When the big, fat matzo ball splashed into its broth, photographer Maren Caruso got “The Shot.” It was a colossal mess, with spray everywhere, but a vivid moment for the cookbook Eat Something. “We were all so dazzled by it,” says the book’s designer and illustrator George McCalman, who heads the design studio McCalman.Co in San Francisco. “It’s really kind of violent, surprising and a totally different way to present a traditional archetype of Jewish cuisine.”
Eat Something, published in March 2020, is the most recent publication in Caruso’s two decades of shooting more than 100 cookbooks. Her playful and intriguing images have challenged the boundaries of food photography while attracting clients that include Whole Foods, Chipotle, Clif Bar & Company and Kiva Confections, a producer of premium edibles in the fast-growing cannabis industry.
“Everyone thinks I can cook because I’m a food photographer,” she says. “I cannot cook to save my life.” In fact, shooting food began with her interest in photography, rather than the other way around. After studying art and photography at the University of California, Los Angeles, her first photo series on chefs in their San Francisco kitchens sparked her interest in the food genre.
The project continued in Europe, where Caruso visited the farms and farmers markets of Spain and France to capture raw food in its freshest state. Those images jump-started her career when they were seen by an art director and a book publisher, who hired her to photograph seventeen single-subject titles for the Williams-Sonoma Collection of cookbooks in 2002.
The 20-volume series gave Caruso plenty of experience working with predetermined formats and lighting directions. When the series concluded in 2004, she opted out of the next project to explore her personal style instead. McCalman remembers her transition. “She started out as a traditional food shooter and was enjoying it,” he says, “and then she started not liking it. Most photographers would just complain, and they do. But Maren decided to do something about it.”
Caruso stripped away the nonessentials and experimented with lighting, focusing on the simplicity of the food’s lines, textures and colors. She tested ideas with different stylists. “Everything became new again,” she recalls. Finding her own direction, she began deconstructing recipes and studying their ingredients, exploring ways to bring them to life. The smooth, cylindrical Forono beet, for example, was photographed in more than fifteen different prepped states before Caruso further deconstructed it and rearranged its parts. Over time, her compositions of ingredients became more complex, transforming into abstract designs, layered patterns and impossibly high, sculpturesque piles.
“Typically, most photographers show the style of food—what it looks like, not what it feels like,” says McCalman. “For Maren, it’s very much the distillation of foods and their elements—what makes a lemon zesty? She is really interested in the language of texture, the essence of food and how to represent food symbolically.”
One of Caruso’s experiments to discover what makes food irresistible became a national campaign. She wanted to know what foods like pasta and a grilled cheese sandwich would look like naked. Removing everything, including the plate and any propping, she photographed each dish on a white background with a drop shadow, highlighting the beauty of its form. Her lighting created a glistening, hyperreal effect that brought out all the textures and caught the attention of an agency working with Whole Foods in 2017. For the next two years, Caruso was hired as an artist with a vision to help deliver Whole Foods’ story. Her images were nationally displayed in stores and on billboards, kiosks and buses.
Kevin Thomson, executive creative director of Kiva Brands, knew Caruso had perceptive ideas during their first meet at an agency shoot. When he later asked her to photograph Kiva’s edibles, he was eager to elevate their cannabis products from a “dude or stoner-bro” culture to a level similar to wine and craft bourbons. Caruso was enthused about contributing her ideas up front and offering creative solutions for product layouts along the way.
“Having Maren on board was really helpful for that,” Thomson says. “She was able to help us take what could have been a standard, top-down, flat-lay shoot that a lot of people are doing, into an entirely different direction that has proved great for us.” He noted that Caruso’s shots were elegant in their styling, and almost architectural in nature. “Especially given the way people now are viewing things on social,” Thomson says, “it really breaks through all the clutter and allows the brands she works on to stand out.”
Continually changing as a photographer, Caruso looks for collaborators who will see her work as it is now, and not from years past. She attributes her creative restlessness to the first quality she names when asked to describe herself. “Curious,” she says. “When I clean my house, I’ll start with the living room and put a few things away. Then I get bored with it and go to my bedroom and fold a couple of things, and I’ll just keep circling around until it’s done.”
The same process motivates her work. “I play with a concept, dive in deep and then switch things up by exploring another way to look at something,” she says. Caruso has noticed that clients are more willing to be experimental with social media than with a print ad. To keep viewers engaged, whether they’re scrolling her images or walking by them, she’s found inspiration from a few visual themes with extensive possibilities. Used for still lifes, they attract the eye and captivate the viewer’s perception of the image.
One theme plays with foreground and background, combining an object and other surfaces with similar textures to obscure where the real object starts and where it ends. Caruso also enjoys creating patterns or compositions using items that wouldn’t naturally stack. She may use rigging, propping and fake shadows to achieve the effect of impossible balance. “I am always drawn to awkward moments,” she says, “and in these stacked compositions, gravity creates tension by showing items dripping, sagging or falling.” A third theme plays on the techniques used to enhance food for the camera, like using denture paste to stack unstackable foods together, and challenges the notion of what is real and what is fake. “If we’re shooting a cherry-flavored food, and if cherries aren’t in season, we use our fakes, and Photoshop out the little plastic nub on the end,” she says. “So, to push it, we may make the fake stuff look fake. The reality is, you just don’t know.”
“I have a bunch of bananas on set right now that are sitting on a mirror,” she offers as another example, “and the ones that are hanging in the foreground are reflected in the mirror, but it looks like one bunch of bananas.” It’s one of those “awkward moments” Caruso likes that represents her work. It may make a viewer a little uneasy, but it’s also playful.
This year, before social-distancing measures went into effect, she shot a campaign for Ramen Hero, a new food company that delivers all the ingredients to make Japanese ramen at home. Working from a standard shot list provided by the client, Caruso photographed appetizing bowls of food and people eating noodles. But just before the last shot, she felt there was one important activity that was missing: slurping. So, she set up a couple of cameras like a photo booth and captured models slurping the noodles in full-frame, while recording their slurps. This opportunity to explore and experiment became her favorite moments that day, and something she’d like to expand on in her work.
It adds another degree of satisfaction for her to be involved with a project that she believes in and can stand behind. “There are some really great environmentally conscious, socially responsible companies popping up with great products,” she says. “I’d love to work with new startups that are doing something good and benefiting the environment or kids at risk.” For the past few years, she’s also been volunteering her skills to Meals on Wheels, which provides home delivery of meals to the elderly. Her photos of the seniors, the details of their home environments and the preparation of their food give a face and character to the organization and expands the community’s understanding of those who are served.
Reflecting on her career, Caruso is most gratified by what she brings to the table as an artist going beyond a facile beauty shot of food. She wants to show work that is “more quirky, awkward, with imperfect balance and background/foreground intrigue,” she says. “I want the image to make you look closely. Like this marijuana leaf: Is it real or is it fake? Is that a receding foreground? Oh wait, that’s a mirror. I just want to create thoughtful imagery.” ca