Houston culinary photographer Debora Smail has taken plenty of mouth-watering shots of Houston's cuisine and dining scene. She’s now developed a cult following on Tumblr, one of the web’s most popular blog services. Smail was approach by Tumblr’s editors last month, seeking permission to feature her blog on its spotlight Food & Drink page. Her work is shown next to some of the most prestigious names in food including Food Network, Bon Appétit, and Food & Wine, to name a few.
Food photography is tricky. But over the years I have learned it is best to keep it simple, honest and true to life. No one wants to see one thing and be disappointed later.
Last week, Bon Appétit’s blog re-posted one of her images — a scrumptious Oreo dunking shot. We sat down with Smail, for a Q&A about her blog going viral with more than 23,000 followers:
CultureMap: What did you think when Tumblr reached out to you?
Deborah Smail: Honestly, I was in disbelief. And still today I can't believe it! There has always been a deep desire to appeal to a larger audience, but I thought that, if possible, it would be years away.
CM: How did the editors at Tumblr find out about you?
DS: I'm not quite certain. I didn't start my blog to be a Food & Drink blog. It is just heavy with Food & Drink because I have been lucky to have specialized in that type of photography. I started the blog to post my dailies and just to keep a journal of my progress as a photographer.
The way the Tumblr community works is that you hashtag posts according to categories. #Food, #Fashion, #Writers, #Architecture....A lot of my photography in the last couple years has been featured in Tumblr's #Food category. For example, I posted a Molina's fajita shot I did for their new catering campaign and within days it had hundreds of likes, then went viral. Today it is at 91,851 likes.
Just last week I posted that simple shot of an Oreo floating in a glass of milk. It is surprising what strikes viewers! It caught the attention of Bon Appetit and then they featured it on their blog!
CM: Since your photos have been posted on the Tumblr food and wine page, what has been your reaction?
DS: It is always a thrill to see that a photograph resonates with viewers. It confirms that I am doing something right. I love it! And it motivates me to be better. Especially given the opportunity to put my clients and myself in front of the eyes of a global audience! I am CONSTANTLY looking for ways to improve.
CM: Has this changed your life in any way?
DS: I don't think it has changed my life, but it has certainly changed my attitude. So many photographers worry about putting their work out there, worried it will get stolen, but if you don't put yourself out there, how is anyone going to know you exist? Strangers WILL and DO steal the photos. They hit "control + right click" and bam, it's theirs. It's not OK. But those aren't the people that will or would hire you anyway.
CM: How did you get into photography?
Strangers WILL and DO steal the photos. They hit "control + right click" and bam, it's theirs. It's not OK. But those aren't the people that will or would hire you anyway.
DS: My family had a friend that was a photographer for The Houston Chronicle. He visited our home in New Mexico the summer of 1979, I was mesmerized by his 35mm camera and lenses. That next Christmas I was gifted with a Pentax K1000 and a 50mm lens. I had that camera 30 years, until last year when it and a few other 35mm film cameras that I use to teach preteens photography classes was stolen from my car.
CM: How did you come to specialize in food photography?
DS: After a few editorial assignments, I was drawn to the subculture of food and was determined to teach myself how to shoot food better.
CM: How long have you been shooting food and what do you like about shooting it?
DS: Heavily, for over seven years. I love the subculture of food, the whole process. Although typically editorial and commercial work is focused on the finished plate. I love to be able to tell richer stories of the process. Any time I get a client that allows me to delve behind the scenes, it is always a treat. Standouts are Slow Dough (Bread Co.) and witnessing the labor and process that goes into a loaf of bread that costs the consumer three bucks.
My “ah-ha” moment was YEARS ago. I remember shooting Chef Chris Shepherd at what was Catalan on Washington. PJ Stoops was there with a delivery of fresh fish. Chris had chosen quite a few things and then pulled out a giant fish. PJ Stoops exclaimed, "that was the captain's catch of the day and who ever gets that one pays $ per pound plus a bottle of whiskey." Chris sent someone back in to grab a bottle of whiskey. Ever since then, my eyes have been opened to the layers within the food industry and I have a much bigger appreciation for the finished plate. There are so many stories to tell!
CM: I heard it is really grueling to get food photos to come out well.
DS: Food photography is tricky. But over the years I have learned it is best to keep it simple, honest and true to life. No one wants to see one thing and be disappointed later.
CM: Do you have any tricks you'd like to share?
DS: Well, not too many.... but it wouldn't be smart to give it away just like that!