Are you ready to immerse yourself in the captivating world of food storytelling? Join me, Mica, on The Savory Shot podcast, where I interview renowned photographer and food storyteller Penny De Los Santos. In this episode, we dive into Penny’s experiences traveling to over 30 countries and how they shaped her unique perspective as a food photographer. We discuss what makes a great food photo, the importance of food storytelling, and the ways in which food can connect people and cultures. But that’s not all! We also highlight the challenges of being a professional photographer in a changing industry and the transformative power of travel. So, get ready to be inspired and join us on The Savory Shot. Don’t forget to subscribe and leave your comments and questions. Let’s explore the world of food photography and storytelling together!
Penny De Los Santos is a latinex storyteller who began photographing as a way to understand her own diverse cultural background and identity.
Born in Germany to an American military family that eventually settled in small-town- Food photography and storytelling
– Pursuing passion and finding joy Texas, with generations of family history tied to the Texas-Mexico border, Penny’s background no doubt inspired curiosity about culture.
From the historical all-male dining clubs of the Basque Country to Jerusalem’s most historical markets, photographing culture has been at the heart of Penny’s work. She has been fortunate enough to travel extensively throughout the US and to over 40 countries on assignment for various clients.
Penny trained for the first 10 years of her career with National Geographic Magazine.
Her photographs have received numerous grants, fellowships, and awards, including:
– The National Geographic Photography Grant
– Recipient of the Prestigious World Press Joop Stewart Master class
– College Photographer of the Year
– Eastman Kodak Photography Grant
-Canon USA Photography Grant
– The Eddie Adams Photography Grant
– California New Media Award, Ohio University School of Visual Communication Photography Grant
– The Parson’s School of Design Marty Fortier Fellowship.
Penny has a Masters degree from Ohio University’s School of Visual Communication and an Undergraduate degree in Journalism from Texas A&M University. She has been a featured speaker at many universities and industry conferences throughout the US and abroad.
Mica: [00:00:00] Welcome to the 27th episode of The Savory Shot. What. Y'all already know who I be, but if this is your first time joining this, partaaay, allow me to introduce myself. My name is Mica and I'm your host with the most. Y'all, before I start this epic episode, I've gotta give thanks first to y'all, the listeners, cuz boo things, y'all are the reason why this show exists.
Mica: So thank you for being here. You could have been anywhere doing anything, but you're here with me and I couldn't be more grateful. Last episode, I celebrated the Savory Shots one year anniversary. Hey, and y'all, I feel like I coulda should have done more to celebrate this big moment, but indeed did I celebrate in [00:01:00] the last episode.
Mica: So check out that episode if you wanna hear what I've learned as a podcast host. But y'all, y'all. I've got to talk about today's episode cuz it's a doozy, and I am so excited about this interview. Today I'm beyond thrilled to introduce our amazing guest, the incredible Penny de Los Santos.
Mica: Penny is an extraordinary photographer and storyteller. Her photos are poetic, deep, intimate, and awe inspiring. Seriously, you've been living under a rock. If you don't know who Penny de Los Santos is. I've been a fan of Penny's for years, y'all since the beginning of my photography days. Having her on the show is an absolute honor.
Mica: Y'all, we talked about so, so, [00:02:00] so much in this episode. I couldn't figure out what to take out. We talked about her experiences traveling to over 30 countries, y'all, and how those journeys shaped her perspective as a food photographer. We talked about her decision to explode her life and move to New York, y'all.
Mica: Y'all. We haven't gotten to the meat and potatoes of what makes a good photo great. But before we get into that, let's start the show.
Mica: Penny, I just wanna start off by saying this is the biggest fangirl moment of my foodie life. If my professor were here and he could hear this conversation, he'd be like, Mica's like freaking out right now.
Mica: Because I talk about your work so much, so often, and so this is a huge, huge, huge, huge honor to have you here on this show. So Thank you for being here.
Penny: Wow, that is so sweet. That's kind. And I don't, I mean, that's just, wow. Thank you. That's beautiful to hear. And I really appreciate that. I'm out here struggling too, you know, so thank you. I fully accept that and take it in and I'm just like, wow, you made my day. So thank you very much.
Mica: You've made my year, my millennium. I am gonna like live this for the rest of my life.
Mica: And I love that you're from [00:04:00] Texas. What.
