Chicagoans is a first-person account from off the beaten track, as told to Anne Ford. This week’s Chicagoan is Jennifer Marx, meat photographer.
I don’t know anyone who’s shot more raw meat in this town than me. I’ve worked with the Cattlemen’s Beef Board, the National Pork Producers Council, the American Lamb Board, Tyson, Swift. Even as a photographer’s assistant, I photographed a lot of meat.
“Everyone responds to a raw cut of beef, positively or negatively. Viscerally, they react to the color and the shape. It’s not bloodred; it’s more like a wine red that’s appealing to the eye. It also smells good. If it’s fresh, it smells like grass or grain. And the meat is a firm meat. It’s dimensional.
“Plus, there is a reverence that people have when they’re around an animal product, more than there would be for, say, broccoli or mushrooms. Not to discount those items, but because of all the resources that have gone into an animal and to create food out of it, I think there’s a different reverence for it. And anything with a bone is just beautiful. It’s so architectural, you know?
“But chicken, for some reason, is not attractive, and it’s a big pain in the ass to photograph. Raw chicken is so gross. Even I get grossed out by that. I don’t like photographing just a plain cooked chicken breast either, because how do you make that look interesting? You need some skin or some bone.
“I personally think food does not look good front-lit. I feel it looks most appetizing back- or three-quarters or side-lit, so you get a sense of depth and texture and quality of the food. When it’s overlit, you lose the detail and the texture. And food dies on set, so you have to work quickly or have a stylist who’s good enough to revive it. Fortunately, you don’t have to work as fast with raw meat, though the color will change a little bit, and if there’s a lot of fat and it’s too warm, it can start to sag.
“After the shoot, we don’t generally take home the food that was on set, because it’s been touched and prodded, but anything that’s left over does not go to waste. Especially meat—oh my gosh. If it’s a huge job and there’s a lot of food left over that’s not opened, we donate it. But there is never beef left over. People are fighting to take it home. I do eat probably more meat than a lot of people, but I don’t like to cook, so I will usually take only something that’s already cooked or something to give away.
“All the food imagery on Instagram and Pinterest has made my job a lot more relatable to people. I tell people who want to take good pictures of their food to eat during the day, sit by a window, and use natural light. Keep your plate clean and simplify the composition. Think about the other items on the table. Me, when I go out to a restaurant, I rarely photograph my food. Sometimes I do pull out my camera and take a picture, and I’m like, ‘I’m never gonna do anything with this. I should just eat.'” v