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BEST OF 2014, Jim Scherer
Dorchester, MA
Jim Scherer’s photographs have graced the pages of a weekly food column in the Boston Globe’s Sunday Magazine for more than 30 years. The Globe gives him artistic freedom to design the shots, so he tries to go beyond the basic and literal to make viewers go back for a second look.

© Jim Scherer

© Jim Scherer

“Shooting food combines the discipline and technique of the studio with the flexibility to react to something that’s organically changing in front of your eyes,” Scherer says. “There’s an element of discovery in the process. But most important, don’t overwork the shot. Let the food speak for itself, with whatever personality and imperfections it presents.”

ASMP: How long have you been in business?

Jim Scherer: I started assisting in ’74 and went on my own in ’77.

ASMP: What initially prompted you to join ASMP?

JS: I wanted to become more professional; to learn how the more experienced shooters ran their businesses.

ASMP: What do you consider the most valuable aspect of your ASMP membership?

JS: Knowing I belong to an organization of my peers to whom I can go for support, and knowing there is a national organization that is sticking up for my (and all photographers’) rights, those would both be high on my list. There’s also the networking aspect, where I meet newer photographers and we can exchange ideas.

ASMP: What has made you stay an ASMP member since 1981?

JS: I’ve always wanted to support ASMP and its advocacy efforts. Who else was going to press for our rights during several decades of change to our business?

When I joined in ’81 I wanted ASMP as my resource: things were quiet but I knew someone would be there for me if needed. Later, I became involved with my New England chapter and found it valuable to know other members, usually in different specialties. I served as program chair and later as co-president.

I was on the National Board during some of ASMP’s most difficult years. Stock was becoming a threatening issue, and ASMP was in the throes of creating a controversial copyright organization.

Later, when newspapers like the New York Times began to demand increased usage rights, my weekly food shot in the Boston Globe Sunday Magazine was affected. This gig, which has lasted 32 years and continues today, has always been important to me as a creative outlet. I made the very unpopular decision to agree to the new Globe contract. I had to resign from the national board because of this, but in retrospect I’m glad for my decision. I must say that this client has respected our partnership, not exploited it. It was a tough experience, but I kept up my ASMP membership because I’ve always believed in its mission.

After that episode, the remaining national board started to realize that photographer education alone was not the answer. ASMP had to try to actually change the playing field in order to improve photographers’ positions. Whether it has succeeded in doing this or not, the landscape today is so different it’s hard to tell. Many have succeeded but I believe the middle market has fallen out.

ASMP: What is the most important relationship you’ve formed through your ASMP membership?

JS: It’s hard to pick just one, but knowing Gene Mopsik while I was on the board meant a lot to me. I still run into him at the trade meetings, and we always enjoy catching up. ASMP has been lucky to have him as Executive Director.

ASMP: What are your photographic specialties?

JS: I shoot food and beverage, both editorial and for advertising.

ASMP: What do you consider your most valuable piece of equipment?

JS: First, my curiosity and imagination. After that, the ability to shoot tethered and see what I’ve got on a big screen — seeing things that way makes me feel like I’m getting a big Christmas present. The specific equipment is important, but secondary.

ASMP: What is unique about your approach, or what sets you and your work apart from other photographers?

JS: Being easy to work with, having a good team, being consistent and reliable in turning a job around, and giving the client an overall good experience while they’re here and afterwards — these are all things I think we do well. I’m a good collaborator, especially under stress.

ASMP: When beginning an assignment, how much time do you spend in preliminary planning meetings and preproduction before you start photographing?

JS: For an advertising shoot, we have a conference call with everyone involved: agency, client, stylists, and crew. The details of a shoot sometimes come together on short notice, so often the pre-pro is just a few days in advance. I will sometimes have a direct conversation with the stylist(s) as well.

On the morning when we begin the shoot, I like to get everyone together in one room and go through the plan for the day. We all should be on the same page by then, but you’d be surprised what comes up. It definitely helps to lay out the expectations for the day.

ASMP: Where do your influences and inspirations generally come from? Do your everyday shopping and dinning experiences give you ideas for shoots?

JS: I’m not a “foodie” and tend not to keep up with the latest food trends. But sometimes I’ll see an image in print that strikes me — it might be non-food, just an interesting color palette or a way of lighting — that starts me thinking about possibilities.

ASMP: You mention that collaboration with your food stylist is integral to your process. Do you work with other team members during a shoot?

JS: On my editorial shoots (e.g. when I’m shooting for the Globe) it would be the food stylist and the writer of the column whom I work with. In this case, the stylist not only preps the food for the camera, but also brings props and backgrounds. It’s rare to have the same person doing both, but she’s an artist and it’s great to have a unified vision for both the food and the props. The writer is there as the voice of the food — ensuring we’re true to the recipe, so the home reader can have a realistic expectation. He also advises on techniques and possible substitutions.

On our advertising shoots, there are quite a number of folks present. My photo assistant and studio manager are two key people without whom I couldn’t work. Then there’s the food stylist and sometimes an assistant; a prop stylist who provides backgrounds, plates, and all the elements we need for the set; and an Art Director, who is not exactly on my own team but with whom I work very closely. We have to have great communication to work together successfully.

I’ve worked for years with the same team for one of my commercial clients, Dunkin’ Donuts, and we’re at the point where we can all pretty much read each others’ minds — myself, my assistant, food stylist, and prop stylist. We laugh when we notice we’re headed for the same thing.

ASMP: In general, once the food is prepared how long does it take to light and shoot it? What kind of time constraints and issues do you need to address as the food changes with the heat of the lights, etc.?

