Local food photographers and stylists have an eye for the perfect image

PICTURE PERFECT: Photographer Nicole McConville captures people, places, plates and products to tell a visual story. Photo by Nicole McConville

Raise your hand if you’ve snapped a photo of a crusty loaf of sourdough bread fresh from the neighborhood bakery’s oven, an exquisitely plated dinner from a favorite restaurant or decadent dessert from the hot new patisserie, then shared it on your social media.

On a daily basis, tens of thousands of food images — a plethora of G-rated food porn — are posted on Instagram by casual diners and legions of influencers, then often reposted on the culinary creators’ own platforms.

With all that exposure, who needs professional photographers? You do, reply professional photographers.

Tim Robison, a local food photographer who counts national culinary bibles Garden & Gun, Food & Wine and Bon Appétit among his many ongoing clients, says, “Magazines usually know exactly what they want; they have a shot list, and you’re looking for that wow image — that takes an enormous amount of preparation,” he explains. “Restaurants and hospitality groups want to build a bank of advertising imagery and website landing pages to pull from that tell a story very quickly. That calls for experienced professionals.”

Photo opportunities

Nicole McConville left a 16-year career in publishing in 2014 and transitioned her photography hobby to a body of work that includes people, products, fashion and food. “Publishing was my training ground for the importance of imagery and visual storytelling,” she says. “You can have the best idea in the world from the most talented person, but unless you are effectively able to reach the appropriate audience, that wonderful idea isn’t going to take hold and take off.”

As McConville was establishing her business, she met budding baker Susannah Gebhart, and the two clicked. As Gebhart worked toward realizing her dream of opening OWL Bakery (which launched in 2016), she relied on McConville to help her create a visual story and brand identity for the business.

“That was my entrance to food photography,” McConville reflects. “And that experience of working really closely with a business owner to delve together into an exploration of what is your aesthetic style, what are your core values, what is your business trying to say and what audience are you trying to reach, informs all my work.”

Robison began his professional photography business as many do — shooting engagements and weddings. But about 12 years ago, a short-lived food blog and subsequent Instagram posts chronicling his passion for cooking got the attention of magazines and restaurants.

“I love food, and I love to cook,” Robison says. “If I wasn’t doing photography, I would open a restaurant, but I have three kids. Food photography is kind of the best of both worlds and instant gratification.”

But shooting food for a living can be challenging, he says. “[Food] doesn’t get insecure or uncomfortable [in front of the camera] like people do, but it is a matter of time,” he explains. “Food starts to fall pretty quickly; it starts to sink or melt. With ice cream, you literally have 30 seconds before it loses that crisp, frozen edge.”

Setting up the shot and knowing how a dish will be plated before it comes out of the kitchen are crucial to catching that tight window of opportunity. And though Robison doesn’t actually talk to the food he is shooting, he does listen.

“The food usually tells you how to shoot it,” he says. “A lot of food can only be shot one way. You can’t shoot a cheeseburger from above; it has to be from the side. Frequently a chef sees food one way, and as a photographer, I see it another.”

Tricks of the trade 

Charlotte Autry sees the big picture from multiple points of view. The food and prop stylist who went to school for journalism but learned her craft on the job, works most often with her husband, photographer Johnny Autry. Their collaborations can be seen in advertisements for major corporations such as Coca-Cola, in editorial spreads for national magazines and in cookbooks, notably local writer Ronni Lundy’s James Beard Award-winning book Victuals: An Appalachian Journey, with Recipes.

“We have done about 20 cookbooks,” says Charlotte. “They are each a very big job, and to do it well you need about six people. You’re doing about eight to 10 shots a day on a tight schedule, cooking the food, styling the food and creating an environment with props.”

The Autrys have been working together for about 14 years — since before they married — and moved to Asheville nine years ago with their then-infant son. Their 3,200-square-foot studio in the River Arts District has a kitchen and storage area for Charlotte’s enormous collection of props, including china, glassware, cutlery, serving pieces, linens and backdrops. But Charlotte notes that most of the finer tools and tricks of her trade fit into a much smaller space — tweezers, cosmetic wedges, Q-tips, syringes, petroleum jelly, superglue and denture adhesive, which holds food together.