Penny: When I got your email, I was like, heck yo, let's do this. I mean, especially cuz you're from Texas. I love Texas. Texas is going through something right now. It's, it's an intense time. But Texas will always be home, even though, damn, I love living in, I mean, I feel like this is the right city for me to be living in right now, you know?
Mica: New York is banging.
Mica: But if it's okay with you, I wanna dive right in because I have some, some questions to ask you.
Penny: I'm ready. I'm ready.
Mica: The first thing I wanna ask is, well, first I think I told you about how I got introduced to your work. It was in my photojournalism class. Our professor was like sharing different works of different photojournalists.
Mica: He would present the picture and then he would let us sit in silences for a minute. He's like, just absorb it. Just drink it in, and then let's talk about this. And your work was one of the ones that, um, the, the, the, the shot where it's the table and it's the flat lay and it's [00:05:00] lit by candlelight.
Mica: That's how it was introduced to your work. And I was just blown away by everything.
Penny: Wow. That's so cool.
Mica: So the first thing I wanna dive into is your Instagram. One of your captions from January 8th, 2020, you said, this year I'm committed to doing more work that expresses who I am as a storyteller at the heart of it.
Mica: For me, storytelling has always been the crossroad where food and culture meet, especially around everyday life. So my question is, what was happening in your life when you wrote that?
Penny: January, 2020?
Mica: January 8th, 2020.
Penny: Okay. I know exactly where I was.
Penny: January, 2020 months before everything changed. I was in southern Italy. My first ever like international exhibition. A series of 60, images from around the world about food culture and how people connect around food. I was [00:06:00] traveling around Italy for I think six cities, and it was all, this is the cool part. All of the exhibitions were in UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Penny: So they have like historical meaning, so put images, related to food culture in this like historical setting, it just starts to mean something else, right? So anyway, I was in Umbria and it was probably around the time of my opening of this exhibition and it opened in Umbria. I was teaching a photo workshop at the same time.
Penny: I was feeling extremely proud of myself that I found something I cared about and that I pursued it and deciding to really dive into food because, you know, I was a storyteller mostly telling stories around culture and place and identity.
Penny: I trained with National Geographic for the first 10 years of my career. And it was incredible. And it was the dream. That was the dream for [00:07:00] me. I wanted to work at National Geographic. But it was the most intense thing, emotionally for me, it was not healthy emotionally.
Penny: It was very toxic. And I inhale deeply because that time was important in my life to be at National Geographic and to learn from my peers, from people who were mentors, from editors, it was an incredible opportunity, but it was also really intense. You know, I didn't anticipate how much I would feel like an outsider and photographers are emotional people, whether we admit it or not.
Penny: We're sensitive, we're emotional. Maybe not everybody, but if you're telling storytelling images, if you're really trying to evoke emotion, you're an emotional person, you know? I'm getting a little sidetracked here, but I guess what I'm trying to say is but I guess what I'm trying to say is I was driven to telling stories about people and I just didn't feel happy at that place that I always thought I wanted to be at.
Penny: It was a dream. And I worked really hard to get to that point, you know, really hard. Like I, when I think [00:08:00] about the man, the hours I put into my career to get to that point, it's crazy, you know? I just was so unhappy. I got my first food assignment. That's another story, but it was this person who had a career at National Geographic.
Penny: He was an editor, he was now a food editor. Visual editor at a magazine. And this magazine was Saveur and they really focused on food and place, you know, those two combined.
Penny: So it was really an opportunity to story tell, but around a subject I didn't know. And it, the first assignment he gave me was to. Chile and to Peru, and it was like a two-part assignment. I was traveling with the same writer and she was like this, she had a PhD in, medieval history and she was a restaurateur and she was a chef, and she was, Cuban living in Cuban American.
Penny: Right. Living in, in New Jersey. I fly to Santiago, Chile, [00:09:00] I meet her. And as we're walking through the market, you know, she's just telling me about all these ingredients and how they all came, like through this continent and who brought them and how it's used, by local people. And then when we went to Peru together in that same assignment, same thing when we were in Peru, she was telling me like different ingredients.
Penny: And I just had this moment where I was like, wow, this, this is. This is beautiful. You know, this is like storytelling and it's also, connection, and it's intimacy, in photography and food is super intimate and watching people cook is like really intimate. And I love cooking.
Penny: I think I'm a pretty good cook and I've always loved watching people cook. I grew up watching cooking shows like, devoutly and I almost considered going to culinary school. I loved it that much and I only wanted to go to culinary school.
