Photographing for the New Cookbook Culture

February 17, 2017

By Rebecca Robertson

“People have been buying a lot of cookbooks,” says Antonis Achilleos, a New York-based still life photographer who has shot close to two dozen cookbooks in the past decade. “Cookbooks have been such a great success because food and chefs have been the rock stars of this generation.”

Popular titles range from lavishly illustrated collections of recipes from well-known restaurant chefs to photo-heavy books that function like travelogues. “There’s been a surge in food publishing in general, but with that comes all this competition,” says Vanessa Dina, design director at Chronicle Books, who has worked with Achilleos on several books. To stand out in a crowded market, a cookbook needs to offer distinctive photography.

We spoke with photographers who worked on five recent photo-driven cookbooks to find out how they got the job and their approach to making the images. We also learned why they enjoy cookbook work. “Cookbooks are the icing on the cake,” says Achilleos. “I love doing them because it’s a body of work: You are committed to it for a week, two weeks. It’s not just one story for a magazine and that’s it. They are kind of special projects.”

© Johnny Autry

Johnny Autry photographed venison patty pies, spiced peaches and flatbread made with pickled ramps for Victuals: An Appalachian Journey. © Johnny Autry

Cookbook photography has moved towards the use of available light, minimal styling and shooting on location to convey a sense of place. Says Dina, “Over all there is a much more relaxed style that’s happening in the last decade.” For Victuals: An Appalachian Journey, written by Ronni Lundy and published last year by Clarkson Potter, Johnny Autry photographed sorghum farmers and mountain landscapes as well as chefs, along with a section shot in the studio. For Aperitivo: The Cocktail Culture of Italy, published by Rizzoli, photographer Andrea Fazzari made two trips through northern Italy, photographing in the bars and cafes mentioned in writer Marisa Huff’s manuscript. Shooting on location “adds a degree of context and detail to the photos that you really can’t replicate in the studio,” says Fazzari, who shot in a journalistic style, arranging plates herself.

© Chronicle Books

Grilled Cheese Kitchen published by Chronicle Books.

For Grilled Cheese Kitchen, Chronicle wanted “handmade, authentic, casual, relaxed, real, delicious, rustic, fast, fun, not too fussy, accessible,” Achilleos recalls. To that end, he shot at one of the San Francisco restaurants the authors, Heidi Gibson and Nate Pollak, own. When space in there proved limited, Achilleos moved outside, shooting on a few tables on the sidewalk where the light was good. With the extra light that came from shooting outside, Achilleos decided to forgo strobes (although he did bring some with him). He says, “I tried to mold the daylight with cards, to give it some direction.” In post-production, he increased the contrast slightly but says, “I tried to be low key and nimble.”

Shooting outdoors in February, “The challenge was to keep the cheese looking delicious outside,” he recalls. “We went and bought a paint stripper,” a handheld heater designed to soften old paint for removal. “It’s like an industrial hair dryer that gets really hot. That’s how we kept the cheese looking melty on the cover.”

© Lauren Volo

A picnic in the Berkshires, where Lauren Volo shot photos for The Gefilte Manifesto: New Recipes for Old World Jewish Foods at a borrowed private home. Other images were shot in a Brooklyn kitchen. © Lauren Volo

© Flatiron Books

The Gefilte Manifesto published by Flatiron Books.

Every photographer we interviewed said they got their cookbook assignments through word of mouth. Many had existing relationships with publishers or had made connections and friendships in the food industry, which, “isn’t that big once you’re working in certain circles of it,” says photographer Lauren Volo. Volo shot The Gefilte Manifesto: New Recipes for Old World Jewish Foods, written by Liz Alpern and Jeffrey Yoskowitz, and published by Flatiron Books last fall. Achilleos says he sends promos to publishers and meets with art directors when he can. But the job to shoot Grilled Cheese Kitchen was the result of his long relationship with Chronicle, and their trust in him. Dina cites his flexibility and proven experience controlling light, a necessity when shooting in the unpredictable outdoors.

Fazzari got the job to shoot Aperitivo: The Cocktail Culture of Italy after she met a marketing person from Rizzoli at a party. When the proposal for the Italian book came in, an editor set up a lunch with Fazzari and author Marisa Huff, and the two clicked. Claire Cottrell, who shot Everything I Want to Eat: Sqirl and the New California Cooking, was picked by Jessica Koslow, owner of the LA restaurant Sqirl. Cottrell worked with Koslow and other staffers at the restaurant on planning and developing the look of the photos.

While occasionally a photographer’s fee is paid by the author, more typically the publisher pays the photographer, who in turn hires the stylists. Thanks to the popularity of photo-heavy cookbooks, some publishers are committed to supporting photographers’ visions, but many photographers report that the production budgets are squeezed. As a result, many photographers choose to cut their costs by doing their own styling, sometimes with the chef. “That seems to be happening a lot,” Achilleos says. “You tend to do whatever it takes to make it work and at the same time make some money at the end of the day.” To that end, he has been slowly collecting his own props. “When you don’t have a budget” for a prop stylist, he says, “it’s good to have your own.”

