Every product is carefully selected by our editors. If you buy from a link, we may earn a commission.

Behind the Scenes with a Food and Drink Photography Master

Michael Somoroff explains his process for shooting large-format cocktail photography.

Chase Pellerin

From Issue Two of the Gear Patrol Magazine. Subscribe today for 15% off the GP Store.

We knew we wanted to have cocktails in Issue Two of the Gear Patrol Magazine, but that presented a problem: Should GP, a publication that lives at the intersection of products and lifestyle, do cocktails the same way everyone else does, i.e., with a recipe and a nice photo? That doesn’t really live up to the “gear” in our name, we felt. So we decided to work with Michael Somoroff, who is a director, photographer, artist and total gearhead (cameras, vintage Jaguars, audio gear, the list goes on). We tasked him with bringing his technical mastery of the craft of photography to the shoot, employing tools and techniques rarely used since the 1950s and ’60s.

Somoroff also happens to be at an interesting place in his career, having just started a joint venture with Imaginary Forces, Somoroff+IF, which collectively harnesses a great deal of experience that ranges from their Hollywood title sequences to art installations he’s done for the Venice Biennale. That opened a lot of doors for us in working on this project (which, by the way, you can see online along with the recipes), which was ultimately produced using a really incredible collection of resources, including a Deardorff 8×10 camera, a Nikon D800, and computer graphics software, to say nothing of the props and lighting. We spoke with Somoroff about the project, and in this interview he offers insight into his deliberation and the technical feats that made it possible.

Q: Your background and the craft you learned from your father was a central narrative to this story. Can you talk about that?
A: I was very privileged to grow up in my father’s studio. He came to New York together with another photographer named Louis Faurer and with Ben Rose. He was a student of Alexey Brodovitch who, at the time, was the designer director for Harper’s Bazaar. Some of the other photographers associated with that class were Irving Penn, Richard Avedon, Arnold Newman. Everybody knew each other. Louis met Robert Frank and soon after they became friends; the whole industry grew out this very special community.

In New York, they would all continue the class as a laboratory at somebody’s studio. They would meet regularly and critique each other’s work together with Brodovitch’s supervision. Practically every great name in terms of designers, photographers, visual people of the “Mad men” era, of the ’50s and ’60s, came out of that group. Frank Zachary. Henry Wolf. Milton Glaser. Lou Dorfsman. Herb Lubalin. This was really a very special moment, and I was a kid in that studio wandering through those friendships and affiliations. I worked in the studio. I became my father’s assistant and eventually a studio manager. The studio was a hub. It was an open door policy. On any given day, when lunch was served, you could bump into Milton Glaser sitting next to Howard Zieff sitting next to Melvin Sokolsky. These were giant names of the era. I had the privilege to be apart of all of that.

Q: We looked at your father’s contact sheets from Esquire as inspiration for this shoot. How did your father Ben end up shooting for that magazine?
A: One very special relationship of that time was with a great designer, art director named Henry Wolf, a student of Brodovitch, who went on to become the art director of Esquire in the ’50s before he replaced Brodovitch at Harper’s Bazaar. My father and Henry became very close friends. In those days, Esquire used to have the “Drink of the Month” section. My father used to shoot the cocktails, which he and Henry became famous for. I grew up assisting my father on those assignments later on in the ’60s. They hold a very special place in my heart. In some ways, they really were the cutting edge of still-life photography that he was doing at the time because he was inventing all kinds of things.

Q: What were some of the techniques he invented?
A: He was one of the first photographers to eliminate the horizon line in the backlit still-life, for example, or to use tracing paper as a diffusion material, or to shoot a woman in a liquor ad. They also developed all kinds of tricks. The photographic technology of the day was, compared to today, pretty basic. It wasn’t a given that you would even get an image on film. You actually had to have some serious expertise to do that. Today, with electronic image making, the sensitivity of the chips — which we measure as ISOs — is much more sensitive. We have speeds like 800 and 1200. When I grew up in the studio, the speed was 32. So, the average exposure for any photograph was 10-15 seconds to get an image. Think about it: If you’re shooting a beer, that’s a real problem, because the head is moving, and you would get back pictures where the head would look kind of like something out of a Dracula movie, right? You had to actually know how to solve that problem. My father shot Coke and Pepsi for years. With all carbonated drinks, the bubbles are moving. Everything is a blur in the drinks. It’s like a brown glass of blur unless you really knew what you were doing.

There was no computer. So everything had to be done in camera, particularly in motion picture work. You had to know how to do it in front of the lens. That was a fascinating thing to have to learn a level of craft which today is unnecessary — but it’s not obsolete. Digital programs, like Photoshop, for example, when those engineers developed those programs, they actually studied the mechanics of this kind of analog photography in order to create a digital equivalence. For me, particularly, having a career that spans both eras, it’s very interesting to see how that very basic photography has developed and now articulates itself in digital image making.