Penny: So I would understand like technique and I could maybe just have just the perspective. I didn't wanna become a chef or anything, but it was more like maybe it would give me license to [00:10:00] be. Even more immersed in that potentially.
Penny: So the notion of marrying those two passions with photography was like, yes.
Mica: I could see wanting to go to culinary school, to really understand the why behind why they do this and this and this and this. I don't see how anyone cannot be obsessed with watching chefs cook.
Mica: Do you think that would have changed the way you photographed food had you gone to culinary school?
Penny: Yeah, for sure. And and I, I just also want to add it, it wasn't necessarily chefs for me, it was just cooking, you know? And in fact, to be really honest with you, I prefer home cooks. I like grandmas.
Penny: The lights way better. You know what I mean? It's just you're walking into a lot more character and not that chefs aren't interesting, but I think home cooks and home cooking and how people gather is way more interesting.
Penny: When I think about it, it's like, wow, wow, wow. I wish I could just do that. I wish I could just get on a plane, travel to another country, photograph a [00:11:00] handful of six or seven people in their homes, cooking, gathering, photographing it, come back and just publish it myself. That would be like, and that's, I guess maybe that's the goal, but, you know, I also gotta make a living too, so, nobody ever talks about that part of photography, right?
Penny: You gotta make a living.
Penny: But I love cooking for people. I love entertaining. I love hosting. I love hosting.
Mica: You love hosting. Okay, what about hosting that you love about it?
Penny: I love gathering people that I love and people that maybe I don't know so well and putting 'em all in the same room and just seeing how everybody gets along.
Penny: I love showing people like new foods and like cooking for people, having them enjoy the food, and most of my entertaining is like, people come over, they're standing up, they're sitting down. It's not like a seated dinner. It's like a hang with some food in the center of this big, like long table that I have.
Penny: And you're mingling the next time you come to New York? I'll host something and then you'll have to come.
Mica: Oh, I will definitely come because my [00:12:00] last experience with New York was not a fun one. We traveled to Boston for my husband's best friend's wedding, and we got caught in a really bad snowstorm and our flight to Austin was canceled. Our rescheduled flight had a layover in New York. And then we were supposed to fly back to Austin from New York. While we were on the plane from Boston to New York, our flight to Austin was canceled.
Mica: And we found out after we landed. Thankfully, I had a friend who lived in Brooklyn and he and his girlfriend let us stay there. We had two extra days in New York, but I didn't have the right footwear and I was sick, so we couldn't really do anything. When we left, I'm like, okay, we have to give New York another chance. So I definitely will take you up on that when we go to New York. I wanna take it to that Ted talk that you gave, where you talked about how you were thinking about on the plane, about capturing the perfect [00:13:00] shot and being very careful about following the men because they're, they're very lives could be in danger.
Mica: Then with the power going out and them pulling out the candles, and then you were like, ha. This is the perfect moment. This is the shot. I've gotta get this shot. Take me back to that moment when you saw that photo later, like on a bigger screen. What emotions did it invoke in you?
Penny: Well, I remember the moment exactly. We had left the subject's apartment, and took a taxi back to the hotel.
Penny: No, to the ri I was staying at the writer's apartment. Which isn't normal, but you know, this was a different assignment. I remember, I had kind of set up a little office space for myself and I loaded up the images to my laptop and I remember seeing that image and just, just being so excited about it that I quickly processed it, toned it a little bit, not much, and then I sent it to the editor of the magazine and also the photo editor.
Penny: In the [00:14:00] morning when I woke up, I think I wrote something in the email about how, it was incredible. And this, this shot is, this is what I got. I'm so hap you know, I, I, I don't know what I said exactly, but when I woke up in the morning, they'd already mocked it up.
Penny: They dropped it into a layout and put a headline and I saw that and I was just like, oh my God. It was just, yeah, I felt like I did the moment justice and I told, I told a really beautiful story, and I got really lucky.
Mica: What are some things that people have told you about that shot? How did people react to it? Because I know how I reacted to it and what I felt in that moment.
Penny: What did you feel?
Mica: I felt. Like I was looking in on a very intimate, very private moment. I almost felt like I was a fly on the wall, and this was something very personal. It's very beautiful.
