How to Style an Oyster
This interview first appeared in 2017 on Julie Qiu's In a Half Shell.
Asking a Styling Pro: Adrienne Anderson
If you're looking for oyster styling inspiration and benchmarking, there's no better book to reference than The Essential Oyster by Rowan Jacobsen, photographed by David Malosh with food stylist Adrienne Anderson. I'm always in awe of good food styling and framing. Adrienne was kind enough to offer up her sage advice about her craft to us.
- Julie Qiu
What do you think is the most challenging aspect of styling oysters and how do you manage it?
The biggest challenge with any kind of styling project is answering the question Why I am doing this? Why do I need to add this image to the world? Am I an oyster farmer who wants to sell a lot of product? Am I a scientist who wants to highlight some particular feature that's unusual to the organism? Am I on social media trying to get some likes? Is my motivation financial, intellectual, artistic? Once you know where you're going, you'll have a much easier time getting there.
As for the technical side of styling oysters, the hardest part is that you are dealing with a living organism that has zero interest in your styling agenda. Oysters, like all of us, would rather not be vivisected with sharp knives and put on display. So they're not exactly going to pose for the camera. If you want to shoot six great-looking oysters, you should plan to start with at least two dozen. The bigger the sample you start with, the better your outcome will be.
What are some tips or tricks that might help someone who's trying to get the perfect oyster shot?
Again, first you need to know what the "perfect shot" means to you. The Scandinavian style of food photography that took off ten years ago is still going strong—we see this all over Instagram and it's still the dominant style of books and magazines. Cool natural light, wabi-sabi props and surfaces, lots of graphic overhead studio shots interspersed with images of wild locations. (Ditte Isager's photography for the original Noma cookbook is still the gold standard for this style.) If you want this look, try setting up your shot in a darkish room next to a bright window. Use only natural light, and keep the props minimal and zen.
In general, I always say that the number one rule of food styling is wet is beautiful. Wetness makes highlights, highlights make contrast, and contrast makes a dynamic image. Try adding a little extra brine if the oyster is dry, try tilting the shell in different ways to see how the light plays off it, try using matte props so the oyster is the only thing shining.
That said, don't go coating your oysters with shellac or corn syrup just to make them shine. Show respect to the animal. Eat it when you're finished. If you've done something heinous just to get an image, it was not worth it. In The Old Days, stylists used shoe polish and Maggi seasoning to make barely cooked turkeys look roasted and bronzed. Or Poligrip to glue sandwiches together. Or would stuff apple pies with hidden layers of mashed potatoes and paper towels to make them look "abundant." All that food ended up in the garbage when the shoot was over. Which seems to me like the height of human stupidity.
What was your favorite oyster staging for The Essential Oyster and why?
All of them. Can I say that? It really was a dream project to work on. When we pitched the idea for the images to Bloomsbury, Rowan's publisher, we had a high-concept idea where we would tie each image to the terroir of its oyster. I'm looking back at my original email from 2015 now and I actually proposed that we would "capture the minerality of a Moonstone by shooting it on a flinty hand-poured concrete slab with Point Judith sand as the substrate." Needless to say, when the budget and timeline came in, we had to axe the idea of mixing our own concrete. But David Malosh and I did make many of the props ourselves, and the idea of terroir still surfaced in many of the images. The shot of Olympias on weathered copper, for example. I love the metallic flavor of those oysters so we used salt water to develop a patina on copper sheets.
If I had to pick an absolute favorite, I'd say it's the spread of Hama Hama oysters. The wood and moss came from the forest that looms over the tidal flats on the James family land where they grow their oysters. It's one of the most beautiful places to get lost; it looks like the Forest Moon of Endor. You half-expect an ewok to come down a trail with an oyster knife. To me, images are beautiful when they fix a transitory moment in the eternal, and that shot will always be my secret doorway to that place.
Every oyster in the book is shucked flawlessly. Was it a conscious decision to open each one carefully and precisely? How do you feel when you see a magazine spread today that features massacred oysters? What would you say to the people responsible?
Oh, it was definitely my intention to open each one carefully and precisely...but anyone's who's shucked a few oysters knows that the road to (s)hell is paved with good intentions. Some of the shells crumbled in my hands, some of the meats turned out thin and listless, some beautiful rare oysters nearly met their end when they got trapped on a FedEx truck and I had to drive to Queens to rescue them from certain death in a 110-degree warehouse. Just a few of the many reasons why you always want to procure a few extras if you can.
On the question of magazines – that's touchy! I count many of them as clients, and there are some photo editors who know their stuff and do a great job. But to the merchants of schlock who peddle images of mangled oysters (I'm looking at you, internet), I say: slow down. Find the experts. There are so many talented people working in the oyster industry who are willing—even eager—to share their knowledge if you just ask them. And there are some incredibly talented shuckers working the restaurant circuit whose skills deserve to be featured in their own right (the crew at Kimball House in Decatur, GA, at Oyster Club in Mystic, CT, and at Pêche in New Orleans all jump to mind, and don't even get me started on the perfection of Joe Beef). But you have to go out and meet these people; you have to experience what they do firsthand. You'll never get it by googling.
Finally, for my own technical curiosity, when do you shuck the oysters for your shoot? Do you set up the staging and then shuck? Or shuck, place and then style around it? Can you pre-shuck to some extent?
For The Essential Oyster, one of the big challenges was making each image look different from the next. It was like doing 100 shots of steaks: sure, a rib-eye is totally different from a porterhouse...but is it really? You have to find a way to blow up the nuances. With oysters, you have to find a way to see the same salty blob as fresh and new. On a book of this scope, I also needed to make sure the pacing had a rhythm to it: changing up the scale of each shot, alternating light and dark palettes, varying the angle of the composition. David and I were shooting the images out of order over nearly a year, so as we finished each shot he would print a Polaroid and pin it to the wall according to its page number. Then we'd fill in the blanks as we finished each image. The larger arcs of the storyboard occupied my mind, and it always gets harder the closer you get to the end of a big project as you find yourself backing into corners – so whenever it was possible to shuck the oysters in advance for a particular shot and keep them in the fridge, I did. Maybe an hour or two. Anything to buy a little time to figure out the creative flow.
And speaking of creative flow, I have to say that David is actually a much better shucker that I am. He can operate a camera with one hand and shuck an oyster with the other. It's like watching an octopus solve a Rubik's cube. I highly recommend working with him if you ever get the chance.