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When I was taking classes at the Academy of Art, one of the photographers had a studio and they needed somebody to come in once a week and clean up. I thought that was a great opportunity to go see what happens in a real studio, so I took the job. And that sort of led into a full-time position as a first assistant with the photographer. I helped him build the studio from scratch, which was another great opportunity, to come into a raw space and turn it into a studio. He did mostly food and still life, and at the time he was one of the major photographers doing that kind of thing in San Francisco. He was from New York and after I had worked for him for another two years, he said, if you really want to be good you have to go to New York. You have to go become an assistant there. So I talked it over with my wife and we sold everything and packed up the car and drove to New York.
Again I was lucky; I got a job at a really good studio there. They did most of the major accounts, like Best Food, Shake ‘n Bake, and Jell-O…all the big accounts like that that were in New York at the time. I was a studio manager there and what was great was it was high volume, lots of work, and I got to experience lots of different situations and problems and how to solve them. So I worked with that photographer for a little over two years, then I decided I wanted to freelance. And I did work for some people, like Best Foods and Lipton Tea, but most of the people I saw said, your portfolio’s pretty good, you should be shooting, not assisting. So I started to do some jobs there.
Then I had to decide if I was going to stay there or come back. I didn’t particularly want to stay in New York. It was a great experience and I would highly recommend doing something like that, but I knew I didn’t want to live there forever, being from the West Coast. And the plan was always to come back, so we did. We were there for about 2 years, and we had planned to only go for a year. But we soon found out that was ridiculous. It takes a year just to feel like you live somewhere. We came back and I found a place on Mission Street where Bloomingdales is now. I had a studio there for eight years. Then I moved to my present location and opened up a new studio, bigger than the other. I had learned a lot from the other one as far as what did work and what didn’t work and planning the space.
I was always interested in how food and photography fit together. And I was always around food. My mother had a gourmet coffee store before that was really popular. My great grandfather was a chef at the Waldorf Astoria in New York. Then his son, my grandfather, was a chef at the Fairmont here in the ’20s. And his son, my father, he didn’t want him to get into the business because it was a way different business then. There weren’t chef superstars like there are now, and they probably didn’t get as much credit as they do now. So my dad made furniture. So food is indirectly in my blood. I like to cook and I like learning about food and wine and everything that goes along with it. Because I sort of think you have to be like that to be good at food photography, to have an understanding how it’s made and an appreciation.
But the most important quality you need as a food photographer is patience. I’m not sure there are things you need that are different from being a successful photographer in other areas, except probably just a passion for food. And I think there are usually two different personalities. You rarely see someone who is a great food photographer and a great people photographer. It’s two different temperaments. Like fashion photographers who are used to a really fast pace — this would drive them nuts.