Last updateWed, 18 Oct 2017 10am

Food & Wine

Food as art: Local photographer recasts recipes in full color

FOOD watermelon salad fmt
Recipe, photo and illustration by Erin Gleeson for “The Forest Feast”

When creating the cookbook “The Forest Feast: Simple Vegetarian Recipes from My Cabin in the Woods” (Abrams/Stewart, Tabori and Chang, 2014), local photographer Erin Gleeson reimagined her blog as a photo book of sprawling sunlit pages, featuring local produce and watercolor annotations.

Using Bay Area ingredients and shooting exclusively in and around her cabin near Skyline Drive, Gleeson has built a tiny vegetarian empire out of her love, as a photography student, for the fruits and vegetables of the farmers’ market.

She’s been passing along best practices from the world of food-art photography and humble at-home blogging locally. Gleeson led a food photography workshop at the Hazon Jewish Food Festival in Palo Alto last month with tips on how to style food, use your camera and make the most of props from your kitchen.

“I appreciate people who can really use the food as their medium and sculpt it, but I think food styling can be simple if you think about the color and the textures,” she said.

Gleeson sources her props from the Palo Alto High School Flea Market and the Woodside Village Church Rummage Sale, and borrows from friends and family for photo shoots.

“The Forest Feast” is loaded with vintage glassware, colorful plates and platters and other accents – even an old-timey soda syphon – that add an aspirational lifestyle element to the recipes. Don’t you, too, want to gather friends in your woodsy bower for an evening of cocktails and good eating?

Rising up the food chain

Gleeson started only recently as an ingénue in the world of food blogging, and considers herself an unlikely fit – she writes few words and doesn’t discuss much personal information. The photos (and related paintings) take center stage.

“Those words don’t come to me naturally,” she said. “Doing book-tour talks, people have wanted to hear my story – and the idea is bizarre to me, but I’m sharing it.”

As an arts student, she found herself gravitating toward farmers’ markets for class assignments. She profiled a chef’s wildly colorful desserts for a final project, and started working as a photographer for chefs and restaurant public-relations firms. Pitching herself to editors for magazine and newspaper shoots, she found that word-of-mouth and email persistence won her off-the-cuff commissions – “It’s a hustle, for sure.”

When her husband, Jonathan Prosnit, accepted a job at Los Altos Hills’ Temple Beth Am, Gleeson moved West with him and reinvented herself – no more slick, urban food photos. Local food editors preferred a more organic, “linen and pottery” feel, she said.

She created “The Forest Feast” blog as a portfolio project, building a body of work that might help land future commissions. “I cooked for the photos because I didn’t have a network of chefs or anyone to make the food for me,” she said. “I always loved to cook but made very simple things because I haven’t trained as a chef or anything.”

Gleeson started with the eight ingredients that arrived in her weekly community-supported agriculture shipment, creating visual recipes with minimal description, often little more than a list of ingredients and a suggestion of technique.

TheForestFeast.com spread across blog networks, and six months after she started posting, an East Coast editor came calling – with a book deal.

Even in the book, which includes measurements and something closer to step-by-step directions, the words are painted over pictures, almost in the manner of a cartoon or a children’s book, but with a swish of adult style.

“It’s the immediacy of it, the way it’s so visual, that makes it pretty accessible,” Gleeson said. “You can look at it and immediately understand how you can make that recipe, without having to read much.”

Watermelon SaladColor and shape

In one recipe from the book, Gleeson riffs on the idea of the watermelon and feta salad and plays with the textural changes of a swap to mozzarella.

She suggests cutting a smallish watermelon into big circles, removing the rind and using the melon rounds as a plate-width base on which you build individual architectural salads. Mound mozzarella, mint and basil, sprinkled with olive oil and salt. Have a huge watermelon? Create one platter-spanning salad and slice it to serve. The melon juices will meld with the olive oil to make a dressing.

“I’m always thinking about trying to cut things into different shapes – I studied sculpture, so I’m often thinking about color and shape,” Gleeson said. For the watermelon salad, “I liked the pattern of the round shapes and the way it looked together. I come at it from a style angle – what can be interesting, in terms of what you see on the plate?”

For more recipes and to learn more about the book, visit theforestfeast.com. The Forest Feast is available on Amazon.

Taking food photos

Erin Gleeson offers the following food photography tips.

• Shoot in the shade when outdoors – avoid direct sunlight.

• When shooting indoors during the day, position your plate by a window with the natural light coming from behind or from the side. Avoid using overhead lights.

• In general, avoid flash and try both an up-close “macro” shot and an overhead bird’s-eye view of the dish.

• When shooting with your phone in a restaurant during the day, ask for a table by the window; at night, ask a friend to turn on his or her phone’s flashlight and hold it above and to the side of the plate while you shoot.

• Think carefully about what else is in the frame, moving extraneous items out of the way. Position flowers, napkins or other props nearby in colors that complement the dish.

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