Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Boysenberry and Plum Cobbler, for which I wax poetic.

The insides of peaches
are the color of sunrise

The outsides of plums
are the color of dusk

-- from Robert Hass's "The Beginning of September" in The Apple Trees at Olema

I often lament that the romance of the leisurely reading of poetry is lost in this current era: too few people, myself included, will curl up and unwind with a book of poetry as we might with the latest trashy novel. And those who do crack open poetry every now and then for "fun" reading are regarded by the general population as some sort of horrible combination of pricks, snobs, posers, or just really weird old cat ladies. Where are the days (maybe they were fictional to begin with) when reading out-loud a passage of completely engaging poetry was a commonplace feature of conversations and general "hanging out"? Why is it that I now have to enjoy poetry alone, in secret, with no one to share a particularly funny or well-written or beautiful line with?

Take my most recent adoration of Robert Hass's poetry, for example. Hass is a well-respected poet of our current time, and he is a professor in the same department from which I received one of my undergraduate degrees five years ago. Regrettably though, while I was still at Berkeley, I never took a course with him, and even more regrettably, (despite the fact that I study language in poetry) I'd never even read a single one of his poems until years after I'd moved to another university. It wasn't until Saveur printed a poem by Hass that I first encountered his work, and from that first poem, I was instantly hooked.

While he writes about so many different subjects, what I love most about Hass are his writings on California and of food. There's something about the way he captures the essence of the Bay Area experience that is so perfect and so charming: he's the one person I've found who is able to put the character, beauty, and mood that I try so hard to convey with images (because I can't find the words) into actual, precise words on a page. And I love the pithiness and brevity in the way he does it -- the entirety of one stanza of the poem "The Beginning of September" consists of merely two words:

ripe blackberries

...and such perfect words they are.

The plum tree in my backyard has been filling the sky with purple dots everywhere, making me think of Hass's lines about plums every time I look outside my window. I didn't have ripe blackberries around, but I did have a few punnets of boysenberries, which are like blackberries, except more so bursting with tiny nuggets of sweet juice. So this boysenberry and plum cobbler is my version of an edible sunset at dusk. Topped with fistfuls of flaky and lightly salty scone dough, the alternating tartness of plums and sweetness of boysenberries create a tenderly complex fruit compote beneath the cobbler crust. It's what I sat around eating during the sunset yesterday, spooning fruit and scone into my mouth, looking out the window, and thinking about whether Hass was right about my plum tree's movements:

Each thing moves its own way
in the wind. Bamboo flickers,
the plum tree waves, and the loquat
is shaken.

--from Robert Hass's "The Beginning of September"

[top recipe: click on photo for a larger image]

Read on for recipe....

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Rhubarb Jam Tart and Postcards from Seattle

I've been so horrible about posting regularly, but it's summer and there's this incredibly geeky thing called Diablo III that I've been sort of preoccupied by. *shifty eyes* I did, however, manage to dig my head out of monster-slashing long enough to make this rhubarb jam tart, which was inspired by my recent BlogHer Food trip to Seattle (p.s. If you haven't read yet seen the recap of our talk, here it is!). But first... a few foodie postcards from the city that sparked my craving of rhubarb jam.....

Seattle is a city that, for me on this trip, was characterized by three things: flowers, coffee, and seafood. These three things were everywhere you turned!, especially in Pike Place Market....

-- for breakfast --
Macrina Bakery (the cookies!)

Piroshky Piroshky Bakery was a place that I'd read about from Kelly's blog, and we happened to stumble into it our last morning in Seattle when we were following the wafting smells of cinnamony baked goodness from all the way down the street. There, in this teeny tiny shop, the bakers were churning out extremely large numbers of magnificent Russian baked goods pulled fresh from the oven every couple of minutes. We split a poppyseed cinnamon roll that was so hot and gooey and delicious that we had to get back in line for more to bring home to California after we'd finished.

The morning after BlogHer Food ended, Annelies managed to round us up for a brunch at Le Pichet, an adorably French French cafe close to Pike Place Market. Of course, my heart lies with La Note in Berkeley for French breakfasts, but what really stole the show at Le Pichet was when we asked for jam with our bread and butter, the server brought out not the usual strawberry or raspberry preserves but a small ramekin of rhubarb jam. Heaven! *and now cue my obsession with rhubarb jam*

-- for lunch --
Pike Place Chowder (excellent, excellent chowder - try the salmon one!)

