Those gram-worthy food shots don’t plate themselves
As a director, I know that to create a great photo you need lighting, lenses and location. But for me, when styling the set, just the right prop can make or break the scene. This is where a stylist shines. Their artist’s eye dominate the pages of magazines and cookbooks, the stages of theatre, and the sets of big and small screens alike. I was grateful to snag some time with busy NY-based prop stylist, Maeve Sheridan to find out a little more about her fascinating career.
Heather: How did you get into this type of work?
Maeve: Completely by chance, although it makes sense when you look at my rambling background (art school and restaurants). About 13 years ago, a friend introduced me to a prop stylist who needed a hand on a project. I had recently moved to NYC and was managing a restaurant and not loving it. I had the day she needed free, and eagerly jumped at the chance to do something different for a minute. It was awesome. I had no idea her little niche world of tabletop styling existed. I quickly (and very naively) quit my job and went back to part time serving/bartending/schlepping at flea markets on the weekends to make myself available during the week for potential shoot assisting. Luckily, I was able to work with her and a couple of other prop stylists very regularly until branching out on my own a couple years later.
“In the early days, when I’d be mistaken for a food stylist, I’d just take the job and make it happen with a “fake it til ya make it” type mindset”
Heather: Can you tell me the difference between a PROP stylist and a FOOD stylist?
Maeve: I’m mostly a tabletop prop stylist, which is very confusing to a lot of people as I’m often confused with a food stylist. (90% of the prop work I do pertains to food- I’m responsible for sussing out the art direction for the shots- the surfaces, backgrounds, plates, linens, cutlery, glassware, etc. from soup to nuts). But generally, a food stylist is sourcing ingredients, preparing, and cooking everything. BUT! In the early days, when I’d be mistaken for a food stylist, I’d just take the job and make it happen with a “fake it til ya make it” type mindset.
Heather: So, how are your cooking skills?
Maeve: I would say I’m a mediocre baker and a somewhat okay cook when I need to be. Not trained and definitely not a natural. A good faker for sure though. Needless to say, I learned to cook for the camera very quickly. I still take work as both a food and prop stylist, although those are generally for smaller productions (pulling both roles off at once). I enjoy the challenge for sure. I will say that most food on set is completely real, edible, and prepared as close to the original recipe as possible, from scratch. Sometimes there is a little camera trickery here and there, but nothing crazy. Some stand outs include building a sculptural Thanksgiving turkey out of fried chicken pieces and constructing an entire London cityscape out of British candy.
“But being collaborative is key for me. And having a sense of humor”
Heather: How do you approach a project? How do you work with the photographer and crew?
Maeve: I like to think I approach every project with a lot of enthusiasm and an open mind. If I didn’t, I’m not sure I’d still be working in this industry. So many personalities, so many different approaches, so many different budgets! The bones of every job are so different, I think it would be easy to get frustrated if you set your expectations to rigid standards. I am very collaborative with my team. Sometimes I’m on set with a completely new set of faces, sometimes I am with photogs and other stylists I’ve worked with so much that we’ve become close friends. But being collaborative is key for me. And having a sense of humor. I try hard to find that tricky balance of easy going/ friendly /chill + OCD perfectionist professional.
Heather: How do you prepare —Identify and chose color palettes? Research the photographer? Make mood/Pinterest boards?
Maeve: It really depends on the job. Sometimes, all the art direction has been fleshed out for me, and my job is to just visually interpret through props. Other times, I work closely with photo editors/ad’s etc. to hone in on a specific aesthetic, and widdle down a succinct look/feel. Either way, I put together a mood board that they can add to the deck. Once approved, I start “pulling” props. Usually a combination of things from my own collection, some rentals from prop houses, some going out into the wild and purchasing, and so forth. Often on something large like a cookbook, you’re looking at 80+ food shots, and are expected to have at least a couple of options for each shot. This means every little glass, fork, napkin, salt dish, etc. gets meticulously wrapped up and accounted for and schlepped to a studio (usually in the city or BK) by my amazing messengers. Sometimes this means like 10 plastic bins, multiple shopping bags and a slew of surfaces. It can be a hustle.
Heather: Where do you find all these amazing and stylish accessories & props?
Maeve: I own quite a few and have a prop studio here in Brooklyn (years of scouring flea markets, estate sales, trunk shows, art fairs, basements, small handmade ceramicist studios, etc..). I also do quite a bit of renting from the amazing tabletop prop houses we have here in the city (Lost and Found, Prop Workshop, Prop Haus, Surface Workshop). It’s amazing. When a job calls for a specific look/feel or an aesthetic from a very distinct time/place, you can be sure to find just what you are looking for.
Heather: Do you have a favorite food group to style?
Maeve: I think cocktails and apps and party food are the most fun. They lend themselves to fun festive tablescapes and the styling is often more creative and upbeat than most. Desserts are fun too. It’s all fun really.
Heather: What about a least favorite?
Maeve: Brown one-pot wonders are NOT the most fun.
“Cocktail shots are very detail-y. I think photographers have the greatest challenge with these shots because lighting can be a bear.”
Heather: You mentioned liking styling for cocktails and I see you also have quite a few on your site- what are some of the unique challenges with styling for beverages?
Maeve: Hmmm. Cocktails are so fun, I can hardly think of any super annoying challenges. From a prop perspective, I guess it’s finicky since glassware has to be super clean and smudge/print free. Sometimes getting the right degree of photogenic condensation on a glass can be tricky (thank heavens for dulling spray). Cocktail shots are very detail-y. I think photographers have the greatest challenge with these shots because lighting can be a bear.
Heather: Is there a dream scene you have always wanted to create?
Maeve: I really want to do a series about epic food scenes from films…Like the steak scene in Raging Bull, the poisoned spaghetti in I Love You to Death, and so on.
Heather: Ooooo. Deal!
Heather: Any funny stories of a job gone horribly awry where you had to come up with a quick fix!?
Maeve: Dear God…there have been so many. Off the bat I’d say some stand outs are: showing up as a food stylist to a huge TV commercial production job and not having a kitchen, digging a cube truck filled with props out of 4 feet of snow to make a 6AM call time, making a canoe out of paper towel rolls when my prop canoe didn’t show up.
But one thing that invariably happens on nearly every job is this phenomenon:
You search the ends of the Earth to find the perfect prop… the prop that you know is going to win your team over and give you serious street cred as a stylist… it’s definitely going to make the shoot! Whether it’s overnighted from Lithuania, or you had your assistant wait in line for 6 hours in the cold because there’s only one more at that store and they are holding it for you, or you drive deep into New Jersey for it only to get to set and have the shot it was destined for just casually nixed off the shot list. And you’re left with a completely random item whose journey nobody will ever fully appreciate.
But, I still can’t believe I get to do this for work even though it can be much more stressful than meets the eye. Still, I’m utterly grateful.
Please peruse more of Maeve Sheridan’s stunning work here at http://www.maevesheridan.com/. Be sure to plate those food items with the same care you showed while cooking them. Happy Thanksgiving to you all.