This Joy Will Not Be Thwarted
I used to love buying and wearing nice clothing, but no more - that passion has found an outlet that better suits our life.
I used to dress well.
At the peak of my sartorial splendor, when I was state government editor at the St. Paul Pioneer Press, my closet was full of beautiful clothes. I was in my late 30s and in great shape, having taken up distance running. And I had discovered the Mall of America, which I wanted to hate, but with a Nordstrom, Bloomingdale’s and Macy's there, I could go shopping any time and enjoy piecing together great outfits that complemented my sometimes challenging figure.
I even had several ballgowns in my closet, a function of having attended inaugural balls for my newspaper work and high school proms when I was married to a school teacher in Virginia. Never ones to let good clothing go to waste, Hank and I once threw a formal party in St. Paul - all the usual drunkery, only in beautiful clothes. So fun!
What changed? Becoming a college professor in 2006 mothballed vast portions of my wardrobe, because backpacks are pretty hard on $300 Jones New York jackets. When I switched to working full time in the hunting industry, logo apparel became my daily uniform. In the background, my weight was increasing for much of this time, which really puts a damper on clothes shopping. Now, if I’m spending big money on clothing, you can be sure it's for hunting.
I’ve often marveled at the complete erasure of the joy I used to take in shopping for, and dressing from, a quality wardrobe. These days I’d rather get my teeth cleaned than go clothes shopping.
But it turns out it wasn’t erased at all - it just transferred to my food photography.
I came to this realization just last week, when I polished off the final stage of reorganizing my photo props collection. It had grown into a disorganized heap, making it hard to see all my options, like when a cluttered dresser drawer hides your favorite T-shirt for months.
Food photography requires a vast and varied collection of plates, bowls, silverware, and canvases on which to compose them - the things that pass for “tables" and “tablecloths” in my photos. My collection has been growing constantly since 2008, when I took my first (ghastly) food photos for Hank.
It took a while to learn the rules. Plates, napkins and tablecloth fabric that appealed to me in the store did not always play well with the food I was photographing. Big, dominant patterns and colors are a distraction. Dinner plates are a disaster - way too big, so you have to overstuff the plate, which looks gross, kind of like dinner at Outback.
To The Bone is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support our work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
For a while I tried to do the kind of heavily propped food photography that was in vogue when Hank started Hunter Angler Gardener Cook - lush tablescapes that looked like Crate & Barrel ads. It’s just not my style. Too girly. It always came out looking deeply inauthentic to me.
I've since learned that all good food photography has settings that are super fake and often absurd. I've embraced it. I do not intend for my photos to look like real place settings; I just want them to be beautiful to me, and ideally riveting to Hank's readers.
The more food photography I did, the more I knew what I needed, and shopping for those pieces became a tax-deductible treasure hunt, often with my sister Katrina, that took me regularly through antique stores, thrift stores, fabric stores, housewares shops and even junkyards. This, I’ve realized only now, was my new clothes shopping.
My real joy is in assembling a collection of colors, textures and moods that complement whatever Hank's cooking that day. Getting ready for a shoot is the same exercise in zen as assembling an outfit from a well supplied closet.
On Wednesday, Hank took advantage of the lowest tide of the year to go clamming. On Thursday, he announced he was making Japanese clam soup. I had my marching orders!
Prep started with finding the right bowls, which turned out to be a set I’ve had for at least a decade, but never used.
Next came a search through my chopsticks collection to find a set that complemented the bowls.
Finally, it was time to choose the “table.” For this I parked a chair in the middle of my fabric and surface collection and looked around, waiting for the right piece to announce itself.
I sensed that rust would complement the reddish rim of the bowls. I have a fabulous collection of rusty things, an aesthetic I apparently inherited from my artist mother, who, before dementia set in, loved rusty metal, broken windshield glass and bones. I chose a square of rusty corrugated metal I'd picked up at a junkyard, or maybe from my late father's assemblage of rusty junk he couldn’t bear to part with.
But I also wanted to incorporate sand as a nod to the clams' former home, which I can do because Katrina had collected a bunch of beach sand for me and organized it by size and/or color. I pulled out my favorite - a Ziploc full of heavy sand, mostly dark, but full of glass fragments - then sprinkled it onto the metal and zshushed it around until it pleased me.
Now it was time for Hank to plate the dish, which is his job 99% of the time, and see how it came out. Even when the test shot looks good, you don’t know whether it’s going to work until dinner is served. But you're committed - there's no time for a set change, because meats will dry and sauces will congeal in minutes.
In this case, it all worked, creating a background of muted colors and interesting textures that complemented the soup, instead of competing for attention.
Doing this is actually more fun than dressing up. When it’s all over, the food goes into our bellies, and all the props go back into their places, but the image lives forever, soon to be seen and enjoyed by hundreds of thousands of people looking for new ways to cook whatever's in their refrigerators. That’s more than I can say for the outfits I used to wear.
My sartorial bent lives on, in new clothing.
Ask me anything about my food photography by leaving a comment below. I’m not secretive about any of it!