Interview with Jody Horton

Jody Horton is a food, lifestyle and travel photographer whose work has appeared in Bon Appetit, Food & Wine, Texas Monthly, The New York Times and much more. Some of his major clients are Whole Foods Market, Jack Daniels, Bud Light, Four Seasons Hotel, and Cadillac, just to name a few. Jody has successfully combined his passion for food and love for travel into a successful career receiving multiple awards.

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Hey Jody! How did you get into photography? Have you always been interested in it?

Actually, in high school, I wanted to be a writer but was interested in photography. Then in college, I took an “Introductory to Photography” class. I started taking photos on an assignment where I was writing about kayaking or something for my college paper. Having both photography and writing skills it would often help me tell the whole story. Then after college, I did a similar thing in Costa Rica for a few years. But it felt a little formulaic to me. Going somewhere, writing, taking pictures, and then doing the same thing all over again.

I decided to go back to college and study cultural anthropology, which always interested me. While I was doing that, I got interested in film and documentary filmmaking. I spent about seven years trying to integrate these, what I thought were, complementary skills. Writing, understanding story structures and fundamentals in photography. I thought I could realize what I want much better through videos. After spending some time pursuing that and trying to make a living as a documentary filmmaker, I realized how difficult it was. Jobs, especially the ones I really cared about, had very long timelines. So around 2009 I came back to still photography. It was difficult to commit to a single path, I was interested in so much!

And how did you end up choosing food photography as your niche?

While I was in grad school, I became more of a food person through my involvement with a small food and lifestyle magazine from New Mexico. Which was pretty strange at the time because it was the late ’90s. The magazine made me more interested and more informed about food. And through my work with them, I became one of the partners in it. I came to appreciate the storytelling structure of food stories. After having spent some time wandering in the wilderness trying to do the documentary film and not being terribly successfully, I thought “You know, I really kind of miss these stories about food and about people and I feel like I can make a contribution there”.

I made a decision that I would just try to shoot as many things as I possibly could in a fairly intense manner and connect with as many people as possible, regardless of whether I was being paid for the work or not.

Once I had enough to put together a portfolio, I contacted magazines and agencies. At that time there weren’t many people who were concentrating on food photography. That has changed tremendously. Even though it seems so specialized, it gives room for all kinds of images. Portraits, scenics, stills. It’s not just a plate of food.

It’s nice to work from an internal compass of what a tone and feel an image should have.

How did you develop your aesthetic? What inspires you?

It’s a gut impulse. I don’t think it’s good to work for someone that wants a totally different style from what you usually do. It’s nice to work from an internal compass of what a tone and feel an image should have.

That has certainly changed for me over time. It’s inevitable. There are technical things I definitely prefer. For example, having light at the top of my frame or enjoying incident angles. These things lend a sense of consistency in my work. Adjusting the color balance and tone are part of the process as well.

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Speaking of lighting…yours tend to have a modern, available style. Your photos don’t look overly polished, but sometimes rough. Are you doing this on purpose, trying to differentiate from the old school way of perfect, boring food and drink photography?

When I started out all of the work you would see was over polished. You could describe it as glamour shots of food. It was glossy and candy looking. It felt more genuine for me for food to look like it actually does. Like you’d want your portrait to be taken in a simple natural manner, rather than a glamour shot. I want it to look like something you’d actually want to put in your mouth and make it approachable by making it less perfect. In post, I’d do something to bring out a bit of the detail.

As for the lighting I try to use natural light as much as possible. Maybe bounce it a bit or use a scrim. That’s it.

Your subjects vary from both people and food, can you talk about the pros and cons of each one? Do you prefer one over the other?

What attracted me to food photography is how expansive it can be. It’s something people do every day and with that comes a big circle of things that create variation. Doing a plated shot is certainly easy and has its zen sandbox kind of appeal. But what’s great is working outside of that. Working with people who love what they do, who are driven by their passion. Whiskey makers, winemakers, cheesemakers or farmers. They are enthusiastic about sharing that. It’s tangible and being able to capture that is really gratifying.

If I’m not working with models on some commercial job it really comes down to making some sort of connection with a person. It’s particularly nice to work with real people who love what they do and love sharing that with people. The balance between all those things is really fun for me.

