7 Questions with Santa Fe Photographer Penina Meisels

In interviews with five photographers from the United States and Canada, Mark Oppenheimer explores an essential element of 21st-century visual culture: the food photo. Whether taken by a professional with an expensive lens and a support team, or by a passionate amateur wielding a smartphone, images of food abound in our world. Settle in for a good read about what motivates the pros, and what they think makes their work not just good, but deliciously transformative.

Penina Meisels

Over a four-decade career, Penina Meisels has received a James Beard Award and an Addy Award, and her photos are in the collections of the Smithsonian, the National Sporting Library, and the Library of Congress. With more than 30 books to her name, Penina has collaborated with Julia Child, Jacques Pepin, Joann Weir, and Williams Sonoma. She lives in Santa Fe with her loyal corgi, Dr. Watson.

A pastry tool stands vertically in front of a carton of eggs

Are there similarities between shooting sculpture and food?

In a food shot, there are so many different layers. It’s a team sport, not a single person endeavor, and so one of the big layers is the team. The end product is only as good as the weakest component.

How do you work within the constraints of an assignment?

One of the reasons I love doing cookbooks is that it’s editorial work. The constraints involve following the recipes that are given to us. Sometimes the author will give us snapshots of what that dish is supposed to look like. Sometimes we follow, sometimes we don’t. There’s creative license.

How do you prepare yourself before you hit the set?

I try to start with a blank mind, without anything to say or any particular purpose. I investigate these questions: what am I trying to say with it? And who am I saying it to? It’s kind of the Twyla Tharp method of the creative process; not starting with a preconceived notion of what it’s supposed to be, which requires being comfortable with discomfort.

What is the moment of engagement, that thing that hooks your curiosity?

If I don’t get goosebumps the viewer isn’t going to be curious. I want to capture beauty and to try, if possible, to make something that’s already beautiful more beautiful.

Do you think there is a decisive moment in food photography?

I think that the phrase decisive moment was something said when a film load had only 24 to 36 frames. Now, in the digital age it is no longer relevant. We no longer have the moment. We just have to figure out the start and the finish. We pick the shot from what is in-between.

How has failure lead you to the choices you make as a photographer?

It’s my best teacher. I don’t think of it as failure but rather as well, it didn’t work out first try, let’s try again. It goes back to the idea of being comfortable with discomfort for me.

Ideally, are you shooting a beautiful plate of food or a story?

I get annoyed when people just shoot a plate of food. I want a story, a sense of place, an emotion. Is it someplace that you want to walk into and sit down? You want to see the rest of the table, eat that food, know what it tastes like. A photo of a straight plate of food doesn’t really spark my curiosity.

Story by Mark Oppenheimer / Photography by Penina Meisels

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