Most of the Autrys’ work comes from clients based outside Asheville, but the shoots are done mostly in their RAD studio, which proved to be a boon to their business in 2020, Charlotte points out. “A lot of the big magazines have in-house studios, and all those places closed,” she explains. “They knew us and knew we worked in tandem and were already quarantined together, so we got slammed right away and stayed that way until about last September when it tapered off some.”

Pandemic pivots

While business boomed for some local photographers in 2020, others had to reframe their work. The pandemic hit photographer and stylist Sarah Snyder hard in both segments of her business — food and restaurants, and weddings.

Though she has a home studio, Snyder typically shoots on-site. So when many restaurants closed — including her longest-term client, Mellow Mushroom — her business shut down as well.

“So much of Mellow Mushroom’s brand is their atmosphere, and it’s hard to capture that when you’re closed,” she points out. “Restaurants were struggling so much last year just to stay afloat and professional photography was not a priority.”

Fortunately, Snyder’s background is in baking, and she was able to turn a part-time job at OWL into a full-time position to get her through the pandemic. And now, she says, her photography work is picking up again.  

McConville also went back to OWL, assisting Gebhart in crafting the visuals to convey the shop’s pandemic pivot from dine-in to takeout. She also began working with her close friends, chefs Ashley Capps and Travis Schultz, who were reimagining their new food business, New Stock, before it even got off the ground.

“We came together for this when there was still so much fear and uncertainty in the air, but because we shared a sense of trust we just started,” McConville says.

Capps attests to the importance of McConville’s work in helping get their nascent weekly meal delivery service off the ground. “New Stock was born in the darkness of COVID,” Capps says. “Having professional photographs of our products was — and still is — the only way for people to see us. Thanks to Nicole’s understanding of our vision and her skill in creating beautiful images that clearly tell our story, we have been able to survive and expand.”

McConville and Robison emphasize that Instagram plays a role in maintaining relevance and presence for a food business. “A lot of restaurants find a window for some good light and snap their own shots for social media, to post specials or drinks,” says Robison.  “It should be a daily thing.”

McConville agrees. “You don’t need to hire a photographer for that. But to tell your longer story — the whole story — you want to partner with a professional.”

Robison notes that the prevalence of amateur photography on social media has actually helped build his career: His clients have a trained eye and can clearly see the people who know what they’re doing. “Being a good photographer, in general, is being able to capture a good photograph under any conditions,” he says. “Being a food photographer also means finding and capturing the moment in a dish that makes someone want to eat it.”


Thanks for reading through to the end…

We share your inclination to get the whole story. For the past 25 years, Xpress has been committed to in-depth, balanced reporting about the greater Asheville area. We want everyone to have access to our stories. That’s a big part of why we've never charged for the paper or put up a paywall.

We’re pretty sure that you know journalism faces big challenges these days. Advertising no longer pays the whole cost. Media outlets around the country are asking their readers to chip in. Xpress needs help, too. We hope you’ll consider signing up to be a member of Xpress. For as little as $5 a month — the cost of a craft beer or kombucha — you can help keep local journalism strong. It only takes a moment.

About Kay West
Kay West was a freelance journalist in Nashville for more than 30 years, contributing writer for the Nashville Scene, StyleBlueprint Nashville, Nashville correspondent for People magazine, author of five books and mother of two happily launched grown-up kids. To kick off 2019 she put Tennessee in her rear view mirror, drove into the mountains of WNC, settled in West Asheville and appreciates that writing offers the opportunity to explore and learn her new home. She looks forward to hiking trails, biking greenways, canoeing rivers, sampling local beer and cheering the Asheville Tourists.

Before you comment

The comments section is here to provide a platform for civil dialogue on the issues we face together as a local community. Xpress is committed to offering this platform for all voices, but when the tone of the discussion gets nasty or strays off topic, we believe many people choose not to participate. Xpress editors are determined to moderate comments to ensure a constructive interchange is maintained. All comments judged not to be in keeping with the spirit of civil discourse will be removed and repeat violators will be banned. See here for our terms of service. Thank you for being part of this effort to promote respectful discussion.

Leave a Reply

To leave a reply you may Login with your Mountain Xpress account, connect socially or enter your name and e-mail. Your e-mail address will not be published. All fields are required.