Fresh, clean, and iconic, Jeff Kauck’s art-inspired food images not only whet the appetite, they also evoke the imagery and style of some of the world’s great painters. So it’s no surprise to learn Monet, Van Gogh, and Degas are his inspirations.
“While studying painting, I started taking pictures, and soon fell in love with the mechanics and speed of photography,” says Kauck, a creative, tenacious soul who conveys the same respect for white space and natural light in his photography that his fine art muses did in their paintings.
A weekend baker, Kauck has shot several cookbooks, including two recently for William Sonoma, plus the Spiaggia cookbook, which was nominated for a James Beard photography award. Photo shoots for two more books “penned by famous chefs in Chicago for Chronicle and Clarks & Potter” are on tap for this fall.
From his Chicago studio and on location, Kauck often cooks up a stack of advertising, editorial, stock, and self-assignments simultaneously. On the editorial side, he has developed several long-term client relationships—including Bon Appetit and Better Homes and Gardens—through the Workbook, direct mail, eblasts, his website, and word of mouth.
“On the commercial side there’s a lot of competition among the big-name food companies I work for,” says Kauck. “They often ask me to shoot a product even before it has a name, so sometimes there’s secrecy surrounding these clients and projects.”
Kauck takes a collaborative approach to each shoot. He explains, “For editorial, I discuss the manuscript, determining who the readers are and what the visual message is. Advertising is similar, but we focus more on the product, discussing the visual priorities—things they need me to ensure consumers will see first on their packaging.
“Advertising shoots are very controlled,” he continues. “We’ll set up one, two or three sets on the morning of or the day before a shoot begins depending on the size; audition props and looks in the stand-in phase, and everything’s usually approved by lunch. During the ‘hero’ phase, we substitute the stand-in food with the food to be shot. We’ll take one to five shots.” Continues Kauck, “For editorial, the process is similar, but there’s only a hero phase. Props and set are approved, minus the food. When it’s prepared, we’ll take 10 to 15 shots.”
Kauck feels strongly that his studio ought to meet his clients’ visual needs as well as their office needs, since many travel to his studio from around the country. He provides amenities such as computer access, phone access with conference calling, and meeting areas. “It would be unacceptable for them to come here for a shoot and return to their offices without having dealt with their daily responsibilities, so we provide them with whatever they need to do their jobs,” explains Kauck. His own production team includes his producer, photo and digital assistants, and food and prop stylists.
Kauck’s comfort with film and digital also serves him well. “While most editorial clients still prefer transparency film, most advertising clients prefer digital, so we output the files to their specs—usually Adobe 98, RGB, 16-bit, 5-250 b/w tone points, 100 percent file size. Many times we supply an inkjet print from an Epson Stylus Pro 4000 and an Image Print RIP to suggest the look and feel we are after,” notes Kauck. “I still feel large-format transparency film produces something special—maybe because it’s more organic or ‘lifts’ better, but a great 8x10 transparency moves me like nothing else.”
Like a good meal, Kauck’s accommodating, collaborative approach—combined with his watercolorist’s eye—keep his clients coming back for more. As an example, he points to his photo of two poached pears (p. 32), which he shot in Maine on his Mamiya RZ67II with a 127 lens using Kodak Ektachrome for Stonewall Kitchen’s cookbook.
“I worked with one of the owners, who’s also a photographer, to keep a bright, fresh look to the pears. It was a technical challenge to hold detail in the whites, as well as the shape and highlights in the much darker pears. We shot in open shade and reduced the light on the white surface by blocking the light with a piece of black foamcore.”
Kauck’s clients appreciate his ability to shoot under any condition, citing as an example his photo of raspberries (p. 34), created for PictureArts Corp.’s FoodPix food stock photography collection. “We’d just finished a long day of shooting. The raspberries were beautiful. I wanted to shoot them individually. It was getting very dark, overcast and raining, but we persevered, shooting with a Hasselblad H1 and an Imacon 132 digital back and 50mm lens. I placed white fill cards in the front, and shot a four-second exposure at f/11.”
Both shoots reflect Kauck’s ease at shooting with available light. “Charlie Parker once described his music philosophy: ‘First, you find an instrument that talks for you. Then you play that instrument in every type of situation. Once you’ve mastered that, forget all of it and just play.’ The same goes for photography. You have to be ready for any situation.”
He shoots in all weather conditions, in all types of light. “Bright sunlight or under clouds—it’s all beautiful. I try not to do anything not seen in nature,” says Kauck. “I believe it was Matisse who said, ’Copy nature slavishly.’”
And while his work clearly embraces nature, it does so with an inspiration, originality, and palette that just makes your mouth water.