Mica: I just wanted to know everything about those men. I wanna know what they're eating, I wanna know what they're doing. I wanna know what they're gonna do [00:15:00] the next day. I just wanted to know them.
Mica: So that's, that's a long-winded.
Penny: That's powerful. Well, thank you for sharing that.
Mica: Thank you for asking. I appreciate that so, so much. You mentioned that you've traveled to over 30 countries, but I feel like it's been more by now at this point.
Mica: How many countries in total have you been to?
Penny: Gosh, I don't know. I don't know. It's, it's definitely more than 30 now, for sure. But then neither, there's a lot of repeats too, but it's definitely an incredible privilege. Yeah, I feel really lucky, but you know, it's also slowed down quite a bit. But hopefully we'll pick back up.
Mica: What's the biggest thing you've learned about yourself from your travels, and how has it influenced your food photography?
Penny: What's the biggest thing I've learned about myself through my travels? Gosh, that's a deep question, huh? It's continually learning, right? What's the biggest thing?
Penny: Just how small I am. It's a big world right? There's so many different [00:16:00] ways to live. It's helped me just be more self-reflective and it's hard not to think about your own life when you're in somebody else's culture and world, right?
Penny: Travel is, I think one of the greatest teachers. You find a little bit more about yourself when you travel.
Mica: That's really true.
Penny: And it changes you, right.
Mica: You're more vulnerable in, in another, because in the US we're just so used to being in our own skin, comfortable, I'm an American, I'm this, I'm this, and everybody here loves being an American.
Mica: But then you go to another country and it's like, wow, I'm a visitor here. I want to respect everything here. What's been your favorite country so far?
Penny: Oh, man. For me travel is about being in places where no one is, you know, like I, I'm not necessarily gonna go see the site.
Penny: That's definitely not how I travel. I'm more of a let's get an apartment in one of the neighborhoods and let's [00:17:00] live there for a while and let's go have a coffee every morning at this cafe and let's pretend for a while that we live here and let's live here.
Penny: You know? I like who I meet, my favorite places are my favorite kind of memories, and I've met so many incredible peoples people. Gosh, what my, my favorite, I mean,
Mica: Such a big question
Penny: It's a huge question. There's so many.
Mica: How about this, what's one of your favorites? Maybe not the most favorite, but one of your favorites?
Penny: One of my favorites, um, ah, there's this island in Greece. It's called Kea, K-E-A.
Penny: And you can get there, you can fly directly into Athens, and there's a ferry. Very close to the airport. Maybe, I think it's maybe a 20 minute, maybe 15 minute cab ride. You can get on that ferry and you can go to Kea. The locals in Pea describe Kea as like the Hamptons of, you know, New York, right?
Penny: So it's this island where all the locals go to to get [00:18:00] away from the city. I went there on an assignment, and it was a photo shoot. To this Greek cooking school on this island of Kea, right? I fly into Athens, blurry eyed, tired camera gear in one arm and rolling a, a suitcase in the other.
Penny: Get in a cab. Go to this terminal, ferry terminal, get on a ferry. I think you're maybe an hour on this ferry. People are on the ferry having lunch. People pack a snack. There's a little cafe, there's a little bar and a place where you can buy snacks or something to eat and people are like, holding up, we're on the ocean going to this tiny island.
Penny: We get to the island and it's just like, wow. There's over 200 beaches on this little island. It's so special and so beautiful and quiet and remote, and it's only locals. You're not gonna run into a lot of other tourists, so to speak. It was just magical and special and the, the sky at night was so clear.
Penny: And, [00:19:00] you know, locals cook all their meals there. In Greece they have local cheeses and local wines, things that you can't get imported to the US. So you're really experiencing something very unique and very special, and it's incredible. I would go to this cooking school if you wanted to gift yourself something really beautiful.
Penny: I would go to this cooking school on this island and for like a week. And the people that own the cooking, it's just, it's a husband and wife, and they're the most generous, kind, sincere, fun-loving people.
Mica: You did an interview with a Adorama Adorama. One thing that you said that stood out to me , you said that food photography is all about the place, about the moment and about the people. For food photographers who work primarily in a studio setting, finding moments can be a challenge, right? So how can food photographers working in a studio setting capture[00:20:00] the culture, the dish, and the people behind it.
Penny: I think a moment can be created in many ways. The way in which you choose to light something. I think storytelling in a still life image is very much a moment. How you compose it, how you light it, the elements you choose to focus on, your angle, all of that helps create a moment, right?