© Clarkson Potter

Victuals: An Appalachian Journey published by Clarkson Potter.

Before photographer Johnny Autry and his wife, Charlotte, a food stylist, landed the job to shoot Victuals: An Appalachian Journey, they spoke with chef Ronni Lundy and the book’s editor, and pitched an idea to make the photos “something more moody and dark” than those in most Southern cookbooks, Autry explains. “It’s Appalachian specifically, this book, so we wanted to have that notion of shadow” that comes from being in valleys where daylight is limited. “We wanted to have that sense of drama, and stay away from kitschy, Dollywood stuff.” Autry had shot cookbooks before, but this was his biggest to date, “and we wanted to make a good impression,” he says. “So I took one of the locations in the book, and a few of the recipes, and we made what you could call a test day,” shooting locations and some recipes from the book using handmade, local pottery as a way to show what they had in mind. Bringing that sense of darkness to the studio “was mostly a matter of making a big black cave,” says Autry. “We used mostly north light, as cold a light as I could get” to create “moody drama.”

The test got them the job, and over the course of nine months, Autry photographed from West Virginia to northern Georgia, trailing after Lundy as she conducted interviews. “It was mostly just me on my own, guerilla style,” he says. As the edited recipes accumulated, he and his wife would shoot them in the studio. “If you’re not from here or haven’t traveled here much, maybe [Victuals] can help you get the distinction between the Deep South and Appalachia. It really is a different thing, a different set of immigrants, a different culture,” says Autry.

© Rizzoli

The cover of Aperitivo published by Rizzoli.

Fazzari also wanted her photographs in Aperitivo to describe the feeling of a place. “Originally the publisher thought it would be partially shot in studio and partially on location,” says Fazzari, but she convinced Rizzoli to let her shoot entirely on location. “That was a first for them. There are no photos shot in any kind of studio—it was all in its context, even the still life,” says Fazzari. She and writer Marisa Huff traveled together through Italy. “It felt like a vacation,” says Fazzari. Once Huff set up a visit to a particular ristorante or bar, Fazzari shot what she was attracted to, styling the food and drinks herself, and photographing chefs and waiters who caught her attention, all using only available light. “If the light is wrong, I’ll say I can’t shoot this now, I have to come back later.”

Recording a sense of place was also important to Claire Cottrell, but to document life at Sqirl, the Los Angeles restaurant known for its sorrel pesto bowls, toast and laid back vibe, she had to plan her shoots in advance.

© Abrams Books

Everything I Want to Eat published by Abrams Books.

The goal for Everything I Want To Eat was to walk the line between a cookbook and an art book. To achieve that, Cottrell, Koslow and the restaurant’s creative director, Scott Barry, wanted to translate what they called the voice of Sqirl—the feeling of the place, its food and the community around it—into images. Cottrell wanted to photograph in the restaurant itself, shooting the food in the place it was made and consumed.

Shutting the restaurant down while they worked ran the risk of losing the sense of energy they were attempting to capture, and wrangling model releases out of any customers who wandered into the shots seemed unrealistic. Instead, Cottrell decided to carefully orchestrate scenes. After putting out a call to Sqirl friends and family, Cottrell cast more than 50 people and invited them to come to the restaurant over the course of two days. Using  “a very complex matrix” that paired people, dishes and times, Cottrell and an assistant arranged the shoots while regular service continued.

“It’s an interesting way to go about it. It’s something of a hybrid between a documentary or journalistic approach to photography, and something that is really stylized, which food needs to be,” says Cottrell. Like many photographers who have shot cookbooks, Cottrell does not specialize in shooting food. But she does have an extensive background in tabletop photography and products. She credits her ability to carefully plan the Sqirl shoots to her work in film production and as a commercial photographer and director. In those fields, “every little last detail is storyboarded and thought through…I knew there’s no way we can show up with a crew…and say here are the dishes.” Instead, she says, “I knew that we needed to plan this out and produce this more.” The result would “still feel—and still be—authentic to Sqirl,” she says, but with a reduced risk. “When it’s a project like this and there’s too much at stake, you can’t say ‘I hope we’re going to get it.’”

While most of the photographers we spoke with didn’t think a career made entirely of shooting cookbooks was feasible or desirable, they hold a special affection for them. “Cookbooks are my favorite thing to do,” says Volo. She likes the camaraderie of living and working on location with stylists and authors who become friends. She also values how much the authors have invested in their projects. “It’s got this significance to them that makes you feel like what you’re doing has more value. You have this message that you need to deliver.”

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