CD: Your website says it all with the phrase, “I like to Eat.”
Renée Comet: Interesting that you should say that, my new website says “Let’s Eat!” I thought “Let’s Eat” said it better. Eating together is all about connecting, sharing and having a good time. Food memories run deep with emotion and are (almost) always happy ones, but certainly powerful ones. I think smell and taste are the most powerful triggers for memory. I remember the smell of cinnamon from my grandmother’s French toast, and then, 30 years later in a market in Israel, I smelled a particular cinnamon that just drove me right back there. And now those two memories are locked in and connected to taste and smell.
CD: When did you start shooting? Tell me a bit about your early photographic explorations and how they led you to photographing food in the studio?
Renée Comet: I was supposed to be a nurse when I grew up but yikes! After one year of a pre-nursing curriculum and a short stay in the hospital, I knew that nursing just wasn’t for me.
They say never underestimate the impact of a teacher. I’m living proof it’s true. In my second year at community college I took a photography class from a truly inspiring teacher and I started shooting. Two years later, after my degree from Rochester Institute of Technology, I started as a photo assistant. Two years after that, I landed the job as the principal photographer for Time Life Books to shoot a cookbook series. This was my “A HAH ! ! ” moment. I had been involved in shooting lots of subjects as an assistant, but food seemed, well, just more interesting to me than say, people, or other still life. Also, I was literally overwhelmed by food information and food professionals and people who were fascinated by food. I worked with really talented people, three chefs, 5 food writers, researchers, all working on and writing about food! I got to see people killing eels, testing recipes, setting the occasional fire, but there was a constant stream of people through my studio and the kitchen thinking about the subject and how to best illustrate it. And some of these folks were literally brilliant – and so it made me really up my game. It was fascinating and a really immersive experience.
Time Life was a great job…I got to experiment with lighting and really commit myself totally to working on my craft. I remember spending like 15 hours one weekend perfecting ‘pasta lighting’. I was looking for a certain quality that was, well, elusive, and so I just kept experimenting. There is something zen like that happens. There were (and still are) many other challenges and I still sometimes disappear into my work to obtain a specific result.
It also fits my personality. I like working collaboratively and also being able to build a shot from the ground up.
CD: How has it changed?
Renée Comet: While I love working in the studio, digital photography has opened up a whole new world. In the studio I am able to do a lot more experimentation and ‘what if’ type shooting than I ever could with film. With film everything felt ‘quiet’ and lacked a certain immediacy. Putting together a great shot today is, literally putting together the best components of several great shots. It’s like putting together a puzzle before and sometimes during the shot in the order to get the result your client needs or that you visualize. For example a syrup-on-pancakes-with-butter-melting ‘shot’ may be 6 combined images to capture best all the elements.
Leaving the studio and shooting in a restaurant is thrilling! It is like a visual hunt. All the control of the studio is, well, at the studio! I am capturing something that is alive. While I still take time to stop, think, and see, there is so much to discover, and it feels like the controls and precision of the studio would be stifling in the environment and somehow get in the way of a ‘fresher’ immediacy.
CD: Washington DC for many years was a considered by many art directors to be a bit of a creative wasteland. The city has changed with a huge influx of young people and now there are exceptional design firms in the city. Your thoughts on DC and creativity? How has this change impacted the DC creative community?
Renée Comet: I have always loved DC and never thought of it as a wasteland. But I think for many of those years I was shooting a lot of editorial from out of town that included cookbooks and magazines. The AD’s that I work with in DC are talented and push me in directions I might not go on my own. Also as photographers we are working as a team with AD’s and other creatives. When we raise the bar everyone is elevated.
CD: The only time I shot food was way back in the beginning of my career when I photographed straight out of the box cheesecake from New York City. The style back then was back light everything with a soft box. Food photography has gone through an evolution with more photographers using natural light and shortened focus. What do you appreciate about images created this way?
Renée Comet: For me this style creates a place I want to be. It feels like a lifestyle that is natural and calming. The food is not perfect or stiff. I like to create a little world in a 2 foot square. I have been doing this since I was a child.
