Maren Caruso is a San Francisco based advertising and editorial still life photographer. Known for clean, conceptual food and product work, her images are characteristically defined by masterful lighting, the play of texture, contrast, and movement, and exceptional precision. Maren is represented by DS Reps and has a client list that includes Wieden Kennedy, Draft FCB, Ten Speed Press, and Weldon Owen among others.
I’ve wanted to interview Maren since the launch of POP. I was thrilled when our schedules finally aligned and she had a break after an 18-day shoot (and a quick trip up to Calistoga). We had a long call followed by a meeting at her Dogpatch studio and a three-hour dinner discussion and the many back and forths involved in getting to know a photographer and their work. I enjoy everything about the interviews, but at the heart of it I am getting to know a person and everyone has something special (obviously cliche, but you know what they say about cliches) and I’m always amazed when I find this.
This process generally takes place once I’ve had the initial call and spend time alone with the photographer’s work. With Maren, this happened in person as she very patiently let me fumble through this process with question after question about her background and process as I went looking for the common thread and her guiding inspiration.
We talked about her fine art and photojournalism training, the role of testing and exploration in getting new advertising clients and the origin of her lightbox and dissection work. And suddenly it was there, as if it were the most obvious thing. We talked about her love of portraiture and story after story from her time in college studying photojournalism. I’ll let you read the interview for the full details. But for now will say it is rooted in a love of story and in understanding the essence of the subject.
Big thank you to Maren for sharing so much with POP and for her beautiful work.
POP: What is your background and did you have an early interest in photography?
I was given my first camera in my freshman year of high school by my step-dad—a Nikormat with a 50 mm lens. Watching paper turn into an image in the darkroom blew my mind.
I studied fine art at UCLA and learned technical photography through assisting. I always incorporated photography into my fine art; half of my sculpture project would be photography. I was interested in photojournalism and loved photography, but wanted to make a living doing what I wanted to do. I assisted for a photojournalist who was aggressive and confrontational and learned what I didn’t want to do. I then moved back to SF and wanted to learn about commercial photography. I started sweeping floors until someone showed me something…
I worked at catalog studios and was unimpressed with the lack of creative freedom given to the photographers. It felt stale and boring. I thought I wanted to be a stylist for a minute since they got to manipulate things on set. I then discovered that there were commercial photographers out there who had their own style and their talents were recognized. Noel Barnhurst was one of those photographers. I found him in a photographer source book. His double page spread caught my eye.
POP: You got your start shooting food. What in particular drew you to food photography?
I was assisting Noel Barnhurst and was drawn to what the stylists were doing. I’m very hands on and like to be where the action is. In a food photographer’s studio, most of the action takes place in the kitchen. I befriended a couple stylist assistants and we collaborated on some shoots. We’d have theme days from other countries. For Mexican, we went to 24th St. in the Mission and shopped for inspirational ingredients in the morning and we shot at one of our homes in the afternoon. And then I had a body of work.
Noel was my mentor. He was extremely generous and believed in me. I would have scheduling conflicts and apologize for not being able to assist on a certain day. He finally told me that I should never let my assisting get in the way of my shooting. At a certain point he never hired me again. He gave me a few client names to contact including Weldon Owen who publishes all the Williams Sonoma cookbooks. I ended up shooting 17 cookbooks as part of a new series and I was able to get a studio and a camera.
At the same time, I took a lighting class with a photographer friend. I created a project for myself shooting chefs in their kitchens. It became a project involving chefs cooking, kitchen still lifes, portraits, and interiors. This range, along with the plated food photography from stylists test days became my portfolio. Some of it was really good and some of it was bad. I couldn’t tell the difference. A friend said later she couldn’t believe I shared it, but I got work from it. I had confidence. I’ve always had the attitude that “what’s the worst that can happen?” I wasn’t afraid of rejection.
POP: How much does your fine-art, conceptual and photojournalism background inform your work?
It all does.
Fine Art taught me to pay close attention to details, composition, color and light. And how to be my own critic.
Using concepts helps give some form or shape to an idea. It all starts with a conversation where I can articulate a concept to a super talented stylist, someone who gets me and the way I think. There are a few extra special ones out there who I love to “play” with. I always make sure that the stylist’s enthusiasm matches mine and if it’s the right match, we push the idea further, incorporating additional ideas and then we make a date and the concepts come to life
Photojournalism taught me how to make technical and conceptual decisions so that I can tell a story. And to include details in a shot that help convey an idea, story or mood. It also has helped me feel comfortable with being spontaneous. If something isn’t quite working, I’m quick to improvise and find a better solution.
