I met photographer Erin Gleeson late last year. She had recently relocated from New York to the Bay Area and was assisting friend Michael Harlan Turkell during the photo shoot for Chris Cosentino’s cookbook, Beginnings. She was warm, creative, and helpful on set, and I just had a really good feeling about her. We connected on Facebook and a few days later I noticed that Erin had posted a link to her blog, Forest Feast. I clicked on it and was transported to a unique culinary wonderland set among the trees around her northern California property. I was rapt.
Forest Feast is a proverbial breath of fresh air in the food blog space—a completely original look at recipes, food photography, and inspiration. Curious, I wanted to know more about Erin’s creative process and how she came up with the idea for her blog. I hope you enjoy my conversation with her, below, and snippets from her innovative body of work.
Tell me about your background and how you got into food photography.
There are several artists in my family, so choosing a career in the arts was warmly supported. I studied art as an undergrad at UC Santa Barbara and when I was a junior, I studied abroad for a year at the Fine Arts Academy in Bologna, Italy (which some say is the culinary capital of Italy!). During that time I really became serious about photography and got my first good camera. I traveled (and ate) a lot that year around Europe, but also in India and West Africa. When I returned to California, I spent much of my senior year on photography projects, many involving food. Right after I graduated I moved to New York City to pursue photography where I assisted a couple photographers in their studios and worked at a magazine. After a few years I went back to school for my MFA in Photography at School of Visual Arts in NYC and did a cookbook for my thesis based on the desserts from a restaurant in SoHo. In grad school I also started volunteering for the James Beard Foundation as a photographer, which introduced me to a lot of chefs in New York. Since I finished my MFA I have been freelance, shooting for newspapers, magazines, cookbooks and restaurants. I also taught photography for the last few years at The Fashion Institute of Technology in New York.
How did growing up in Northern California influence your career?
I had a very bucolic upbringing in Sonoma County. We lived in Sebastopol in an apple orchard with a redwood grove; we were vegan and had a huge vegetable garden. Our home life was very much centered around food, and cooking was something we did together. We were endlessly trying to find new recipes to use up the apples, so there was a lot of baking involved.
How did you come up with the idea for Forest Feast?
After living in New York for almost 10 years, my husband got a job in Silicon Valley so we moved out west. We were a little wary of moving straight to suburbia so when we found a little cabin in the woods outside Palo Alto, we went for it. I’d been wanting to make a new body of work for a while and never had the time, but the move allowed for it. We signed up for a weekly CSA box and I suddenly had time to create recipes with whatever came each week and then started photographing them outside. After spending a little time in the woods, the idea for Forest Feast just came to me. It's often foggy in the forest, and I found the soft light and the clean air inspiring. My portfolio of food photography was very minimalist in New York, well lit and slick, since I mostly shot dishes in high end restaurants. I knew I needed an earthier looking portfolio on the West Coast so that was also part of the motivation to make new work and start the blog.
How are New York and the Bay Area different in terms of inspiration?
New York is buzzing all the time. It's sensory overload—the streets are full of ideas and colors and there is a strong artistic community to support art making. It's such a mixing pot of cultures and flavors; there is something for everyone, everywhere you turn. At times this can be stifling, but it can also be the source of endless inspiration, especially with the plethora of galleries and museums to visit. Coming to the west coast it's as if I came to a startling halt, which in turn opened a new door for me artistically. The calm of nature and plethora of local ingredients in the Bay Area have created a quiet space for me to become inspired in a different, more organic way.
Are all the photographs shot on your property?
Yes, most of them, with the exception of a few taken at my parents' house in Sonoma County and my cousins' house in the Santa Cruz Mountains (both of which are also wooded areas).
I love the watercolors that you use to introduce the recipes. How did you come up with that idea?
I took painting lessons for many years as a child from a woman who had a country cottage painting studio near our home in Sebastopol where we often painted outside in her garden. I started her classes when I was 5 years old and most of what we did was watercolor. I have been painting and mailing watercolor cards to people for years, but only since moving back to California have I started to officially use watercolor in my work in combination with photography (perhaps a move back to my roots!).
Tell me about the text on the recipes themselves. Is that handwriting? Or a font?
It's my handwriting. I write on a piece of paper then scan it in to Photoshop, change the colors and overlay it on the photos.
Walk me through how you set up a photograph.
I usually do a shot featuring all the ingredients first. I look for a shady spot to lay everything on the ground outside which complements the colors in the ingredients. I love antiques and have been collecting vintage kitchen items and props to use in the photos, so I see if there are any items that work well with the ingredients I've chosen. I then go into the kitchen and make the dish, plate it, then go back outside to photograph it. When I've got the shot, I sit on the deck and eat it! I usually shoot in the late afternoon when the light is low and golden and there are more shady areas on the property. I usually shoot each dish in a few different places until I find a spot that feels right. I have been using all natural light in the forest, which I never did in New York.
How do you find inspiration for your blog posts?
I make up most of the recipes and they are inspired by whatever comes in my CSA box each week. I am not a trained chef by any means, so the recipes are very simple. They are mostly vegetarian (although I am not anymore) and are based on local ingredients—but I do buy some items from the store to supplement.
Do the seasons affect your posts?
The produce is mostly seasonal, although California is an anomaly—I certainly didn't get avocados in my CSA box in New York like I do here! But the seasons affect the geography of where I live as well. I shoot a lot on the ground of the property. In the fall there was a lot of moss covering the dirt in certain areas, along with fallen leaves. Now there is new growth and the trees are flowering, which gives the photos a different look.
For more information or to contact Erin Gleeson, click here.