The year was 1985. Twenty four years ago. I was 29 years old and had bounced around a bit in the career arena. I'd done some teaching at UT Austin and I was working as a creative director at a struggling advertising agency. I'd done a fair amount of freelance photography since 1980 and a lot of the editorial work I did was done for Texas Monthly Magazine. Nothing really big but kind of steady.
In the Spring of 1985 I got a call from the book publishing subsidiary of Texas Monthly called, Texas Monthly Press. "Would I be interested in doing the photography for a cookbook on Mexican Food?" I jumped at the chance. I'd done a few food photographs for lifestyle magazines as well as some table top stuff on wines and liquors but I'd never done location food work like this before. Back then people were willing to take more chances. They decided, based on what was in my portfolio, that I would be able to muddle through just fine.
The author of the book was Anne Lindsay Greer. She had done two previous cookbooks that had been very successful, was a famous restaurant consultant and also a writer for Gourmet and Bon Appetite Magazines. Anne had restaurants and recipes in mind and the whole project revolved around showcasing one or two dishes from every selected restaurant. We'd go on location, have the chefs cook up their signature dishes, have Anne style the food and the decor and then shoot. I would do the lighting design and frame up the shots using stand in food. Once the technical stuff was decided we'd bring in the hero entree and shoot film.
Now, to all the well equipped photographers out there, grab hold of your Airport Security cases and hold on tight because you will not believe that any work could be done with the primitive gear I had available at the time. Let's start with the car. I was driving a 1968 Volkswagen Beetle. It never had air conditioning and, if I took right hand turns too fast, the driver's door had a tendency to fly open. It was a small car but that never presented a problem because all of my gear fit nicely in the back seat. And the car was amazingly reliable. It had a few dents and there was a nice decal of a trout on the engine lid. Great gas mileage but back then who cared?
I had two cameras. One was a Canon FTb. A fully manual camera with a sync speed of 1/60th and a top speed of 1/1,00oth of a second. The second was the down market or budget camera from Canon, the TX which had a top shutter speed of 1/500th of a second. It made a great back up and I thank the fates that I rarely had to use it. The lenses were equally interesting. I made due with a 24mm lens, a 50mm 1.8 lens, and a 100mm f2.8 lens. This was a time before there were Polaroid backs for many 35mm cameras so I brought along an old polaroid 195 which could be synced to our lights.
Ouch. I'm just remembering the lights. A 22o watt second Novatron power pack the color of a bad solder joint with two plastic heads and three spindly silver stands. One white umbrella and a Vivitar battery powered flash that pre-dated the 283 model. The piece de resistance was the gold colored budget tripod someone had given me back in school. That and an extension cord was the bulk of my equipment bounty.
We shot everything on Kodachrome 25 and 64 ASA film (ISO for the latecomers). I borrowed a Sekonic flash meter.
We'd have a schedule each week that we'd all agreed too. Ms. Greer would fly to the location and be driven to the restaurant. My editor would drive her car and I would rendezvous at the location with my VW. Not every shoot was memorable. I shot Chile Rellenos at a restaurant in San Antonio and you just can't do a lot with charred peppers. But there were several very memorable episodes.
At the time there was a restaurant in San Antonio called El Mirador. In foodie circles they were famous across the country for their traditional Mexican soups. They were only served on Saturdays. The recipes came from the grandmother who insisted that she make them herself from scratch. We put the bowls of soup into the hearth of a traditional Mexican fireplace and shot a wonderful shot that still stands the test of time.
And we ate the soup. And they treated us like family. Gringo family, but family all the same.
My next memorable stop was at the Mansion on Turtle Creek in Dallas. At the time it was one of the toniest and most expensive hotels and restaurants in the country. I pulled into the parking lot amongst the Bentleys, Rolls Royces and various effete German roadcraft and at the speed of light two valet parking people took control of my car and parked it around back with the employees' cars. I had my equipment in a scarred camera bag and one of those blue plastic milk crates and those were whisked away to the bell station so no one would see them. I was an hour early and thought I'd read the Wall Street Journal to see just how to cross over to the other side and make my visits to the Mansion On Turtle Creek a more routine thing.