Sitka & Spruce was probably the darling restaurant of BlogHer Food: I think every person I talked to that weekend came here for one meal or another. -- And with good reason, too. The space was frighteningly gorgeous and the food--served family style, so this Asian girl approves--was uncomplicated and deliciously and elegantly put together.

-- for an afternoon stop --

Since we were in Seattle, we couldn't resist taking part in the local culture and parking ourselves at a coffee house one afternoon for a few hours of work. Victrola's was a perfect spot, with spacious tables, lots of plug space, and some really thoughtful drinks.

-- for dinner --
Crab Pot (for the seafood-crazed)
Serious Pie (get the root beer--it's wonderfully licorice-y.)

We didn't have any means of personal transportation while we were in Seattle except walking (and forms of public transportation like buses), so we stuck mostly to the city center and places within a few-mile radius.We did manage to make it out to the Fremont and Ballard neighborhoods, though, stumbling on an awesome outdoor market in Fremont by the waterway that was super fun to wander around in. Then, I dragged Anita and Jessi on a two mile walk to The Walrus & the Carpenter in Ballard--a walk for which I'm not sure they've yet forgiven me, since I was in sneakers but both of them were in boots. Thankfully, the Walrus & the Carpenter made up for it, I think! Jessi did most of the oyster eating (I had one, and despite not normally liking the sliminess of oysters, it was really good.), while Anita and I loaded up on the other seafood small plates on the menu. Sardines and tiny spiced prawns = :)!

So despite all of the seafood and flowers, the rhubarb jam at Le Pichet was one of the highlights of the trip, since rhubarb isn't so common in California. (Conversely in Seattle, rhubarb was everywhere! in the markets.) I was just beginning to scheme about getting my hands on enough rhubarb to make my own jam when Kate from Blue Chair Fruit mentioned to me that they had a few jars of rhubarb jam left -- score! And so I whipped up one of the quickest desserts I could as a vessel for delivering rhubarb jam into my mouth: a super simple, crumbly, and nutty rhubarb jam tart, adapted from the blitz linzer torte recipe in Alice Medrich's latest book. In addition to ground almonds, the crust also has a dash of lavender, cardamom, and lemon zest, which adds a sweet complexity alongside the tart rhubarb jam filling. (which is the best characteristic about rhubarb jam: it's not too sweet so you can spoon mouthfuls of it without the toothache. :))

Thank you all who provided recommendations for Seattle eateries! I'm really quite itching to get back to the Pacific Northwest with a car this time so that I can explore some of the wilderness and nature around the area.

Read on for recipe....

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Current Food Photography Styles and Trends: A Cake Case Study

When BlogHer asked Anita Chu and me to speak at this past weekend's annual BlogHer Food conference (in Seattle!) about current food photography trends and styles, it didn't take me very long to settle on this challenge: take one single subject--a cake, in this instance--and shoot it using the many different styles of food photography that are present on the blogosphere today. This experiment arose naturally from my (and Anita's) academic proclivity for controlled scientific studies: holding the subject matter, the photographer, and the camera equipment constant, how does varying the other elements in the photograph--the approach to light, the framing, the styling, the props, etc.--change the stories and emotions a photograph can communicate and evoke? That is, how can we use photographic style to tell unique stories about the food?

As part of our presentation, Anita and I scoured the food-blogosphere and collected a handful of work we thought was representative of the different styles found out there today. We also looked at the history of food photography, and the changes in styles and trends that the field has undergone since food photography's beginnings in the 1940s and 50s. Style, we determined, is made up of a conglomeration of many elements--propping, lighting, etc.--and each style develops (and had developed over time historically) for a specific purpose. To understand the purpose behind style choices allows us as photographers and artists to be able to use features of each style intelligently and to help develop our individual visual voices as well.

Because I don't want to infringe on copyright, I can't share the first two parts of our presentation here (you should have come to BlogHer Food!), but hopefully this ca{k, s}e study will make up for it. Discussion of the styles comes first; then, some lighting and technical details follow after the jump. For larger image views, clicking on the photos should take you to fullscreen. (Please be forewarned, this is a monstrously long post.)

In the course of our research, Anita and I identified six major groups of food photography styles prominent on the blogosphere (and partly in print) today, with some variations and sub-groups within each one: (1) product, (2) journalistic and straightforward, (3) bright and propped, (4) lifestyle-inspired, (5) bold and clean, and (6) chiaroscuro. Of course, these style classifications are painted with very broad strokes, and the styles have within them a lot more subtlety than we could ever hope to cover in an hour's talk. It's important to understand that these groups aren't as much categorical and distinct as they are part of a continuous range--everything is related, and we saw inspirations and influences carried from one style to the next and the next. But, as a helpful guide, here are the six (with two variations) of our food photography style groups.

