If you're just coming in, welcome. Part 1 of this series was all about recipe testing - how I work with my long-time tester Mary Dodd and also her tips for home cooks. Today, we're talking about food photography and Mark Weinberg, who shot the images for my latest book, BAKING WITH DORIE. These images were described by Eater as "unrelentingly gorgeous" - and no, it doesn't get better than that. But first, a bit of history ...
Thirty years ago, when my first book was published, I remember turning in my manuscript, clearing my desk (most of which was taken up by a word processor as big as a prize-winning pumpkin) and thinking that I could take a breather. Before I could even telephone my editor – no email or texts back then – she called me to say, “Now the work begins!”
In those days, that “work” was editing, reading and correcting proofs and then going to a cover shoot – if the publishing house’s committee decided that there should be an image on the cover. I wanted a picture, but I didn’t hold out much hope for it. I knew that a shoot was expensive, and that I was a first-time author and an unlikely candidate to bring the house glory and a high return on their investment. I certainly wasn’t going to get pictures inside the book. A book with pictures throughout was wildly expensive and not all that common. If a book had interior images they were usually inserted into the book in folios, which were multiples of four pages.
For authors more established and closer to the verge of success than I was, the work also included book promotion. But aside from a few radio and print interviews – remember, there was no social media back then – that wasn’t going to be much of a job for me.
It wasn’t until midway into my career that I was able to have a four-color book – a book with pictures throughout, not sandwiched into the book in folios – and the experience of working with a photography team: a photographer, a food stylist and a prop stylist. My first book with pictures for most of the recipes was BAKING FROM MY HOME TO YOURS, published in 2006.
Fifteen years later, I'm looking at the making of BAKING WITH DORIE and how the extraordinarily talented Mark Weinberg and his team worked on the book, producing gorgeous images even as they had to navigate COVID in the days when the virus was raging.
I knew as soon as I finished the manuscript that I wanted Mark Weinberg to photograph this book. I’d worked with him on a story for Yankee Magazine and loved the images and the way he worked – he had a generous, easy-going way about him and the rare ability to make everyone feel as though they played a vital part in the project. I also loved the pictures he made for Erin Jeanne McDowell’s THE BOOK ON PIE.
That he was available to shoot and that he was able to pull together a team that could be available in the time frame seemed to be a miracle. Even (or maybe especially) in pandemic times, it wasn’t easy to make work happen. It was Mark who suggested Samantha Seneviratne to do the food styling and Brooke Deonarine to handle the props. I referred to them as the Dream Team as soon as he mentioned their names and today, I think of them as the Dreamiest Dream Team and of myself as a very fortunate author.
As soon as we were a team, Mark and I started talking about what the look of the book should be and Brooke started to put together a Pinterest board with materials, colors, platters and things to talk about.
Again, I was lucky, because my publishing team was open to our ideas. Deciding on the book’s look wasn’t a decision that Mark and I could make alone – the publisher’s design team, the marketing and publicity people and my editor all had a say in and great ideas about what the book should be. That we agreed unanimously – and quickly – is also written into the book of miracles.
I recently asked Mark what he does to plan for shoots like ours, which called for almost 100 images to made in a short time, and he said, “I study – I buy the authors’ books, so that I can get a sense of the food, even if we’re going for a different look.” And for this book, I wanted a different look. I wanted the focus on the food, meaning that the shots wouldn’t be “lifestyle” images, they wouldn’t necessarily show the table setting, the serving pieces, the drinks or flatware or props that would set the scene: The food would be the scene. Mark was fully onboard for that.
I also wanted some of the images to tilt dark. Not moody, but a little dramatic, a little romantic. Baking is brown and my baking is very simple, often without decoration – lovely to eat, but a challenge when you’re looking to make each shot different from all the others. I thought that if we could accentuate the brownness, we’d be able to look at simple sweets in a new way. Mark agreed immediately – it played to his gift for lighting – and had more and better suggestions.
