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Say Cheese: Food Photography Thrives in the Twin Cities By Tom Webb firstname.lastname@example.org 07/27/2012 - 8:11 PM EDT
The cameras are clicking, the lights are glowing and the model looks delicious. Still, the production team isn't happy. What's wrong? "It's too perfect," said stylist Kimberly Colburn, who takes a pair of tweezers and moves a piece of lettuce over the edge of the plate.
If New York is the center of fashion photography, the Twin Cities has become a major player in the quirky and exacting world of food photography. Fueled by the area's heavy-hitting lineup of food companies, the gorgeous images created in Minnesota appear all around the world -- on supermarket packages, in glossy magazines, on websites and in cookbooks. The heart of this activity is General Mills, whose busy kitchen-studios produce more than 25,000 high- resolution food photos each year. It employs or contracts with dozens of food stylists, art directors and specialized photographers, all
focused on an overriding goal: the art of temptation. "How much do you want to pick up a fork and eat that?" asks Nanci Dixon, manager of General Mills' photography studios in Golden Valley. Cindy Lund is the company's manager of Food Styling, whose team prepares and fusses over
every element in a recipe so that it will be dazzling for the cameras. It is endlessly detailed work. A food stylist might comb through boxes of cereal to select the prettiest pieces. Then meticulously arrange them to generate the best look. That means understanding what's most alluring about any given item. "Is it the flakiness? Is it the gooeyness? Is it the drizzle on top?" Lund asks. "Whatever the focus of this food is, we work hard to show that." The public, however, assumes food photography involves a lot of fakery. Decades ago, that sometimes was true, before
regulators and lawyers got involved. But even today, the most frequent question Lund hears is, "What tricks do you use?" "That's easy to answer because we don't use any tricks," Lund said. "It's all our food. You could take a fork and eat it off the set -- although you'd get your hand slapped." Bill Schneck, integrated producer at Minneapolis ad agency Campbell Mithun, has worked with food photography for years. He understands the obsession with the tiniest visual detail: You can't taste a product on the supermarket shelf or smell it on a website. "That's why it has to be so good," he said. "You have to project that smell and that taste through the photography." But food can be finicky to photograph. The same recipe can turn out differently at times. And imagine taking photos of a fast- melting item like ice cream or a breakfast cereal that quickly goes soggy. "Food is hard," Schneck said. "If you're shooting a bottle of vodka, that doesn't change. But with food, it's always changing. It's a living thing, almost." Chicago ranks as the big cheese when it comes to food photography, but the Twin Cities has developed a national reputation, Schneck said. "I think it's a pretty healthy community, with Target and General Mills and Land O'Lakes and other corporations in town." Most of Dairy Queen International's luscious-looking
treat photographs also are produced in the Twin Cities, said company spokesman Dean Peterson. And no, the studio isn't chilled. "They have to work fast," he said. General Mills boasts the largest food studios in the Twin Cities, Dixon said, and ranks "among the largest, if the not the largest, in the nation." It actually has two primary studios: one at its Golden Valley headquarters and another a mile away that's large enough for "lifestyle shoots" like backyard barbecues or dining rooms. At General Mills, the headquarters studio occupies a space that once housed the Betty Crocker Kitchens. Some might remember that attraction, which in the 1960s and 1970s offered public tours of theme kitchens with motifs like Hawaiian, Williamsburg or Chinatown. CHANNELING BETTY Today the space holds four modern kitchens that serve as cutting-edge photo studios. Well, mostly cutting edge. As Dixon walks through the prop room, she laments that General Mills has one hassle in common with the typical family. "We never have enough white bowls," Dixon said. "We're a cereal company, and we're always looking for white bowls." The prop room, however, turns out to be blander that you might expect. "You'll notice the props are all neutral colors," said Adriana Amione, a Betty Crocker Kitchen food editor. "All the colors come from the food. The food is always the hero."
As in other disciplines, food photography has evolved. Lund notes that stylists once tried to develop elaborate scenes with props or strived to create perfect- looking dishes. Fashions have changed. "We want the food to look real and the food to have imperfections," she said. "That's been a real shift over the years. It used to be, 'Oh, there's a crack or a hole -- we've got to fix that.' We don't do that anymore." "If the crust cracks a little bit, that's one of its features," Dixon added. "Too perfect" was the problem with the Green Giant "vegetable canoe" that Colburn, a freelance food stylist, recently prepared. It's an attempt to get kids to eat their vegetables, but the studio team realized that any parent-and-child preparing the item isn't striving for picture-perfect. A few imperfections can make it more appealing.
Nearby, another team worked on Latin-inspired dishes for Que Rica Vida, General Mills' initiative for the growing Hispanic market. That illustrates another advantage of food photography: It's accessible to all cultures. Photos long have played a powerful role in General Mills' success. In 1950, the company
introduced the "Betty Crocker Picture Cook Book," launching the most successful cookbook in U.S. history, with 65 million copies sold and counting. Photos for the 11th edition were shot in this studio, and Dixon takes pride in flipping through the pages. "I think there is a photo for every recipe in here," she said. "Then we have a number of step shots, so that people can see -- it's really an instructional, as well as just plain beautiful." Rick Sferra, professor of media arts at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, knows from personal experience how difficult food photography can be. Years ago, he was involved in a photo shoot for Wendy's. "They actually brought a Wendy's milkshake machine into the studio," Sferra recalls. "We made Frostys for hours, trying to get the right curly-cue at the end of the cup, so it was photogenic. We were shooting them under hot lights, and we had like a 20-second window to get it in place, get it shot, before it all melted." Digital photography and less- disruptive lighting systems have eased that problem somewhat, but other restrictions remain. MARBLES IN THE SOUP "There are certain legal guidelines you have to follow," Sferra added. "There was a famous case against Campbell Soup, back in the late '60s, when in an advertisement they put marbles in the bowl, so all the vegetables sat higher." The challenges of high-end food photography have spawned some unusual niches. If a shoot calls for cereal and milk, "We have people who specialize in milk splashes, and we bring them in," Dixon said.
Added Lund, "That's true of styling, too. They can specialize in pizza or ice cream." At the peak of the profession, being a food stylist can involve travel, working with celebrities and spotting your work inside every supermarket. But even at General Mills, there's a definite downside. After preparing a recipe, stylists also have to clean up the kitchen. And the food? After the shoot, it goes into the staff break room. Tom Webb can be reached at 651- 228-5428. Follow him at twitter.com/TomWebbMN .