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Flavors: Photographer Lynn Donaldson-Vermillion Makes Food Pretty

Arcadia Publishing

Lynn Donaldson-Vermillion makes food pretty. As a travel photographer food takes center-stage in the visuals she records. In capturing  images of adventure and exploration, she freezes a moment in time, “Interiors, exteriors, action, and always food and so it was one piece of a bigger story I was shooting, but I always loved shooting food through travel and that’s how I got into food photography.”

Though she assisted a food photographer in college, her first experience in photographing food for a cookbook came when she worked on the cookbook, Open Range: Steaks, Chops and More from Big Sky Country by Jay Bentley and Patrick Dillon. In her earlier experiences, the culture of food styling and photography was to reproduce food in its most perfect form. Lard was ice cream, dry ice or cigarette smoke simulated steam and ice cubes were made of glass. Lynn shared of her assisting this food photographer, “He shot camera labels for the National Foods Industries and he used a 4-by-5 view camera. These were just really, highly stylized, and we had a food stylist that had a kit with shellac and lard. Lard was what they used for ice cream, and it was so different, and every one of those shots were so painstakingly perfect. They would add stuff to it that didn’t exist inside the can. It always seemed so fake to me, but I learned a lot working for me and I got to see what magic food stylists could do.”

Fortunately, the current trend is for more natural photographs. With the emergence of cell phones, food “selfies” are popular and are showcased on social media. Especially during the COVID-19 Pandemic, pictures of food prepared in isolation appeared on INSTAGRAM and Facebook. Food photographs found in publications have followed suit. According to Lynn, “Food photography is way less formal than when I first started shooting. It's more spontaneous and real.”

Credit Susan Carlson
Lynn Donaldson-Vermillion puts herself in the best spot for capturing the best photo of the moment. Here she is preparing for a shot of a table setting from a high vantage point.

Over the years, Lynn has developed her own photography signature, “My style is somewhere in between Victoria Pearson’s blurry style and Juergen Tellers’ harsh flash with everything in focus.”

For my new cookbook, Flavors Under the Big Sky: Recipes and Stories from Yellowstone Public Radio - Local Harvest, Global Interpretations,  Lynn spent four days in my home taking pictures for the 80-plus recipes in the book. Local ceramicist Nancy Halter worked with Lynn as the artistic director. Though I had chosen the plates and had thought of the backdrop for each dish, teamwork between Lynn and Nancy created the final setup.

My sister and friends cooked up the recipes in the book. While I oversaw the production of the dishes and photos, friend Susan Carlson coordinated the cooking of the food. There was a schedule for each day. Trays were readied for recipes and ingredients. As the dishes were completed, my husband and brother-in-law washed utensils, dishes, pots, and pans. Keeping the kitchen clean and having equipment ready to use was most important since so many recipes had to be freshly prepared.

After cooking the food and placing it on a serving dish, Lynn climbed ladders, dangled over tables or kneeled on floors to get the perfect photo. I had originally planned on using back-drops in our vegetable garden or under our fruit tree,s but a violent hailstorm just days before destroyed most of the fruit and vegetation. I had made alternate plans but was open to the ideas and possibilities Lynn suggested.

While Lynn framed the scene through her digital camera, Nancy made sure the food looked fresh by brushing oil or tweezing on fresh herbs, sometimes while she held a large reflector directing favorable light onto a dish.

Credit Susan Carlson
Sean McDaniel is given instructions by Lynn Donaldson-Vermillion on holding the cast iron skillet in front of the pizza oven for Bison Sirloin Steaks with Coffee Cocoa Rub.

Lynn shares, “I use reflectors a lot when I shoot food. Sometimes I don’t even use flash. I just use a big round reflector. I love the ones that are white on one side, and my favorite are the ones that are gold or a mix of gold and silver. A lot of times you won’t need to use a flash when you put that … it adds a kiss somehow, sunlight to it. It makes it look scrumptious.”

“I shoot with a Nikon d100. I love using natural light as much as I can with food. I do supplement with fill flash and the way I shoot fill flash is I tend to not point it directly to food. I put a diffuser over my flash, and I will point to the ceiling or to a wall. That makes your shadows less obvious. It makes the edges a little softer and it looks a lot more natural.”

Over the four days, Lynn shot nearly 5000 pictures, doing a quick appraisal of each shot on a computer. “In food photography 50% of your skill comes in shooting and 50% comes in post-production. None of the magazines or newspapers I shoot for want you to go in there and add saturation or vibrance or anything weird or tricky.”

To select the final photos Lynn and I met and reviewed the photos that had made her initial cut. With my untrained eye, I found it challenging to pick the best images. After two days of studious review, we selected the nearly 100 photos that appear in Flavors Under the Big Sky.

Credit Susan Carlson
After Jana Fong cooked the potatoes for the Smashed Potatoes with Smoked Trout, Stella Fong sets the dish presentatio, while Lynn Donaldson-Vermillion waits to take the shot.

This cookbook is a homage to Montana and an expression of gratitude to the culinary professionals I have interviewed for my radio show: Flavors Under the Big Sky: Celebrating the Bounty of the Region. In the four years I have hosted this show I have had the honor to converse with producers, growers, ranchers, chefs, cooks, restauranteurs who have shared their passion for food with me and the listeners. What I have learned from them inspired many of the recipes in the book. Included in the book are recipes learned from my parents and through my travels.

The recipes came to life in Lynn Donaldson-Vermillion’s photographs. Lynn’s innate ability to see the details in the world is reflected in her photography. Even when she is not working, she sees things. With her iPhone, she can capture interesting photos. For the cell phone photographer, “Use the portrait mode, it makes it way prettier.”

Cell phone or digital camera, Lynn’s photos capture the world at its prettiest.

Stella Fong shares her personal love of food and wine through her cooking classes and wine seminars as well as through her contributions to Yellowstone Valley Woman, and Last Best News and The Last Best Plates blogs. Her first book, Historic Restaurants of Billings hit the shelves in November of 2015 with Billings Food available in the summer of 2016. After receiving her Certified Wine Professional certification from the Culinary Institute of America with the assistance of a Robert Parker Scholarship for continuing studies, she has taught the Wine Studies programs for Montana State University Billings Wine and Food Festival since 2008. She has instructed on the West Coast for cooking schools such as Sur La Table, Williams-Sonoma, Macy’s Cellars, and Gelsons, and in Billings, at the Billings Depot, Copper Colander, Wellness Center, the YMCA and the YWCA. Locally she has collaborated with Raghavan Iyer and Christy Rost in teaching classes.