by @ Jennifer Brizzi – Stephen Weinstein’s fruit and vegetable still-life photos look good enough to eat
Fat blue plums and otherworldly flattened Saturn peaches appear tossed from the bag rather than arranged. Through Stephen Weinstein’s lens the plums glisten, and the peaches – soft as baby skin – invite caresses. This feast for the eyes, one of many of Weinstein’s food photographs, is a stunningly sexy symphony of forms, hues and textures. “I want my photographs to be simple and sumptuous,” the artist says.
Weinstein’s reverence for the beauty and character of fruits and vegetables rings clear. His work will be displayed at the Artists’ Palate in Poughkeepsie and at Unison Arts and Learning Center in New Paltz.
Some of his photographs make your mouth water, depicting a perfect snack. In one, two ripe Bosc pears – one supine, one standing – adjoin crusty rustic bread and a rich, golden aged cheese, the gold tones in the pears echoing that of the cheese.
One of my favorites shows the human touch, where Weinstein has set up a slice of life: a meal in progress, unfinished. This a technique favored by the 17th-century Flemish and Dutch painters who influenced Weinstein a great deal stylistically. Weinstein’s version offers a stein of foamy beer with a sip out of it, a bread loaf with a couple of slices cut, olives, cut cheese and a pile of walnuts with some opened. There is an open book that looks as though someone was just perusing it, and a leaning cane. I like this one very much.
Weinstein’s food photos bring out what we don’t notice at the farmstand. They have a haunting, exotic beauty: no typical sun-dappled apples on a checkered cloth these. He is not just a master of hues that please the eye harmoniously, but also has a magical way with light and shadow – for example, where he creates a subtle play of light on a black background to frame a dark cabbage.
After graduating from Cooper Union in New York with a degree in Graphic Design, Weinstein’s career was as an art director and creative director. Later he was inspired to do outdoor photography by New Paltz photographer Steve Jordan. “He got me started,” he says. Later Weinstein began to explore other options. “Outdoor photography was hard on my back,” he says, “and I wanted something I could do indoors in winter.” So he turned to indoor photography, his subjects the products of local farms and orchards.
Inspiration came not only from the natural allure of his models, but also from those Northern European masters of the still life, who used candlelight to illuminate scenes and create an interplay of color and texture. Some art historians interpret these paintings as examples of memento mori: a reminder of mortality, that life is fleeting. Scenes are in the middle of the action: Goblets are half-consumed or knocked over, candles half-burned-down, fruit partly peeled, hinting at the ephemeral nature of material things and earthly pleasures.
Weinstein’s photographs invite a closer look, not only for their captivating beauty but also because they look painted – an effect that is a combination of many factors that the photographer controls, among them the color, the lighting and the placement of the subjects. A lush cut melon, its interior moist with droplets, is a fine example.
Most of the photos have a deep matte black background, and in many the subjects sit on wooden surfaces with a lovely rich grain that complements and doesn’t detract from the beauty of the fruits and vegetables. The contrast of the pale pastels or vivid hues against the dark background is striking and makes the fruits and vegetables jump, the effect somehow soft yet sharp. Sometimes a piece of fruit serves as no mere languishing model, but rather an active participant in the photo shoot: standing at attention, lined up like a soldier, holding itself at a jaunty angle next to its fellow orange or pear.
Anyone who has seen a garlic scape knows that it has a beautiful curlicue shape. But when you put five of them in Weinstein’s hands, they become five teenagers hanging around the den, looking young, fresh, lively and ready for action, snakes in the grass ready to spring.
Some photographs seem to defy gravity, like one of five mottled pears that appear to float in space. Or they evoke suspended motion, like where daikon radishes lean with attitude against a red cabbage. In another a head of collards somehow stands on end all by itself. Set in a tall vase like flowers, majestic artichokes lord it over turnips, lemons and a tomato.
Weinstein likes to play with complementary colors. In one photo – different from the rest because of its aerial view and close-up vantage point – purple-and-white beans in the shell and a bright yellow pattypan squash bring out the best in each other. In more subtle colorations, a head of garlic sits on a pewter plate, reflected twice, all lovely neutral tones. A line of acorn squashes is ominously beautiful, heavily shadowed with mostly dark surfaces and background, with bits of greens and golds on the ribbed surfaces.
Some don’t hide a bit of humor, at least in this viewer’s perception. Lemon cucumbers have cute bellybuttons. Three bulbous yellow heirloom tomatoes sit in a neat row on a grid of white tile: an orderly arrangement for a most disorderly-appearing fruit. It works. In a vibrant mix of textures, fresh pappardelle pasta pieces look like tossed wood shavings, joined by upright white asparagus and a roughhewn chanterelle. In a palette of subtle pastels, a painstakingly peeled assortment of citrus fruits is backed by large vases that echo the hue or form of the fruit.
Weinstein says that he uses photographic techniques such as using a small aperture and a high speed to ensure that the images are sharp rather than blurry, like in the Dutch tradition, where the surface texture of the fruits and vegetables is highlighted. He clearly enjoys the process, enhanced by new technology that makes equipment lighter and less expensive than it once was. Lighting is key to the beauty of his photographs, and controlling it to create soft shadows like the candlelight used by the Northern European masters is critical.
Weinstein says that he does a great deal of moving the pieces around before photographing them. “I go into a trance,” he says of setting up his subjects. “It’s like a relaxation technique.”
Mere words don’t do these works of art justice; for closer looks see the online gallery at www.camerainthecupboard.com or visit the Artist’s Palate, a restaurant at 307 Main Street in Poughkeepsie, where a show of Weinstein’s work began April 2 and runs through June 3; see www.theartistspalate.biz. Another show (along with works by Nora Scarlett) is at Unison Arts Center, located at 68 Mountain Rest Road in New Paltz, from April 7 to April 27; see www.unisonarts.org. An opening reception will run from 5 to 7 p.m. on Saturday, April 7.