When we speak of food photography, we immediately think about how each shot should make the viewers salivate at the food or feast they’re looking at. But as with any genre, being experimental and looking for unique ways to work with it pays off. Case in point is a clever project by Santa Fe-based editorial and commercial photographer Gabriella Marks, who put the spotlight on the produce rather than the final product for a project called Form • Function • Food.
Instead of a showcase of drool-worthy dishes, the project is a treat for those who enjoy color studies, brilliant concepts, and detail-oriented executions. While she gives full credit to her client for the idea, it’s certainly a work of a fruitful collaboration. Marks tells us more about how this project came to be in the insightful interview below.
Phoblographer: Hello Gabriella! Can you tell us something about yourself and what you do?
Gabriella Marks: I’m a Santa Fe-based editorial and commercial photographer. Originally from San Francisco, I arrived in New Mexico over a decade ago on pure intuition, but knows why I stay: the spectacular high desert light, the rich cultural intersections, and the opportunity to celebrate and contribute to the historic legacy of photography in New Mexico. My work is in the permanent collection of the New Mexico History Museum, and currently on the FENCE, a national exhibit that tours 8 cities on North American and is viewed by millions of visitors annually. I also serve on the National Board of ASMP (American Society of Media Photographers).
“With this project, we were looking at food through the lens of fashion — with an emphasis on the primal qualities of an organic artifact — and the act of taking the food out of its normal context functioned to celebrate and emphasize the food in an entirely new and exciting way.”
Phoblographer: How did you get into photography? How did you discover the kind of photography and imagery that you make now?
Marks: I’m not sure how I got into photography, mostly because I think I was always “in” it. I’ve been taking pictures as long back as I can remember, on a variety of weird plastic “film cartridge” cameras you’d be hard pressed to find in the backwaters of Ebay… until I received my first film SLR camera at the age of 16, with a good lens, and that’s when it really clicked for me. In terms of the images I make now — that childlike compulsion to make photographs — to interact with the world that way, is now tuned by the process of working with clients to tell their stories in a compelling and authentic way.
Phoblographer: We’d like to know more about your Form • Function • Food series. How did the idea come to you? What served as your inspiration for this project?
Marks: In the spirit of full disclosure, all credit for the concept goes to my client, Denise Miller at the New Mexico Farmer’s Market Association. She had a bold idea and it was such an exciting visual strategy to sink my teeth into.
Phoblographer: What made the fashion-forward approach the best way to carry out this project? Did you have any other approaches in mind prior to this?
Marks: What made this so much fun was that the idea — to really capitalize on the color and shape of produce elevated and highlighted the beautiful form of regionally grown food. It was incredibly refreshing to transcend the tried and true trope of farmer’s market imagery — the rustic wood backgrounds, baskets dripping with cornucopia of seasonal harvests, the farmer’s hand, etched from years of tools and age, holding forth the fruits of his or her labor – those are all beautiful archetypes, and I’ve made more than my fair share of images like that – but it has become such a visual cliche. In that attempt to create a look of rustic authenticity, the exact same styling, ambient light, subjects are just being reproduced over and over again.
With this project, we were looking at food through the lens of fashion — with an emphasis on the primal qualities of an organic artifact — and the act of taking the food out of its normal context functioned to celebrate and emphasize the food in an entirely new and exciting way. In part, it’s a play with contrasts. We look at a Kate Spade ad, and we expect design perfection — not a single line of out place, precise replication, picture perfect textures… well, anyone knows that an ear of corn or a head of garlic will never be like that. Fresh grown produce is full of unique imperfections and variations, yet we’re presenting that artifact — resplendent in its imperfections, each unique in shape — as an objet d’art to be celebrated.
Phoblographer: Conceptualizing and brainstorming for this project must have been really fun. Can you share with us how that went?
Marks: This project was so much fun because of the degree of collaboration — together with the client, the graphic designer, Lacey Adams and I, strategized on what kind of produce we needed to feature, what was truly signature New Mexico — and growing in a watertight, high desert landscape presents its own host of challenges – and what would be visually appealing. We sourced almost all of the food from the farmer’s market, so farmers, too were part of the conversation. And then there was this part where we became sculptors — an art form neither of us really had experience in how to create balanced (both physically and visually) sculptures of food.
Phoblographer: Form • Function • Food features clever play on colors and shapes, and is drastically different from the food photography we see on your website. Has this changed the way you look at food as a topic or subject for your craft?
Marks: This project absolutely changed the way I see and compose images. Most of my food work is more editorial/documentary, capturing authentic lifestyle images of growing, harvesting, preparing food. With this project, we were treating food more as a still life than lifestyle, in a way that really allowed me to focus on color and shape. I think that exercise in the essential visual elements of food — outside the environmental and social context — brings a slightly more formalized approach to photographing food, now. Really it’s another layer to think about when shooting. And it’s an opportunity to differentiate the lifestyle work with a more clearly articulated voice.
Phoblographer: If you could do another food photography project in the same creative and clever approach, what kinds of food items would you work with and why?
Marks: Oooh that’s an interesting question! I think I’d be more drawn to external and internal textures, and focus on those. For instance, the overlapping iridescent scales of a fish, or the incredible color patterns you see when you slice through a chioggia beet. I’d like to find ways to isolate and capture those incredible design elements that are part of the stuff we stuff in our faces called “food”.
“This project absolutely changed the way I see and compose images. Most of my food work is more editorial/documentary, capturing authentic lifestyle images of growing, harvesting, preparing food.”
Phoblographer: Which aspect of this project did you find most challenging? How did you work around it?
Marks: The two most challenging aspects of working with food – especially specifically regionally sourced food were seasonality, and the delicate skins/flesh of some of the produce. We worked over months, because when you’re working with seasonal agriculture, you get the harvest when the crop is ready – you don’t simply order it up for next day delivery. I think that need for patience helped the project too — it allowed us to slow down and consider how well some did (or didn’t) do before moving on to the next set. And then there is the reality of real food. When some are sliced, they discolor. Some bruise easily. Once an egg is cracked… there’s no putting that specific egg back together again. Sure, we can fix a scraped mushroom in post, but we really wanted to get as much in-camera as possible.
Ugh, and working with honey. Everything. Gets. Sticky.
Phoblographer: What do you consider to be the most crucial element that makes your style truly your own?
Marks: That’s a hard one. My hunch is that is has something to do with my somewhat impish sense of humor, my inability to resist wordplay, the compulsion to pun, and the desire to surprise…weirdly, what first comes to me are verbal cues, not visual ones, but I think the way those work together in my own particular perspective — like those “weird takes” are what I can really call “my own”.
Phoblographer: Lastly, what would you advise those who want to develop their own unconventional approach to food photography?
Marks: Experiment! Close your eyes! Just go shoot! When people ask, looking for sage, enlightened advice, that’s always where I start. Get out of your own head, be not only unafraid, but excited to make mistakes, and then discover what you can learn from that experience. Sometimes the only thing that defines a “mistake” is perspective. What is the happy accident you just discovered that you can capture and apply to new images to make them your own?
Don’t forget to visit Gabriella Marks’ website to see more of her work.