POP: Do you still look to fine art for inspiration?
Sometimes. I will go to an exhibit or show, usually photography, and be taken in by an image. When I see something that resonates with me, it literally stuns me and I find myself looking over every detail in the image and coming up with my own narrative, answering my own questions about where, when, why, who.
When I was in school, focusing on photojournalism, I was inspired by Nan Goldin’s work. I felt like I needed to live the lives of my subjects in order for my images to feel authentic. Exotic Dancers, a bipolar roommate and collection hoarders were some of my subjects. I grew tired of living in other people’s worlds; I wanted to find my own.
When I look at other artist’s work, I am drawn to portraits of people because they create a story—where, why, facts, evidence, like a puzzle to piece together.
I love to view artist’s work, but most of my inspiration comes directly from a concept or the subject itself. Some characteristic about my subject will inspire me. I have been talking with my stylist buddy Nissa Quanstrom about the concept of stretch and how we can demonstrate that with various materials. We just need to book a date to get together to make this happen. Soon I hope!
POP: How do you approach telling the stories of the products you photograph? You are drawn to portraits for the stories they tell about the people in the photographs. How do you bring this to shooting products and inanimate objects?
I like to examine my subject and figure out what role he’s going to play before I set up. Will the shirt be a super rigid, relaxed, messy. These are more or less styling directions but definitely define the product’s personality.
A job I shot for Levi’s included a line of durable, water-resistant jeans. These jeans were real tough and wouldn’t let anything get them dirty. The stylist and I were going to show off this personality and prove that nothing would mess with this bad-ass! It was fun to tell this story using dirt and water that floated on top of the jean material that we cheated with extra scotch guard to repel the water and dirt even further.
POP: What is the origin of the lightbox work?
This work is about showing another property of a subject—translucency.
It started with a “dissection.” I was photographing squid with stylist Christine Wolheim as one of the ingredients used by Gerold Hirigoyen in his cookbook (Pintxos). Gerald was very open to us playing with his food in new ways. It reflected his approach to cooking. Christine and I were so excited about the squid dissection that we stayed after hours to pull it apart and show all of it’s components laid out on the plexiglass. We were hooked.
Christine and I made a few dates (test shoots) and she came in with some clothing. We talked about dissecting and having before and after shots of the whole item and then just it’s parts. She dissected and I documented. It was great. We loved it!
If I’m given something to shoot, I look at it and explore it. I touch it, feel it, turn it inside out and discover what it is about.
POP: What would you say inspires your aesthetic?
Simplicity, nature, mixed with a little bling.
POP: What is your approach to and style when shooting still life?
Overall, I like to keep things very simple and break an image down into the easiest way to look at it so that there is room to add a small detail that may elicit some sort of feeling or emotion.
I start with a composition I like and use lighting to highlight texture to bring it to life. Light and texture can transform something—can make it feel alive.
One example was when I was asked to shoot random merchandise for Target to be placed in a banner ad campaign. The client was expecting the products to be shot against a white background then colorized later. I suggested we give the products some weight and life. We ended up suspending all of the objects with fishing line and let them interact with gravity. My favorite part was when the products were not just casting a shadow on a surface, but instead on each other or themselves to create depth and space.
POP: At what point did you start shooting product? Did you face any challenges along the way? How did you start getting work in new markets?
Shooting product started as soon as I turned my camera onto it. I began by shooting objects that were interesting to me. Those images became my still life portfolio and the portfolio got me work. It was literally as simple as that. If you really put the energy into shooting something that you are connected to and that you are inspired by, it shows and people notice that work. It also helps to have a kick-ass rep : )
When I first signed with Deb, she pushed me to shoot what interested me. I had been shooting food for a Williams Sonoma cookbook series, a 3-year project, in a very formulaic way. And had done over 50 other cookbooks in a similar style. I wanted to bust out and try something new and expand my client base. I was at a crossroads of feeling like I wanted to get some big clients and needed to shoot something that the client would want to see to prove that I could shoot their product. While at the same time feeling like I wanted to shoot something completely different in my own style. Deb encouraged the latter and I shot whatever I wanted. Some of the new stuff she loved. Some she didn’t care for. She edited a book together for me of my “new” work and landed a few new clients.