CD: What do you see in the future of food photography?
Renée Comet: There is so much more awareness and interest in food. Images that are all about the food and inferring the lifestyle that food brings. Back in the day, to illustrate Thanksgiving, you’d see a huge spread and turkey…today it’s a really tight shot of yummy turkey on a plate with some visual queues that it’s Thanksgiving, some memory trigger. I think that we will need to be more sensitive to context, culture, origin of the food, even political considerations (GMO’s anyone?) and that makes solving the visual problem more interesting and more challenging.
CD: What are your current personal projects?
Renée Comet: I have an ongoing project of shooting food characters where I mix kitchen gadgets and food to create a character that has personality. Several years ago I was fooling around with something I called ‘food-traits’ which were ‘portraits’ of people using various food items to create the ‘portrait’. Imagine a slice of green pepper, cut in half, as ears. Or a carrot as a nose. I chose the fruits and vegetables and other food items based on their personalities, so like if someone could have a temper, I might use a jalapeno as a nose! That morphed into something more playful (and on my web site) of combining kitchen gadgets and foods into three dimensional ‘people’. It was also an excuse for me to keep buying kitchen gadgets at junk shops and yard sales.
I also like to shoot for no reason because it makes me happy! It is a lot more fun than doing marketing cold calls. Every time I shoot for myself I learn something new, and that is exciting.
CD: Food shooting is a team effort. What do you look for in assistants, stylists, and producers?
Renée Comet: Someone who is as good or better at what they do than I am at what I do. One of the things that I have honed over the years is my ability to concentrate on the part of the job that’s mine to do. I make the image. I compose, fabricate, align, focus, blur, whatever is necessary to achieve the result. It’s a full time job that requires all my concentration. So my team has to know their role, and be ready to help change, move, switch, refresh, modify, tell a joke, break the ice…(!) and be present in their role. I love to be around people who are upbeat, positive and have a can do attitude, and when the shot’s ‘not working’ be open to any possibility. Food stylists are key, but something as simple as making sure a grey card is in one of the shots is also key. It’s hard to say one is more or less important, everything has to be right and all the tools there to execute.
CD: Advice for young photographers considering tabletop or food photography?
Renée Comet: Shoot a lot, it is like practicing an instrument. It allows you to think, see and develop your vision. Does it look like what you wanted it to look like? At some point you have to know in advance what you want as a result, as opposed to getting a really nice image ‘by accident’. While it’s easy to take lots of images today, cheaply, the trick is pre-visualization. Great images, really great images are rarely serendipity. Sometimes great ideas are serendipity. But once you have that idea, the result should not and I think cannot be ‘accidental’. Also you can have a vision and great starting point but you need to execute that and decide if the vision has merit. Maybe it was a bad idea to begin with!
Another suggestion is to never stop going to museums. We are really fortunate to have world class museums here that are free. Great images share great composition. Many many genres of photography and art in general share classic compositional elements. It’s important to understand a style, but not to imitate it. Build with it, but don’t copy it.
Work outside of your comfort zone and push yourself. Dive in and don’t be timid. You have to be so comfortable and facile with your equipment and with your ability to produce a certain ‘feel’ that you hone in on understanding the image your client wants. These are tools, they are not an end.
CD: The biggest mistake you see young creatives make that can hinder their careers?
Renée Comet: This is very much the same advice you get in any profession starting out. Learn to listen. Learn to provide feedback. Try not to take criticism personally, and it also helps to give criticism in a way that is not personal too!
Be respectful and open to someone else’s idea in the best possible way. It’s a collaboration, and everyone needs to feel they contributed. There are lots of ways to share an opposing opinion. Don’t be locked in to your idea so tightly that you cannot see it doesn’t work. It’s hard to do, but in my niche for example, I step back, ask myself ‘would I want to eat that’.
Remember always you are a visual problem solver. People don’t often hire you to ‘take a pretty picture’, they hire you to execute an idea that happens to be an illustration. Be open to anything!