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Katee McGee is a California-based international award winning editorial and commercial photographer, serving the wine industry! Since 2005, Katee has specialized in wine-related photography and has shot in some of the world’s premier vineyards and estates in California, Italy, and France. See more of her work on her website: www.pendergast-mcgee.com.
My first paid professional gig was as a unit stills (set) photographer for Universal Pictures on location for the movie The Hitcher II. It was exciting and so fun to be a (albeit small) part of a larger group of creatives. Great energy – I learned a ton on that shoot. Most exciting was that they chose one of my images as the hero image for the poster and DVD cover.
I grew up in the wine industry, running through vineyards and playing hide-and-seek with my brothers on the weekends in the enormous 4-acre barrel room of historic Almadén Vineyards. Back in those days it was still listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as “the World’s Largest Covered Wine Cellar”.
My dad has worked in the wine industry in sales and marketing since before I was born – and still does. Through that exposure to the industry, I began noticing the imagery inherent to wine and its culture at a really young age. In addition, my father always brought a lot of enthusiasm to whatever his latest projects were and I think it rubbed off. In a sense I think I was “sold” on wine and the wine country culture long before I was ever able to actually partake.
Of course. I have had the privilege of not only photographing incredible wine locations around the world, but also have had the opportunity to taste the amazing wines at those locations. Wine culture is really all about sharing. Sharing stories, sharing your hospitality and sharing something you’re proud of. Artistry and craftsmanship is appreciated and communal in wine culture – everyone wants to share what they’ve made, so my palate was educated by some of the best “teachers” in the world.
I can’t say I have a favorite. Each place needs something different. Sometimes it’s simple, like just capturing the beauty of the location of the architecture. But sometimes it’s more of a challenge. A lot of times, big producers want to look small and artisan and give off a boutique vibe, while some of their smaller boutique counterparts want to present the image of being bigger players than they are, so that make things interesting. I genuinely like the problem solving involved in delivering what each client wants and needs – each client is different and I think it’s one of the best parts of what I do.
Wine photography really requires you to be multi-disciplined. There are so many aspects to it – you need to be able to do a lot of it well. You need to be able to produce striking landscapes, make interesting images reflecting nature and architecture, work as a photojournalist during harvest and crush and around the winery, connect with owners and winemakers to create compelling portraits, and then have the technical studio and lighting skills to create clean product shots.
Most of all, you need to be a storyteller. I know it’s cliched but it’s still true, because at the end of the day you are hired to tell the unique story of the client and their brand.
In pursuit of that unique story, you can also get some strange requests. Frequently, I am asked to visually represent elements of the terroir (For those who don’t know – “terroir” is the unique natural environment in which a particular wine is produces, this includes factors such as the soil, the topography, and the climate in that area.) I remember one gig where the creative brief requested that I show “wind”. lol
But in the end – this is their life’s work. There is only one harvest a year and each vintage is unrepeatable, so creating images that help tell the story of that brand, that vintage, that location, is paramount, and a good wine photographer needs to really understand that on an innate level. Understanding that and respecting that is critical.
I have a creative collective called Garage Industries and I coordinate and art direct multi-disciplined creative marketing projects. For example, for one client I’m currently working on a promotional project that includes photography, letterpress printing, original oil-paintings and comic book art, copywriting, video and digital media and my task is to keep all of that coordinated and aligned with the creative direction of the project. I have a deep network of creatives from my years in the business and it’s been great to be able to assemble dream-teams of professionals and work together on specific projects. It’s a great outlet for my more grand creative concepts.
Since my daughter was born, I have become slightly obsessed with children’s portraiture. After she was born, I found myself spending a lot of time in the world of kids in addition to the world of wines, and I was always kind of put-off by typical children’s portrait photography. I wanted to have images of my daughter that were cool and contemporary and modern – print large. Not something that would look dated and be embarrassing to either of us in 20 years time. I would look at adverts for Gap Kids or Crewcuts and think, “Why can’t I get pictures like THAT of my daughter?” I didn’t find anyone making them so I decided that I would just make them myself. (Years ago I had worked as a Creative Director for two first-generation skate/streetwear contemporary clothing companies in Southern California so the idea wasn’t a stretch.)
Based on that spark, I started putting together custom children’s portrait shoots that follow more of a fashion editorial trajectory, with all the bells and whistles of a commercial fashion shoot – but for “regular” kids who aren’t professional models. (Although in truth, I think many of them could be if their parents wanted to go that direction.) You’d be amazed at how awesome these kids are! I love creating images that are genuine reflections of their unique personalities – no stiff poses, cheesy props or strained, fake smiles – just capturing their pure, beautiful spirits. It’s magic.
I have found that there are other parents like me out there that want images of their kids that are cool, timeless, and done to the highest professional standard. It’s great to be able to offer this level of production and quality to the parents that “get it”. (I knew I couldn’t be the only one!)
To some it might seem a bit incongruous to do both wine photography and children’s fashion portraiture, but if you know me – it makes perfect sense. And anyone who has kids knows that a glass of wine can often be your very best friend.