Shoot the Food

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Fink doesn’t work alone. Like a film director, he has a crew, and each person in that crew has a well-defined job. Sarah Smart, the prop stylist, organizes a vast array of objects chosen specifically for the shoot: gingham napkins laid out in lines of blues, reds, and browns, rows of flatware (ranging from antique to tastefully generic), ramekins in all shapes and sizes, and a collection of trays. Her job is to set the scene (the appropriate napkin, the well-chosen fork, the overall color palette), but her work doesn’t end once the shoot begins. If Fink isn’t happy with a reflection on a pie stand or the fold of a napkin, Smart has to quickly provide an alternative.

Ruggiero, the food stylist, commands the kitchen. The day’s recipes are taped on the wall above her prep station. The Southern buttermilk biscuits have to come out of the oven at the exact moment Fink needs them. Too early, and the biscuits will go cold, scuttling the best-laid plans for melting butter and honey on top; too late, and the shoot is delayed. Ruggiero shuffles around the set like an endearing aunt preparing a family meal. But her manner belies an exacting professionalism: As the butter begins to congeal atop one of the biscuits, she whips out a mini propane lighter and gives it a blast.

Fink’s team all bring their individual expertise and professionalism to the table, but in an age when food imagery has become ubiquitous—in print, online, and in social media—the best photographers must, more than ever, make their mark. The use of natural light is the defining aspect of Fink’s work. For today’s shoot, he has rented a studio in midtown Manhattan with a bank of windows that overlook the industrial west side and the Hudson River beyond. Rather than move his set around the studio space as the light shifts throughout the day, he has erected a clever system of scrims and foam boards to “shape the light,” as he says. It makes sense that Fink admires the chiaroscuro of Renaissance paintings and the layered compositions of Dutch 17th-century still lifes, with their bowls of ripe fruit, silvery oysters, and gleaming china.

It is midafternoon now, and the shoot has moved on to Buffalo chicken tenders. Honey-colored and glistening, they are jauntily skewered on sticks and set on bone-white dishes. Tall glasses of iced tea round out the overall composition.

Client: “Are there too many glasses?”
Fink: “It looks like a party.”
Client: “What about all those seeds in the lemon?”
Fink: “We can take them out.”
Client: “Do you think we need more tea?”
Fink: “Let’s change the ice out. It’s looking icky.”

Fink peers briefly through the lens of his camera and pushes the shutter. “Give it some curve,” he declares somewhat mysteriously.

Although speed, authenticity, and the use of natural light are the hallmarks of Fink’s method, there is one other secret weapon: Jeff Kavanaugh. Kavanaugh sits in a dark, enclosed cubicle directly behind the camera setup. In front of him are glowing computer screens. As soon as Fink shoots an image, it appears on one of Kavanaugh’s monitors. When Fink says, “Give it some curve,” that’s code meaning that the shot may be a keeper. It’s also Kavanaugh’s cue to instantly set to work darkening colors, fixing imperfections (retouching a chipped plate, for example), and, most impressively, layering the images.

To layer Fink’s shot of iced tea, Kavanaugh toggles back and forth between two shots, lines up the glasses of iced tea, masks out everything except the ice in one, and “paints” that ice cube into the second. This, he says, “allows the ice to show from one layer to the next.” It’s like Photoshopping on the fly. Of the 30 or so shots of the Buffalo chicken tenders, Kavanaugh will make one image by layering together the best elements of all the takes. He then makes a small work print, brings it out to the studio, and tacks it up on the wall. No contact sheets, no mind-boggling array of choices. It’s the final image.

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