Kelly Bugden was my roommate when I was in graduate school, and it was great to be able to work with him on my “coffee table” book, Hoppin’ John’s Charleston, Beaufort & Savannah: Dining at Home in the Lowcountry, 25 years after we first met. Pat Creasy, of Williamsburg, Virginia, and easily my biggest fan, has suggested that I write on the blog about how we went about shooting that beautiful (though, unfortunately, out of print) book. Kelly’s photo of the tomato bouillon here is from the book, but I simply scanned it from the printed page. The printing in the book is much more beautiful.
To begin, my editor Roy Finamore, who had worked with Martha Stewart and Lee Bailey on their beautiful books, and I decided that we would choose 15 houses in the lowcountry towns of Charleston, Beaufort, and Savannah, to feature, each photographed with a seasonal meal. Choosing the houses was easy since there are so many gorgeous homes in the lowcountry. I had pretty much already decided which homes in Charleston I wanted to feature, but I didn’t know many people in Beaufort and Savannah. My brilliant artist friends, Bob and Julia Christian and Scot Hinson steered me to the five gorgeous homes in Savannah that we ended up shooting. Charleston’s inimitable gardener Patty McGee introduced me to Beaufort’s equally talented hoticulturist Frances Parker, who in turn led me to several of the homes we photographed there. Jennifer Hirsch, who was apprenticing under Frances, and who went on to study at Kew Gardens, gave up her apartment to us strangers while we worked in Beaufort. I have never been so humbled by the generosity of so many people.
As word spread that I was doing a book for Clarkson Potter on lowcountry homes, invitations to shoot in houses came by the scores. Interestingly, the houses whose owners were anxious for me photograph were none of the ones we chose. I all but begged the owners of the houses that we used for the privilege. I took preliminary “scouting” shots of over 40 homes, as well as many shots of gardens, landscapes, and architectural details to set the tone of the book and to aid Donna Agajanian, who would design the book, but who had never before been to the lowcountry.
Kelly and I set up a tight shooting schedule of two weeks in the spring and two weeks in the fall, praying for good weather. We would have one day in each house. The day prior to shooting, Kelly and I would go by the house we were to photograph and choose the linens and silver. I used mostly flowers from the owners’ gardens, local wildflowers, or flowers from local farmers markets to decorate the homes. Most of the foods were local as well. I chose foods that were in season, keeping in mind the color schemes of the homes. At my friend Bessie Hanahan’s house, for example, with its peach-colored dining room walls, I began the autumn meal with a curried squash soup that was all but the same color as the walls and served it in gilt English porcelain. A rare 1790 Charleston sideboard was filled with Old Paris porcelain. We simply filled the compote with fruit and took a photograph of the lovely piece of furniture as it was. Rarely did we move anything around or do anything that the owners themselves wouldn’t.
The night before we photographed, I would typically make the bread and the dessert for the meal. The day of the shoot, we would walk in the house and Kelly would begin photographing architectural, decorative, and garden details that I chose to be featured. I would then go in the kitchen and begin cooking the foods I had bought the night before, or on the way to the houses that morning. As I finished the dishes, we would put them in place and photograph them. At the end of the shoots, we sat down and ate the meals with the homeowners. None of the food is doctored in any way. There are no marbles under vegetables to plump them up; no lard posing as ice cream. In one house, a dessert I’ve made dozens of times was all but burnt in the convection oven. I had never cooked in a convection oven before and didn’t know that the oven was so much hotter. We photographed it anyway.
We decided to shoot a lunch on the veranda of the Secession House in Beaufort, where the light off the bay we thought would be perfect for the meal I planned of tomato soup, and avocado and crabmeat salad. We wanted to capture the natural light as well as not having to haul the big lights to the site. The double portico is supported by an arched stuccoed basement, painted pink, I think, to resemble coral. A handsome marble staircase with ornate ironwork on the eastern exposure forms an imposing entrance to the home, which sits on a full city block. It was in this house that the Ordinance of Secession from the Union was drafted.
We had moved a wrought iron table from the rear garden to the piazza, as porches are called in the lowcountry, but when I asked the owner to show me her selection of casual tableware and linens, she balked. She had a set of common Chinese porcelain that I thought would be fine for the casual luncheon, but no round tablecloth, so I rushed off to the sole department store in town and found a nice eyeleted Battenberg tablecloth, just the right size. When we began shooting, however, we were horrified to see in the test polaroids that the sky blue of the portico ceiling was being reflected in the white cloth. Those were the days of shooting on Ektachrome, a slide film that tends toward blue anyway. Any filtration would make the foods look weird, and we couldn’t rely on the then-nonexistent Photoshop or other software programs to tweak the light after the fact.
I had made iced tea to photograph with the meal, so we crammed the tablecloth down into the pitcher of tea and alllowed it to sit overnight. Fortunately, our gracious hostess allowed us to return to shoot the next day, when we returned equipped with lights just in case we had to artificially light the scene. When we arrived, the owner was in the grand foyer, ironing our now slightly tinted tablecloth, just warm enough in color to offset the blue of the ceiling.
Several other times we had to adjust lighting situations with improvised filters, but never once did we photograph any food other than food prepared exactly per the recipes given and photographed in its natural state, just before serving it. A lab in Savannah ruined several rolls of film during our last photo sessions in the spring; the photos at one of the houses could not be duplicated because the owners had left town and we were under deadline. Some of the photos we had to recreate, trying to match the lighting situation the following fall, recreating the scene by comparing it to the old slides. At one point we needed to warm the light a bit, at my partner’s mother’s home. She has a Tara-like oak alley where we waited until the sun was starting to dip over the horizon, when we thought that the light would warm up enough to match the late afternoon sun we had shot in back in the spring under some live oaks at Tombee Plantation. But the light was still too cool. We ended up finding an old gold lamé dress from the 70s in my partner’s mother’s closet, in the same dry cleaning bag where it had been for 20 years. We used it to bounce the light onto the recreated scene. I swear you cannot tell that the first set of photos and the second are not from the same shoot! Here are two photos I simply scanned from the book pages. The one on the left was shot at Tombee Plantation on St Helena Island, SC, in the spring of 1996; the photo on the right was shot at Shadows, my mother–in-law’s farm near Pamplico, SC, in the fall. The quality of the scans isn’t good, but you can see what I’m talking about. Fortunately, I had borrowed the tablecloth for the original shoot from a friend who allowed me use it again!