People producing or gathering something, kind of capturing a sense of community as well as travel and adventure. I still do a little bit of that. Just getting out into the world and being granted a new perspective by being in a new place is always inspiring.

So I don’t necessarily prefer one over the other but I really like the range. I want to expand more in order to stay interested and learn.

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Not many food photographers are able to combine different genres as you do such as food, reportage, people photography… How much of an advantage is this for you and your business?

It definitely has been an advantage! Some people would reach out to me and say “Oh we really need some food work, but we also need to shoot people and I see that you can do both.” It’s almost always the case for editorial work.

There is this formula. Let’s say it’s featuring a restaurant. It would be a plate of food, a space, some interior shots and then a portrait of a chef or something. Being able to capture a wide range of things is really good.

For a project in Chile and Argentina, I did a lot outdoors shoots and I had to teach myself to shoot the stars and the night sky. So I want to keep mixing it up and try new things.

You can radiate calmness and make them feel at ease.

The people in your photos always look extremely relaxed and approachable. What’s your secret?

I try to just make people feel at ease. Just as you would talk to a stranger you’re sat next to on a plane. You can radiate calmness and make them feel at ease. It’s important to me for someone I’m photographing to feel like “Yeah, this feels like me.” Because then you know that you got it right. For things that would just involve people’s hands and that type, like the Bud Light shoot, I think that is just an arrangement that feels natural and some sort of directing is important. That there is kind of a balance of action.

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What are your initial thoughts when you are conceptualizing an image? Can you describe what you’re trying to capture when you take a food photo?

It really depends on what it is but it needs to feel genuine. For instance, let’s say you’re taking a picture of a fish. I would ask myself  “What do you need to see to understand this? How do you get to see what’s important about this dish?“ It’s important to see that it has a very flaky texture. This would mean, that you would need to get into the body of the fish a little bit and be able to demonstrate that by flaking some of its flesh.

Let’s use pie for another example. As it has a continuous crust over the top it’s important to get into the core of the pie to see what’s inside. This helps to understand how I approach taking the photo. I’d say “Well you can’t take a picture of this and not see what’s inside. So, we need to either cut a slice out and bounce some light in so that we can better appreciate the inside or we need to cut a slice out and just see it from a low angle so that you can appreciate the amazing interior cream of this pie.” You wouldn’t otherwise be able to see that, and we want to emphasize how tall it is by shooting from a low angle.

And what’s the process you use to visually depict the tastes of food and to make it look mouthwatering?

It’s all from a lighting and angle standpoint. The thing that I find is just generally appealing is having the light source behind the dish, so that there is somewhere for your eye to go. Your eye naturally wants to follow the light up the frame.

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So is having the light source behind the dish your favorite lighting situation?

I think that’s generally speaking my favorite light orientation, for sure. If you want to show more texture in something, usually a side angle light brings out more texture and shadow. But most of the time that light from behind the subject behind and above makes for an appealing image.

It’s still the photographer’s job to be “the captain of the ship” and offer a clear course.

From a creative standpoint, how does working with a stylist affect your photography and do you work with one often?

There’s a great collaboration that can happen when using a food stylist but I sometimes enjoy doing my own styling and be really focused on that. If someone is not a stylist but knows how to properly and authentically prepare the food, I like to just do some light adjusting.

Occasionally there is an editorial job that will include a food stylist and most of the commercial jobs do. If it’s about something more detailed and sophisticated, a stylist can be absolutely necessary. If the client is very specific about what they want to show and sell you need a stylist.

The best images happen when I work with a stylist, but the concept is open. Then it’s really great to work with another person that has a good eye that can make food look more beautiful and has their own perspective and own contribution.

I enjoy working on a set with several people. I’m constantly asking “What do you guys think? What can we do to make this better? What if we did this? What if we did that?”. I want anyone to voice an opinion and see something in a way that I didn’t see before.

That’s where good communication comes in. It’s shockingly important in photography.

What are your most common problems on the set and how do you deal with them?

If we’re talking about a commercial shoot, the most common problem on set would be not having agreement among the clients. That can be tough because you might have three different clients on set and they all have their own way of approaching something. They have different opinions on the concept and what’s driving the idea.

