Food Stylist: Carolyn Schirmacher

B.T.S. Video Link to Carolyn 

1. How did you get into styling? 

I think it was my destiny which evolved out of being raised in a foodie family.  My mother was a food tech and taught me the chemistry of cooking as I was growing up. She was in PR/ Marketing for a state wide grocery chain in Wisconsin. She had a local cooking show in the early seventies and was a talented homemaker. Since my degree was in Art and Clothing/Textile design, I learned how to manipulate materials and fell in love with the creative process and the art of making. I  I was offered a job in Chicago with a national food/ home magazine, "Cuisine Magazine" in the mid seventies. At the time it was a cutting edge mag being distributed internationally.
    I was listed on the mast head as "Photography Stylist" but wore many production and editorial hats including assisting the contracted Food Stylists. I had the privilege to work with some really top photographers and Food Stylists.
    When Cuisine folded, I moved to Portland Oregon for the lifestyle. The photo industry was in its infancy at that time here. I had to explain to many Photographers what a stylist was and what I could do for them. Expectations were low, so when asked if I could style food, I just said yes and met the challenges as they presented themselves.

2. How did you get into photography?

I think that was also a destiny card, but was raised in a time when it was a man's profession, so I just kept discarding it as a professional option. As an artist, my drawing skills were limited and photography became a medium to express myself. The phone was always ringing booking me to style, shooting just kept getting side tracked. Eventually after so many photographers told me I should be shooting, it started to sink in that I felt underemployed at times as a Stylist. Also, for years I saw a huge need for more of a feminine perspective. I lacked confidence in my technical ability as a photographer nor had the financial means to buy the equipment. Martha Stewart eventually jumped on it. The economic times have played a factor in my expanding my services to include photography too. Just too many projects didn't come through because the budget couldn't cover the costs of a Food Stylist so the photographer did their own styling.
I have cut my teeth on shooting my husbands custom ceramic lamps which are represented to the Interior Design trade. They are the perfect object to learn to sculpt light as they are round and shiny. I am still very much trying to find my voice and feel fluid as a professional photographer, but feel confident now that I can deliver the quality of work I want to put out there.

3. Which has had you travel the farthest from Oregon? 

Styling product. When I was on staff with Cuisine Mag, they sent me from Chicago to British Columbia, most of the travel stories though I was packing a bag of props for the Art Director to take with her then staying at home to produce and style other stories. In the nineties I had an agency with a window account that sent me all over the US and Canada, destination spots like Aspen and Santa Fe, to art direct and style luxury homes.

4. Where did you go for inspirations on styling? 

Over the years there has always been published works from some great talent that has been inspirational or affirming. Currently there seems to be a lot of new young talent emerging. The lists is long and considering it's a collaborative profession, I doubt if one could attribute the end results to just one person. For photography:

5. For the food you are styling how close to the recipe do you stay?  

For editorial, if the recipe is not very photogenic I will make recommendations to the client in how it can be presented to read better to camera. Then either the recipe is revised or a serving suggestion is given. Some clients will pull me into the development stage when introducing a new product. This is ideal. If it is a product, usually it is a matter of breaking down the prep to meet the demands of the production so that all aspects of the products characteristics will read better to camera. I believe anything can be photogenic if technically well styled and the lighting is gorgeous. The only real change I will suggest to a client is when a main ingredient is hidden, then we will manipulate the build to make it visible. This can happen on pizzas. Garnishes are another solution for visually communicating key ingredients.

6. For the motion work did you find it more difficult or easier to style than your still work? 

Yes, they both have their challenges. It get's down to expectations,  priorities, budget and how big it will be as a final image or how fast it will be moving on the screen. I just did a TV commercial where the agent wanted the product to look as perfect as if it were a still shot. Of course the budget was tight and my assistant was a PA. Though a conundrum, there is always a solution to how to make it happen. For still, now we have photoshop which is almost cheating compared to the food shoots before we went digital. Then there was retouching, but the Food Stylist  had to confirm if the detailing was to be perfected on set or was there some budget for retouching. In still, if an image is going to be a large poster or billboard then even the simplest element can demand a lot of time to get the details perfect. If motion there is that issue of quantity vs. time vs. expectations.

7. When did you know you were able to take off and work for yourself? 

I built my confidence up working on staff with Cuisine Magazine. When I left there I had a full portfolio and a client base of photographers ready to hire me as a freelancer. It was an ideal situation. Again, I got into the business as a Food Stylist when the industry expectations were lower. The benchmarks were still being established as they continue to be.  As a photographer though, I am still trying to feel out my comfort zone of whom I should approach for work. I have had some rather large projects and know enough to cover myself with a strong technical assistant. One thing I have learned is that it takes a team.
8. Are there any dream clients you want to work with? 

As a Food & Photo Stylist  I feel very fortunate to have lived my dream. I left a major market to live in a second city realizing that my career would be limited but I wanted the quality of life Portland had to offer. I still managed to work on national projects. Now I just wish for a stronger economy so there are more good clients  and enough work to go around. I get a lot of calls from young people who want to be a Food Stylist. From what I can see the profession is changing and there is less demand for technical food styling. Regionally, editorial rarely has the budget to use a food stylist and depends on the photographer with a chef. This is another reason why I decided I needed to start shooting.

9. Tool you can’t live without? 

My bonsai tweezers; hand wrought steel, great action, nice weight and have a flat head making it easy to maneuver and less damaging to fragile items. Commercial clothes steamer with customized interchangeable nozzles for selective steaming, and hand held broilers for cooking on set. My yellow rectangular cleaning lady buckets to pack around my kits.