Behind the Turkey Scenes

While the rest of us get ready for the big day and scramble to decide on which turkey (heritage? natural? frozen?) and which method (bacon-wrapped? deep-fried? traditionally roasted?) I’ll be planning on celebrating my secret Thanksgiving tradition. It involves a sandwich or two, some wine, maybe some pie, and a giant stack of DVDs, pillows and small dogs. Am I refusing to give thanks on this very special day? Of course not. It’s just that for the past 10 years or so I’ve celebrated Thanksgiving smack dab in the middle of summer with a gaggle of stylists, photographers and assistants. Of course it’s not a real Thanksgiving but one specially created for the amazing world of advertising. A world that exists so that you’ll buy the ultimate/free-range/perfect/no-fuss/quick-and-easy insert-item-here. And like the Wizard having his curtain accidentally pulled back, I decided to let you in on a few Thanksgiving advertising secrets.

Oh, the hate mail I am sure to get over this.

Before I go any further, let me tell you that the food I work with is always real. Always. Thanks to that law known as truth in advertising, all of the food I art direct or photograph is real. It has to be. But that doesn’t mean it has to be edible. But if you know me personally you know I’m not much for duping folks or stretching the truth so I keep it real, yo. It’s just easier that way.

Advertising vs. Editorial

Pick up any editorial magazine on the newsstand and you’re likely to see a real, fully cooked turkey on the cover. I love the fact that most of the turkeys photographed are real — crispy burnt edges and all.  However, look at that ad selling stuffing or stemware and most likely that turkey has been partially cooked and painted. Yes, I said painted. But don’t freak out, it’s all edible, although Tamari-tinted Turkey probably won’t be a hit with your guests. Believe it or not, people freak out when they see a real turkey but feel slightly comforted when they see a perfectly shaped, light brown specimen. Gotta give the peeps what they want.

Summer Turkey & Stuffing

Because of production deadlines and the fact that we work in advance, us advertising folks prepare months ahead of time to meet print and distribution deadlines. This means that as I type this I’m up to my eyeballs in Valentine’s Day and spring food holidays like Easter and Passover. For the end of the year I always try to get my holidays in by mid-August, but therein lies the problem: access to real seasonability. But that doesn’t mean I don’t have tricks up my sleeve. I have a secret source for pomegranates and pumpkins, and if I’m lucky I’ll get them by the end of the month so that my Thanksgiving table looks like it’s really November — even if we’re still slathering on the sunscreen off camera.

I learned a very nice tip from my friends at Gourmet; work out a year in advance and take advantage of the bounties of the season. They shoot summer spreads in summer for the following year and they do the same for the holidays. In fact, for a fantastic inside peek you should watch this.

A Turkey Is A Turkey Is A Turkey

Luckily Thanksgiving is such a traditional holiday. I mean, there are only so many ways to shoot a turkey and that makes my life as an art director a bit easier. While there are people who offer their own delicious twists on what to do with the birds it’s nice to know that it’s still a holiday celebrated pretty much the same way all over. Having said that I thought it’d be fun to go into my work archives and talk turkey. A poultry show-and-tell. And just so you know, doing this makes me feel tired and old and only emphasizes how delicious my non-turkey sandwich is going to taste next week.


Photographer: Jon Edwards   Food Stylist: Mardi Brown

Boy, me and my bright ideas. My concept was to take it outdoors and show a turkey in a vineyard. This is California, after all, where sunshine is in ample supply and we’re fortunate enough to play around with the slight seasonal irregularities. Or so I thought.

After this campaign ran someone brought it to my attention that Thanksgiving is in November and that grapes would have already been harvested. Ooops! Isn’t that funny? Isn’t that just silly? Who knew?

But seriously, look at those grapes! You can’t buy grapes that beautiful! Ok, maybe you can.

Prepping a turkey in a makeshift kitchen and rushing it a few miles down a back road and into the middle of a working vineyard when the sun is blazing can certainly test your patience. Not to mention the terrifying flesh-eating bees that began to burrow into the turkey. I’m not kidding.

What I learned:
keep it in a studio
What I liked: Come on, with the exception of the implausible seasonal scheduling, it’s still a beautiful shot.


Photographer: K. Russel    Food Stylist: Janet Miller

You wouldn’t know it but just 100 feet from these beauties were working trannies, meth users and a few hustlers. I guess when you shoot in the middle of Hollywood that’s bound to happen. But these are real and make me hungry. The turkeys, not the drug users.

Many times photographers and art directors will shoot multiple versions and angles for different uses. It’s also nice to let the food stylist experiment and work their magic on the turkeys.

What I learned: bitches better step off, that’s my corner
What I liked:  Simplicity is always elegant. Sex workers not so much.




Photographer: Jon Edwards   Food Stylist: THE Norman Stuart. Yes, that one.