[NB: the photographers mentioned herein are only a small sample of the talent that's out there on the blogosphere, and it was impossible to include everyone. Also, these photographers are all more than capable of a wide range of styles, but we tried to categorize them using the most representative recent work on their blogs.]

{1 | Product}

Product photography isn't quite as prominent a style on the food blogosphere, but it is important to mention since a vast majority of the photography of food is still for adverts and uses product photography. The purpose of product photos is typically to demonstrate the product and to sell the product, so clean, glossy images with minimal distractions are important for the focus on the food.

glossy images
all-white or black backgrounds, sometimes with mirrored surfaces
usually studio-lit, with minimal shadows
careful and clean styling

In the above image, a large slice is cut out of the cake to expose the layers inside. As the stylist (and photographer), I thought this would be important for a product photograph, because--as one audience member pointed out at our BlogHer Food discussion--in buying a cake, you don't want any mystery in what you're buying. The cut-away slice and the bright lighting grant the viewer full access to what the cake is all about, inside and out (by the way, in case you're wondering: it's a delicious coconut chocolate raspberry cake, for which I will post the recipe in a few days).

{2 | Journalistic and Straightforward}

The style of journalistic and straightforward photography grows out of reportage: its goal is to be educational, to reveal the back-story of how the food comes to be, to show how the food is when unadorned and as you would find it in the real world. Saveur is chock-full of this style of food photography. On the blogosphere, Jen Yu of use real butter is someone to study when it comes to this type of straightforward, documentary style.

documentary style
use of overheads to show process
action shots
little-to-no extra styling, minimal propping
strong, clear light

In my version of the journalistic/straightforward style of this cake study, I chose to make an in-process photograph of Anita stacking and frosting the cake layers. One reason to use this style of photography on food blogs is so you can demonstrate the process of cooking and inspire the reader to cook as well: the attitude of "I want you to try this recipe, so I'm showing you that it can be done!" rather than just showing a finished product.

{3 | Bright and Propped}

What we're calling "bright and propped" is perhaps the best known and most familiar style in the current food blogosphere, with its roots in the early white and airy Donna Hay photographs of the late 1990s and early 2000s, though it has developed quite a bit since. It's a style that evokes a bucolic and idyllic atmosphere by using brighter but softer light and fewer shadows and by incorporating elements beyond the food in a variety of props, more background details, and staging. As opposed to some of the other styles (e.g., product, bold & clean), there is more of the scene available to these photographs: they show off a way of life in addition to the food. Photographers in the food blogosphere who exemplify this style of work are Helene Dujardin (Tartelette), Aran Goyoaga (Cannelle et Vanille), Mowie Kay (Mowielicious), Bea Peltre (La Tartine Gourmande), and Lakshmi Wennäkoski-Bielicki (Pure Vegetarian).

soft, diffuse light
use of colors and patterns
airy, happy images
precise, delicate staging
full framing, with foreground and background elements
vintage, rustic props

The "bright and propped" image of the cake above features more feminine details in the styling and a more light-hearted feel to the whole image, with the polka dots and the repetition of the heart pattern. My intent as the photographer was to create an airier, dreamier feel with the bright backlight. A BlogHer Food participant commented also that the three-quarters angle at which the cake is shot makes it seem more dainty and far less imposing. It looks more approachable and friendly than, say, the more imposing product photography image of the cake in {1}.

{4 | Lifestyle-inspired}

As food magazines and publications like Gourmet and Time Life gained popularity in the 1960-80s, there was a rise in lifestyle-inspired food photography, where a narrative behind the food becomes important: what's the scene? the context in which the food is being eaten? the story behind the dish? Gourmet (may it rest in peace) was, after all, not only a food magazine but "the magazine of good living," and part of defining that "good living" was defining the lifestyle of which the food was a key element. In the current "instant" age of sharing, there's another jump in the incorporation of lifestyle in food photography. We have an urge to document and share the moments in which we're enjoying and eating the food, so details from beyond the plate are sneaking into the frame, and there is a much more casual feel to the staging and styling of the food. We are also seeing film-like sensibilities to many of the photographs in this style, perhaps stemming from the same nostalgia kick that is driving our current instagram obsession. Photographers on the food blogosphere that shoot in this style are Tara O'Brady (seven spoons) and Nikole Herriott / Michael Graydon (Forty-Sixth at Grace), and lifestyle/portrait photographer Alice Gao (lingered upon) also shoots beautiful lifestyle-inspired food photography these days.

