Dan Burkholder

Let's Tip Our Hat To 17th Century Painters! by Heather Mull

Parma Sausage Company's prosciutto di Parma, soppressata, coppa secca, salami rustico and salami di Genoa, and other savory treats for a snack that connects you to art history. 

I made the image above for the May issue of Pittsburgh Magazine on an assignment about a wonderful local business called Parma Sausage Company (read about them at https://www.parmasausage.com ) In my many years of shooting food, I've had the pleasure of working on features about Parma Sausage several times, so I'm very familiar with the products, facilities and production methods of this family-owned operation. (Can you say giant insanely clean, temperature-controlled rooms racked to the ceiling with hanging hocks and sausages?!) Heck, I routinely give their salami rustico as a little gifts to people and it's one of my top three backpack items for a spontaneous summer picnic (red wine and some kind of heat-tolerant hard cheese being the other two.)

At any rate, PM's art director Chuck Beard and food editor Hal Klein give photographers a lot of latitude to be creative on assignments, which is such a gift. I knew this image would run at full-page size, so I really wanted to create something that would make people stop and notice and want to read the copy, so they'd plan a shopping trip to the Strip District and support this great local business. As well, there was an implicit challenge to create an image that might appear unique in a magazine that is chock full of great photography by talented local colleagues. However, as savory as charcuterie is to the mouth, this fleshy delight is not always the easiest food subject on the eyes and can present a challenge to shoot, especially in the current climate of high res/high detail imaging, where a cooked lobster often appears to threaten to jump off the page and pinch your nose. 

Trudging around in my own mind, I thought about the tradition of still life painting and how, in the time before photography was invented, it was master painters who really created the first "food porn" with their incredible portrayal of light and texture within scenes of bountiful displays of fresh foods and larders that could only be owned by the wealthy, perhaps the patrons of the painters themselves. I love how the medium of oil painting is simultaneously realistic and yet, soft; more hinting at surface texture than screaming it, as happens in modern photography. I wanted to incorporate the gentleness of painting while still having the image be obviously photographic. (Though I admit, I so badly wish that I had learned to paint or studied painting or drawing at all. My case is absolutely one of "those who can't paint, shoot photos.")

Take, for example, the work of Floris van Shooten, who lived in Haarlem from 1612 to 1655, and depicted primarily scenes of food and markets. Below is a sample of one of his more basic paintings of bread and cheese. 

Although it appears a very simple scene, this genre of painting was actually executed with a fairly strict set of rules, as described by the Musée Louvre: 

Known in the northern European tradition as an “ontbitje” (meaning a still-life depicting a breakfast, or a light meal to be taken at any time of day) pictures of this type followed a stringent set of aesthetic principles and compositional rules. The table, shown from the front and aligned with the bottom edge of the picture space, is covered with a cloth, which is usually white. The viewer looks down onto the objects arranged on the tabletop, and these are usually spread out, and clearly separated from one another. The picture presents an overall view of the foodstuffs, which are seemingly in the process of being eaten.

He was also particularly fond of ham and cheese, which seems apropos of my subject as well. For reasons of intellectual property, to see the painting that really inspired me with Van Shooten's, um "rendering" of prosciutto, you'll have to go to the source at:  http://www.louvre.fr/en/oeuvre-notices/still-life-ham

And so, I decided to "go Dutch" on my photo date with my bag of meticulously sliced meats, which I invited back to my studio for a nightcap (well, a late-afternoon cap.) The initial capture was shot on my Canon 5DMK2 with a 90mm f2.8 tilt-shift lens in my studio. The RAW file was taken into Photoshop and processed to a jpeg, then imported into my iPhone and put through a special workflow there, graciously taught to me by my iPhone photography guru Dan Burkholder (see more of Dan's work and workshop schedule at: http://www.danburkholder.com

See the finished article online at: http://www.pittsburghmagazine.com/Pittsburgh-Magazine/May-2016/Hungry-for-Something-Good-Pittsburgh-Where-Were-Eating-in-May/

Now excuse me while I run to the fridge; writing this has just made me very hungry.