Behind the Scenes: Photographing Rancho San Julián for Issue #152

SAVEUR contributing photographer Penny De Los Santos traveled to California's Central Valley along with contributing editor Georgia Freedman to photograph Rancho San Julian for Georgia's article, California Eternal for our December 2012 issue. With the photographs in this gallery, Penny describes her process for capturing the life and food of the Poett family on the ranch. While on assignment, Penny's philosophy is to "try to let people live their lives, and I make sure I'm there to capture it." For more on shooting this story, read Penny's behind the scenes account »

The day Georgia and I arrived at the ranch house, we found Elizabeth and her mother preparing homemade empanadas for that night's family-style dinner, and I took this shot. I try to let the photographic process be as organic as possible-- people often want to stop and rearrange to make what they think will be a nicer picture. I say, "Don't clean up, don't change your shirt, this is perfect!" I want to walk into these scenes and let them quietly unfold.
That night just before dinner, two of the men were loading the car to take everything out to where we were going to be eating. I was in the backseat of the car, shooting over the seat-- at the time, I was thinking to myself, This may be the most visual moment I get with these guys, and I need to work it really hard. I was hoping I'd get shots the next day of them on horses, or over the grill, but when you're shooting on location you can never know. I think it helps the shot that they're wearing hats, and you can't see their faces. It's intimate, but there's a little mystery.
This is a really sweet shot of Elizabeth and her dad at the grill. When I took this photo, there was a lot going on at once behind me: People were starting to bring out the food, everyone was gathering, there was an energy building. But I've learned as a photographer that it's important to be able to see these quieter moments as they happen, even if it's in the middle of all sorts of action happening outside the frame.
It's a bit of a shift in gears to go from shooting people and action to shooting food photographs-- especially in the field, where the meal is happening and there are hungry people all around waiting for me to finish up so they can eat their dinner. I have to work both very quickly, and with a lot of patience: I'm always thinking about composition and color, but you need to make sure the food looks luscious, that it looks like something you really do want to eat. It's good to shoot a beautifully composed plate like these tomatoes, but I also like to come back to the dishes throughout the meal: maybe it'll be a nicer shot once it's halfway eaten, or with dirty spoons on each side, or served up on someone's plate. When it comes to food photography, you always have to be asking yourself how many different ways you can see one dish. Still, when you have ingredients that come from such a beautiful place as these did, and you put them together on beautiful plates, there's not much more that you need. It's just flat-out pretty.
The funny thing about being a photographer and being assigned to shoot these real-life family meals is that your subjects expect you to sit down to dinner with them instead of shooting it. They'll set me a plate at the table, they'll wait for me to sit down, they'll want me to join hands as they bless the food. It can be difficult to explain how hard it is to document an act of community while simultaneously participating in it. Here, I'm not sitting at the table, but I've elbowed in right beside someone to get the shot, because I want to give the viewer that perspective of being right there at the meal-- it's the most powerful place for the viewer to be.
Elizabeth is one of the only female ranchers who raises cattle the way that she does, and she works her butt off. This woman works hard. The family doesn't have a lot of people who work for them on the ranch; they're really out there doing everything themselves. She and her husband were gathering hay to take out to feed the cattle; then they headed out to herd cattle to another pasture. I was beyond excited, as a photographer: I love all of this, it was a visual joy to chronicle. I remember being out on this shoot and wanting to be a part of every single thing they did-- saddling the horses, opening the gates, every instant, every movement. You never know where your moment is going to come from. Your most beautiful picture is never something you can plan for-- in photography, you really have to be ready for your pictures, you have to be patient and willing to look for them everywhere. Turn over every rock, open and look behind every door, really search for it.
I wasn't on a horse while shooting, but I would have loved to be. It made more sense for me to be on foot so I could run around everyone and get my shots from all angles. We were up at the crack of dawn for this herd and worked until the light went down. The whole time, I was looking for interesting body language. Cowboys on the open prairie in this beautiful landscape -- it was visual poetry. I wanted my photographs to reflect this moody, sultry ideal that we have about the great American west, the silent cowboy, the fertile land. I tried to expose this shot with that mood in my mind.
This was dinner the day of the big cattle herding. I was exhausted from running all day, I smelled horrible from rubbing up against all those cows, but Elizabeth and her husband declared, "We're making dinner." So I switched gears again into food-shooting mode. It's about quieter moments, not as fast-moving as horses running along the fields, but because Georgia's story is about the food of this place, these are the images that really need to tell the story. What you cook and how you cook it says a lot about where you are; making these burgers in a skillet set on a grill was so cowboy, so entirely specific to this place. When you photograph food, that's what you're looking for: a moment of cooking or eating that brings you into a different culture, whether it's on the other side of the world, or just on the other side of the country you live in.

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