If you make the mistake of surfing through Penny De Los Santos' website just before lunchtime, you're in trouble. You will linger over the fennel and chickpea salad, the blue corn tortilla into which perfect puffy chile rellenos has been tucked. Forget about it once you've reached the tall genoise cake, its glossy buttercream captured mid-icing. Anything you were planning for lunch (in my case: cheese and crackers) will seem pathetic.
The funny thing is that this award-winning food photographer, 47, makes her living shooting big-ticket super-styled food photography, but her passion is documentary food photography, the kind that has taken her to more than 30 countries, some of them dangerous and out of the way.
"The economics of photography has been turned on its head. This is how I make my living now. I hire food stylists and prop stylists and shoot high-end advertising. But I shoot both types of food. (The documentary) is what makes my heart beat. But I pay my bills and live in New York City by shooting pretty food beauties."
In advance of her Monday lecture "Food Culture Through the Lens," part of a yearlong Food for Thought series at University of South Florida St. Petersburg, we caught up with De Los Santos by phone at home in Brooklyn. The Saveur and National Geographic photographer, whose work has been featured in more than a dozen cookbooks, had a lot to say about why food photography matters.
How did you get into photography?
The first 10 years of my career I was trained by National Geographic magazine. I was sent all over the world, but they weren't amazing assignments.
What do you mean by "not amazing"?
The one that stands out is when I had to go to Oklahoma City and do a story on this Vietnamese community. I landed and went to where all our research indicated and it was a strip mall. Not very visually inspiring. I remember calling my editors and saying, "You know what, guys? I think we didn't get this one right." They said I could stay or leave. I ended up staying and really digging into it and finding the heart of the community. I was telling stories about culture, about immigrants, about people.
Where did the food come in?
I had an editor at National Geographic who moved to Saveur. He called me and said he had a story for me in Peru and a second story in Chile. Then he said it was telling the story about the food and it was like I heard the record scratch and said, "I don't really shoot food." He said it was everything I was already doing. It was about giving a sense of place, the people, the culture. He said don't worry about the food. And I went and thought, wow, food tells this incredible story about migration and about lives in a way that I had never thought.
What has been your most exotic food adventure?
I was in Burkina Faso for 24 or 48 hours and I had to meet the village chief. He gave me a rooster in gratitude for coming to the village, so I gave it to my host family. They took it and cooked a meal for the whole compound. They set out a table just for me with a single chair. It was pitch black and they set a bowl in front of me. I was starving and I didn't want to be that Westerner who turned on their flashlight to see what was in that bowl. My first mouthful was a ricey, soupy broth with the beak of the rooster.
What will you be speaking about during your lecture in St. Petersburg?
I'm mostly going to be talking about my travels around the world shooting food. And those stories will hopefully reveal a bigger picture about life, what journeys we take when we sit at a table and share a meal.
I have to tell you, my least favorite thing to do is to talk about how to photograph food. The most dynamic thing for me is not what's happening on the plate, it's what's happening around it.
Contact Laura Reiley at email@example.com or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter.