Damien Hirst v. Reality, or Life Imitating Art

Venice is one of our favorite places on earth, so last April after a visit to my brother and his wife in Rome, Barb and I took the train north for a four day stay. On the vaporetto ride to our hotel in the Dorsoduro, we noticed in front of the Palazzo Grassi a large grotesque statue of a horse and rider being eaten by a snake. There was also a sign promoting the new exhibition by Damien Hirst, “Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable”IMG_0561.

We immediately purchased tickets online, and the next day arrived early at the Palazzo. The first thing that caught our attention was a giant bronze-like sculpture that filled the atrium of the building, several stories high. The conceit of the exhibition is that a shipwreck was discovered off the coast of east Africa, full of treasures accumulated by a freed slave from the Greek era. The slave’s name was Cif Amotan II, an anagram of “I am fiction”. In addition to the sculpture, jewelry and coins, there were videos showing how the booty was brought up from the ocean floor.IMG_0590


Still frame from video of Damien Hirst’s “Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable”

We quickly realized that Hirst was pulling our leg. The scale of the exhibit was breathtaking, ten years in the making. The exhibit was so large that it continued at another venue, the Punta della Dogana.

Reviews of the exhibit were very mixed and provoked strong negative reactions. One reviewer said “it is not an exhibition. It’s a showroom for oligarchs.” Since Barb and I are not oligarchs and are not allergic to kitsch, we were among those who loved it.

This April saw the opening of a new exhibition at the St. Louis Art Museum, “Sunken Cities, Egypt’s Lost Worlds”.  Underwater archeologist Franck Goddio and his team discovered the site of two cities that had been on the coast of Egypt, but over the course of centuries had slipped into the Mediterranean.

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An archeologist inspects the still encrusted head of a queen on-site underwater in Thonis-Heracleion

See the similarities?

Colossal statue of the god Hapy, over 17 feet tall, 6 tons, in great hall of St. Louis Art Museum

As we walked through this exhibit, we were struck by the comparatively small scale of the authentic discovery relative to Hirst’s extravaganza. There was great effort involved in mounting this show – door frames of the museum were removed to make way for the large granite statues displayed in the main hall. The fact that these two cities that were thriving for centuries and are now underwater is a reminder of how transient were are, and that a place like Venice will undoubtedly be swallowed up by the sea like Thonis-Heracleion and Canopus.

I’m grateful to have seen both exhibits, and each of them reinforces my appreciation of art and reality.

Forty Years and counting


Steve on the way to portfolio showing

Februrary, 1977:

Jimmy Carter had just been sworn in as our 39th president, Rocky (the original) ruled at the box office, “Blinded by the Light” by Manfred Mann’s Earth Band was topping the charts, and checked sport coats were de rigueur for budding photographers calling on clients.

I realized recently that this was the month forty years ago that I set up my studio, a tiny room behind a storefront on South Gore in Webster Groves, with my darkroom in the basement of our house.

There have been many peaks and valleys in the intervening years, but I am blessed with a memory that remembers the good times more than the bad. I have worked with some talented colleagues, collaborated with clients of every description, and enjoyed it immensely.

Now 4 studios and 6 presidents later, I’m still shooting what I love, food and beverage. Since summer of 2015 I have been privileged to share space with the folks at Big Club Hall.

Thank you to all of you who have helped me, encouraged me, and allowed me to flourish.

Steve at Big Club Hall

Steve at Big Club Hall

Soap’s On!

Last week I photographed some of the wonderful soaps made by my friend Ken Gilberg of Herbaria Soaps. He is going to have a new sign installed over his awning that will be about forty feet wide.

New storefront sign for Herbaria

New storefront sign for Herbaria

It was a challenge to create a large enough file that will reproduce well at that size. I used the panorama function in Photoshop to stitch together seven images. The results won’t be up for a while, but here is Ken’s rendition from the low res file I sent him.


Stuffed Pasta

We had a fun shoot recently at Louisa Foods, which makes all kinds of stuffed pasta. It was a new client for me, and we did the shoot in an area next to their test kitchen, which was a very convenient way to work.

Steve, Silvia, and Ann at work

Steve, Silvia, and Ann at work

Grilled chicken on pesto risottoI worked with Silvia Cianci, their Senior R&D Corporate Chef. She is a native of Italy, and has a passion for Italian food, and pasta in particular.

