Dominique James, Photographer

It's all about the pictures …

Food, glorious food …

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Sisig

Sisig, one of the Filipino-themed all-time favorite specialty dishes served at the newly opened Side Grill Restaurant in Jersey City, New Jersey.

DOMINIQUE JAMES

When I was starting out as a professional photographer, my young and impressionable mind was blown away the very first time I heard that photographers[1] use mashed potatoes when photographing ice cream. It was a lightning bolt of a revelation! It totally made sense to me since the structure and consistency are visually the same, and mashed potatoes never melts—not even under very hot lights.

For good or bad, this bit of handy knowledge became part and parcel of helpful and useful things that I carry in my head, as if some kind of cardinal or even Biblical truth, a manna from heaven. Since then, the way I look at photographs of food, and even my relationship with food, has forever changed.

I don’t remember the name of the first person who told me about using mashed potatoes for an ice cream. Through the years, as if a mantra, this nugget of wisdom would be repeated to me often enough by all and sundry, many of whom were not even photographers. Surprisingly, hard as I try to recall, the one true master of food photography himself, Mark Floro[2], never ever mentioned this to me, not even once in any of our many conversations[3]. In any case, outside of the rarified domain of food photography, does anyone really care to know what a photograph of an ice cream is really made of as long as it looks deliciously real?

As my career progressed, and though my expertise, interest and focus leaned towards portraiture and fashion, I was lucky enough to have been entrusted with taking pictures of food for commercial campaigns of several fastfood chains and fine dining restaurants[4]. In almost all of these shoots, except for a trick or two here and there, I actually photographed real, edible food. Even the one time I took pictures of Ilustrado Restaurant’s[5] famous gourmet Sampaguita ice cream, we used the real thing[6], not mashed potatoes.

Still, even with a number of professional food shooting experience tucked into my increasingly widening belt (all from eating), I still somehow cannot help but doubt the authenticity of sumptuous-looking dishes photographed by others that I see in ads. In my skepticism, I even try to discern fakery whenever I look at pictures of food, but alas, none to successfully. Perhaps the idea of delicious dishes is too overpowering on an empty stomach?

I was once teased (or dared? or challenged?) by someone who is well aware of my terrible, terrible love of photography. If I had to choose one over the other, which would I prefer: photographing food or eating them? What a torturous question! This is one of the few questions that actually stopped me in my tracks and take the time to answer. I just hope no one ever thinks of torturing and embarrassing any of the Ms. Universe beauty pageant finalists in the Q&A portion with a question like this. To me at least, this is one of a deep probing that ranks high up with all the other questions on the mystical nature of humanity and the universe.[7]

At first, of course, taking the high road, I desperately wanted to answer that I enjoy photographing them more than eating them. After all, I consider myself to be an artiste; and artistic expression is what I live and die for, by culinary standards or not. I mean, choosing to photograph food rather than eat them seems like the right kind of answer—the one that judges of the Ms. Universe competition would certainly think as the right answer.

That’s the “intellectual” side of me rationalizing the whole deal. But then, who am I kidding? I mean, I’m really more concerned with what I put in my mouth than taking pictures of them. If I might confess one thing right here, I actually never bother taking pictures of food (no matter how incredible the presentation) before I eat them. I always end up giving in to the base instinct of my human nature, which, after all, is universal, and therefore, relevant to everyone. I eat them! So, the fact remains, I like eating more than photographing food.

But hey, once in a while, I get the chance to actually do both. Here’s the thing: I get to eat the food after the shoot! Most of it, anyway. For me, that is what’s actually fun about photographing food—taking pictures of it, and then eating it. What could possibly be better?[8]

I recently photographed the dishes being served by a newly opened Filipino restaurant in Jersey City, New Jersey, called Side Grill. Located right smack in the middle of West Side Avenue, where many of the half-a-million Filipinos living in that area are clustered tightly into a community, Side Grill serves some of the most awesome all-time favorite and all-time popular Filipino dishes originating from the different regions of the Philippines. Chef Herman Villadolid kept plating one exquisite dish after another which, in the end, resulted in an awesome culinary snapshot of the authentic Filipino cuisine. The pictures, taken as a whole, represented almost all of the major typical Filipino culinary experience not only in the Philippines, but of all Filipinos whichever corner of the globe they happen to work, or live, or be.

The thing about Filipino food is that it is truly comforting. Each dish has a distinct signature taste that is familiar to the palette. As Filipinos, we know how it should taste like, even as we compare and reference it to how we remember the taste from countless others that we’ve no doubt tasted in the past. We judge a particular food against the taste of how our parents, grandparents, or cousins, aunts and uncles cook it, based on the family’s heirloom recipe, or we compare its taste against that of a favorite cafeteria, fastfood, or turo-turo[9] restaurant. We compare it to our own cooking. And we form snap judgement, whether it is good or not. But none too harshly, I would suppose, because we still eat it, no matter how terrible we think it tastes. There is a sense of comfort to eating the familiar that it’s almost a solemn communion. It beckons to us, it calls us, it makes us, all at once, taste home.

[Note: The food photography project for Side Grill’s first major promotional campaign was done with Dennis Altobar, Together, we’ve photographed on location almost 50 mouth-watering dishes within the span of a week. We’ve also photographed Side Grill’s restaurant interior and exterior during the day, and at night time. Many of the pictures are now featured in Side Grill’s beautiful and elegant website, serving as a counterpoint to the fantastic logo designed by Mark Gonzales[10]. Some of the food photographs are individually featured as the main visual element of full-color posters and all other collateral promo materials designed by the creative artists of The Studio. These posters and promo materials has been professionally printed by Marisse Panlilio[11] of MPGrafx.]

[1] Together with an army of hardworking food stylists who collaborate with them on commercial food photography.
[2] I used to sneak in Mark Floro’s food photography workshops next door every moment whenever I’d get bored from the nude photography workshops I used to conduct at the Philippine Center for Creative Imaging.
[3] We were probably too preoccupied with talking about so many other topics of mutual interest to have time to actually talk about something like food photography!
[4] I’ve done food photography for Alfredo’s Steakhouse, Illustrado Restaurant, T.G.I.F., among others.
[5] Ilustrado Restaurant is located in the historic district of Intramuros in Manila.
[6] Never mind if it kept melting and we had to do it over and over again!
[7] Ok, that’s hyperbole right there, but it is what it is to me.
[8] I can think of one, but never mind.
[9] The word “turo-turo” means “to point at.” This is a kind of restaurant where you simply point out to the attending server which dishes you’d like to order.
[10] You can view the works of Mark Gonzales at his website http://www.smallzinc.com and you can email him at me@smallzinc.com.
[11] Marisse Panlilio can be reached at marisse@mpgrafx.com.

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