Boston University's International Food Styling and Photography Conference Wrap-up
8 Jun 2007

Leaving Boston on Monday evening, I felt like I had just spent 4 days pouring over my favorite foodie magazines... I was awe-struck, overly full of ideas, and antsy to start getting back into the kitchen and putting even just a little of what I had learned to use. My head still feels a bit like an over-stuffed sausage, but it seems time to start to give you a taste of what went on at the conference.

My personal adventure started a bit earlier than the conference because I am a spaz, and apparently can't read a schedule. The conference started on Friday, and I knew that I really was not capable of sitting through an afternoon of talks after taking a red-eye flight, so I booked myself on the Wednesday night redeye instead, expecting to have the Thursday to recover before the workshops began. Silly me... the only thing happening on Friday was registration, something that I could have done half asleep. Thankfully, Bea and P were incredibly kind with my extra imposition, and I got to hang with Bea as she whipped up some of her famous tarts. All I can say is that as great as they look on her blog, they even taste better. Bea and I also got to go do some prop shopping, starting at a fabric store, where we both picked out several new and fabulous textures and colors for backdrops and linens. After my recent trip to LA, and a suitcase bulging with goods I got from Surfas, I knew that I'd better keep my finds to fabrics that would pack well. Saturday morning, we walked into quite a crowded room of food stylists and photographers milling around over their coffee and pastries, starting to do some chatting around. With over 200 attendees, there was networking going on all over the place. While I went to grab a cup of coffee myself, Bea managed to bump into Nika, who was attending the conference as well, so all "us bloggers" sat together for the first talk. After a brief welcome by BU, a panel of food photographers and stylists from Greece, Mexico and Australia, spoke about the trades in their own countries covering current styles and legal requirements, both of which vary greatly from place to place. In Greece, for example, there is no obligation to use the actual products, even in advertising. Australians, on the other hand, are required to use 100% actual product for everything. Perhaps that requirement makes them work harder to achieve great looking photos, or perhaps I just really prefer real, natural looking food... but I found it ironic that the fake stuff that is used to supposedly make the food look more perfect often makes the photos look less appealing to me. From there, we had to make choices about what talks to attend. Man, do I hate choices. I wish that I could have sat in on every single talk! But, from those I had to choose from, I had signed up for the Master Class on Styling Chocolate, taught by Melanie Dubberley, a food stylist who specializes in chocolate.

