A throwback to the film days.


In the 1990s I did a lot of work for several restaurant trade magazines. A lot of it was super fun. One assignment in particular had me driving to Corpus Christi, Tx. to photograph a piece on the marketing V.P. of the Whataburger hamburger chain. He was a great guy and we spent a lot of time photographing and then visiting some of the stores in the area. After the article ran I got a nice "thank you" letter from the exec and in the envelope was a "V.I.P." card that I could present at any Whataburger restaurant in Texas for whatever I would like to order. That was quite a year for hamburgers. And I loved it because Whataburger was a Texas chain and probably the first fast food/burger restaurant to offer sliced jalape├▒os on their burgers. I also enjoyed their fresh lettuce, freshly cut onions and decent tomatoes. They delivered a quality product at a price that even non-Leica users could easily afford. ­čść

The same exec later sent along a signed and authenticated, Nolan Ryan baseball with strict instructions not to let Ben (then 3 or so) to play with it but to keep it safe until Ben was college bound and then sell it to help pay for school. A very kind gesture! But we still have the baseball....

Another assignment I really enjoyed was doing an article way back then for a trade magazine about Austin's best chefs. I would pack some stuff into my Volkswagen bug and drive over to some of my favorite restaurants to make portraits of the chefs. Things were less.....angsty....back then. We didn't travel with every stitch of gear or a truck load of lights. Not for editorial jobs. And not when we wanted to have fun while working. And we generally just called the subject directly on the phone. No intermediaries needed.

The image above is of a chef named, Alma C. who was working at a local favorite restaurant called, Jeffrey's. Her food was wonderful. She had great credentials but the thing that made her cooking different was her time working in Mexico City. She had a different way of approaching some classic dishes. And she was really nice to work with. 

I called up and we talked over the nuts and bolts of making the portrait and then set a time and date. I lived in the neighborhood so I left all the back-up stuff at home. If something failed I could replace it in five minutes or so (depending on neighborhood traffic..) so no worries there. I could travel light. 

On the appointed afternoon I dragged myself into Jeffrey's bar and decided that would be a good place to make the portrait. I stuck a Hasselblad 500CM and a 150mm lens on my old, scarred tripod and attached the (wired!) sync to a Profoto power pack. I loved using big soft boxes with my flash back then so I set up the light with a 4x6 foot soft box and arranged it where I wanted it. Just the one flash head.

Alma came out from the kitchen and asked me to select between two wardrobe choices. I always liked black so we went with that. She went into the back to change while I pulled out a light meter and checked my flash exposure and my ambient exposure. When she returned we were ready to shoot. 

We laughed. We joked around. We had a pleasant 20-30 minute session and probably only shot 48 images total. Not even enough for a warm up today. I liked the out of focus stuff in the background of the photo and I liked the way the soft light treated Alma's skin. Since I was shooting transparency film I didn't have the opportunity to do the mountains of retouching I see all over the place these days. (And yes, I am guilty of doing a bit of retouching in post routinely these days...).  I needed to get the exposure and color exactly right in camera. 

After I wrapped up the one light and the extension cord, tossed the gear into the nearby car, we shared some red wine and a foie gras appetizer Alma had concocted. Delicious. 

Then I trundled off to Austin Photo Lab and dropped off the four rolls of 12 exposure, medium format transparency film and headed back to the studio to unpack and chill out. As I pulled into the studio parking at the big building filled with studios of all sorts, I saw Michael O'Brien doing one of his classic magazine shoots out on the dis-used railroad tracks on the other side of the parking lot. His team of many assistants was setting up a huge canvas background out in the middle of the field. They were using dozens of sandbags to keep the gusty wind from blowing everything down. 

There was the requisite big softbox, also anchored with about 100 pounds of sandbags, and a Hasselblad on a stout Gitzo tripod. Michael was off to one side conferring with the talent and several art director types. It was such a different production than the one I'd just breezed through. But a different level of budget and final circulation as well. 

My film came back from the lab and it looked fine so I selected my favorites, put them in protective sleeves and headed over to the Federal Express office on 6th St. to send off the package to the magazine editor. 

It was such a mellow shoot. No onsite art direction. No make-up person. No hair dresser. No wardrobe manager. No assistant with a serious and pensive look. No nest of wires and light stands. Just me, a light, a camera and a chef. Ah..... such fun times...