Penny: All of those are decisions you make up until the point you hit the shutter. So yes, all of those decisions help you make a moment. And then some work is like prescribed, like, Hey, we need this shot of this dish.
Penny: But, I've never limited, even on in a still shoot, depending the circumstances, but I've always been more interested in the dish before it ever hits the table. It's the people cooking in and how they make it, how they stir the pot, the smoke, the fumes, the the steam, whatever comes up from the pot.
Penny: I mean, all those are actual moments too. You can bring that to the set and recreate those moments. It's just a matter of [00:21:00] like really thinking and spending some time and contemplating like, when is the peak moment to really capture this?
Mica: So I have a moment and I'm curious to, to hear about how you would approach this moment.
Mica: My mom is a fantastic cook and she has her own version of Caldo. My best memory is watching her make this soup cuz it was a all day affair for her.
Mica: And just the whole house smelling amazing. She didn't have anything that super fancy, just a big pot and some, some rusted knives and some, some hands to make the food with.
Mica: So if you were in that moment, where you met my mom and she was cooking, what are some things that you look for in that moment?
Penny: Oh, this is a great question. I would show up an hour before your mom, well, maybe not an hour, 30 minutes before she starts cooking. I wanna see her putting the apron on. I wanna see her, maybe she's wiping down the counters, maybe she's having a coffee on the patio. I don't know, you know, but I wanna be there before she starts.
Penny: Cuz you wanna meet people [00:22:00] properly, everybody wants to show you their house. People always wanna offer you something to drink, so that's a good 30 minutes. Right. And then also I want her to feel super comfortable with me. If she'll let me come earlier so that maybe she and I can hang out a little bit, she can get to know me and understand that I'm coming from a very sincere, honest place, and I wanna make her feel comfortable, and I just wanna watch her and make pictures of it.
Penny: Once she kinda gets that, then I think she'll loosen up. She'll be more calm. Maybe we'll do a shot of tequila. I would sip it. I wouldn't like down it, cuz I don't want her to think I'm like, they're at a party necessarily, if that makes any sense. I don't wanna be exclusionary, I wanna be included, but I want to sink into the background, so I wanna fit in, I wanna be easy. I don't have to have anything, but if she's inviting me.
Penny: Sure. Yeah, absolutely. I'm gonna also indulge the subject. Because I care about them and I need to let them in too. So yeah, your mom's offering me for a coffee.
Penny: I'm like, yeah, let's have a coffee. We're talking, and then she's gonna get [00:23:00] all her ingredients out. I'm shooting pictures of her doing the ingredients. I'm warming her up. I'm getting her used to the fact that. The camera's gonna be around her. Are these the pictures that are gonna like be the money shot?
Penny: No, but I'm shooting it because I'm also stretching my eye. I'm letting her know this is how I'm gonna move around her. I'm checking my light. I'm checking exposure. I'm thinking about like where a beautiful image might come from.
Penny: Like maybe there's light streaming in from the window. I'm thinking about what could I put there. Is that where I wanna shoot the final plate? Maybe she sits there. Is it a portrait at some point? So I'm just, I'm thinking a lot. I'm letting her get into her world. I'm helping her understand how I work.
Penny: All of this is like not necessarily spoken, it's just learned behavior as she sees me working. And I'm most importantly just helping her know that I'm not a threat and I'm there to celebrate her. I'm like excited and pumped. I'm a hype person. We're just on a journey together.
Mica: Do you feel the moment when they trust you and they [00:24:00] really get comfortable around you? How do you know when that moment happens?
Penny: I know when that moment happens, when they don't move or flinch when I'm moving around them and they just do their thing.
Penny: Sometimes people will see me get in a certain place and then they'll adjust, and I'm like, no, no, you just do your thing. Ignore me, a hundred percent. You're never in the way. What you're doing is what I wanna see. You're the most important person in the room.
Penny: You don't worry about me. I'm worrying about you.
Mica: It's like they're the sun and you're the planet orbiting around them.
Penny: Oh, that's a great analogy. Yeah, exactly. It's also not, wow, what an incredible privilege. This is not high stakes. We're having a great time.
Penny: No one should be stressed. Everybody should be feeling really lucky. Especially me. So I'm going to be as chill as I can be.
Mica: You wanna be a part of that moment and it's just such a great moment to be a part of. I like what you say about just remembering the gratitude.
