Back in late summer last year I had the pleasure of working with Mariel Hemingway on her book, Mariel’s Kitchen, which just came out last month. I wasn’t the photographer on the book–– those duties were assigned to the talented Jeff Katz. For this project I was the prop stylist, a job that is as fun and challenging as you think it’d be. When we weren’t battling killer wasps or on-set shenanigans (and not from Mariel, thankyouverymuch) it was one of the most fun projects I’ve worked on in some time.
So what exactly does a prop stylist do? Anything and everything. Prop stylists are in charge of well, props! Every plate, every fork, every napkin has usually been touched by the stylist who works very closely with the food stylists in creating the proper tone and story for the specific project. When budgets allow they are a food photographer’s best friend; when budgets are tight I certainly don’t mind stepping in and doing it myself for my own work. Luckily I’m able to bring many years of art direction and photography experience to the set when I’m propping which is an added bonus. Plus I love tableware and have amassed quite a collection so it was pure pleasure getting this gig with a group of people I absolutely adore. Even Jeff. When he wasn’t yelling at me and calling me his Oaxacan Warrior. Even though I’m not from Oaxaca. But whatever. He had a crush on me, I know it*.
After a few meetings to identify the “story” I went to work. Because we were shooting on location at Mariel’s house it was my duty to safely pack all the plates and dishes I pulled for the job and transport them. We wanted this book to be a personal story about Mariel’s philosophy about food which translated into a warm color palette with eclectic yet unfussy props. All the materials I brought were then supplemented by personal items from Mariel’s home which really makes this a personal endeavor.
Color is usually my starting point when creating a story. After a visit to her home and seeing how it was nestled in the canyons and surrounded by trees I knew I wanted to create a contrast to her surroundings. Immediately any drab greens and browns were crossed off my list and I gravitated towards cheery yellows, lemons, limes and blues. When it came to shapes and styles I went with a healthy mix of Mediterranean, Asian and Modern. Clean lines, simple shapes with a few accented pieces of glassware thrown in for good measure.
So what’s it like spending a week shooting in a celebrity’s house? In Mariel’s case it was pure joy. I was secretly hoping for some diva moments, some fits thrown in here and there, but nope, it was nothing like that. Mariel Hemingway is as real and gracious as they come. She exudes warmth and you kinda wanna give her a hug every twelve minutes. Plus she had the cutest dogs and as a dog person I was seriously distracted. I wanted to play!
Setting up a shot is a group effort. We begin with a list of shots and what chapter they’ll appear in the book. Because Mariel’s Kitchen is broken down into seasons it was very important to know what time of the year we were striving for. I’d have a conversation with the photo team about which location on the property would make the most sense, they’d look at me like I was an idiot, we’d fight about shooting tethered vs. hand-held, I’d storm off like a prima donna and return with the appropriate table setting and we’d proceed. I’ll usually pull multiple props so that the food stylists can create a stand-in with a duplicate plate and the photographer can set up his framing while I work my magic on the set. Once that was done I’d run off to play with the dogs, fight with someone again and then pack up any previously used plates so that we wouldn’t create duplicate settings.
The real magic happened when Mariel suggested we incorporate many of the things in her home into the images. You don’t have to ask me twice to riffle through your china cabinet, I’m down! Mariel was gracious enough to share family stories of Julia Child, her parents, the family heirlooms we were blessed enough to be holding, and a particular set of monogrammed spoons that belonged to her grandfather.
Yes, as in Ernest Hemingway. My heart practically went through my chest and then I started thinking about me + breakables. Friends? Not so much. Thank god this book production had insurance and I was so glad to carry my own insurance waver, too.
As a prop stylist it’s important to take notes and remember what you used and where you used it. You don’t want to repeat the same thing over and over again which is something I’ve seen happen. Grrrrr.
Working with Mariel and this team was one of the most satisfying experiences. It was great to step away from the camera for a week and focus on creating a story through color, shape and texture without concerning myself with f stops and losing my light. It was also a lot of work and I’m thankful to work with some of the best people in the bizz.