5@5 - Food photographer Michael Harlan Turkell
November 15th, 2010
05:00 PM ET
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5@5 is a daily, food-related list from chefs, writers, political pundits, musicians, actors, and all manner of opinionated people from around the globe.

Sometimes, all it takes is a mere photograph to elicit a rumble in the jungle and make us drool all over our keyboard - after all, the term “food porn” exists for a reason. And, one such man responsible for the aforementioned oogling is Michael Harlan Turkell.

Turkell is an award-winning photographer and photo editor of Edible Brooklyn and Edible Manhattan magazines. Along with documenting the unseen lives of chefs  in his “BACK OF THE HOUSE” project, he also hosts a food- and art-centric internet radio show on Heritage Radio Network called THE FOOD SEEN, and photographed “The New Brooklyn Cookbook” and "Clinton St. Baking Company Cookbook."

Now, he's stepping away from the lens in order to share the photography pioneers that forever changed how we look at food - as well as offer his tips on making your own food photos especially drool-inducing.

Five Cookbooks That Changed How We Look At Food, Plus Photography Tips: Michael Harlan Turkell

1. Michel Bras’ “Essential Cuisine”
"Photographers Christian Palis and Jean-Peirre Trébosc eliminated the plate, placing the food on a solid flat white surface and then shot at a slight angle as if from the perspective of the chef plating the food. It’s assumed that the photos are not of finished dishes, but more so of ephemeral elements that the home cook can then compose themselves.

The cookbook is also interspersed with behind-the-scenes black and white photos of Chef Bras working in his kitchen, quietly, methodically, with details of certain techniques shown in real-time and landscapes of the cuisine’s true terroir. A very rare cookbook to find.

PHOTO TIP: When food is plated on white, without a vanishing point, one can focus on exposing for shadows, which helps show form and texture without compromising depth of field. The food isn’t blown out. This idea can be furthered by plating directly on frosted Plexiglass and lighting from underneath."

2. Marco Pierre White's “White Heat
"Photographer Bob Carlos Clarke, already known for his gritty and raw images mainly of erotic nudes, took his camera into the kitchen of a self-proclaimed madman, and came away with the non-posed frenetic spirit of a chef that hadn’t been seen before.

This is a two-parter, the second half of the cookbook displays Michael Boys' food photography, which is a shocking contrast, with it’s lush colors and serene silence, to the loud chaos and motion of the Chef White à la minute imagery. This book is a pre-cursor to the next duo of cookbooks.

PHOTO TIP: Try using a flash in a stainless steel-clad, windowless kitchen and it will become apparent why high ISO’s (a.k.a. film speed, allows more light in, and provides more grain the higher you go), can be a photographer's best friend. Only until recently, digital photography didn’t have the ability to replicate anything near the quality of an analog camera using the likes of Kodak’s Tri-X film at 3200 ISO - but now, technology's caught up to speed there's no need to rely on any off-camera light source."

3. Thomas Keller’s “The French Laundry Cookbook” and Grant Achatz’s “Alinea
"The symmetry of these two books is striking. One is white and clean and the other dark and stark, but it's not surprising to find out that Keller trained Achatz (he was sous chef at The French Laundry). The time and care put into each dish for every menu at these restaurants definitely spurned the notion of hiring in-house photographers for these chefs. Deborah Jones (who shot 'The French Laundry Cookbook') and Lara Kastner (who shot 'Alinea') became employees of sorts, and were there to document the meticulous and the sculpturally modern– creating an overall vision similar to the ideology of the restaurant itself.

This is not to deny the artistic merits of Heston Blumenthal (The Fat Duck) and Ferran Adria (el Bulli) and their respective cookbooks, but the difference is their American counterparts concisely showed themselves through the critical eye and less so through artistic expression, but still proved simultaneously awe-inspiring and fundamentally sound.

PHOTO TIP: Control and consistency. It’s all about the lighting, using studio strobes and a stylist, these photographs took time and patience. Start with a soft box, and play with the extensive list of studio equipment, until you find your photo tools. Learn your craft before creating art."

4. Melissa Hamilton's and Christopher Hirsheimer’s “Canal House Cooking” volumes
"Former food editor and founder/photographer of Saveur magazine, these women collaborated and changed the idea of place and time in cookbooks and photography. They moved to Lambertville, New Jersey, and brought about zeitgeist. Gone are overproduced, lengthy photo shoots. The Canal House is all about slow and low with friends coming over to cook and eat.

Hirsheimer’s photographic perspective, literally looks down on food from an aerial vantage, rendering it 2D. Sometimes it’s shown on a cutting board, sometimes it's hot and roasted on a baking sheet. There are glimpses of a cook’s touch, their hands interacting with the ingredients while cooking, but what Hirsheimer's angle really allows into the frame are flaws. There are crumbs, forks and knives akimbo, plates that are half-eaten. It's organic with a sense of engaged energy that found those perfects points of a dish’s life that were best photographed. With their spiritually seasonal approach, it only made sense to become purists. Why try to control light and make it look natural, when you can just use natural light? Set up near a window and shoot. The rest is history.

PHOTO TIP: Natural light is food’s best friend. Rather than trying to take photos at night, take them during the afternoon or the morning. If you’re at a restaurant, sit near a window and don’t use the fill flash. It’s not about direct sunlight either - diffused is wonderfully soft, and doesn’t blowout the highlights. Also, a fixed prime lens, rather than a zoom, is better glass and provides a crisper clearer photo."

5. Hervé Amiard’s “Portraits de Chefs”
"The last book isn’t focused on the food, but the chefs themselves. Richard Avedon-like portraits of masters of modern cuisine, (Joël Robuchon, Alain Senderens, Alain Ducasse, Pierre Gagnaire, Pierre Hermé, etc.). Simple black-and-white photos, placeless backgrounds, minimal props if any. These greats are not cooking, in fact they often appear without food, but this imagery exudes their character through humility, something lost on a new generation of chefs. Maybe it's the photographer’s connection with the subject or the chef's stripped-down sense of identity outside safety of their kitchen, but it shines a light on the minimalist approach, and through showing less you see a wider range of emotions in contrast. It illuminates the soul of the chef, avoiding the superficial though ever-popular arms-crossed, smiling for the camera pose.

PHOTO TIP: Learn what makes a great portrait - it’s not so much the camera sometimes, as it is the connection. Spend time and interact on a personal level, and that’s where you get the truer image of your subject."

Is there someone you'd like to see in the hot seat? Let us know in the comments below and if we agree, we'll do our best to chase 'em down.

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Filed under: 5@5 • Photography • Think

soundoff (9 Responses)
  1. Evil Grin

    Man... I thought we'd see some food photography, but all we got was a picture of knives.

    November 16, 2010 at 11:16 am |
  2. Snow

    Hey... I could gouge my ex's eye out with any one of those!!!!!

    November 16, 2010 at 10:23 am |
  3. jim


    November 16, 2010 at 9:07 am |
  4. The Tin Man

    I see lots of donkey punches in my future.

    November 16, 2010 at 7:23 am |
  5. Jack the Ripper

    I'd hit it.

    November 15, 2010 at 5:49 pm |
  6. Lorena Bobbit

    Where can I register for that collection?

    November 15, 2010 at 5:46 pm |
  7. Truth

    It would be very dangerous to hit any of that...

    November 15, 2010 at 5:45 pm |
    • Jdizzle McHammerpants, Liberace Blower, Jack the Ripper @RichHead, Truth

      See you tommorow, time to go home. (Finally) Unless I get on my iPhone and see something worth posting on.

      November 15, 2010 at 6:01 pm |
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