I partnered with stylists Christine Wolheim and Katie Christ to test and explore new waters. These images became my new still life book, which won me a new client, Target, for their pharma series. I often test to ‘flirt’ with a client. For example, when I wanted to shoot for Target, I shot some of their products in my style. If it’s a match, they bite. If not, you move on.
I’m always looking for new ways of looking at something. This is where testing comes in. I decided I wanted to shoot some cosmetics. Asked “What does it look like when you pour nail polish into water? What does it do?” Usually when we “experiment” with an idea we get the best results. Who knew nail polish forms little bobbing balls when introduced to water. I’m constantly curious about experiments. It makes sense that I married a scientist. He helps me come up with some great ideas too.
POP: How much do you test?
I test quite a bit. Any time I’m slow. Deb lets me know who she meets with and what accounts they have—and I’ll do a test targeted to the client to give her something relevant to present and share with them.
The Levi’s work was based on testing. Some of the bigger jobs I’ve gotten are from efforts we did two years ago.
POP: What have you brought from shooting food to product?
Having shot food for a while, I have honed in on lighting to show off and at times hide texture. Shooting product has been an easy transition. For example, it’s important to know how to hide a wrinkle or minimize a flaw in a product with lighting and shadow. I learned to hide or minimize wrinkled turkey skin, undercooked meat, a bruised strawberry. Photoshop helps too : ).
POP: When and how did you start shooting kids? Your style seems like a great fit for some of the newer brands in this market.
I have kids and often shoot them. There are so many products geared towards kids these days and it would be nice to be able to offer both product and lifestyle. I’m concentrating on studio shooting right now, but that could change….
POP: Cookbooks allow for a lot of creative freedom within the constraints of a rigorous schedule. I’m sure each one is a dance. Any favorites or ones that were particularly creative?
Book projects that stand out to me are ones where I have collaborated with extremely talented chefs who work with me and are willing to try something new, push the envelope a bit. Chocolate Obsession and Pintxos are probably my favorite book projects to date.
This shot was a lucky moment. The stylist presented the cubes of tomato and avocado. Kim Kissling was the stylist—very talented. The light was right, the food fresh and creatively styled and I caught it at the right moment.
POP: You have a very collaborative relationship with Deb, your rep. This must be very inspiring.
Yep, it sure is! It is reminiscent of how you feel in school when you have a classroom of people excited to see your work—you have an audience. Working with Deb makes me feel I am on a team.
We were driving somewhere together and talking about concepts and using them to direct my work. We talked about photography and color and then she brought up an idea that we both got really excited about—shooting a stack of clothes to represent a greycard with black , white and every shade in between. We were both pretty happy with the result from that test.
POP: What do you most enjoy about the way you work as a photographer? In the moment on set and as a whole?
As a whole, knowing I’m in control of my destiny. The effort I put out into the photo world can pay off in a really positive way. I’ll have a goal to approach this company or this market. And with enough perseverance and drive it can happen. It is rewarding to know that if I really want something I can do it. It’s a daily mentality—what do I want to do next week? Next month? With goals to work towards, the sky is the limit.
In terms of being on set, I most enjoy collaborating with people and finding the moment when everything comes together. I love the whole process of executing a shoot. From putting the team together to delivering the final image.
POP: Any challenges?
Having enough time in a day. There is always so much to do. Shooting is the fun part, then you’ve got to run the business, promote, keep up on the website, reach out to people, keep up the blog and facebook, etc. whew! I feel very fortunate to have an amazing studio manager, Elena Graham, who takes on so much and frees me up to concentrate on shooting.
POP: Advice for young photographers?
The best advice I was given was from Noel Barnhurst. I was assisting him on a shoot and his client was stressing about me finding the perfect prop that was somewhere buried in his collection. I was frantically rummaging through box after box, with panic written all over my face. Noel looked at me and said, “Relax, it’s just a photograph.” I say that to myself whenever I start to feel unnecessarily stressed. It’s an important job, but in the end, no one dies.
POP: Do you like working in the studio?
I love working in my studio. It inspires me. I surround myself with pretty things and solid people.
POP: We have such a strong community in SF. I’ve spoken with photographer in other cities who say they don’t even know other photographers.
A lot of my friends are photographers and we get together mostly to just hang and share a meal. But one group of women photographers I know get together maybe once or twice a year. We gossip about people we know and compare experiences in our parallel worlds. It’s pretty fun!
POP: What’s next?
A website library of images for a café in san anselmo, The Sweet Life Cafe.
A trip to NYC later this month—both for a magazine shoot and meetings.
Up for a few ad jobs…fingers crossed!