TasteMakers: Matt Armendariz


When I first came up with the TasteMakers interview series, Matt Armendariz, was pretty much the person I had in mind to interview. Someone who’s creative, talented, and behind-the-scenes in the food world — someone whom I adore and thought you couldn’t go one more minute without knowing more about. So, don’t ask me why it’s taken nearly a year to feature Matt!

Well, later than I’d like but certainly not any less special, here is my latest TasteMakers series with talented food photographer Matt Armendariz. In fact, it’s just in time for his latest book which covers the subject he has redefined with his contemporary take on beautiful food photography, Focus on Food Photography for Bloggers: Focus on the Fundamentals.

Q: You’re a man who needs little introduction but for those who may not now how awesome you are, could you give us a quick background? How is it you even got your start as a photographer anyway?

A: I’m not really that awesome. You are the awesome one. But thank you for that! For me, well, it’s been one of those super-fast-yet-20-year paths that have led me to where I am. Depending on which day it is, I am a professional photographer. Or a writer. Or a wanna prop stylist. Or even an art director and consultant. I’m often called a goofball. I actually started years ago as a graphic designer, creating packages, signs, ads, banners and flyers at Whole Foods. That led to an art director job which became creative director, and then eventually freelance. And even though I do all these things the one common denominator is food. I love food and I love that I’m able to do all these things with and around food.

Oh, but about my photography. It really was out of necessity as well as a way to appease the control freak within me. For a while I was art directing food shoots; this involved hiring the food stylists, the prop stylists, the photographer, assistants, finding a location, securing the location, you name it. And after spending ungodly amounts of money I’d review the film (yes, it was medium format film back then!) and realize that something was off. Not right. To anyone else they’d look at the images we produced and think it was just fine, and I suppose it was. But there was a vision inside my brain that wasn’t translating to the frame, through no fault of anyone. Remember, I was hiring professionals and they were doing exactly what I was asking of them. But if you’re a creative person (a painter, singer, dancer, writer, sculptor) who can’t get what’s inside your mind out to the world it can be incredibly frustrating. It’s how we communicate, and my communication wasn’t saying what I was feeling. I realized I couldn’t explain or find the vocabulary to voice my opinions because they were lodged deep within the actual process of photography and the only way I’d be able to see it the way I wanted it was to actually photograph it. And this because a solid 3 years of deep intensive dedication to a camera, taking it everywhere and never putting it down. Up until this point I had the best “classroom” you could imagine, as well as relationships with experts who were always there to answer my questions. I’m sure I annoyed them!

Fortunately my background in graphic design slid right into photography – proportion, space, color, emotion. Once I felt a little bit more comfortable with f stop and aperture I began to photograph my own stuff to use in my day job, and that’s when the little lightbulb went off! I loved being able to conceptualize and then take that and deliver a finished product. For a creative control freak it was heaven ☺

Ah, I’m talking too much. Long story short: I quit my day job and stopped freelancing as a designer and art director to dedicate my life to photography. And now I have a photo studio and get to go all over the place working with brilliant people.

Q: In a few words, how would you define your style?

A: Accessible, friendly, equally feminine and masculine, marked by bright light and rich colors without ever being heavy. Moody without being depressing, spontaneous without being messy, and above all else: it’s real.

Q: I’m sure everyone wants to know how you do what you do, so do tell, what is your camera set up?

A: People love peeking behind the curtains, and luckily I enjoy sharing it! Since no job is ever the same, the needs also change. Two days ago I was shooting a chef on a farm with nothing but a reflector and a camera. Two weeks ago I photographed a holiday promotion that involved a studio of expensive photography gear and 3 assistants! But I usually shoot with natural light (it’s California! We got tons of it!) and a variety of cameras: Canon, Sigma, medium format digital Hasselblad, it just depends on the job. But it’s 100% digital, usually with an 80, 100, 120 macro lens for food. I use tons of light modifiers to shape the daylight and get it where I need it to be. Sometimes it’s too bright so I block it with curtains, sometimes it’s too shy so I make it brighter with reflectors. And I usually shoot tethered to a computer so I can see the images as they are being shot. The art directors and stylists usually like this!

Q: You work with your uber-talented husband, Adam, sometimes. How did that start and how does that go down for you? I mean, I’ve been there and can say first hand that working with a significant other can be challenging a large part of the time.

A: When I began actively pursuing this self-taught photo thing I also started blogging. I needed someone to style the food and asked if Adam would do it. At this point he was in culinary school so it was perfect, he already had a knowledge and comfort level with food. He realized he loved it, was good at it, and began assisting other food stylists that I knew from being an art director. Now he’s working on major advertising and editorial campaigns, and clients like Crate and Barrel and CB2 feature him and his culinary prowess in their catalogs.

As far as working together, you know people say they could never work with their significant others. Me? I can’t say one bad thing. I can’t even offer a funny witty criticism. Working with him is like working with a dream stylist, well, because he is. I know I’ll create a beautiful image hands down and that allows me to focus on other things. And you have to remember, we have both dedicated every drop of blood in our bodies to photography so when we’re working together we’re not husband-and-husband whatsoever. We are teammates striving to create that image that will make our customers (and ourselves!) happy.

Q: You might be the busiest bee I’ve ever met and it is quite possible you are the Energizer bunny in photographer form. How is it that you keep going and going and going?