Had I just gone camping? Returned from an African safari? Whatever it was it’s quite obvious I wanted wild! lush! turkey! Look at all that garnish! Luckily the ever-amazing Norman obliged me and gave me abundance, and I thank him. He also prepared this turkey with the ultimate crunchy skin, but in retrospect I should have selected another bird as this gal ain’t the shapliest. But I only had 2 to work with and we had to move fast. C’est la vie.

What I learned:
Tons of Hollywood gossip from the 70s and 80s, and oh, always bring extra turkeys.
What I liked:
It’s different and looks like no other turkey I’ve done.


Photographer: Jon Edwards and me    Food Stylists: Denise Vivaldo & Cindie Flannigan

After years of keeping it simple I decided to bring in Laurie Behr, prop stylist and amazing friend, to build a set based on some rudimentary illustrations I sketched up. I wanted tons of light through windows, a very warm and sunny feeling, and by golly she hit the nail on the head! That’s not a real room, it’s not a real wall, but it’s a real turkey and real wine back there. How do I know? I poured it (and sipped it throughout the day).  My friends Denise and Cindie worked magic on this turkey and it captures a beautiful warm Thanksgiving afternoon meant for a crowd. Did I mention it was like 97 degrees that day?


Photographer: Matt Armendariz    Food Stylist: William Smith

I don’t need to tell you how much trouble I got into once the invoices rolled in back in 2006. Turns out hiring a staff of 11 to work on a holiday shoot isn’t cheap, but I’m a firm believer that it’s easier to ask for forgiveness than persimmons. Get it? I made a joke.

Bad art director! Bad!

This was my first year shooting my own Thanksgiving campaign from beginning to end and because of that I was able to keep it reasonable. I had no choice. I worked with the wonderful William Smith and it was a quiet, intimate shoot. He’s a master with food and has a way with garnish like no other. I wanted a rustic, casual bird with a nice shape, but if you’ve shot turkey it’s always a bit difficult to get a good angle. I think I did aiiight.


So what have I learned through the years? Turkeys are kind of ugly but taste good, I dislike Thanksgiving in August and I couldn’t work with a more talented group of people. I’m also starting 2008 next month to take advantage of the seasons. Why? Hunting for cranberries in July is for the birds.

Ok, I’ll stop.

A special thanks to everyone and to the respective photographers for allowing me to post these images.


  1. says

    Is it wrong that seeing the whole turkey still grosses me out? I mean I loooove turkey, but seeing it in… bird shape… freaks me out a bit.

  2. says

    You…Matt…are THE person who I’ve known all my life but didn’t know it. YOU are THE guy who creates printed images that could only have come off the inkjet imbedded in my imagination (or so I thought). YOU are THE man who makes me run out and spend GABILLIONS of dollars on one meal in late November in an attempt to serve up perfection. I’ve neve quite reached that “perfect” meal but by GOD you’ve inspired me to try it again. Shit! There goes my wallet!

    Love ya!!!

  3. says

    This made my brain go BZZZZT! in the good way. One of the things I’ve been getting bored with is the same room in some of my photos. Never occured to me (yes, me, the former off-broadway stage manager) to create a whole new room that would only be seen in frame. My roommates are going to hate me because now I’m going to be piling even more crap in the house for my experiments.

  4. says

    okay, so i just have to comment again that every single photo you art directed in this post is just pure turkey magic. i get so tired of seeing turkeys on magazine covers for 2 months in the fall (well, still summer in texas) but i could look at your turkey photos all day.

    and it actually makes me hungry for turkey. really hungry.

  5. says

    Matt – This is why I love you, you tell it like it is and you also make it beautiful, that’s an awfully hard thing to pull off.

  6. says

    I like 2004 the best.. I think it could have been even better if you took the methed up tranny, put an apron on her, and had her holding the turkey platter. It could be a modern Hollywood spin on Norman Rockwell.

  7. Katie says

    They’re all awesome, but 2007 is my favorite. The wood of the table and the light fabric of the table runner stir something in my soul.

    Thanks for the insight into how food photography happens; posts like this are one of the highlights of this site. (That and grilled pizza recipes.)

  8. says

    These turkeys are an object lesson in why we must use sunscreen. If they had used it, their colour would be an anemic buff that no one in their right mind would want to stuff in their mouths, the turkeys would all be saved. Always use sunscreen…you never know.

  9. says

    i’m in awe of you Matt ! these are fantastic pictures. I loved the 2006 one even though it cost u a bomb ! its really worth it. And of course this years bird looks so crispy, and all th fruits n herbs on the side , makes it so inviting.The candle sticks are beautiful too…gosh i can go on n on about this pic.
    But i’ll tell you what …i dont mind coming over to share that sandwich and watch a couple of DVD’d :P

  10. says

    Fascinating. I never considered the hazards of living six months out of sync with the rest of the world. Oh, the trials of the magazine photographer — must be like living in the southern hemisphere or something! Happy St. Paddy’s Day.

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