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Photographer Colin Beckett breathes new life into Chicago food

Not-so-still life

By Morgan Olsen

For RedEye

7:56 PM CDT, May 5, 2014

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Forget recording every meal on Instagram. Colin Beckett has made a career of the food portrait. Juicy oysters at Quartino, a slew of tapas at Black Bull and a perfectly foamy craft beer for the cover of Chicago magazine -- the 28-year-old food and product photographer shoots it all.

It all started with his very first camera, a Canon AE1, passed down from his grandpa at age 12 or 13. Though  the Logan Square resident now uses almost exclusively digital film, that's the camera that changed everything.

"I learned most of what I know because of that camera," he said.

The Bolingbrook native went on to study at the Art Institute's Schaumburg campus, and was one of the first graduates of the school's photography program. Back then, Beckett never dreamed he'd be doing some of the things he does today, including shooting products like Reebok, Corona and Mike's Hard Lemonade.

"I don't think I really knew what I was in for when I was in college," Beckett said. "I just took it one step at a time and figured I'd find a way to make it work. I never really had a backup plan."

Sticking with Plan A paid off.

The first time Beckett really felt like he'd made it was at a photo shoot for a knife company. The two-day shoot was tough, and as the photographer Beckett was responsible for capturing everything: complicated knife techniques, spatulas flipping chicken breasts and a smoldering grill. Only the grill was a four-burner stove that couldn't keep a flame up.

"The client wanted to see big, swirling flames and smoke, so we had to figure it out," Beckett said. Sandwiched between the chef and his assistant, Beckett asked his assistant to spray the fire with a mixture of water and cooking oil. As the flames erupted, he snapped away.

Trial and error seems to be Beckett's greatest strength. One of his messiest shoots involved orange Gatorade, a few glasses and a bunch of ice cubes.

"I broke two glasses and went through about five gallons of Gatorade, splashing it all over the floor, just trying different things and having fun," Beckett said, laughing.

To get one cohesive photo illustration, Beckett photographed separate images of the bottle alone, poured it into a glass, threw ice cubes into it and chucked glasses of the orange liquid into the air, later combining them all.

At a typical photo shoot, most of Beckett's time is spent setting up and perfecting his subject. Sometimes he works with food stylists, and other times he's on his own. If he's working a 10-hour shoot, he estimates eight hours are spent making everything look just right. One look at his work and you'll see why. Whether he's shooting a super-flaky pie crust, seasoned French fries and ketchup or Froot Loops splashing into a spoonful of milk, Beckett's shots are packed with a punch.

His dirty job comes with perks, especially when shooting Chicago's top chefs and restaurateurs. One of Beckett's most vivid memories is photographing Chef Bruno Abate at Tocco.

"He cooked a meal for me in full track suit and sunglasses, then pretended to ride his Vespa with one hand in the air holding a frying pan for a portrait," Beckett said. "It was amazing -- both the food and the conversations."

And the leftovers? Beckett doesn't mind grubbing after an all-day shoot, especially when he can bring friends along.

"There have been shoots where all the dishes I had to shoot, I either got to take with me or bring friends with and we just ate," he said. "I'll sometimes take pictures of my friends eating the food so there's a realistic element to it."

 

His favorite Chicago spots:

1. Trenchermen (2039 W. North Ave. 773-661-1540)

2. Billy Sunday (3143 W. Logan Blvd. 773-661-2485)

3. Fat Rice (2957 W. Diversey Ave. 773-661-9170)

Check out Colin's work

>> His blog, Leftovers, features outtakes and the photos that have nothing to do with products or food.

>> Though you won't find many food photos on his Instagram account, @colinbeckett, he does have some tips for Insta-foodies. Take your food photos in natural light, preferably next to a window. Don't use the flash, keep a steady hand and find a cool angle.

 

EDITOR'S NOTE: This profile is part of a yearlong series about Chicagoans with unique jobs in the arts. Know someone who deserves to be profiled? Email redeye@tribune.com with the subject line "Arts jobs" or tweet us @redeyechicago.