A: I love life. I’m absolutely crazy about it. Keeping busy isn’t about working as much as it is really trying to live life as much as I can. I could “go” tomorrow (knocking on wood) and I’d be so disappointed with myself if I didn’t get out there and experience the wonders this world offers. But how do I do it? Well, I am loved and I love, and this is the fuel I need to keep going. I go to bed early and rise even earlier, and I actually do exercise and eat well. Sometimes too well. But all these things allow me to be like that energizer bunny. Oh, and I have amazing people around me.

Q: Which photographers out there do you follow? Who inspires you?

A: Sara Remington, Ben Fink, Con Poulos, Mikkel Vang, Ditte Isager, Andrew Purcell, Linda Pugliese, John Kernick, Tara Donne, Alan Benson, Roland Bello, Andrea Fazzari, Hector Sanchez, Marcus Nilsson, Jennifer Davick, Jeff Kauck, David Tsay, David Nicolas, Romulo Yanes, Andrea Gentl, Victoria Pearson, Sang An, Peggy Wong, Nicole Franzen, oh my goodness that’s just the beginning. There are so many more (I apologize for not mentioning them all!) and they are all so different in their approach to food. My mind is blown when I think of all these talented photographers, it’s unreal.

I’m also inspired by the dozens of brilliant stylists out there, and they definitely deserve recognition. The prop, food, and set stylists I work (and hope to work with!) continually inspire me. My husband Adam Pearson, Dani Fisher, Carrie Purcell, Susan Sugarman, Alison Attenborough, Elodie Rambaud, Kate Martindale, Pouke Halpern, and Susan Spungen.

Q: You’re tongue-in-cheek humor makes me giggle like a schoolgirl whenever I’m around you. How does that translate to your work?

A: You are too sweet. You make me laugh which makes me even sillier. But believe it or not, I can be very serious when I work. Of course, if you’re on set with me and I’m running the show it’s imperative that people enjoy the day. Imperative. We all work so effing hard as it is, there’s no need to create any additional drama on the set. But if I’m blogging and doing stuff for myself, well, I tend to be sillier in my tone and photography work. But I don’t usually like to be too silly (which I DEFINITELY AM) as I have a certain reverence for food photography.

But put on some Sheena Easton, give me a wig and a scarf and I WILL GIVE YOU SOME SILLY.

P.S. I did recently print out small photos of our mutual dear friend Gaby Dalkin and stuck her face into the bowls, plates, and dishes of her cookbook shots as I was working on them. I snuck those pictures into the batches I was sending to her publisher. I’m lucky to report her editor has a sense of humor ☺

Q: You came out with your first book, On A Stick, recently. What was that experience like? What is your favorite recipe or photo from that book?

A: Why do people think writing a book is going to be a romantic and challenging milestone? I’ll give you the milestone, but writing a cookbook is a MUTHEREFFING DIFFICULT PROCESS. There’s never enough money or time, you want to scratch your eyes out sometimes, and you’re left halfway through wondering why on earth it sounded like a good idea to begin with. And then you wrap it up, send it away, it comes back a year or so later and you forget how painful it was. And then you have a lobotomy or trepan yourself and decide to do it all again. So that sums up my experience of writing my first book. I have a second one coming out in about a month I think, but that was a bit easier as it didn’t involve recipes which meant it didn’t involve recipe testers, editors, cross testers, etc.

My photos are my children and I love all of them equally. HAHA Kidding, that’s so not true. But if I’m picking a favorite recipe it’s panzanella on a stick. It always disappears at summer parties. Favorite photo? That’s a tough one. Probably the shot of the Bò Lá Lốt.

Q: What is your favorite photo you’ve ever shot. Can we see it? Pretty please!

A: My goodness I don’t think I have an all time favorite. I certainly have recent ones that I like, including this still life. I had been shooting so much advertising lately that I had to give myself a creative self-assignment or else I would have exploded. I went to the studio, painted a prop wall, pulled out random props, created a table and shot this in about 2 hours. I’m not sure where it comes from or what it’s saying, but sometimes you just want to be with your props and surfaces and light and just dream. It’s important.

Q: You see a lot of props and tableware with your work. What brands are you currently coveting?

A: Speaking of props, right? I love texture and found pieces, and luckily the other half feels the same way. I can’t say there’s any particular brand I covet other than ceramics from Mud Australia, and we find many independent ceramicists that we commission for specific pieces. Our prop library is huge and only getting bigger. Deep down inside I am a closet Prop Stylist.

Q: What’s in the hopper for you? Any projects we can look forward to from you?

A: Well I do have a book I wrote about basic food photography coming out next month, as well as about 6 other cookbooks I’ve shot for others. Those should be out during the year. I just finished working with Top Chef’s Fabio Viviani on his book, and will be working with some pretty spectacular authors and writers soon but I can’t say who just yet! I’ve got October features coming out in Rachael Ray and Country Living magazines and the holiday stuff I photographed for Target will be in all their stores at the end of October (SO! MUCH! FUN!) Lastly, I’m heading to San Francisco for lots of vineyard and wine photography shortly. Which means drinking wine. LOTS OF WINE. Hey, somebody’s gotta do it, right?

To start crushing on Matt online (as I already do), check out his photography portfolio, his witty blog, Matt Bites, and follow him on Twitter. And, by all means, check out his cookbook, On A Stick, and his upcoming photography reference, Focus on Food Photography for Bloggers: Focus on the Fundamentals

All these lovely photos were shot by Matt Armendariz.

TasteMakers is a monthly interview series with people I’ve met who have inspired me and a chance for them to share some of their wisdom.