more context to the food
larger apertures with wider angles to bring more into the frame
more negative space
film-like contrast
casual staging/styling

In line with the narrative aspect of the lifestyle-inspired style, I wanted to create a vignette of a birthday celebration in this cake photograph, so I tried to capture the cake (and smoke from the candles) at the moment Anita blew them out. (P.S. It actually was Anita's birthday a month ago, so while a wee bit belated, Happy Birthday, Anita!) While the focus is still on the food--this is food photography after all--, there is more to the image than just the cake. This sort of lifestyle approach, I find, humanizes and really personalizes an image, adding a genuine quality to the food--like, you know someone is going to eat that cake as part of a happy celebration. Such a story behind the food can help inspire readers of the recipe to try the cake as part of their own celebrations.

(Special thanks also to Jacqueline Jaszka of A Happy Day for the post-processing of the above photograph.)

{5a | Bold and Clean, #1}

Unlike the lifestyle-inspired or bright/propped styles, Bold and Clean focuses intently on the food, with few distractions from the main subject in the frame--basically, a minimalist/utilitarian approach to emphasizing the beauty of the food. The idea is, as photographer Nicole Franzen (La Buena Vida) wrote to me to describe this (her) style: "[the] Food should stand out for itself." By keeping the rest of the image very clean, the eye is immediately drawn to the food, and it makes the viewer focus on the interesting details within the food itself rather than relying on a scene to create more interest.

Within the Bold and Clean family, I tend to make a distinction between two different approaches: one that features slightly more dramatic lighting and cleaner, minimal backgrounds (5a | Bold and Clean #1 above) and one that uses brighter and bolder color schemes as a backdrop to the food (5b | Bold and Clean #2 below). These two different approaches evoke different emotions in the viewer, and each (sub-)style works well for and reflects the voices of the photographers who tend to use them. Bold and Clean #1 tends to be more serious, with an austere respect for the food. Photographers in the food blogosphere who shoot in this style include the aforementioned Nicole Franzen (La Buena Vida) and Sarah Bolla (Lemon Fire Brigade).

strong focus on food
tighter framing
minimal props and clean styling, with a mix of more modern props
solid backgrounds
balance between light and shadow

In making this photo, I wanted it to be clean and focused on the food but to be distinct from product photography where everything has to look perfect and glossy. Instead, the shadowing on the left of the cake, the knife ready for cutting, and the candles that have just been pulled out of the cake make for a less "manufactured" look (as someone in the BlogHer Food audience put it) and sets a bit of a scene even for a minimalist photograph. The porcelain cake stand, the marble, the white wall background, and the straight-on angle of the photo make the presentation of the cake feel more formal, as if the cake were prepared for a special occasion, as compared to the Bold and Clean #2 photo below....

{5b | Bold and Clean, #2}

Bold and Clean #2 shares many of the same style characteristics in the "Bold and Clean" family as #1, but it tends to be more light-hearted and fun (and commercial, if you will), incorporating more bold colors around the food. For this style, photographers in the food blogosphere include Matt Armendiaz (Matt Bites) and Terilyn Fisher (spoon fork bacon).

With the styling and the bolder colors in the photograph above for this styling, I intended to take a more "everyday recipe" approach to the cake. While the photograph in Bold and Clean #1 makes the cake look as if it's intended for a formal occasion, this photograph in Bold and Clean #2 is more casual: the photograph communicates that this is a cake that you might want to try for a kid's birthday or for an everyday dessert whereas the other Bold and Clean photograph shows a cake that is perhaps reserved for a special anniversary or celebration. Even though there is a stronger focus on the food in this style, it's still possible to use it for different purposes, depending on the story you're looking to tell.

{6a | Chiaroscuro, #1}

"Chiaroscuro" (one of Anita's favorite words!) means, in Italian, "light-dark." It is a painting term from the art world that's used to talk about a clear contrast between shadow and light in an image: think Carvaggio and some of the Dutch Masters' still lifes. I commonly hear this style referred to around the food blogosphere as "dark photography," but I have to say that "dark" is a term I truly dislike for this type of style (and from now on, I refuse to answer any questions posed to me about "dark photography"!). The main reason for my dispreference for this term is that it's a misnomer: unlike "bright" styles, where there are actually very few shadows, these chiaroscuro styles actually have bright spots. In fact, more often than not, the light areas of these images are just as bright as the light areas of "bright" images. The difference instead lies in the contrast between light *and* dark and the greater use of shadows throughout the entire image. So let's all use "chiaroscuro" from now on, please?

