In one of Joe Lavine's photos, the edge of a pomegranate evokes a graceful, pregnant figure. Next to the pomegranate, a sliced heirloom tomato could easily be mistaken for the fleshy, translucent texture of a fetus. The photograph called "9 Months" is one of several in Lavine's exhibit Raw Relations, which opens this week for First Friday at the Rocky Mountain School of Photography Gallery.
"This series for me was taking a very different look at food, in a very clean, natural state," says Lavine. "Most people look at food in a box or in a bag and not as something so connected to their lives. And it got me thinking a while back about how raw food can relate to who we are."
Lavine isn't accustomed to photographing food this way. In his personal life, he's all for healthy, natural food ("I'm a huge fan of Michael Pollan," he says), but as a commercial photographer for big corporations like General Mills, Coors, Betty Crocker and Pillsbury, he's far more used to photographing food in contrived, packaged forms. Though he does shoot for a handful of natural magazines—Delicious Living and Natural Home, to name a few—there is still a certain amount of gloss that goes into getting those photos.
"So much of what I've done in the commercial world for years has been processed in one way or another," he says. "So I kind of like stripping things down. My own personal work tends to be a lot simpler."
Lavine teaches food photography at The Art Institute of Colorado and, in the summer and fall, at the Rocky Mountain School of Photography in Missoula. One of the main rules of food photography that he teaches his students is that timing is everything.
"You're not going to be engaged in a photo if the lettuce looks wilted," Lavine says. "And that's one of the biggest problems working with food: It only lasts for a matter of seconds and then it starts to die."
That's even more the case now that commercial food photography has discarded some of its stylistic tricks of the old days. Touching up food with glue or using other unnatural tactics to make it seem more picture-perfect has been tossed to the wayside as truth-in-advertising becomes a bigger issue. Therefore, Lavine has to work with food stylists a little more creatively and quickly to make sure the photograph is an image of freshness. But he's not necessarily enamored with the type of food he often has to shoot.
"The problem is, a lot of it is processed," he says. "And I do have a conflict about that, because I try to stay away from processed food."
Lavine says that despite some of his reservations about food in the commercial world of photography, he loves his job. But with personal projects like Raw Relations he can immerse himself even more in the kind of food images he finds fascinating. Some of the same rules apply: The raw foods have to be well lit and look presentable. But in these personal projects he trades in the glossy look for organic texture that emits a more artistic sense than an advertisement can.
"One of the biggest things for me is texture," he says. "When people look at an image I want them to feel with their eyes that there's texture to that subject."
Lavine takes advantage of his commercial camera equipment to shoot large file size photos that capture more detail than most cameras do. Each Raw Relations image is 20 inches wide by anywhere between 35 and 43 inches long. And each is printed on stretch canvas, without any glass covering.
"You'll probably never see me create a glossy print," Lavine says. "I think glossy prints have no soul. And I get in trouble for saying that."
Along with the Raw Relations series, which is a series of dyptechs (photos paired together to create a relationship with each other), Lavine is also showing a variety of single shot photos of food including asparagus, garlic and thyme. But it's the pairings in Raw Relations that he loves working with most.
"As beings we're male and female, we have partners, we like community," he says. "We're not isolated beings. And I've always liked dyptechs because of that. I like the way things relate to each other, those connections that can be made with almost anything."
Unlike the commercial world where food in magazines has a more straightforward appeal, the images in Raw Relations take on a subjective power. A slice of tomato can just as easily signify the very beginning of a human life.
"I always want viewers to look at the work and not know right off the bat what I'm thinking," says Lavine. "They can read the press release, they can read the artist statement, they can see where I'm coming from, but I'd much rather have them look at the work and think of what it is for themselves."
Raw Relations opens at the Rocky Mountain School of Photography Gallery Friday, April 2, with a reception from 5 PM to 8 PM. Free.