Q: Let’s talk specifically about this project.
A: When we began discussing the assignment of cocktails, the idea was to do an essay that bridges these two eras. This was very attractive to me. In a certain sense it was like a trot down memory lane while also having to dig a little deeper into my toolbox to remember how we used to do things when they were really hard. Then we evolved that essay through today’s image making and even pushed it forward with the kind of partnerships and technology that I have with Imaginary Forces, working with computer-generated imagery and really far-out stuff. It was a fascinating assignment in that way and very autobiographical in the manner in which the still lifes were finally realized.

Q: I think our readers would be especially interested in this technical aspect that you’re talking about.
A: The first photographs I did of the ’50s-type still lifes, which are an homage to my father’s work at Esquire — came out extremely sharp. Today’s film is much sharper and has so much more contrast, so they didn’t look like the old photos, even though I was doing everything my father was doing. All those beautiful still lifes of that age tended to look very painterly. Also don’t forget that this was before plastic or metals became accessible. Backgrounds were all cloth or seamless paper. They were continuous color. They weren’t fancy. They weren’t under-lit. He used mostly seamless paper and felt in those days. Felt was an innovation because the seamless paper would get wet from the condensation on the glass and then you get a ring on the paper and you have to start all over again. He switched to felt at some point and he would spray it with lacquer so that it would bead up and not ruin the felt.

That little thing that I just said — in those days was a big thing. You had to really learn how to do that, or you were not going to be able to take the picture. Another thing that was very important in the beginning was that all those pictures that he did at that time were made with a very long lens. My father was one of the great American still-life photographers who focused on composition. That was really his forte. He would use a very long lens to flatten out the perspective and he would create very complex [Piet] Mondrian-like compositions which made his photography, even today, extremely distinctive.

It was easy for me to do a Ben Somoroff cocktail picture. First of all, I’m his son, so I think I share that sense of composition with him. I certainly know what it looks like because I grew up with it. I also know what lenses he used. He used a 14-inch lens. 12 inches is considered normal on the 8×10 format. He used a longer lens. I used a 19-inch lens for this assignment. Because of that, compositions could be three and four feet deep because he was flattening out the perspective with the lens. This meant there were always elements in the composition that weren’t going to be sharp. He was always using selective focus as a formal element. The first exposures we did of the first still life, I couldn’t get selected focus because the films were so much faster. I ended up having to basically relight everything with barely any light and use a lot of neutral density filters on my lenses. Then I could imitate the slow speeds of the films of the ’50s and get select focus and get this very painterly look that I think still lifes had. There were a lot of other tricks, like coating the inside of the glasses with things so the bubbles would stick on the edges. I could go on.

Q: Will you?
A: Well, I don’t want to give away too many trade secrets, but in broad strokes: The camera that we used was a Deardorff 8×10 camera with a 19-inch commercial Ektar lens, which was made by Kodak. The 12 and the 14-inch commercial Ektars were the workhorses of the industry. Later on Gold Dot Goerz Dagor lenses sort of replaced them. They were better glass. We shot 8×10 film. We lit with a mixture of tungsten and flash. That was a little cheat because there wasn’t flash in those days, of course. We did it just because the studio was set up in such a much easier way to use it. That was interesting, to mix the two lights. It’s not something that’s done very often today, if at all. When you have fixtures that range from little lights up to 10k spots, you got a really full box of brushes. You can really highlight little details. You’re lighting like a painter. You’re putting lines exactly where you want them, on the edge of glasses. All of this shows up in the still life. That is not something that we’re accustomed to seeing today. When we are seeing them, we’re mostly putting them in afterwards in Photoshop.

I was told for years, by the way, that I wouldn’t need to worry about any of this stuff. Just shoot digital and I could achieve the look of yesteryear on Photoshop — no problem. I want you to know that that is not true. I tried to do it for two months on many formats, working with some of the best retouchers in New York and I was not able to imitate those looks of the ’50s and ’60s. Because of that, in my studio, we regularly mix large-format and medium-format analog photography with digital photography with very compelling results. Having a level of craft like that is to have freedom over your artistic expression.

In Photoshop, for example, one of the key components is layers. All that masking, which is what those layers represent electronically, we used to do it all in camera. I did hundreds of them. We could place the moon in a girl’s mouth and put her sitting on the sun, all in camera. Retouching was a big deal. You usually had to do dye transfers. Retouching a photograph could take six weeks and you needed to get it done for the ads. Photographers like my father and Irving Penn, they got paid a lot of money at that time, and part of the reason was they did it all in camera. They were saving money, actually, for the publications and advertising agencies, on what we now call postproduction.

Then when we went to digital and I did exactly the opposite. I worked with a Nikon D800. I love the camera. It’s got the resolution of my 8×10 camera. It’s amazing, but allows me to shoot in real time, to be involved in my photographs differently because I become not as much a voyeur as when I’m working with large format, but rather a participant in what I’m shooting. When I shoot on that format, I’m shooting a relationship between myself and whatever I’m shooting. Whenever I’m shooting large format, I’m more of a voyeur, shooting at something. It’s a very different psychology between the two and I think it shows in the pictures. The digital pictures have a lot of movement. You can’t really do that in large format. That’s a significant formal difference between the two. There’s a contrivance in the digital pictures — in digital image making. I don’t call it photography.

For me, photography is a photochemical process. In digital image making, the whole principle is different. It’s about putting together components that are shot at diverse time periods. That’s the advantage of it. You’re composing with time when you make a digital image. That’s fascinating. In digital image making, I dream a lot. I don’t worry. Neither do I worry how we’re going to do it, because at this point, I’ve been photographing for over half a century. “How” is generally not part of the equation. The approach when I do digital image making is that the sky is the limit. I almost approach it like a surrealist painter does — or would have — in terms of a collage. This gives me a huge amount of artistic freedom. I can basically break through dimensions and perspectives and all kinds of time barriers to composite something. You see that in the images that I created here, balancing a shot glass on the stem of an orchid, for example. Pushing over a cocktail until it’s flying in all directions. Having the control of knowing where I’m going to place every single droplet in that splash.

The most challenging image of the group was “Ashes to Ashes,” the one looking down at all of the things pouring into the cocktail shaker. That is a fantastic example of what I’m talking about because it’s actually an image that is built in three perspectives. It’s not a doable real-life situation. The main image was shot with a fisheye lens, which distorted the bottle so much that I shot the bottles and the pours separately with a longer lens. The swirling action of the liquid in the shaker was an additional photograph, as was the pouring of the sugar. In a very interesting way, you’re looking at almost what is, in a sense, a cubist image. The basis of cubism was being able to collapse time and perspectives into a single instant. That’s what I did in a certain way, conceptually, with that image.

It may look to the untrained eye like that’s a plausible photograph that I did in camera, but the perspectives that are used in that picture are impossible. That was done on my part purposefully to create something that was in absolute contrast to what I did with the analog photography that reached back to my father’s work. It’s really wonderful to have the chance to bring it all together at this point in my career and have people appreciate that. It’s fun for me because I get to play in the sandbox that I grew up in and that I’m still living in, but in a way that still honors every aspect of that process and every phase of that process and the history of photography and the history of image making. That made the assignment very exciting and very significant.

Q: We should mention briefly that the order in which we decided to print this series was slightly different than how you proceeded, so I want to give you an opportunity to address that.
A: There is a sort of chronological order to this production in that obviously the ’50s stuff came first as an homage to my father’s work. Then there was kind of a development in a kind of Pennish way of these more austere, graphically composed still lifes against white. For me, the final image was the CGI collaboration with my partners at Imaginary Forces to basically take this simple idea of the tropical drink against the sunset and just push it through the wall. Rather than a sunset, you’ve got the burning ball of Sun behind the drink. You’ve got this weird sort of [Rene] Magritte surreal dimension change where the drop of sweat is dripping off the glass, which is somehow floating above the set. That drop has collected into a puddle on the set above the drink. The whole thing is kind of just a mashup of clichés, cultural expectations, the heritage of cocktail photography, and then the whole thing pushed through the wall with computer imagery. That was the idea of it. The idea of it was to play a little bit with kitsch, a little bit with irony. The assignment that I was given was to do kind of a retrospective of it, so that would be the end. The future is the end.

Q: You seem to have a strong interest in cocktails. It always comes up when we talk. Is there anything more to that?
A: The table is one of the civilizing props in our culture. The table was the original altar. That’s why we ate at a table: it was a spiritual, religious experience. It was all about sustenance. It was all about survival. The existential predicament: you didn’t get to eat unless you were concerned with those things. That has evolved, for me, as a core belief of mine, that our opportunity as human beings is to elevate situations. It’s to go beyond our biology. To go beyond our pathology. In a certain way, act as gods or creators. Eating for me is an artistic challenge. I have to do it. It is biological. The question is, how do I elevate that into something that mirrors how I would like to define myself?

I like to think of myself as being cultured and a creator and a collaborator and those things, which means we have to build a culture around the most mundane — eating and drinking, for example. We also have to do it for our housing, thus architecture. For our village planning, thus urban planning. What we use to shelter our bodies, thus fashion. That’s why these kinds of cultural languages intrigue me and seduce me in a sense. When you’re talking about cocktails, you’re talking about a whole culture. You’re talking about fashion. You’re talking about food. You’re talking about social discourse and the history of it. All the great social arrangements pretty much have been done in bed or at the table.

Read More in Our Magazine

A version of this story appears in Issue Two of the Gear Patrol Magazine, 286 pages of stories, reports, interviews and original photography from five distinct locations around the world. Subscribe Now: $35

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below
More From Food & Drink