Sometimes, I just plain sucked

cheesecakewebWhen the newspaper industry began its shift from black and white to full color in the mid 1980s, another trend hit. The business went “studio happy.” For several years, newspapers were going crazy with studio shoots. They seemed more interested in studio shoots than real world stuff. Not just in Bakersfield, but everywhere. We spent thousands building a studio (it was really cool, I have to admit), buying the latest and greatest lights and stands and backdrops and filters and whatever else we needed. We were sent to Los Angeles for studio photography training. The first question for every assignment was always “Can we do it in the studio?” For me, there was just one little problem. I was a news photographer and news happened out on the streets. I really had no interest in studio work, and as you can clearly see from the photo here, I sucked at it.

Now before you start hitting that comment button, let me say that I’m taking responsibility for the terribly done photo, but not for the concept. No, no, no, the concept was not mine. It was the brainchild of features page designer Mark Stetz, my good friend and classmate from the Cal State Northridge journalism department. It was an illustration for a food page story on cheesecakes. So yell at him, not me. He’s a Catholic priest now, doing the Lord’s work somewhere on the central coast. If you find him, tell him you want to talk about the “Great Cheesecake Photo Shoot.” He’ll remember, because from the very beginning, this thing was a disaster.

First, I think you should know about a very important decision we made. We talked about whether to have our model wear a bikini, but decided against that because we didn’t want the photo to be offensive. No, seriously, that happened. Then we learned our first lesson about photographing food. Sometimes the food you eat can’t be the food you photograph. Mashed potatoes are used on ice cream shoots, because ice cream melts. Cooked foods are coated with oils after preparation to make them shine. Motor oil is sometimes used in place of syrup. Some food is coated with fabric protector like Scotchgard to keep it from absorbing liquids, and some delicious-looking, beautifully shaped dishes look that way because the inside isn’t food, it’s cardboard. Stuff like that. Within about five minutes of the shoot, we learned that cheesecake is one of those foods that doesn’t like being under studio lights. We had purchased about a dozen custom made cheesecakes, and man were they expensive. The original concept was to have our model, Rhonda Shaw, lying lengthwise with the cheesecakes spread around her. We were trying to replicate Richard Avedon’s then wildly famous “Natassja Kinski and the Serpent” photo, except we were going to use cheesecakes instead of a snake and nobody would get offended because our model was wearing a bathing suit. What could possibly go wrong?

Our plan to do a cheesecake shoot that replicated Richard Avedon's classic "Nattasja Kinski and the Serpent" didn't quite work out.
Our plan to do a cheesecake shoot that replicated Richard Avedon’s classic “Nattasja Kinski and the Serpent” didn’t quite work out.

Before we could even take our meter readings and start adjusting the lights, the row of cheesecakes started melting. And melting fast! Within minutes, whipped cream and cheese and graham cracker crumbs were flowing unabated all over the studio floor. What a disaster! Word spread quickly to the third floor newsroom, we were on the fourth floor, that there was a disaster in the photo studio with a food shoot. In the newsroom, that meant one thing: free food! Suddenly, reporters and copy editors and whoever else rushed to   the studio, scooping up whatever cheesecake hadn’t found the floor yet. That’s how it works in Any Newsroom USA, food left out or left over is fair game. If you’re one of those people who thinks that your food is yours and nobody better dare touch it, don’t go into journalism. It won’t work out for you.

Poor Stetz had a hard time with this one. We would not be paying homage to the great Richard Avedon with this shoot. We had to reschedule and think things through. We did a little research and discovered that the secret ingredient to keeping cheesecakes from falling to pieces under studio lights is gelatin. The cakes need to be almost all gelatin to hold shape. Even with an almost unlimited budget, the paper wasn’t going to spring for another dozen custom cheesecakes, not at $20 or $30 apiece, or whatever they cost. They let us buy five more, and we had the baker make them out of pure gelatin, except for the exterior that would be photographed.

As for the photo, how about a little critique? Terribly placed and positioned lighting. No dimension to any of the cakes. What are those cheesecakes doing in that photo of a girl in a bathing suit? Does she have a lower right leg and a left foot? How about a right hand? Where’d those fingers come from? Who took a bite out of the second cake from the left? Yep, this one was a winner. I would, however, get much better in the studio. And thankfully, “thank you, thank you, thank you,” the crazy newspaper studio fad of the 1980s faded away. Good work is still done in newspaper studios, but the mindset that “every shoot needs to be a studio shoot” is long gone.

When we finished with the makeup photo shoot, the one with the cheesecakes made of gelatin, I called down to the newsroom and announced that there were five more free cheesecakes up in the photo studio. Within minutes, it was packed with reporters ready to dig in. Watching that was fun.


4 thoughts on “Sometimes, I just plain sucked

  1. John’s eye-candy and real world commentary is addictive. Can’t get enough, John. Raw emotion on the tough memories and in-your-face for the jerk jobs and laugh at yourself when you’re the jerk on the job. Delightful read! Judy Salamacha

  2. John,
    That is one of the cheesiest photos of I have ever seen.
    But I can say from experience that your food photography improved greatly. I did a number of food stories where I cooked and you shot photos.
    I’m enjoying your blog immensely.

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