Food + Drink

What Does It Take to Photograph Cookbooks? We Spoke with Gentl + Hyers to Find Out

We’ve sung the many praises of Small Victories by Julia Turshen here on the blog and elsewhere, but one important facet we’ve yet to take a deep dive into is the stunning photography featured throughout the cookbook. As Chronicle Books’ in-house photographer, I’m always keen on poring over beautiful photography in many of our books, but was especially excited over the work by photographers Gentl + Hyers for Small Victories. I’ve been a long-time fan of their food and travel photography, and have often drawn inspiration from their mastery over color and light.

I was lucky enough to ask them questions about their behind-the-scenes work on Small Victories, so read on to learn about their practice.

Small Victories Meatballs

How did you two get started in food photography? 

We began shooting food in the very beginning of our career. Andrea always liked to cook and we had both worked in restaurants over the years, so it seemed like the natural place to start. Food can be textural, complex, organic and austere. It makes for a lovely subject. Historically, some of our favorite photographs had elements of food to them: think Irving Pen, Edward Weston, Sally Mann, and of course the beautiful painters of the Dutch Flemish School. We really got an amazing early break when we shot Baking With Julia and will be forever grateful to the editor Ann Bramson who took a chance on us.

There is so much to learn about food and cooking. We have loved the people we have met in the food industry and we have learned so much from each one of them. 

What was a typical day like while shooting the Small Victories cookbook? How was it unique from other photography projects?

Each day with Julia and Grace was super special. We felt welcome and part of a team. Each morning we were greeted with amazing food and beautiful people, two of the cutest dogs ever, and a slightly bemused and aloof cat. Winky and Hope were the team mascots.

As Julia and Larry created the dishes for the book, the counter that was used for food that had been shot would fill. We would try everything throughout the day and still have an amazing dinner. We all worked very hard but you would not have known it from all the laughter. It was a special and unique experience. We all lent a hand to the propping and Julia’s porch was filled from end to end with hand thrown ceramics and pots and family heirlooms.
small-victories_granita

Small Victories is a deeply personal cookbook. How did you collaborate with Julia while being true to your own photography style, which you describe as informed by “hard light, strong shadow, and travel”?

We had worked with Julia before on the Buvette book, so by the time we shot the first photo we were on the same visual page. We had many meetings before the project started and we had read the manuscript. We had pulled a mutual mood board for the project. Julia really wanted the book to feel real and of this place and home. The creative process was effortless. We tried to keep the lighting simple but we used some extra lighting to maintain a more subtle time-of-day feeling. We always change the lighting from shot to shot in some way. As we shot, we would bounce ideas off one another, make suggestions, and experiment a bit by shooting variations.

What was your favorite recipe to shoot from Small Victories? Which one was the trickiest? 

To say what our favorite recipe was is an impossible task. We can honestly say that we loved everything. One of our favorites that we make at home on the regular was the kimchi rice: it is so simple and so easy! The Raspberry Jam Buns and the Lamb Kofta are contenders, as were the meatballs! See what I am saying? Too hard. Oh, and the Zucchini Fritters!

The hardest to shoot was the dinner party from above with Julia’s parents. The high camera angle made it difficult but with some rope and physics we got it shot. We ended up loving that shot.

small-victories_dinnerparty

And for the last but most important question…did you get to enjoy the delicious food you photographed? 

We did! There was no food harmed in this project—we ate every last scrap of it and licked the bowl. Every dish was eaten by the crew…and some neighbors and friends who stopped by. We would do it all over again in a second, as would our entire crew.

small-victories_fritters

Many thanks to Andrea and Martin for the terrific interview! We hope you learned as much as we did.

Irene Kim Shepherd

Assoc. Manager of Visual Content at Chronicle Books, photographer, and overall aesthete. See more of her work at irenekly.com.
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