The class covered many chocolate basics such as tempering, and taught how to make a quick ganache as well as making chocolate garnishes like baby curls and cigarettes. Perhaps more importantly, we learned that it's critical to manage the temperature of the room whenever you are working with chocolate. The room we were in, unfortunately for Melanie, was about 80F. So she had quite a chore in demonstrating the basics... the room really needed to be between 68F and 72F. After the Chocolate class, I decided to attend the session with a group of editorial stylists and photographers from Gourmet magazine. Now, I have to give some background here on a personal prejudice of mine for a sec. I subscribe to way, way too many food magazines. And I've been trying to come up with which ones I'm cutting out, and I hate to say it, but Gourmet was on the chopping block. I get kind of hot and cold on it, particularly on the photography which often seems over-saturated to me. Well, after this talk, I'll tell you, I absolutely can't do it. I LOVED the Gourmet editorial staff. In fact, it was probably my favorite session of the bunch, and that's saying something because I love a lot of the sessions I attended. But the staff from Gourmet simply blew me away. They actually seemed to LIKE each other! And, they were funny. I mean really funny. From stories about how they get letters about where the recipes for some side dish they've plopped on a plate as background filler, to tales of creating a Brazilian beach scene on the shores of New Jersey to tales of "extreme styling" and getting stranded on a hilltop after a shoot and waiting for hours, with no cell reception wondering if anyone was going to come and pick up the whole film crew. Maggie Ruggiero, one of the extreme stylists, perhaps explained the chaos of the environment best in her talk when she talked about the key skill she looks for on resumes, Telepathy. "I'll just say 'caramel sauce', and my assistant will make it appear, in the right shade and the right thickness. That's what I want in an assistant." The other thing I learned about Gourmet is that while they have stylists, everything you see is real and edible. The stylists work incredibly hard to make the images look like something that could actually come out of the home kitchen. Of course, now that I've said the Gourmet class was my favorite, I have to go talk about another incredible session... this time, more focused on photography and image after image of some of the most gorgeous work you'll find out there these days. Three women food photographers, all with very different styles and businesses were on this panel and talked about their work, how they got started, and where they are going. First up was Francine Zaslow, a Boston based photographer whose work borders on fine art, and is highly influenced by sculpture and the human form. Next, was Beth Galton, who I had the lucky pleasure of having lunch with prior to the session. Beth is a commercial photographer in New York, and did an amazing job of walking through her shots and describing some of the challenges of shooting food, like how to get translucency through a Jello pie or how she came upon inspiration for her juxtaposed images in her portfolio. Finally, a photographer whose work you've almost certainly seen, Deborah Jones gave an amazing run through of her work, complete with examples of photos that might have been considered good enough, but that she continued to work on until they were great. In case her name isn't ringing a bell, she's the powerhouse behind cookbooks like Happy in the Kitchen, Michael Chiarello's Casual Cooking and The French Laundry Cookbook. It was difficult not to leave the day completely awestruck. How could the next day top that? How about starting off with a talk on the science of food presented by Harold McGee and Shirley Corriher? Shirley, with bucket loads of Southern charm and wit, started off by sharing a few helpful hints like lemon juice on cooked green vegetables will make them yucky army green, so use lemon zest instead if you want to preserve the color. Her book, Cookwise, is full of those kinds of incredibly useful, but little known, words of wisdom.

McGee then went on to talk about another kind of science in food, the so-called Molecular Gastronomy movement of restaurants like El Bulli, Alinea, Moto and The Fat Duck. He walked through several experimental dishes, including the Sounds of the Sea, complete with edible sand, iPod with beach sounds, and sea-scented air wafting through the dining room on cue. Ultimately, he concluded that these experiences are more performance art than they are actual meals... more of a Dali painting of a garden rather than a satisfying stroll through the blooming peonies and dahlias... and even after 26 courses, it's likely that you might find yourself craving a burger. Next was a walk through of a fast food restaurant photo shoot, from the view of a marketing director and food stylist. Much emphasis was placed on getting the right communication at the right time to avoid costly delays and mistakes during the actual shoot. Food stylist Carol Peterson has been styling since before it was called food styling, and shared some sage advice for those managing these kinds of huge projects, from making sure that the kitchen truck (yes, there are full trucks with stoves and counters and refrigerators just for styling!) has everything equipped and is parked as close to the set as possible to carefully weighing each ingredient to ensure it matches the actual consumer product. It was enough to convince me that I love working with the small and medium sizes businesses out there, and can't imagine ever taking on those types of clients. Over lunch, Bea, Nika and I had a chance to chat with several other stylists, including a couple of the presenters. At one point, they asked what we did, and we all, somewhat awkwardly said "food blogging." It's not that we felt bad about our blogs, but in a room full of professionals who have been at it for 20 some-odd years, none of us felt quite confident in our own, self-taught skills. After a few minutes though, all those concerns fell away, as they all started grilling us on food blogs, and how to go about getting one, and whose they should be reading. At one point, as Bea was telling a story about her recent trip to New Zealand, one of the stylist's, Debbie Wahl, eyes lit up and she exclaimed "Oh! You are Bea! Of La Tartine Gourmand! I love your blog!!!" We were all having such a great time, and the stylists were all jotting down notes as we pointed them to this and that blog, we were almost late to our next talk. Delores Custer and James Scherzi led a great discussion on what makes a great photo. James, a photographer and Delores, a stylist and styling instructor, walked through photo after photo with stories, often opening it up to the audience to decide which was the better photo... not surprisingly, there was rarely complete agreement, as style is such a subjective thing. A great photo is one that reaches the audience and appeals to them, so it's absolutely critical to understand who you are trying to reach with your images.