As I sat in the lobby reading the financial news a waiter stopped by and asked if I would like something. I decided on a cup of coffee and a chocolate croissant. How bad could that be? Well, try $18 in 1985 dollars. First big problem of the day. I brought $20 along with me. You know, to cover gas back to Austin and maybe a dinner at McD's en route. Poof. All gone. Amazing because at the time you could get a much, much better cup of coffee and one of America's best croissant at Sweetish Hill Bakery in Austin for around $2. Really, much better.
We photographed the tortilla soup in the main dining room and I got my first stab at making exposure work with half the frame as an interior and the other half of the frame as a sunlight exterior. Thank God for Kodachrome 25. I would have loved to have some of the tortilla soup and a few of the sides we photographed but as soon as we finished the food was swept away and they gave us a lusty, "Thank you very much for coming!" and showed me to the door. Then we remembered that the car was out back and we tromped back through the kitchen into the back lot.
I could've used part of that twenty bucks to buy water because I ended up in a rush hour traffic jam at a dead stop for two hours......in July, in Texas. And remember, no air conditioning.
I had a small cooler but it was dedicated to keeping film and Polaroid cool, not stocked with thirst quenching beverages.
The shoot that made the biggest impression on me took place at a restaurant called Las Canarias which was part of an upscale hotel on the Riverwalk in San Antonio. It was by now into the first week of a brutally hot August. We got to the location around 3pm and the chef and Anne decided that the appropriate photo would be a groaning buffet set across the river from the hotel. In this way the photo would capture the table laden with scrumptious Mexican morsels, the beauty of the Riverwalk and the facade of the hotel......all in one!
And that's when they mentioned the ice sculpture. A big, bird ice sculpture would be the centerpeice for the table. To get the shot they wanted meant setting up the table right in the middle of the direct sun. Remember our equipment list above? This was becoming a recipe from hell. I put both light heads into the big white umbrella at full power and they barely made a dent in the wicked hot sunlight. About this time an older gentleman with a Leica in his hand walked up to me and pulled me aside. I expected the usual "are you a professional? What kind of cameras should I buy?" questions, but no. He'd looked over my set up and watched the ice bird dripping to its death and humanely interceded.
"The only way you'll make this work" he whispered "is if you get a king sized white bed sheet and use it to block the sun from the food." And then he smiled and blended into the crowd that had gathered. Ten minutes later I had two bus boys, who spoke no English, standing on an adjacent set of tables holding a king sized bed sheet as high up as they could. I had all the flashes on full power and then I said a prayer for good luck. The photo was remarkable. I love it. It may be the best photo in the book. And, if you read my past blogs you'll know that I never leave home without at least one six foot by six foot white scrim.
I had a fun shoot at Fonda San Miguel here in Austin which started a twenty year relationship with the restuarant. And the shot looked great as well.
All total I shot 16 rolls of film at 16 restaurants. After ten years of shooting digital I am amazed at those numbers. That's an average of 36 exposures for every shot used in the book. Spread out over two or three weeks of shooting. Enough to "see" the shot, bracket, try another angle or two. Add in the Polaroid and I'm going to say that we did the whole book for around $250 in film and processing.
So, I was a neophyte, working with trash gear, severly under-inventoried in the lighting department and sapped of my endurance and fortitude by a transportation system that many would now consider cruel and unusual. How did the project turn out?
The book was/is beautiful. Texas Monthly kept it in the catalog for years and eventually sold the book to Gulf Coast Publishing. The last I heard it hit five reprints and multiple editions. Interesting to think that projects got done before Profoto rentals and 24 megapixel cameras and legions of assistants. And self referential video coverage. And air conditioning in cars.
El Mirador, San Antonio, Texas