JS: We almost always start with a stand-in for set-up and lighting purposes. Once things are really close, then we bring out what’s called the hero — the final plate. I try to shoot that within a couple of minutes, if at all possible. Even if there are changes that need to be made, digital allows me to make an early capture, in case the changes take us down the wrong path.

Sometimes digital allows us to treat the stand-in as a final shot, because every click is a capture. If we like what we get, then it’s the hero. If it needs work or a rebuild, then it’s the stand-in. Either way, you’re making progress.

There is not a lot you can do to overcome the time factors. The best thing is to make life as easy and comfortable as possible for your food stylist. You don’t want them hunting for a tool, or unable to reach the set because of a light in the way.

ASMP: You mention that photographing food combines aspects of still life with a changing and moving subject. How do you work with that situation? Do you have specific tips for success in capturing the “aliveness” of food in an image?

JS: Don’t overwork it. Let the food speak for itself, with whatever personality and imperfections it presents. Some clients try to erase each blemish and unevenness and the result becomes flat and lifeless.

ASMP: Do you have a specific lighting strategy that you most prefer to work with?

JS: I start by looking at the subject before me and ask myself where the main light should be coming from. It’s almost always coming from somewhere behind or to the side. Once that direction is established, everything else falls into place. I often add a small, undiffused specular light to add bling, plus some type of fill. The light should be there, but not really call attention to itself.

For editorial shoots I often use daylight. We have three huge, 12-foot tall windows facing south in the main shooting room. For advertising, we use Broncolor strobe, sometimes with a little HMI thrown in. For light modifiers we use everything from bare heads to soft boxes to a nine-foot parabolic reflector.

ASMP: Which food or foods do you find most difficult to light in an appealing way, and what strategies do you use to resolve this?

JS: Things that are dark and lack structure tend to be harder. As an example, a bowl of sautéed kale can be hard: It’s dark, lacking shape, and can be in stark contrast to the smooth white of the bowl. I might try to lessen its place in the composition, or toss in a new ingredient such as onions to add some interest, or do a serving of it over rice to give it shape. Sometimes your lighting can solve the problem, but very often if you talk with your food stylist about it, he or she can suggest a solution.

Beverages are also tricky, but interesting for that same reason. I love the tones and colors you get through a liquid, and the condensation and reflections on the glass add an additional element. Shooting beverages is an entire lighting lesson in itself, and we don’t have room for that in this interview.

ASMP: Do you find it advantageous to research the food you’re photographing even if it’s something common, like trout for instance? What are your go-to resources for such research?

JS: I don’t usually research the food ahead of time. Sure, if you’re not familiar with a particular food, it’s helpful to do a Google image search so you know what to expect. But, as a photographer, I really rely on what I see with my own two eyes on the set, the day of the shoot.

ASMP: Do you get involved with the preparation of the food before you shoot it, and if so, do you find that it influences your approach to shooting the food?

JS: I get involved in the food prep only in the sense that I talk with and watch the stylist as they do their job. That way, I learn about any time constraints, the best angles to shoot and how to anticipate any possible changes. But once the food is on the set, it’s all about how it looks through the lens. Nothing else counts.

ASMP: Do you and your wife enjoy cooking for fun? What’s your favorite food to cook and why?

JS: I cook on weekends and whenever we have company. My wife cooks on weekdays. You’d be surprised; what we make is fairly mainstream. But recently I’ve become a fan of Ottolenghi’s recipe for eggplant from the cover of his book Plenty.

ASMP: Early in your career you worked with Julia Child, photographing food on the set of her TV show. What was she like to work with? What was the most important lesson she taught you about photographing food?

JS: Have passion in what you do. Don’t be afraid of making mistakes. Plunge right in!

ASMP: Tell us about your relationship working with Julia Child.

JS: Julia let me cut my teeth as a professional photographer when I was an unknown. She took an interest in me and would ask about my kids and about my other work. She did this in a genuine way and I saw her do it with others too. This was a bit unnerving because you knew she wasn’t just making small talk when she asked you these things. She had a generous spirit and I’ve learned so much from that. She thought of herself more as a teacher than as a cook. And definitely not as a “chef,” which she left to the professionals.

ASMP: Are there any plans for the collection of your work from the Globe’s Sunday magazine column becoming a book? Would there be any rights clearance issues with the Globe for publishing a book of this work?

JS: We’ve talked about the idea from time to time. It’s definitely possible, but the realities of the cookbook publishing business are that in order to have a publisher show real interest, you need some tie-in, such as a TV show or a restaurant. There would not be a rights issue though, so stay tuned.

ASMP: What is the most important advice that you’d give a young photographer starting out now?

JS: Follow your passion. Don’t get into the profession if you think this will be glamorous or make you rich. Keep shooting, be patient, stay focused. Don’t worry about acquiring equipment — that will come in time.

ASMP: Where do you ideally see yourself in five years time? Have you set any major personal or professional goals for yourself in the years ahead?

JS: I’m getting ready for a gallery exhibit in western Massachusetts, which will include both food and still life. It will be more conceptual images, not so much recipe illustrations. There are a couple galleries here in Boston that we’re talking to as well. I recently bought an amazing 44-inch Epson 9900 printer, and it’s a joy to see prints come out of it so luscious and rich.

I’d also love to do a couple more cookbooks. Projects where I can get involved over a period of time are so rewarding. You also have something permanent to show for all your work, the result is not so ephemeral.

© Jim Scherer
© Jim Scherer