Delores also did a brilliant walk through of styling through the ages, from the old days of random props and food that looked like a dog had lost it's lunch, to the over-styled hey-day of the 80s and its black plates, to the more modern natural, do-able look. It was about at this session that I didn't think my brain could hold any more. But, we weren't done yet... Cincinnati Ohio based photographer Teri Campbell gave a fascinating talk on lighting techniques for photographers after a quick run through of his amazing 10,000 food studio and some history of how he got started in photography and his transition from film to digital. Although Teri shoots almost all controlled studio lighting, he's built his studio to mimic the effects of natural light, using big, bent foam core sheets to bounce the light back onto the set, and glass bottles and other organic devices to bend and shape the light. His work is light, airy, rich and playful. And, if you can't seem to locate me in Seattle, you might just find me moving in to his studio that has in addition to a two story prop room, a room with a pool table, a work out room, and a stunning kitchen. My head really was about to explode at this point. Bea and I left the conference that day almost unable to talk, but somewhere between leaving the conference and dinner, we managed to revive ourselves some and meet at a great little cafe called Upstairs on the Square in Harvard Square, before crashing for the night. The last day of the conference (really, are you still reading! I'm impressed!), opened with Darra Goldstein, a professor at Williams College, also the editor of Gastronomica. I'm not sure whose brilliant idea it was, but I loved how this talk helped shake things up with different ideas on food images. Goldstein's view is that yes, it's great to have all the mouthwatering, luscious food porn out there to tempt us to cook or buy, but food isn't just about that. It's about grittier, dirtier things too... emotions that are strong and sometimes unsettling. And Gastronomica's goal is to bring that level of art and history to the food publishing world. Finally, to wrap up the conference, John Carafoli (food stylist and conference organizer), Lisa Golden Schroeder (food stylist and conference organizer), Eugene Mopsik (Executive Director of ASMP), Neil Martin (Art Director), and Carolyn Dowd (an art buyer for Hill Holliday) held a panel on the business side of food images, from working with art directors on communication to how to think about copyrights, cancellation fees and general billing for stylists. And with that, a few thanks to the hosts, the show was over, and Bea and I dashed out in the rain to get to the car, ending up perfectly drenched in the downpour by the time we made it there. After a quick lunch at High Rise, it was time to head to the airport and back home. I am hoping that this conference will become an annual thing... if so, you will definitely find me at the next one! Here were a few more of the random notes that I jotted down along the way:

Styling trends - the horizon line is making a comeback. After a few years of the infinite background created by a sweep, magazines are starting to add horizon lines back into the shots, often with very colorful "walls" as backgrounds. In fact, stronger colors, in general are coming back, although you'll still see lots of pastels and white on white. Vintage props are still popular, but typically only one or two props will be in a shot. Props and linens are there to provide texture.

When plating, single servings work best, rather than whole dishes. Also, try round dishes stacked on square/rectangular shapes or square dishes stacked on round plates. Also, when you think about colors in a shot, try a secondary contrasting color as the accent color:
  • Shades of green go with shades of red
  • Shades of orange go with shades of blue
  • Shades of purple go with shades of yellow
Shoot wider than you think you should. You can always crop down to the tighter shot, but it's hard to add room back to a photo if you need it for headline placement. Also, for publishing, the center 3rd of the frame should be the main focal point, to allow for the addition of text. When asked how they got started in food photography or styling, almost ALL of the speakers said "They were in the right place at the right time." They were also completely humble about their work, admitting that most of their great shots were happy accidents. During a professional photo shoot, here's the scale of photo quality:
  • It's not awful
  • Could be worse
  • Actually, it's not too bad
  • It is what it is
  • It doesn't get any better than that
  • We'll fix it in post
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