Mica: And my mom would definitely take a tequila shot with you.
Mica: I can tell. We probably shouldn't let her take a tequila shot [00:25:00] cuz then she'll do all the gritos and we will never get her.
Penny: Oh, that, that even best. That's the photo. That's the photo. That is the photo.
Mica: We took my mom for her birthday and she turned 65 and we took her to Casa Chapala in, Northwest Austin.
Mica: She likes that place because they make the salsa from scratch, but they also make it hot enough. My mom has like a steel of a stomach. If she says it's not hot, don't believe her. It's a lie. Turn away. She loves Mariachis. And we had a mariachi come and sing her a song and I recorded a video of her and she's wearing like this giant sombrero hat and she's just living her best life.
Mica: It was really cool to celebrate her. I feel like that video summarizes my mom's personality. You grew up in South Texas, correct. You're from Germany and then you grew up in South Texas?
Penny: Both of my parents are from South Texas. Long time South Texas.
Penny: I come from a Mexican American family, but I didn't grow up. I grew up going there, but mostly in central Texas. My father was in the military.
Mica: Growing up in the military [00:26:00] that meant you had to be in new environments frequently and learn how to talk to people.
Penny: Yeah. I've always been interested in everybody else. That's why I picked up the camera. I, I felt like it was a, pardon the pun, but it was like a passport into people's lives.
Mica: You mentioned that there came a point in your career where you realized that if the kind of shoots that you wanna do, the kind of clients you want to book, you're not gonna find them here in Texas and that you have to go where, where it is.
Mica: You said that you exploded your life. Looking back on that decision to explode your life. How do you feel about that choice now?
Penny: Oh, I mean, that was the one of the best decisions I've ever made.
Penny: I grew as a creative person.
Penny: Than, more than anything. New York, there is a, how should I put this? There is a work ethic here that, I mean, people hustle. People come here to work. Full stop. People come here to learn, [00:27:00] to grow, to get their experience. To become something. A lot of people come here to prove themselves.
Penny: So if you give them an opportunity, they're gonna show up and they're gonna show up early and they might not even wanna be paid. I pay people, just so you know, but what I'm saying is, is people are wanting the experience here. And not every city in the world is like that. A lot of cities, most cities aren't like that.
Penny: I felt like I was having a hard time finding collaborators in Texas. I had a hard time finding stylists, prop stylists, food stylists that I felt like specialized primarily in still tabletop. I do shoots in Texas now and there are stylists there for sure.
Penny: I just felt like what the opportunities I would have in New York, this is the publishing capital of the world. There is a photographer on every corner. It's very competitive. People here are hustling. They're working. They are putting everything they have on the line to [00:28:00] make it. It's expensive to live here.
Penny: You can't rest. You gotta work, you gotta pound the pavement and say something and say it as loud as you can, or you won't make it. I love being here for that reason. And it's made me the photographer I am today for that reason.
Penny: If you're seeing me branch out or do something different, it's because I'm growing, I'm learning, I'm pushing myself, and that's honestly what you have to do. If you want to be a competitive photographer in this marketplace, you have to be willing to be open and still hustle. Every day's a hustle.
Penny: I've never rested on my laurels, ever. Not that, I can't. I gotta pay the rent. I still have to take care of myself and, it is what it is. I choose to live here. And that's part of the choice you make.
Mica: So you've exploded your life.
Mica: What did that look like? What does exploding your life look like?
Penny: I had a house in Austin. I sold a bunch of things. I packed everything up. I got in a U-Haul and I drove across the country. I rented my first apartment [00:29:00] in the West Village.
Penny: It was like a studio apartment. It was crazy expensive. I had work immediately the minute I got here, and I've always worked for myself. Like any photographer, you have good months and bad months. It's, it's always like that.
Mica: What advice would you give to any food photographers who are thinking about exploding their life and moving to another city?
Penny: That's an interesting question. I don't think you need to live in New York. I think you moved to New York because you wanna live in this city. I know other photographers who have really been so successful. I do think Texas, in terms of work has changed. I think there is more work. I think a lot of work gets shot in Texas also, so it's changed and it's only gonna change more. So I don't, I don't feel like photography has really changed in the last two years.
Penny: And it's only gonna continue to change. Right. I don't think you have to be in New York now. I really don't. I choose to live here because the creative energy and the work ethic and sense of like [00:30:00] competitiveness that does keep me going too. Maybe I kind of hate it though, but that's another conversation.
