Photography: Pt IV – Fun Is Fun

Hi friends;

A few months into this project, several things happened that would change the trajectory of my photography.

The first came during an early review of book materials with Chef. “How do we feel about including some textures or some other qualities of the Aviary into these photos?” he asked Sarah and I.

I knew shooting in our studio encouraged me to operate in sort of a visual vacuum, and I started wondering how I might be able to address this point. I started hunting around our storage spaces for leftover building materials from the buildout of the Aviary, and also began contacting a few of the contractors and interior designers who fabricated the space. My hope was to collect materials that I could use to build some small sets or backdrops to begin mimicking the look and feel of various spaces within the Aviary. Some leftover kitchen tiles, e.g., excellently replicate the walls near the Aviary’s Kitchen Table:

Shortly after this meeting, we happened to schedule some photos of cocktails served in The Office, the speakeasy situated below the Aviary. The Office – being underground and windowless – poses none of the problems the Aviary itself does in terms of shooting conditions: it’s quiet, mostly empty during the day, and dark enough to allow for very controllable lighting. We also discovered that its luxurious and eclectic decor lent itself to photography that felt strikingly-different than the sleek, minimalist look I’d been generating in our studio:

These moments caused me to develop a sense of paranoia about my photography. I was getting the hang of the technical aspects of things (which is to say: I was growing more comfortable managing reflections and understanding how to light the drinks), but worried about possibly stagnating creatively for the bulk of the Aviary cocktails. And the pressure I put on myself to not let either Chef or our many project backers down loomed large in my mind.

To try to understand how to move forward, I decided to print out several “contact sheets” (small thumbnail-sized images) of every photo I’d taken so far. My goal was to identify patterns and see what – if anything – might push me in a new direction. This is a thing Sarah and I often do when we feel a bit stuck, and doing it this time caused one set of photos to jump out at us.

When Nick, Chef, or other team members visit our office, they invariably notice and point out the same set of photos: those of the Green Thumb.

Compared to the stark white or black backgrounds featured in most of the rest of the photos, this drink looks so drastically different that it almost risks not belonging in the book at all. And yet everyone at work here points at the print of it on our wall and exclaims “Oh that one’s awesome, we should do more photos like that.”

I admittedly really love it as well: it’s bright and arresting and feels whimsical and fun. But it also conflicted with my understanding of the overall aesthetic or “brand” of this restaurant group. Alinea, Next, the Aviary, and even Roister feature interiors that skew towards the austere. I recall some early writings about Alinea that described how its interior design was specifically meant to feel very neutral, so as not to detract attention from the food itself. Luxury brands in general tend to share this minimalist, bare aesthetic:

This minimalist aesthetic indeed allows the product to stand undistracted. It also sort of suggests an air of solemnity: these products are meant to be taken seriously. The aesthetic concept of “luxury” as a whole, in fact, seems to take itself very seriously – these products do not suggest a sense of humor.

But…but…is there anything serious about a drink served with a spritz of hotdog-scented aroma?

“Of course there isn’t!” Nick said when I asked him about this. “This is a book about cocktails! Cocktails are supposed to be fun! We don’t want to take ourselves too seriously.”

This has been a jarring concept for me to wrap my head around, and I realize that it’s almost entirely based on my own bias rather than direct experience here. I’ve been incredibly sensitive to the visual identity and “brand” of the Aviary since the beginning of this project…or, at least, I’ve been very sensitive to what I assumed it was, being one of a group of fine dining, Michelin-starred establishments. So when I found myself questioning whether this Green Thumb photo was “too fun”, it was Nick and Chef who sort of laughed and helped me realize maybe I was taking myself too seriously with this.

I began retracing my steps that led me to this photo. Chef Micah and Ingi had mentioned to me that this drink was actually served with a patch of grass sprayed with the BBQ-scented aroma; it’s meant to taste and smell like summer.

 

These little tabletop dioramas are not unusual amongst the restaurants here. As Ingi words it, the chefs love to “play dress-up” with the table, the goal being to create a sense of immersion that can’t be created by a plate alone. Several years ago, for example, Alinea literally served a pile of dirt. In the dirt was planted a handful of tiny, perfect baby lettuces, and guests were presented a beautiful pair of small silver scissors that they used to harvest a custom salad for themselves.

Even as recently as a few months ago, guests at Alinea would tromp and crunch through mounds of autumn leaves to get to their table, on which was piled more leaves that the guests needed to clear to find their first bites hidden amongst the foliage.

All of this led me to realize that maybe “texture” didn’t necessarily need to specifically refer to the building materials of the Aviary. Maybe texture could come from pushing the presentation of the drinks to be more interesting and interactive, and maybe my photo of the Green Thumb was actually more on-target with the “brand” and general aesthetic of the Aviary than any of my super-stark photos had been.

I began revisiting the work of other photographers I admire, in search of inspiration. I love, for example, the portraiture of Jill Greenberg:

When I first started learning about lighting and photography years ago, Jill’s work was one of my first sources of inspiration. I wanted to pick apart how she was lighting her subjects. One afternoon, Sarah sat with me in our tiny garage very patiently as I fiddled with my lights, ultimately producing this – one of my very favorite portraits of her:

Flipping back through this work, I wondered Hm…maybe I could try shooting some cocktails sort of like this?

Since this turning point, our shoots have grown notably more complex. This in turn has required more creative thought and planning. By far our most involved shoot as of this writing has been for Turtle Doves, which Sarah explains in this video she shot of us a few weeks ago:

This shoot took a month or so of planning and watching the weather here in Chicago. And Chef Ingi and I decided we didn’t all-the-way love the images we got from the shoot you see in this video, so we ended up waiting another week or so for a second snowstorm to come through before re-doing everything (with a few tweaks to the process). In the end, however, we got an image we think is pretty, well, fun.

Side note: drinking a cocktail from a snow-rimmed glass is pretty awesome.

–a