Occasionally my job as a photographer really is what most people imagine. Day-to-day a photographer’s job is like any other. We do paperwork, make phone calls, tackle daily tasks while taking on jobs and assignments to pay the bills. But all the while we’re hoping for that special shoot, that terrific light, that perfect moment or assignment that opens opportunities and challenges us to lift and expand our creativity.
This past summer I was lucky enough to get one of those assignments. The Department of Tourism for State of Alabama has declared 2015 the Year of Barbecue in Alabama. Among many other fun projects planned they decided to do a book celebrating all the wonderful barbecue across the state. I was fortunate to be assigned to shoot it. A good friend and wonderful writer Annette Thompson traveled the state for months researching the pit masters and the styles looking for the best representation of what Alabama barbecue is. Her task, an enviable one, required her to eat A LOT of barbecue. (Under the heading of ‘someone had to do it’.) Annette’s travels took her to well over 100 ‘joints’. Fortunately for me she was able to narrow it down a bit before I followed up photographically.
I’ve been lucky enough to photograph stories on Texas Barbecue and Memphis Barbecue, barbecue in the Carolina’s and even Kansas City Barbecue. I’m a fan of every one. Are all worthy of their hard-earned reputations. But I discovered Alabama Barbecue is as good and often better than any of those places. It’s my belief that any lack of recognition for Alabama’s barbecue is because it lacks any single style like those other places. If you say Memphis or Carolina barbecue aficionados know exactly what to expect. Alabama has so many styles and is therefore harder to pigeonhole. And that makes it harder for food and media writers to ‘sell’ it in a story.
Last summer as I worked my way across the state, friends asked if I was getting sick of barbecue. The answer was no, not at all. I enjoy it more than ever. It was a hot summer behind the wheel and eating all that barbecue would have been too much. So I didn’t eat a lot but I did taste at almost every place and definitely know my personal favorites. I also gained an education in barbecue tasting and cooking theory. I hope I get to put some of it into practice here at home.
I shot in (or somewhat near) 68 towns and cities. I shot 83 of the 88 places in 10 weeks time. My earliest shoot was 3:30 am. Those pits fire up early! My latest shoots time were just after 9pm. The most photos I shot at one place was 801 and the least was 11. The most locations in one day was 7 and in one week was 18. I shot a Big Bob, two Big Daddy’s and a Fat Boy’s. I shot 12,177 photos and gave the art director 1150 for possible use. I drove just under 5000 miles. There were times I thought the shoots would never end and the book would never get done. But it is done and looks great. Ultimately some 75 places made the pages. And I’m ready to start on Volume II any time.
Alabama barbecue is terrific. Go to your favorite place soon for lunch. Grab a copy of the book and use it as a guide to seek out great places you didn’t know about near home and across the state from Ft Payne to Mobile, from Florence to Dothan. You’ll find top notch pork, chicken, turkey, brisket, sausage and even bologna and cabbage. And don’t forget the banana pudding and even the great fried pecan pie.
The morning after my shoot at Rolf and Daughters in Nashville I was assigned to shoot two breakfast plate shots at Puckett’s. Puckett’s started in Leipers Fork Tennessee and later opened a second great location in Franklin Tennessee. This was to be shot at their newest location in downtown Nashville. Overnight rains started and with temps below freezing the warnings for early morning were dire. I was up early watching local tv trying to find out if I could even make it to the shoot from my hotel. It seemed all the suburban areas outward were bad with wrecks everywhere but the central city was free of ice.
I made it down to the shoot, parking across the street in a pay lot. It was pouring and 34 degrees so I made the executive decision to take in my ‘strobist’ kit for lighting rather than try to drag my big lights across the lot. With cameras, lights, laptop and tripod I got in but a bit wet. I keep a small towel handy and dried everything off. Because the weather was so bad the restaurant wasn’t crowded which wasn’t great for them but sure was good for me. They had a nice table in a window for me, though there wasn’t a ton of light coming in. Still it worked out great. I put together my Westcott Apollo lightbox with canon strobes for a nice fill. Breakfast food often is not that easy to shoot but the first plate was great. It was two pancakes topped with cooked apples, pulled pork and a sunny-side up fried egg. Served with fried potatoes on the side. It looked yummy. The owners and pr people were there and were so relaxed and helpful. Great people which explains why it’s a great place.
On the tables they park condiments in old cardboard beer six packs. They found and brought me a Yazoo Beer six pack box which not only had great sunny yellow packaging but also is a local beer. Love getting any local touch in a shot.
Shooting to the laptop really helps. It helps, of course, with composition and lighting aspects but also brings the people helping with the shot. They see it and get very excited, drawn into the process and wanting to make it even better. It’s a huge help for me when I’m working all on my own without stylist or assistant. It’s a real kick when I blow up the detail in the food on the laptop and they see their own food for the first time in a new way.
After the shoot I sat down and ate a fresh version of the same plate. It was almost noon and I hadn’t had breakfast yet. And it was so tasty I cleaned the plate. When I left, the rain had stopped and it was over freezing for the drive home. As much as I worried about the shoot in advance it couldn’t have gone better.
The photos are scheduled for our April issue.
The two photos show the view from my hotel with car lights streaking over the wet but fortunately not icy streets and the set-up at Puckett’s.
Last Thursday evening my assignment was to shoot a wonderful new bar and restaurant in Nashville called Rolf and Daughters. My story concentrated on the bar and a couple of their signature drinks. I needed ‘beauty’ shots of the drinks, shots of the mixologist in action and a portrait of him as well. I also needed exteriors at dusk, shots of the bar’s evening atmosphere and whatever else I saw that looked good to illustrate the story. Ultimately the shoot would have three images on one page. While there I also planned to shoot what would ultimately be a 90 second video of the mixologist Matt making one of the drinks for web use. I planned to be there at 1:45 to set up and start shooting drinks by 2, Matt in action and portraits by 3 and then the video at 3:30 and finally be ready for dusk which was just after 5 and then be ready for evening atmosphere when the scene ramped up. The drinks shoot went great. Nice pinks and oranges in the drinks shooting with a 300mm and using my Elinchrom Rangers. I backlit the drinks using a grid on the light and found some nice shapes to give interest to the backgrounds and it made the ice really sparkle. Matt was easy to shoot and his portrait and action shots came out pretty cool. Unfortunately Matt needed to get the bar back set for the evening which precluded shooting the video. I set up two LED light panels , had a Shotgun mic on a boom ready, changed out the tripod head to a video head and attached the video accessories to the camera. When I was ready to start and attach another wireless mic to Matt he said he was out of time. Bummer…but the stills were the thing anyway.
The shoot is planned for our April issue and the photos can be seen there.