Penny: It pushes me. I'm pushed here, and I definitely can find collaborators and I appreciate that.
Penny: But I guess what I'm trying to say is I don't think you need to live in New York. I think it's just, it's, the game has changed. So much.
Mica: What do you think makes a good food photograph and how do you know when you've captured that?
Penny: I think composition, light, color, subject matter, all those contribute to like a, a good photograph.
Penny: But I think just the telltale sign is if you feel something when you look at it. And I do think when you look at a food photograph, if it doesn't make you hungry or want to eat it, then it's, it's not working right.
Penny: Maybe it's not an appetizing food photograph, but you should feel something. An image should evoke an emotion.
Mica: Have you ever had those moments where you looked at your photo and you didn't feel anything? What did you do in that moment?
Penny: All the time. [00:31:00] All the time. And sometimes you don't always get to make the photo you wanna make. You get a creative brief from an agency or a client and they have a very specific thing in mind that they want to capture. Then it becomes you're working for someone, you're working with someone, you're creating their idea.
Penny: What they want is way more important than that when you want. You can bring your expertise. You can contribute your thoughts, and you can influence it as much as you want. But oftentimes you, you get these briefs and they're very specific about that, what they want and do I always feel like, oh my God, I nailed it. This is incredible. No, but that's not what they were looking for.
Mica: One of my former professors, Frank Curry, said in classes, that with client work, you have to deliver every time.
Mica: There's no room for error. When you do your portfolio work, that's the time to explore, get creative, and make whatever mistakes you wanna make. Do you ever do like portfolio work? Where it's just for you? Work just for you?
Penny: You mean where I'm not getting [00:32:00] paid? Someone's not paying me to do.
Mica: Yeah, I call portfolio work.
Penny: Yeah. I call it a test shoot. Yeah, absolutely. All the time. I'd probably do that more.
Penny: I'm doing it at least once a month. Right. At least. It's harder to do that. Right now where I'm at with my work as I'm really interested in, I wanna shoot more lifestyle, I wanna shoot more people in, in their space. Getting a little more back to storytelling, but also bringing, a little bit of a controlled environment to it.
Penny: I wanna photograph, photograph more people. I liked seeing people. I like hearing stories. I like connecting. I wanna contemplate a little bit more what they're gonna wear, the environment we're gonna shoot in, how I might light it.
Penny: It's not like going to Sicily and driving around for two weeks in a car rental and just finding people who let you into their house.
Mica: If a photographer came to your house and photographed your home, what feeling would you want them to have upon entering your home?
Penny: I would want them to be inspired. I would want them to feel really [00:33:00] grounded, inspired and, open. And really good, filled with like a very positive, warm feeling. I want people to feel like that when I'm photographing it that, but if they walk into my home, I hope they feel that too.
Mica: It reminds me of, of what you were talking about in the TED Talk where you said, about the men who like was sharing the meal that this was one of the only ways that they remembered home.
Penny: They were cooking family recipes and that's how they remember home.
Penny: And that's how we all remember home, right? I can make my mom's arroz con pollo or calabaza con pollo.. And I know in that moment when I smell, the squash and the chicken and the rice kind of all cooking together, then I can see my mom in the kitchen again. I could feel that feeling for a minute.
Penny: It's beautiful.
Mica: I love that. I love that. You did a, a workshop back in January, which I wanted to go to, I really wanted to go to that. Do you have any upcoming [00:34:00] projects that, that you're excited about to explore in the future?
Penny: I do. I'm up for a really great book project that I'm super excited about. I mean, that would be traveling to multiple countries photographing food culture. Hopefully it works out. Let's everybody cross their fingers.
Penny: But you know what I realized, though, it's like it is the dream assignment, right? But I realized why I should just be doing this for myself. I should just be doing that for myself. It hearkens back to that very first question you asked me in the very beginning of this interview about that caption I wrote on January, 2020, And it was just this moment where I realized I really love photographing people and culture around food.
Penny: I mean, that's just what brought me into food photography.
Penny: I wanna get back to storytelling. Not that I don't love the studio, but after being inside for the last few years.
