Looking at a beautiful spread of photos in a food magazine, you're probably salivating over the perfectly arranged greens or the buttery, crumbly pie crust. The plate it's on, and the carefully arranged cutlery nearby, probably escape your notice.
Prop stylists, who choose everything in a photo that's not food, often go unheralded in discussions of food photography, but they play a vital role on set. "I can make beautiful food, but unless somebody brought a beautiful plate to put it on, who cares?" as food stylist Kristy Mucci tells Co.Design.
"It's totally an invisible thing," says Kira Corbin, a New York-based prop stylist who does sets for food and fashion shoots. Corbin got her start a few years ago when the fashion website she worked for, Gilt Groupe, launched a (now defunct) food site. Co.Design talked to Corbin about what a prop stylist actually does all day, what makes a good plate, and why prop stylists tend to be hoarders.
Co.Design: What does a day in the life of a prop stylist look like?
Kira Corbin: A typical day for me would either be a day on set, or a day prepping for set. Say it’s a magazine that’s doing six shots of healthy lunch ideas. The editor will give me some basic direction—it’s for the July issue, so we want something bright and fun and summery and colorful. They give you the recipes, and then with that information, I go out and (for the most part) rent props. You’re curating a scene based on that recipe. You’re finding all of the different things that will, in a more pragmatic way, fit the food.
Where do you get your props?
I have a personal collection, which is fairly small. The universal thing is to rent props. [In a prop house], there's a really big room with a ton of stuff—endless white plates and glasses and all that kind of tabletop stuff other things. If you’re doing a different kind of interior shoot, a lot of them have furniture like tables or chairs or bathroom items.
What are you looking for?
You want things on the smaller side, because things look a lot bigger on camera. In-person, a lot of empty space doesn’t look weird on a plate, but on camera it does. If we’re shooting dinner, we usually shoot those on salad plates.
Besides that, another practical thing is, matte stuff is a lot better than glossy. A brand new, highly polished spoon is like a photographer's worst nightmare—it just acts like a mirror.
I tend toward toward a lot of texture—I like things generally more around the handmade side, or made of interesting clays. I like to work in color stories—I have a personal aesthetic that I have to bend to each job.
What kind of stuff do you bring to a set?
[If] we’re going to shoot lasagna, maybe we’ll need a cheese grater, maybe a stack of plates, a pepper grinder, a kitchen towel. You need to think of all the sort of things [you could need]. You’ll show up and they’ll be like, 'Do we have a spatula we could put in it?' And I brought a pepper grinder and a stack of plates and a bunch of forks and knives.
What don't people realize about your job?
That it’s a thing! I tell people that I’m a prop stylist and they still will months later be like, 'You’re a food stylist, right?' I think that people get what a photographer does, they’re like, 'Yeah there’s a picture in existence in the world, somebody had to do that.' If there’s food, they understand that it had to be cooked. I think people take for granted the scene that is set.
It’s more physical work than people would think. There's a lot of unpacking and packing of really expensive and fragile props.
Do you find yourself buying things for your personal collection often?
It definitely bleeds into the rest of your life. It’s something you kind of live for. We joke that we’re total hoarders, because that’s just what’s in us. You don’t like, turn it off. You’re like, 'Oh yeah, man. I went to a flea market and I got the best shit.'