Gabriela Herman’s Career-Changing Organic Farm Project

November 2, 2015

By David Walker

Seven years in the making, Gabriela Herman’s personal project about the organic farm of a family friend features prominently in The Beetlebung Farm Cookbook: A Year of Cooking on Martha’s Vineyard. Since the book’s release in June, Herman’s photographs have also appeared in stories promoting the cookbook in Bon Appétit, T Magazine and Saveur.

The Beetlebung Farm project is one of two long-term personal projects that have come to fruition for Herman at about the same time. (The other, also widely published, is called “The Kids.” It is a collection of portraits and interviews of young adults who were raised by one or more gay parents.)

Herman says she started the Beetlebung Farm project in 2008 as a collaboration with her childhood friend, chef and farmer Chris Fischer. Fischer’s family owns the farm, and he was raised there. He had recently moved home to Martha’s Vineyard to take over the running of the farm.

Around the same time, Herman had moved back to the U.S. after living in Brazil, and was shooting small editorial assignments for publications such as Time Out New York. “I only shot people. I loved the interaction between photographer and subject, and I had never shot food or farming,” explains Herman.

Her family had summered on Martha’s Vineyard, and she re-connected with Fischer, who had been all over the world working as a chef.  “I started taking pictures of what he was doing [around the farm], purely for fun,” Herman says. “In the beginning I simply documented everything because I just found it so fascinating.”

The first few summers—from 2008 through 2010, Herman shot sporadically. She documented the planting and the harvesting. She says the project picked up momentum around 2011, when Fischer started cooking and serving ever-more elaborate multi-course dinners for his friends and neighbors in the Beetlebung Farm greenhouse.

“Every day I was shooting around the farm, shooting the dinners and the slaughtering. I enjoyed exploring it all photographically,” Herman says. “I would just shoot and shoot.”

Herman was feeling her way, figuring out a style and approach that worked for her. She started with one DSLR body and one lens—a 24-70 mm—and eventually shot with a second camera, equipped with a 50 mm f/1.4 lens. “I never once had a macro lens. Shooting food, most people would say that’s the first lens they go to,” Herman says.

She also shot outdoors “98 percent of the time,” relying on natural light and, she adds, “I was interested in shooting the food in a way that’s not styled.”

After each day of shooting, she showed an edit of the day’s take to Fischer. “He’d look at the pictures and say, ‘Let’s do more of this, let’s do more of that.’ It was really collaborative,” Herman says. At the end of the summer of 2011, she put together a PDF of about 25 images, and sent it to friends and acquaintances on Martha’s Vineyard.

“That got forwarded to someone at Martha Stewart Living,” she says. She was in California when she got a call from then-photo director Jennifer Miller, who wanted to know if Herman could get to Maine the next day for a three-day assignment to photograph a renowned pomologist at his apple orchard.

“I booked a redeye. It was just me and my camera, on this big feature assignment that was thrilling and amazing. To this day, it is one of my favorite features,” Herman says.

A couple of months later, Herman was at the offices of Martha Stewart, showing a box of prints from her Beetlebung Farm project. The magazine published a portfolio of the images with a feature story about Chris Fischer in 2012.

Other clients began calling with similar assignments. “I like to joke that my beat is shooting hot farmers,” she says. Herman continued documenting Beetlebung Farm between assignments. She also took on a project with Ben Sargent, another Martha’s Vineyard friend, to produce a seafood cookbook called The Catch: Sea-to-Table Recipes, Stories & Secrets.

“That project was also in the style of how I was working with Chris,” says Herman, explaining that Sargent had a clam shack on Long Island. She traveled with him to New England, the South, and Puerto Rico to shoot photographs for his book.

Inspired by the success of The Catch, Herman and Fischer decided to pitch a cookbook featuring Fischer’s recipes from his greenhouse dinners, and Herman’s images of Beetlebung Farm. “We pitched it as a year of seasonal cooking,” Herman says. “We put together a proposal, some sample chapters, and a montage of images.”

They showed it to the literary agent who had handled Sargent’s book. He liked the Beetlebung Farm cookbook idea, and shopped it around. Little, Brown offered a contract.

“We had years of material to sort though,” Herman says. By that time, she had plenty of images of the farm, its operations, and the organic farming lifestyle. “We really started focusing on the final recipes and shooting the plated dishes,” Herman says.

At that point, it became Fischer’s project. “It was a realization that this was no longer a 50-50 collaboration, it was me helping him achieve his vision,” Herman says. “This is not me complaining, but it definitely became his project.”

Fischer hired Catherine Young, who had co-authored other cookbooks, to help. They spent a lot of time testing recipes. “I would tag along, shoot the process, and the dishes,” says Herman. By last summer, the testing and the writing were finished. She photographed the final tests of the recipes through the fall and into the winter.

“Gabriela’s photographs capture the essential nature of [Beetlebung Farm], and in so doing makes it all come to life,” says Little, Brown executive editor Michael Szczerban. He adds that Herman’s friendship and collaboration with Fischer enabled her to “capture the rhythms of the natural world, to tell the story of the meals that appear in the book…. Every food shot makes me hungry, every landscape makes me want to book the next ferry to the island.”

Herman says her current ambition is to publish her own book about Beetlebung Farm. “There are thousands of thousands of images. A lot of them are not appropriate for cookbooks, like the images of the slaughtering,” she says.

She is now a lot busier with assignment work than when she started the project. But with a book of her own in mind, she is continuing to document life and work on the farm whenever she can.

Looking back, Herman says one of the most important lessons she learned is the importance of “photographing what you are interested in, not what you think other people are interested in. And pursuing it without having any goal in mind. Something will come out of that.”

For Herman, it is an approach that has paid off in unexpected and rewarding ways.

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