At lunch Silvia treated us to some delicious grilled chicken on pesto risotto.



New Lens in the Kit


Max's eyelashes

Max’s eyelashes

In the process of selling the studio building recently, we also sold some camera equipment that was either old or under utilized. I decided last week it was time to update my SLR system, so bought a Nikon D810 with a 50mm lens, and ordered a Zeiss 100 mm macro lens that just arrived today. It is incredibly sharp. The photo above was shot at iso 1250, handheld at f/2.0 and 1/125th. Cannot wait to get some food in front of this!

Back in the Saddle Again

After closing on the sale of our studio in late May, we have been busy organizing our basement and garage to accommodate the things that we brought with us. We also had a nice trip to Wisconsin, and visited friends in Michigan and Indiana.

I was glad to work again with my friends from Nature’s Variety on a shoot yesterday. Carol Ziemann was lured from her semi-retirement and did a great job as usual. It was fun and a bit unnerving to shoot in a different space after 30 years of familiarity with my studio. Scott Smith and his colleagues were gracious hosts, and provided everything we needed.

Shooting for Nature's Variety at Scott Smith Studio

Shooting for Nature’s Variety at Scott Smith Studio (bandaid on nose covering recent skin graft)

More Tips from St. Louis Food Photographer Steve Adams

If you are a commercial food photographer in St. Louis, or anywhere else, you don’t need to communicate with your subject as portrait photographers do, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t apply a bit of charm in the food styling department.

The more time you spend making the food attractive as it can be up front, the easier things are later on. Here are some tips to help you improve your food styling, naturally.

Use less food than you normally would

Pan seared scallops with spinach

Pan seared scallops with spinach

It might seem more generous to serve plates piled high with good food, but an overcrowded plate can look less appealing than a minimalist spread. This goes back to previous conversations we have had about using the white space of the plate to frame your dish.

Look for contrast with backgrounds

Peanut Butter Sandwich Cookies

Peanut Butter Sandwich Cookies

While there are times when all white on white can be visually striking, I find I get better shots if I go for contrast. So a pale colored food and plate gets a dark background where as a vibrantly colored dish tends to be best with a simple white background.

Choose simple crockery and tableware 


While highly decorative China and ornate utensils be very beautiful on their own, they can also detract from the visual impact of the food. Plain plates, especially classic white allow the food to stand out and be the star of your shoot. (see Scallops photo above)

Get some work-in-progress shots

It can be easy to focus on getting the final plated-up food shot and miss out on some great opportunities along the way. Try taking a few shots during the preparation and cooking process. This can help place the viewer in a certain place and time, while also highlighting what makes the dish unique.

Dig in and reshoot

Crab Cakes with Remoulade

Crab Cakes with Remoulade

Related to taking shots while in preparation, the opposite can also make for a great photo. Once you have a shot of the whole food that you love, eat or serve some out and then take another shot. Often a half finished plate is more appetizing than the original whole.

Vary the camera angle

Sirloin steak, two different angles

Sirloin steak, two different angles

Just like human subjects can be photographed from more flattering angles, the same goes for food. It’s important to remember that the concept you see in your head might not always make for the best photo. That’s one reason why I often shoot a dish from different angles. Get the shot you think you want, but then take a few moments to recompose and take another. Variety is key, especially if you’re shooting for a client. Clients like choices.

Try and capture the ‘yum’ factor

Lemon Sorbet with Strawberries

Lemon Sorbet with Strawberries

Think about what makes your dish really delicious, and then aim to highlight this characteristic in your food photography shot. Ice cream is a great example. It’s all about smooth creaminess and licking drips from the sides of your cone or bowl. Fried chicken is another good example, where the detail within the delectable crispy parts of the chicken are can be highlighted.

Remember that inspiration and new ideas can strike from anywhere. When you’re eating out or even just flicking through your favorite food magazine, take note of what looks appealing and what doesn’t to you, and take those ideas with you to your next commercial food photography session.

St. Louis food photographer Steve Adams has been shooting in his own studio since 1977. If you are interested in taking or need some great food and beverage photos, St. Louis advertising photography, animal photography shots, or other advertising subjects, please give me a call or send me an email. I’d love to answer all your questions and give you the advice you need so that your next shoot can be a special one. You can reach me (314) 781-6667 or via email at: info@steveadamsstudio.com.