The Chiaroscuro style uses the contrast of light and dark to throw selective focus on the food, and allows the photographer to really control what the viewer sees and notices. Perhaps even more so than some of the other styles, this one in particular creates much more moodier images. What I personally love about it is that the photographs don't give up all of their secrets to the viewer immediately: the shadows create mystery that forces you to really study the photograph, first looking at what's highlighted by the light and then what's hidden and lurking in the shadows. Anita notes that this is a style that calls back to the early days of food photography in the 1950s and 1960s when images of food were treated almost like painted still-life images.

Like the Bold and Clean styles, I find myself making a distinction between two types of Chiaroscuro food photography, one that is more low-key and marked by somewhat lower contrast images (6a | Chiaroscuro #1 above) and another that is marked by higher contrast images where the brights are really bright and the shadows melt into almost pitch black (6b | Chiaroscuro #2 below). For this first sub-style, Andrea Gentl / Gentl & Hyers (Hungry Ghost food + travel) make some of the most beautifully subtle and moody images I know of. There's also Sarah Ryhanen (Saipua), whose blog is about flowers not food but is too perfect for this style not to mention.

use of light and deep shadows for dramatic focus on subject
moody images
strong tonal contrast creates a sense of tension and mystery
corresponding propping: dark, textural, organic, lush

For the question "What story does this photo and style tell?", we received the most number of answers from the BlogHer Food audience for this photo. One person said it made them think of late night snacking; for others, it was about a romantic moment. For some, the photo evoked a rainy afternoon; when Anita saw the photo for the first time, she told me it reminded her of a scene in a painters' studio. This wide variation of stories exemplifies the lure of Chiaroscuro images: the light scraping the surface of the cake and the teacup hints at a setting with tea and cake, but the rest of the story is left up to the imagination of the viewer--the message almost being "Try this cake for yourself to solve its mysteries."

{6b | Chiaroscuro, #2}

This second sub-style of Chiaroscuro is characterized by a greater contrast between lights and darks than Chiaroscuro #1: light areas are just as bright as those in properly bright images. Because of the contrast, this type of Chiaroscuro is even more so a nod to (Caravaggio-style) painting and art, where the lines between light and dark are well-defined. The result is a treatment of food as almost museum-like art. You'll find many examples of Chiaroscuro #2 in the pages of this blog (and in sated!), and Hannah Queen (honey & jam) has been making images this way recently.

Photographing the cake this way highlights its grandeur: the cake on a tall pedestal with flickering candles suggests someone very important's birthday, perhaps. One audience member noted that the draped fabric is reminiscent of art and not of how one might find the cake in everyday life. Personally, I think I gravitate towards this style just because of my overly-dramatic personality: I like to give everything far more importance than it might deserve.


The most important take-away from this study of current food photography trends and styles is that developing style and voice in a photograph requires really thinking about what the purpose of your image is. With so many elements out there to work with--light, photographic technicalities, props, styling, and on and on--, understanding how to put all of these things together to serve a singular idea is key. Photography trends and styles are circular and come and go, driven by different purposes and social desires (as Anita and I found from our quick study of the history of food photography), so finding personal voice is all about experimenting, choosing the elements that resonate with you personally, and keeping in mind the "why" behind what you choose.

We'd love to hear your thoughts about these styles and of these photographs in the comments/discussion below!

After the jump are lighting setups, technical details, and some comments about how I set up each of these photographs. If you excuse me getting on my soap box for just a moment, I want to say how much I believe that technical details are only important insofar as learning and mastering them allow them to become second nature and stop getting in the way of you making images that really communicate your intentions. Mimicking someone's lighting or f-stops or exposure isn't going to produce a good photograph if you don't understand the intention and purpose behind that image and behind what you are trying to say when making that image. For this, nothing will make up for or replace hard work, lots and lots of practice and experimentation and failures, and some good, old-fashioned deep thinking.

(All photographs are by me. Ideas on and discussion of food photography and photographs herein are based on collaboration with Anita Chu.)

Read on for lighting setups....