You can’t solve that by just doing a version for each person. It’s not practical, because you will run out of time.

That’s where good communication comes in. It’s shockingly important in photography. I usually try to convincingly voice my opinion on which direction we should go in. It’s persuasion and diplomacy.

But having the client in mind, I just want everyone to agree. Try to include everyone in the decision making. But it’s still the photographer’s job to be “the captain of the ship” and offer a clear course. It doesn’t mean you’re always right, but you can be the person to steer in the right direction.

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If someone that I’m working for is happy at the end of the day, I’m going to be happy.

And do they always listen to you when you try to delegate?

They typically do. Noone’s always right, for sure. I think it can be paralyzing if you have people pulling in different directions. It’s about moving in the same direction.

Obviously, I’d prefer it to be a direction that I think is best, but I’m also happy to just make a client happy. There are some shots that I have done where the nature of the material makes it inherently impossible for it to ever be something great. But it can still be a version that makes your client happy and that’s fine.

I don’t think of my work as being very precious. I don’t hold on to it too tightly. If someone that I’m working for is happy at the end of the day, I’m going to be happy.

What’s been the most enjoyable and least enjoyable part about being a food photographer?

The most enjoyable thing is meeting great people and having an opportunity to eat amazing food. And the least enjoyable? It’s always frustrating to write and giving a lot of thought to projects and estimates that never come to fruition.

Favorite part of the process?

Can it be just eating the food?

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Any specific culinary scenes you’d like to cover?

At the moment I’m putting some intent out to get to shoot Sake production in Japan. I have a long list that I think would be fascinating. There’s this specialized blowfish Sushi that I’m hoping to get to photograph. As well as Sake production, sword making. And tea ceremonies. A combination of people, food and process/production shots are really interesting to me right now.

How does food influence your personal life? Are you big in the kitchen?

I actually really enjoy cooking and I’m most drawn to things that I can cook with fire. It’s really calming for me to make a fire. I have a pizza oven at my house. Which is an “everything oven”, if you ever cooked on one. I have an open grill inside and outside I have a smoker and another grill. In addition to that another specialized cooker. I enjoy the different stages of grilling and smoking. I enjoy smoky tastes. That’s where my expertise lies. Not to say that I don’t feel strongly about the perfect fried egg, which I can also make.

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What’s the most memorable culinary experience you’ve ever had?

Once when I was in L.A. we had Tiger shrimp and the presentation was to take the live shrimp and cut its head off. Once that’s done you place their heads in a little area of ice, while they serve the remainder of the sushi to you. It’s important to note that the shrimp were effectively still alive. Their eyes and their tentacles were still moving, as you’re eating the rest of its body. Once you ate the body you would send the heads back and they would flash fry those and then send them back and then you ate those.

Speaking of strange cuisine, can you tell us more about your “Squirrel Camp” story? What happened there?

Interestingly enough, that was the first assignment I ever did for Texas Monthly. I had taken photos for another publication that covered a series on family farms. I’d run across this family in East Texas and I learned through them that there was this Squirrel Camp.

At one point apparently, there were about 60 squirrel camps in that region and it’s been a tradition of going there for generations. I came to learn that this squirrel camp near a little town called Center Texas was one of the last remaining squirrel camps.

The squirrel camps are located out in the woods in or adjacent to a state and national park that’s near the Louisiana border.

During the Depression, all the deer in that area had been hunted out. Those were reintroduced into the area in the ’70s. And because the market would bring in more with equipment etc. for deer hunting, the marketing went towards hunting for deer instead of squirrels.

I pitched a story to Texas Monthly and they loved it. They sent me back to take photos and at the opening of the Squirrel hunting season, interestingly enough. I took most of the photos that the first morning, which was from sunrise till about 11 AM. It was pretty intense. I tried to capture the cold morning and of course the hunt and culling of the squirrels. It was all different kinds of people of all ages and backgrounds.

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Let’s end this on a photography note! If you were only allowed to have five things to work with – what shouldn’t be missing?

Aside from daylight? The camera body, 50-millimeter lens, computer, reflector, a bounce. Oh, and a scrim. I’ll need that!

I think that’s more than five, but we’ll let it slide! Thanks so much for the interview!

Thank you!