Food Is People
Look closely at Jody Horton's photographs of food, and you'll see the passionate folks who make it
Out of the tub they spill, dozens upon dozens of crawfish, a cataract of crustaceans, their orangey-red rawness set off by the sun-bright yellow corn on the cob and lemons nestled among them. Their shells aren't shiny, but the smooth evenness of the light makes them appear to glow, and the lushness of the colors combined with the precise moment being captured – the instant that boiled-up goodness hits the weathered wood of the picnic table – just calls out to you to come and get it. It's the kind of image that gets your mouth watering, makes you crave something that you didn't even know you were hungry for, and, even as it rumbles your belly, seizes your heart and makes you fall in love with the very idea of food.
That's the kind of photo Jody Horton takes, and it's no wonder that this Austin photographer has been tapped by the likes of Bon Appétit, Food & Wine, Travel & Leisure, Esquire, GQ, Southern Living, Texas Monthly, The New York Times, Spirit, Whole Foods, et cetera, et cetera, to shoot food. Even Whataburger has Horton on speed dial – that's how much everybody loves his stuff. And why not? He doesn't try to fake you out with glossy comestibles, shampooed and lacquered and lit like Vogue models in a high-fashion spread. He's about substance more than style, finding the feeling that goes into the growing of the food, the harvesting of the food, the cooking/baking/broiling/grilling/roasting of the food, even the serving of the food, and capturing that in the image. He likes to be in the South Carolina marshes (his homeland) with the oystermen pulling shells from the shallows, in the Rio Grande Valley orchards as the farmworkers grab Ruby Red grapefruits off the trees, in the hives with the beekeepers as they scrape off fresh honey, in the pit as the boss bastes the brisket one more time. In Horton's images, you sense a real connection of food to human life – as sustenance, as nourishment, as craft, as calling, as pleasure. Obviously, it's there where he's included all or some part of a human figure: a farmer in the field, a chef in the kitchen, a pair of hands slicing open a fresh peach. But even when no person is present, when all that's seen is the table set with the meal or the plate full of food, something is communicated about how that food came to be where it is and what will happen to it; maybe it's the knife next to the mound of sliced beef or the fork that just cut open the steaming tamale, but we sense the hands that made it and the mouths into which it will disappear after the click of the shutter.
For someone whose work photographing food is so artful and highly developed and consistent in quality, you'd think Horton had been snapping shots of edibles since he was old enough to hold an Instamatic. But this was a career that he backed into, and only in the past decade. He didn't even give much thought to photography until he started college. An intro course at Clemson University started him down that road, but he was still following a longtime dream of becoming a writer and earned his bachelor's degree in English. When Horton finally realized that "writing for me is quite painful," he made the switch to cultural anthropology and headed to grad school at the University of New Mexico. While there, he and a friend launched a magazine, La Cocinita – "the little kitchen" – and since it was a heavily DIY venture, he ended up taking a lot of the photos of area restaurants, farms, markets, and food. But even though that experience immersed him in food photography, Horton kept pursuing other fields. Time spent in South Asia and a stint with a small magazine in Costa Rica had led him to imagine a career as a travel and adventure photographer, but that didn't pan out. In grad school, he took classes in 16mm film and decided that documentary filmmaking was what he wanted to do. Indeed, he and his wife Regan made their move to Austin in part because of the strength of the filmmaking scene here. The amount of time and effort involved in obtaining funds and keeping up with the changes in technology made making a living from that quite a challenge, however, and when children came on the scene – they have two sons, Fields and Hyder – Horton decided to get serious about photography as a career.
It was Texas Co-op Power that really ignited Horton's interest in food photography. Despite a title that makes it sound like a trade publication, the magazine is a general-interest periodical that the state's electric cooperatives have been putting in customers' homes for 70 years and boasts a circulation of 1.2 million. A story Horton shot on a peach grower in Fredericksburg reminded him of how much passion people have for food and how easy it is to structure a story around it. "I felt like it played to some of my strengths," he says, so he followed it up by pitching the magazine a series on Texas farms in different parts of the state. They took him up on it. Not long after, a friend of Horton's launched the magazine Edible Austin, and he began shooting stories for them. A pitch to Texas Monthly on squirrel hunting in East Texas earned him his first assignment (of many) for that publication. And almost before he knew it, Horton had found his photographic niche. Now, he has a portfolio bulging with editorial and commercial assignments for a host of prestigious companies and publications, and a book, Afield: A Chef's Guide to Preparing and Cooking Wild Game and Fish, that he collaborated on with Dai Due chef Jesse Griffiths.
For the Food Issue, the Chronicle asked Horton a few questions about his approach to food photography. Here's what he told us:
On shooting people with food: "What's compelling about working with food – and what makes it in some ways easy – is people who do it almost always do it because they are passionate about it. If you're taking pictures of accountants, maybe they're tortured and don't have very much passion for what they do, but almost everyone in the food world does it because they love it. It doesn't mean it's not hard, but at the core it's something they really care about. So the goal is just to get out of the way and let them be just as they are, or, for a setup type of shot, try to make them feel as natural as possible."
On shooting food by itself: "You're trying to take a photo that will make it clear what you're photographing. That sounds pretty obvious, but I was talking to a stylist the other day and trying to demonstrate some basic points of photography, and you could take an overhead shot of a pie and if it had a solid top to it, you would have no idea what type of pie it is. So if you're going to take a picture of this pie and it's not going to be dependent on a caption, then the pie has to be sliced and on a plate, so you can see that it's an apple pie or whatever.
"Beyond being able to tell what it is, I think about how that food should best be seen, like is it something that, compositionally and graphically, is going to make more sense overhead, or is it something like a hamburger, which classically is shot at a more heroic low angle? So what's the best angle for showing this, to display what it is and best reveal its nature? After that, I think about lighting, where that wants to be and how I can have some amount of dynamic light that comes into it. That usually means some light coming from behind the subject and then bouncing some back into the face of it so that it's balanced. I feel like light behind it gives your eye somewhere to go. I think about it being like a sense of ascension, like a place where you can go up into the frame.
"Then, propping is really important for certain types of photos. Oftentimes, having a little element in a photo, you borrow some of the authenticity of an object by taking a photo of it. The photo itself seems to have the quality that, like, a beautiful old spoon possesses. It's like throwing a little supermodel into the photo."
On light: "I just use natural light. There are all sorts of lights and filters and stuff out there that you can use, but I don't think you're ever gonna beat the sun as a light source, you know? It's just gonna be better. I'll bet there are people out there who can artfully use artificial light, but it is what it is. Artificial light is going to, even if it's just in some small way, feel artificial. So if you limit your possibilities to natural light, it has a certain credibility about it, a certain softness."