtown. I met up with Jermain at another small business, WunderWoods in St. Charles where he was going to pick up the wood for the Pi tables. Jermain is a cool guy, the type of guy you want making your furniture for you – the shoot was a lotta fun.
There is a lot of really excellent food in St. Louis, but with my work schedule I don’t get to eat out as much as I would like. The great thing about being a food photographer though is that you get exposed to all sorts of great food that you might not otherwise simply by shooting assignments. This is the case when I got a call before the holidays in December from the art director at St. Louis Magazine, asking me to shoot several of the dishes in their 50 Best Dishes in St. Louis feature. I got to check out seven restaurants in the St. Louis area, and only one of them was a place I’d been before. I love exploring new places, and the project was a lot of fun.
Food Photography Lighting Techniques
The brief for this project was simple: an overhead shot of each dish on a smooth, non-textured white surface with the goal of a studio-style shot on location at each individual restaurant. When you start to think about doing a series in this way, there are a number of factors that make this slightly more complicated than it sounds.
For starters, I was going to be photographing each dish in a different restaurant, so I couldn’t depend on having a smooth white surface handy to shoot on. This meant I had to bring the surface with me. So what surface would be best for something like this? Well, it needs to be inexpensive, durable and portable. In addition, since I like to get sloppy and spill some food on my surface while shooting it also has to be easy to clean. I ended up going with a piece of panel board from Home Depot at the bargain price of $12.97. This stuff is great. It is super durable, doesn’t stain or scuff, and is super cheap. I also use the same stuff for a slightly reflective floor surface when I do white seamless work.
Lighting and Equipment
The next challenge was lighting. Some of the restaurants had good windows and therefore good natural light,. But unfortunately it was December, and there isn’t much good light, and it was a dark and rainy week to boot. When possible I shot the dishes using natural light, but when natural light wasn’t available I substituted window light with a Canon 580Ex II speedlight and a large shoot through umbrella placed near the subject. For both natural light and artificial light I used both a large collapsable reflector along with a smaller white foamcore bounce card for fill.
Since I was only shooting seven of the fifty dishes, and since my shots would be paired with the work of other photographer who probably got the same brief as I did, I felt it was even more important for my shots to be consistent.
The first shoot in the series had great natural light. I used this one as a model for all of the other shots in the series. Based on that shot, I made sure that my key light came from the left in each shot, and from roughly the same angle. Since I was supplying my own surface and could shoot with either natural or artificial light, it didn’t really matter where in the restaurant I set up. By playing close attention to details, I was able to get that consistent studio-shot look at each location.
It was an awesome project to be part of. If you haven’t already, grab the latest copy of St. Louis Magazine for the lowdown on their choices for best dishes in St. Louis!
When people ask me what I like about St. Louis, almost always the first thing that I mention is the awesome loft that Dr. Fiance and I were able to buy here. In New York, we had approximately 450 square feet in the East Village (which was the largest apartment that we’d ever had in NYC). Now we have a space considerably larger than that, and a significant part of that extra space is dedicated to my studio. I don’t operate a commercial studio at home, but the space is large enough that I can do a full seamless backdrop setup. This came in very handy last month when Feast magazine asked me to make a portrait of the mayor of St. Louis, Francis G. Slay.
I’m not going to lie, I was a bit nervous about this assignment, although not because it was to photograph the mayor. I am not a stranger to photographing influential public figures. I have photographed some heavy hitters over the years, including the mayor of another major city: in 2008 I made a portrait of Rudy Giuliani while a staff photographer in New York City. He was running for president at the time and it was quite an experience to be sure. But that was in a hotel conference room, not in my home studio!
In the end, when the Mayor Slay arrived my professional experience kicked in and I managed not to make a fool of myself (I think). In truth it was just like any other shoot, and once I got started I was able to concentrate on getting the shots that I needed for the assignment. Like most public figures, the mayor was used to having his photograph taken, and was a confident and cooperative subject.