“When I’m starting on a project,” Mark told me, “I have an idea of the lighting I want to try, and I’ll plan a test ahead of time.” He likes to be prepared, “but what I really like,” he explained, “is to be open – I like it when others bring ideas in.” It wasn’t until the shoot started in earnest that I was able to see just how this worked out in real time.
All of the images for BAKING WITH DORIE were shot in a studio in Brooklyn, in October, 2020, over the course of two weeks. Mark, Brooke, Sam and her assistant, Laura Manzano, were there, masked and trying to keep as socially distant as one could in a small space with food that needed to be made and plated and sliced and propped and moved around and looked at from every possible angle.
I couldn’t be in the studio, so I was 150 miles away connected to the action by Zoom for up to 12 hours a day. It was intense and I remember it as wonderful.
I remember watching how a recipe would be shot and then shot again and again. Sometimes the perfect shot was taken, but it didn’t reveal its perfection until it was cropped a certain way. Look at all the shots Mark took of the Little Marvels. There was a plate full of them. Then there was one. Then there was one broken into, but still seen with her sister Marvels.
And then there was the lone Marvel, a spoonful eaten and the spoon by its side. Now the picture told the story.
After a shot was done, after everyone agreed that it was “the one,” I’d walk away from the screen and wait until the next recipe was on set, usually a break of about 20 minutes. I’d never go far and often I’d barely get out of the room before I’d hear Mark call my name. These were some of my favorite moments, they were the times when Mark would go back and, knowing he had what he called his “safety shot,” he’d play a little more, changing the angle, the lighting, the distance from the food. He wouldn’t have much time – and he could have taken the time for a break – but he’d tinker. That one-more-shot mentality, the need to tinker with what’s already good, to try just one more thing, is a rare quality and one I admire boundlessly. This kind of restless creativity marks the people who are at the top of their craft and it was a joy to be called back to the screen to see what Mark had come up with.
The Sticky Buns are made from brioche dough and so they were in the studio for a while, rising as they had to before being baked, and Mark shot them at different moments in their progress from dough to glazed buns. Here’s the contact sheet, showing some of the Sticky Bun shots.
Mark says: "I had to stop playing with them – I could have shot these for the entire day."
I was delighted that Mia Johnson, who designed the book’s interior, found a place for two shots.
I love this picture. I love that it’s lively, that it seems to have motion and that you get “the information” you need from the photo – you see the berries and get a sense of the cake’s wonderful sponge texture. I was hoping it would become the cover image, and it kind of did: It’s the image on the full-title page.
Mark says: "We were struggling to find a way to make the cake look different from other Bundt-like cakes. We tried different angles. We tried different plates. We got the right shot when Sam suggested that we cut the whole cake into slices – a bold move. When we did that, it was as though the cake was dancing around the plate."
The cake is very simple – it’s made without machines. And it’s very plain – its charm is that you can add almost anything that you can think of to the cake. In the book, I suggest eight possibilities but there are so many more. Sam chose to make the cake with tangerine segments and Mark shot it so that the light glints off the fruit in the most whimsical way.
Mark says: "I thought this was a nice cake and that we’d get a nice shot, but it turned out to be an unexpected favorite of mine."
Mark mentioned the cheesecake almost in passing, but when I was leafing through the book with friends who know Mark’s work well, they stopped when they got to the cheesecake and said, “This is a Mark shot – the shadow has his signature on it.”
It was the shadow that I loved in both of these cheesecake shots...
...and also this light and shadow that I loved playing on the Java Mini Mads. Similar to the cheesecake, but so different:
I was surprised when Mark said that his favorite image in the book might be the one of the Tarte Tatin. I think it was the last shot of the project and I remember it being problematic. Not Mark.
Mark says: "It’s my favorite in the book! It’s the drippy mess in the plate and the glow on the apples." And then he added, “sometimes the images I’m attached to might not be beautiful objectively – it’s an emotional thing.”
It may be emotional for Mark, but I find this photograph beautiful. Objectively.
There's so much more I could say about the shoot, but that’s it for now. Come back on Friday, when Mark will have some pro tips for all of us on how to use our phones to take great food photos. See you then – and bring your friends, too.