Penny: I just, I crave connection and gathering. So I wanna get back to that. That's my own goal. That's why this project that's coming up, if I am [00:35:00] awarded it, it would be amazing. But also, even if I don't, it's okay. You know? Like I, I think I need to get back to doing that work for myself. I need to do that for me. I need to go to like three different countries the rest of the year and photograph. That's why you have miles, right?
Mica: Well I'm putting that, that positive energy out there. I want you to get this assignment, this book assignment, and make it happen, cuz I know it's gonna turn out magical. I wanna ask you about the about the workshops. So what, what prompts the work workshops? What do you enjoy about them?
Penny: I'm not sure. I do enjoy them if I'm really honest with you, and that's why I don't do 'em a lot. First of all, it's a lot of work and I don't mind working. I will definitely work hard, but I'm not sure it's how I want to be working. And if I'm really honest, sometimes I need to make money, you know, and it's been a weird few years. Publishing is wow.
Penny: I mean, diminished. I lost two or three big publishing [00:36:00] clients in the last few years because those publications are no longer printing. If they're publishing it's online and their budgets are, it's not there. Yeah. It's just, it's not there.
Penny: Yeah. So it is what it is. Right. I do the workshops to supplement. Right. I have to be in business.
Penny: I'm in business whether I like it or not. So it's an opportunity to make some money. To kind of cushion myself a little bit through the winter months. And I do enjoy meeting the people that sign up. Oftentimes, there are people that have followed me for a long time and I have repeat customers, which is really cool.
Penny: And I always have a great party. Like we had this amazing party after we wrap this workshop, and I, people didn't leave till like one in the morning. What? Yes, yes. True story. After being on set from like eight in the morning.
Mica: I watched your Creative Live course and like all the students were sitting there watching and then you did , the photo shoot at the end and I'm like, I wanna knock one of those people off those chairs so I can take their [00:37:00] spot. I understand where you're coming from, but I do hope that you do more workshops, because I wanna go to one. I wanna go to one.
Penny: I have a question for you then. So, I was thinking about doing the workshops like online and maybe, I have a friend that's a poet actually in Austin.
Penny: She does a poetry workshop, and they meet once a week for like three hours on Sunday. And I thought, well, maybe that could be a cool way to meet, do the workshop, over like five week or six week period. It's more intimate, you know? But I could give you assignments, we could look at work, would be a little bit more, probably have a growing experience.
Mica: I would totally be down for that. And I know at least 20 other food photographers who would be so down for that. Absolutely. I would totally be down for something like that. And I know that people who are listened to this show would be down for that too. And you might even get some food stylists who are definitely eager to learn about how to be a better collaborator with a food photographer. [00:38:00] So whatever, whatever you're putting out there, I will move mountains to be a part of it.
Penny: Oh my gosh, that's so sweet of you. Thank you for the encouragement. I really appreciate it. I think I might do it. I, I, oh, I dunno. I think, and maybe it's a better format for me.
Mica: It's all a personal decision. So if you choose not to, that's totally up to you. But if you do, I'm gonna come a run in. If you do,
Penny: Maybe I'll do one round. I'll let you know. Okay?
Mica: Okay. Okay. All right. So I have one last question for you and before I ask it, I really just want to say thank you so much.
Mica: I've learned so much from this conversation, but I want to know what you hope the listeners learn from today's episode.
Penny: Hmm. That's a great question. Well, first of all, thank you for having me. I'm so glad we connected. I'm so glad we talked. I'm really, really glad that I met you and, I'm always here if you ever wanna talk about your own work or anything.
Penny: I might not get back to you right away, but I will get back to you. I hope that [00:39:00] your listeners realize that there's more than one way to pursue their passion. I hope that they realize, that if you're not having fun and you're not enjoying it, maybe it's not the right thing.
Penny: Photography is a, it's work every day. It's also a business. So, be smart about it, be wise. But don't be intimidated. Don't be afraid to try it.
Mica: Don't be afraid to try it. It's an everyday work.
Penny: It's an exercise every day, right. It's a relationship and it's a lifestyle too.
Penny: And it changes for everybody. Like any relationship, some days will be better than others. Some weeks you'll be in love. Other weeks you'll just be kind of coasting, you know?
Mica: I like what you said, that it's a relationship. Thank you so much for being a guest on this itty bitty podcast of mine.
Penny: Congratulations. You're crushing it.
Mica: Thank you.
Penny: You're doing a great job. I wouldn't be here if I didn't feel like you were, you were adding to this space, so thank you.