This was a great project to work on. I’m a big fan of the mayor, particularly his influence in the ongoing revitalization of downtown St. Louis. And interestingly, this project also tied in with my current focus on food and food culture because my photographs of Mayor Slay were used in Feast magazine as part of a feature called Tastemakers: Entrepreneurs Who Shape the Way You Eat. Great stuff!
Even though it hasn’t been super cold in St. Louis so far this winter, there have been a few chilly days. If you’re looking for some comfort food, take a trip to the Central West End to Dressel’s Public House. It’s a cozy pub (with a fireplace) that has some delicious cold weather food. In the evening, check out the second floor bar which is our favorite place to hang out.
Below are some outtakes from an assignment I photographed at Dressel’s for Sauce magazine last month. They have this amazing deconstructed Shephard’s Pie that is served in a skillet which you’ve got to try. Delicious and beautiful.
Last month I was given an assignment to photograph Blood & Sand for Feast Magazine. Unlike other speakeasy-style bars in St. Louis, you don’t enter this one through a back door in an alley by the dumpsters. Tucked away on a side street off of Washington Avenue in downtown St. Louis is a small set of stairs which leads to a classy wood and glass revolving door. A small silver plate which says Blood & Sand is the only exterior adornment. Despite the fact that it is easy to find, the occasionally seedy atmosphere of it’s location adds the necessary clandestine feel.
Through the revolving doors you go, and enter a surprisingly large bar area separated from an even larger dining room area by hanging antique windows (a design element I aspire for my own loft). The feel of this joint is definitely that of a mixture of antique and modern elegance and style. And that is kind of the point. Blood and Sand is meant to make you feel like you’re in a private club, and indeed, you are. A monthly membership fee is required to eat and drink at Blood & Sand, currently a modest $15 per month.
Why member’s only? The idea is to give each and every customer a personalized experience and to develop a relationship with everyone who patronizes the establishment. From the Blood & Sand website: “We are members-only for this reason: we are deeply committed to providing unparalleled service and an extraordinary dining and drinking experience. The meaningful relationships we create with our members and their guests are the source of our inspiration.”
Behind the bar you’ll find dozens of varied and interesting glassware, may of them one-of-a-kind. You’ll also see a wide variety of liquors, bitters, tinctures, simple syrups and garnishes that mixologist T.J. Vytlacil uses to create custom cocktails. I’m a man of simple tastes myself (give me some Irish whiskey on the rocks if you want to make me happy) so I tend to gravitate towards the classics like the old-fashioned and the Manhattan. But whether you are plain jane imbiber or a bit more adventurous, T.J. will find the perfect cocktail for you
I didn’t get a chance to try the food that I photographed (above) but I’ve been back in a social capacity several times and grabbed some drinks and food with several of my friends. Chef Chris Bork has developed a great menu of small dishes, and at this point I think we’ve at tried most of the menu. The hand made tater tots are a must have, and then I have one word for you: sweatbreads. If they have sweatbreads on the menue when you visit Blood & Sand: get the sweatbreads. And of course the cocktails are intense, interesting and inventive. Bottoms up!
A few days before the Cardinals won the World Series, I was on assignment in Clayton at Mad Tomato photographing (among other things) their fabulous Salsiccia pizza for Sauce magazine. I am a huge pizza fan and have been making it at home for quite some time now. My version of a salsiccia pizza is pretty damn tasty but I don’t have a 700 degree oven to bake it in. And of course I learned the most valuable pizza lesson ever: much like bacon, an egg on top makes almost everything better.
Yes. In addition to the delicious crust, sauce, sausage and cheese, they break an egg onto the middle of the pizza right before it goes into the oven. I can’t believe I’ve never done this before, but it makes delicious sense. Pizza is delicious, eggs are delicious, so it should be no surprise that it is not only beautiful but rich and decadent and tasty as well. Yum.
Mad Tomato has a lot of other great dishes as well, so I’m sure it’s going to be a regular stop for us (although we aren’t in Clayton very often). For more photos and information, read the full review of Mad Tomato from Sauce Magazine